Tanka is a form of poetry that has its origins in Japan's Heian period (c. 1100 AD). It's a subgenre of Japanese classical poetry, called waka. Sometimes whole collections of Japanese poetry is written in this style, including the Tales of Ise and the Tales of Yamato.
The syllable pattern of tanka is 5-7-5-7-7 per line, no matter which language. The first part (5-7-5) is called the kami-no-ku, or "upper phrase", while the second part (7-7) is called the shimo-no-ku, or "lower phrase". If the kami-no-ku looks familiar, it's the same pattern as the well-known haiku.
Many poets use wordplay and puns in their tanka, and some verses are difficult to understand without knowing about the cultural issues of the time. Two Heian-era pieces that use tanka are The Tales of Genji by Lady Murasaki and The Pillow Book by Sei Shonogon.
Here's an example of tanka in English:
Where is the small cat? (5)
He is not hiding out there. (7)
He is not inside. (5)
We will have to search for him. (7)
Ah! A tail is sticking out! (7)
Here's another one (for baseball fans)
Pat the Bat asks you: (5)
What can I wear for tonight (7)
for a big party? (5)
Catcher's mitt, cleats, and billed cap: (7)
It's time for the World Series! (7)
Challenge: Write your own tanka!
All original writing and art copyright A. Dameron 2000-2010