Last time you were introduced to tanka poetry with examples of the two main groups of tanka in the English language – Traditional and Minimalistic. Both are non-rhyming and written in 5 lines.

Traditional tanka counts syllables like we did for Haiku. In fact, the first 3 lines of tanka are like haiku. Even the count is the same for the first 3 lines, 5 – 7 – 5 syllables. In both haiku and tanka the first two lines introduces an observation (often of nature) with the 3rd line having something to do with the first 2 lines but often in an obscure way.

In tanka this 3rd line is called a “pivot.” It forms a transition between the first 2 lines and the following 2 lines of 7 syllables each.

Here are two examples written by Mary Matson:

Do you remember
When the wind in the wood stopped?
We listened. Unseen,
A bird rustled the sumac
A low branch parted the creek.

Sorrow at parting.
To where have our days drifted?
Seedpods on the wind,
Spinning through sun and shadow,
Lost on a bright beam of time.

Mary adheres to the 5-7-5-7-7 count. Both poems are of nature. The imagery she evokes is a result of her choice of words. As is customary, her poems are not individually titled.

Gene Helveston worked through his grief in having to euthanize his beloved dog, Annie:

Her trusting eyes ask
where will my bed be tonight?
Clouded eyes reply.
In a place without pain.
“Do you want a pawprint?”

Gene’s conversation with Annie and his non-response to the question that intrudes on the solemn occasion adheres to the strict Tanka count. He punctuates in a traditional way. Other punctuation sometimes seen in Contemporary tanka are … and – . He muses: “…as in Morse code?”

Jo Lesher combined Traditional tanka with Contemporary, first in fun and then as she expresses her feeling of “time” as the ultimate solace. She uses no titles, no capital letters and no punctuation yet adheres to the strict 5-7-5-7-7 syllable count placing it in the Traditional category.

once a week or so
my desktop cluttered due to
this is what i am best at
good to be good at something

haiku or tanka
penned nearly every today
journaling feelings
abates sadness and sorrow
until time works its magic

Notice that her 3rd line – the pivot line can be read either before the first two lines or before the final two 7 syllable lines. This double-usage pivot line is considered the ultimate of pivots.

The valuable source of information about tanka can be found online at tankasocietyofamerica.com

They offer a free publication which can be downloaded:  “Tanka Teachers Guide” compiled by Denis M. Garrison.

It gives a good explanation along with examples most of which may be used if proper credit is given.

Two books by William Hyland are written in Traditional form using modern English: “Seventy-Nine Tanka,” and “Romance in Tanka”. Both are available on Amazon.


Contributed by: JL

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