Posted by Susan Shand on January 23, 2013 at 11:25 AM Comments comments (2)


Tanka are the first popular step to lengthening your Japanese short-form poems to performance reading length. Tanka were originally a variation within the category “Waka”. Waka were poems written in Japanese at a time when the Japanese looked to classical Chinese language and literature for both culture and education. There are examples of waka over a thousand years old so its a very ancient form. Eventually the other variations went out of fashion and the words waka/tanka became synonymous.



Many courtly games emerged in which surreptitious courtships could be conducted by the exchange of love notes disguised as nature poetry. It became a call-and-response game in which nature items came to stand for …well whatever clandestine lovers might want to talk about but appear not to be talking about. The Tanka form lent itself well to that purpose, so traditionally it has expressed emotion quite overtly but has also provided euphemistic and metaphorical readings alongside the surface subjects.



It is easy to see how sequences can develop from this game where a poet responds to other poet’s expression, extend or change the idea, and are subsequently responded to in their turn. Sequences vary in length from the tan-renga at two verses in 3 + 2 lines (traditionally 5/7/5 + 7/7), to the hyakuin 100 verse, and the senku 1000 verse poems; with many variants at stages inbetween. There are historical precedents for a single poet creating sequences but in its historically most popular form this is collaborative poetry. That is, it is the work of two or more poets collaborating to create the whole poem.



In the west we are more accustomed to all poets creating their poems alone. This is a very strong tradition here; protected by social pressures which defend each writer’s work from unauthorised use by other individuals. If you can think of a single historic example of collaborative poetry in English Literature I would be glad to hear of it. I am not aware of a single one.



English poetry is about individuality, a single voice expressing its own perspective, authorial integrity, ego. In Japanese culture in contrast: individuality is subsumed to community; ego is religiously disapproved of; and aesthetic integrity resides in the work, not in the person. The practice of renga/renku in the west in recent years has highlighted these differences in cultural approach.



In approaching collaborative poetry, western writers have embraced it enthusiastically but largely kept to their accustomed separation of authorial integrity in performing it. Some of the best stuff around is two voice short sequences, each poet responding to the other in turn. Sometimes this involves discussion and sometimes it is the spontaneous progression of two poets in like mind at that point working off the creativity of the other.



This, I think, is the appeal of tan-renga, renga/renku and the other collaborative forms to readers. Not the rules, or the aesthetic faithfulness to historical examples – but the opportunity to see how the interactions worked and what they were really saying. As writers it is the communicative value of a group activity, at its best, which interests us. The renku forms are merely the box in which one contains the activity of writing. The more demanding the parameters of the box, the more is expected of the writers. Unfortunately, sometimes that itself becomes the focus of the work, view of the whole lost in the detail.



Basho and his friends had fun writing renga. The very term haikai-no-renga means “amusing verse” and they would get very drunk and have a lot of laughs whilst writing them. They strengthened their friendships and enjoyed themselves. In many forums around the bazaars you will see renga/renku performed in tense seriousness. Wars have broken out over choosing verses in some places. People suffer in the torment of groups where unpleasant conflict is the norm and personality battles abound. It is all part of life’s patchwork but it doesn’t look much like fun.



Most of all, the communication element has largely been lost. I have been in renku groups where chat was discouraged as time-wasting; yet others where I made lasting friendships through the talk we exchanged alongside and within the construction of the renku. Some groups don’t expect to make friends of their collaborators or even to pass the time of day with them. As though the work were the only thing, they write their allocated verses in isolation and contribute nothing of themselves towards the whole beyond that. What results from this, in my opinion and experience, is a poem as disconnected and uncommunicative as the group has been. Only in a group which has bonded and is working well together co-operatively can you hope to produce a good poem at the end. Just as only within relationship can you hope to produce the spark of brilliance that is evident in the best two-person poems. As readers we are more interested in the interactions than the rules. Those interactions show through the finished work like sunshine and shade.



There is Shakespeare’s “The play is the thing”, the play of light and shadow within which we see into the thing, which reveals for us underlying interplay and relationship. Good tanka do not so much describe as communicate; they take us beneath the surface.




Who says my poems are poems?

My poems are not poems at all!

When you can understand this,

then we can talk about poems.

                                    — Ryokan






(stardate 20130123


NB. A ‘Galliard’  is a 5-step dance.



2 thoughts on “Galliard

  1. sara winteridge 02:36 PM on January 23, 2013
    very interesting Susan, thank you. we have a similar mantra in our house ” who says my dust needs dusting, my dust is not dust at all .. and the sooner you accept that the better we will get on! 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s