December–Traditional Tanka Poetry

December–Traditional Tanka Poetry

It’s already December–winter has come! Make a hot cup of tea, and settle down to read Japanese “tanka” poetry!

December–Month Name

December, or Shiwasu 師走, is the period when even calm and stately teachers are frantically running down the halls just to keep up. Even for those of us who are not teachers, deadlines at work, and end-of-the-year get togethers with immediate family, distant relatives, friends, and colleagues can easily fill our calendars to bursting. Yet in the midst of our flurry, it’s good to take time to ponder, reflect, and observe the world around us. Today, we are going to look at a beautiful original tanka 短歌 poem below (by an anonymous contributor), it’s meaning, and the poetic expressions used to communicate the poet’s feelings. But first, what is a tanka?

What is Tanka?

Tanka 短歌 is the traditional Japanese poem whose form is described as being “the nearest to human body temperature” (短歌は人の体温に一番近い表現形式). In other words, they are the best-suited to express what we as humans experience in our average, daily lives. Tanka contain 31 syllables, in the pattern is 5-7-5-7-7, and unlike haiku, they do not have to contain a word that symbolizes the season.

When tanka (also called “waka” 和歌) came into fashion as a creative art, it was exclusively for the aristocracy. How accomplished you were was measured by how skillful you were in creating tanka. The famous Manyōshū is a collection of over 4,500 tanka poems in 20 volumes. However, newer forms like the “kyōka” 狂歌 and “haiku” 俳句 were for the common people. Now, of course, people of all different demographics and even different languages enjoy writing tanka. Without further ado, here is the tanka by our guest poet.

Untitled Tanka–











Tanka Meaning–

It’s easy for anyone to see that this poem is very lyrical and beautiful, but it contains a lot of poetic expressions not used in everyday life. Here it is in a nutshell, in the poet’s own words.

“When I saw the white moon (nagorizuki) in the blue morning sky, I felt a bit sad for it because people, including myself, make a fuss about the full moon in the night sky…but now the peak is past and no one pays attention to the chipped white forlorn moon in the morning.”

Poetic Expressions–

Now that you know the inspiration behind the tanka, let’s take a closer look at the poetic expressions used, line by line.

明けた空 - “Akeru” means “it dawns,” so this line means “In the early morning sky.”

白くたたずむ – “Tatazumu” means “stands still” or “lingers.”

名残月 – “Nagorizuki” refers to the moon seen in the morning sky (Japanese has many names for the moon!)

彼の夜[の..] – Read “kano” not “kare no,” this is a literary expression meaning “ano,” or “that particular.” This is referring to the night of the full moon.

{…人の] 嘆美はいずこ – “Hito no tambi” means “praise from people,” and “izuko” is a literary form of “doko”

Try going back and reading the tanka again. Do you get a clear image of the moon, hanging like a sliver in the pale blue sky? What do the words make you feel?

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