Poet and Tanka

David Rice, the current Editor of Ribbons (journal of the Tanka Society of America) invited me to write an essay on the “Poet and Tanka” theme that has been featured in the journal for some time, I was honoured to be asked and the following appeared in the most recent issue (summer 2013):

Poet and Tanka

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free

                                                 —Michelangelo (1475-1564)

Michelangelo spoke of being able to see, in a block of marble, a statue, perfect in shape and form as clearly as if it stood before him and by chipping away at the stone that held the “lovely apparition” captive, he could not only unlock it, but reveal it to others as it appeared through his eyes. For me, this is very similar to the art of writing tanka. As poets, we are presented with the soapstone, the heartwood, of a particular moment, emotion or experience and by taking up the tools of our trade we endeavour to chisel away at that raw material in order to create something that will resonate with others. And yet, a tanka is capable of shape-shifting; that liberated life-form, sculpted into being, can be viewed from many angles; very much depends on the way the light falls. A good tanka, set on a dais in the Dreaming Room*, might remain obscure until that a-ha!moment when the dust sheet slips away.

I began writing poetry as a young child. William Blake, W. B. Yeats and Dylan Thomas helped me to make sense of the world. I favoured rhyming Western poetry, but my head was later turned by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. I was familiar with haiku and tanka, but these were not forms I pursued. For a decade or so, during a traumatic period of my life, I didn’t write at all. Shortly before I was wooed by my second husband— and Asian short-form poetry —I took my children to The Lowry at Salford Quays in Greater Manchester. I was astonished by L. S. Lowry’s brooding seascapes and tortured self-portraits. Of course, I was familiar with the artist’s grim industrial landscapes, the scenes of matchstick men that portray a stereotypical view of industrial, working-class life in Northern England, but I was completely ignorant of Lowry’s artistic genius and talent for draughtmanship. I was never a great fan of those crowd scenes and their abstracted, stylized figures, but in retrospect, I have come to see these paintings as Lowry’s tanka; in departing from photo-realistic compositions, Lowry discovered a way of capturing the essence of a scene with a few simple brushstrokes. Not only did he evoke the smell and the din of a particular moment in time, he also highlighted the loneliness inherent to the human condition. He said that all his people were lonely; all were wrapped up in their own private sorrows; “crowds”, he said, “are the most lonely thing of all”.

and so to this

seemingly unpeopled sea:

coral factories

and the industry of gulls . . .

the whale’s spume and siren-song


Many of my tanka have their roots in nature. This makes sense to me as I believe that we are not merely a part of nature, weare nature. One of the first tanka I wrote was awarded second place in the Lyrical Passion Poetry “Think Tanka” contest, 2010:

unshackled from myself

I am just

a passing thought

in the mind

of the forest

I often find that tanka written “in the field” retain the numinosity of the original experience, months, years later. I am immediately transported to a certain glade, the edge of a stream. In this way, tanka are a means of bookmarking a moment of my life. Shortly after I received the above award, I discovered Michael McClintock’s tanka and was instantly captivated. This one has remained a firm favourite:

one at a time,

I step on stones

and cross the stream—

when I’m across, the stones

go back to what they were doing

—from Meals at Midnight, MET Press, 2008

Therein lies some of the magic of tanka: the fantastic in the seemingly ordinary; the interconnectedness of all that exists. And it is my belief that all that exists lives. In the words of Dr Graham Harvey, Professor of Religious Studies at the Open University and author of Animism: Respecting the Living World (Wakefield Press, 2005):

“. . . many of our closest kin are human, while the closest kin of oaks are oaks, so we talk most easily with humans while rocks talk most easily with other rocks . . .”

—from “The Animist Manifesto”, first published in The Strange Attractor. co.uk

But the rocks and the trees, the hills and streams, will speak to us, if we care to listen. Don’t all children like to imagine that the toys in the nursery come to life when no one is looking? Tanka is the keyhole through which I peep. Blow the dust away and a moment, a memory, an emotion, is thrown into relief:

I rest my mind

with the world


in the stillness

of the heron’s raised foot

Notes from the Gean, September 2011

Moreover, I want to know what makes a tanka step out to drink across sun-silvered distance. Who pilots the biplane through the mists of dawn, flushing those elusive words, of softest tread, out into the open?

a flash of white—

wishing I, too

could make

spring’s heart leap,

roe deer in the thicket

Presence, 46, 2012

Writing tanka is meditation; it has become something akin to spiritual practice. It is transformative and many of the tanka I write are about transformation.

by what alchemy

is a memory made?

sunlit dust motes . . .

the cat climbs into the warmth

you left in the chair

red lights, 9:1, January 2013

It is also cathartic. Sometimes a tanka arises from a long-buried hurt, from a watershed moment, or a glint of recollection that I barely knew existed,

wishing I’d savoured

that last mouthful of childhood . . .

moments before

laughing at my reflection

in the bowl of the spoon

A Hundred Gourds, 2:1, 2012

In the sculptor’s hands, hammer and chisel may excise pain. I find few tanka as moving as this by David Terelinck:

I trace the outline

of your mastectomy scar

the raw edge

of making love again

for the first time

—from Casting Shadows, Alexandria, Cedar Press, 2011

Often, a tanka, whether it is destined to be read or not, is my only confidante:


to whisper it in your ear


in the depths of night

a tanka hears my sadness

Simply Haiku, Autumn 2011

But tanka is also celebration. It is the summer breeze that awakens the dancer in the Standing Stone. It is the lover’s kiss:

from another world

a hint of patchouli . . .

you’re back

from your dawn meditation

warming your hands in my dream

Gusts, Spring/Summer 2012

I have come a long way since writing my first tanka in 2010. I was fortunate to serve on the editorial team for Take Five: Best Contemporary Tanka, (Volume 4, 2011), and in December of the same year I was invited by Jeffrey Woodward to become Tanka Prose editor for Haibun Today. On January 1st 2013, I founded Skylarka UK tanka journal for English-language tanka in all its forms.

And so, the day begins with a fresh block of marble. Whether it is an angel, a demon, or a ghost I see, I will begin to carve in the hope I might set him free.


* “Dreaming Room” an essay by Denis M. Garrison first published in Modern English Tanka (Spring 2007), and available to read online at: http://www.themetpress.com/dengary/essays/dreamingroom.html

Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887-1976)

9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. awoodlandrose
    Aug 26, 2013 @ 23:14:19

    Very beautiful and moving Claire. Wonderful tanka examples – some of the finest written. Thanks for sharing. Andrea Grillo


  2. Donna Buck
    Aug 27, 2013 @ 01:49:19

    When I read this essay it encouraged me as a relatively new tanka writer in many ways, one being the idea of ‘notes in the field’ and to value jotting down these immediate moments. I appreciate how you explain your process as well with examples, and of course–they’re apt and beautiful.


  3. h gene murtha
    Aug 27, 2013 @ 04:55:31

    Enjoyed your essay Claire!



  4. seaviewwarrenpoint
    Aug 27, 2013 @ 09:36:29

    A wonderful essay, Claire. I love how you have illustrated each point with a tanka. Great stuff! 🙂



    • Claire
      Aug 28, 2013 @ 07:57:44

      Thank you all for these wonderful comments. If I have inspired more people to read and write tanka, then I am delighted!



  5. Robert
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 16:18:43

    Your prose is as good as your poetry!


  6. Kris Lindbeck (@KrisLindbeck)
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 17:07:08

    I love your direct and jargon-free approach here, showing by your examples as much as trying to explain the numinous edge of perception and inner voice from which the best poems come.
    “This, this is what moves me,” you say. Yes.


    • Claire
      Aug 29, 2013 @ 21:34:48

      Thanks so much, Kris. Not an easy article to write, but I’m so glad what I came up with resonated with people.


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