First off, the format of tanka [短歌] (or waka [和歌], both of which are used interchangeably) is a haiku with an additional two lines of 7 morae (syllables, as it’s loosely used), resulting in a poetic structure of 5-7-5-7-7. (A really great use of the haiku structure is Perfume’s ‘575.’) The overall structure of tanka comes from a longer form called renga [連歌] which is structured in two verses: the 5-7-5 triplet and the 7-7 couplet. Renga would be ‘performed’ or composed by lovers or in competition by invited poets and could last hours or days, starting with one theme then moving organically as the poets compose connected verses.
I guess I should also preface this by mentioning I realized I was decent at tanka when I first had to enter a poetry contest for my Japanese 402 class. This oddly natural talent (despite Japanese not being my first language), in addition to an actual liking of Japanese poetry (mostly in ‘traditional’ literature, but I’ve recently been finding modern tanka writers), led to me taking up poetry whenever I observed something I thought worth noting. In my opinion, tanka is easier to compose than haiku since you have the extra 14 morae with which to play—modern poets also don’t necessarily follow the structural components of the tanka format and instead compose a poem of 31 morae. 17 morae to portray a snapshot of life (a ‘still-life’) versus 31 to expand on emotion or imagery is how I consider them different from each other.
This poem was inspired by Cheryl (Cole)’s “The Flood,” which had come out recently prior to me essentially translating part of the chorus into a tanka. I had loved the imagery of hands’ inability to ‘hold water,’ and considering Hawaii is surrounded by ocean, it only made sense to add the last two lines to ground it here.
This particular poem won at the University of Hawaii at Manoa Sen Soshitsu Prize, which the faculty consider the most prestigious award given in their Japanese Poetry Contest. I guess a win on the first crack would inspire you to write more, wouldn’t it?
Nobasu te no
sukima kara ochi
umi no mizu nite