This final tanka session will examine a form of tanka developed after tanka became popular for English speaking writers. There are very few “rules.” The basic ones are:

•  The only rigid requirement is that there are 5 lines and even that is being challenged by modern writers.

•  Traditionally, the tankas do not rhyme, syllables are not counted, capital letters are not used – or rarely used, punctuation is rare to non-existent, and the poems are not titled.

•  It’s like following the old KISS rule: “Keep it simple, stupid.”

The most common question is “How do you think of what to write?” In the examples below, the thought that triggers the tankas are noted:

he loved me
i returned his love

we wed

death took him
love remained

you died
it was better

for you

it was the pits

for me

(Trigger for these 2 poems: Memorial Day thoughts)


i cried
mother held me

till i smiled

i cry and smile
in remembrance

(Trigger: Mother’s Day)


this dreary day
inspired a poem

who knew

my heavy heart
could soar

(Trigger: day-after-day-after-day, it rained.)


redbuds bud
dogwoods bloom

tulips rise

bow their heads
as if in prayer

(Trigger: a son could not visit on Mother’s Day and sent a photo of him holding tulips – “for you,” he said.)


The final two are about daily activities:

butter foams
awaiting eggs
whipped with milk
bacon draining


post-its of to-do’s
too much planning

too little action

making lists
of to-do lists

The above were written by Jo Lesher.

Gene Helveston submitted the following:

who took the sun?
I saw her yesterday

yes I said her

she’s such a tease
it must be she
(How clever to personify the sun as a female.)

how’s me?
for company

not much I see

but still I’m free

to be

(Here Shakespeare’s eternal question is answered as he wishes “to be.”)


the mirror looks back
telling the truth

is there a better way?

trying the scale

I like numbers

(Does he like his weight better than his appearance?)


the yellow tablet
has lots of facts

all written in haste

what do they say?

don’t know, can’t read them

(No explanation needed.)


Additionally, this form of tanka is sometimes called “Contemporary tanka.” A leader in this group is M. Kei. His latest book is “Take Five.” Full of symbolism, these tanka are often difficult to interpret. The personal “I” is usually capitalized. Many begin their poems with the first word capitalized. There are no titles, scant punctuation, and all in Kei’s book are left-alligned rather than indented and consist of 5 lines.

M. Kei calls Sanford Goldstein the “master of tanka.” Goldstein has written “This Short Life. Minimalist Tanka.” His tanka are mostly a form of Journaling. He used 5 lines, few words, some capitalization and punctuation.

We hope you will give tanka a try. Use of the few “rules” and conventions allows one to better understand the form. Often used but not required are the following:

Lines 1 & 2 introduce an idea or observation

Line 3 is called a “pivot” which provides a transition from this thought to a conclusion, often obtuse, which is provided in Lines 4 & 5. (The ultimate pivots can be read before Lines 1 & 2 as well as before Lines 4 & 5 which follow.)

Line 4 is strong

Line 5 is the strongest.

It sounds difficult but once you get the hang of it, it’s a fun form to use. And remember, all these “rules” may be altered or ignored.


From the Editors: Jo Lesher and Gene Helveston


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