Let’s Talk: TANKA

The other day I shared the information that the UHTS is sponsoring the “Fleeting Words” Tanka Competition. 

Here is the Submission Period and Deadline: May 1-August 15 of each year. 

There is a 10 poem limit on the number of submissions. If more than 10 poems are submitted, only the first 10 poems will be entered. Entries must be the original work of the author, be previously unpublished and not under consideration elsewhere for the entire time period it takes to complete the judging. Click HERE for submission requirements and read carefully to find the current competition.

Let’s brush up on our Tanka writing skills so that we can enter this contest! Are you with me?

UHTS describes the various forms for submission to their Cattails Journal, however, I would think these definitions would serve across the board for their challenges also. Read the definitions HERE.

Here’s a bit of history to get us started!

“Tanka (firstly known as waka during the Heian period from 794-1185 CE) which means “Japanese poem or song”, is presently known as “tanka” having been coined by Master Masaoka Shiki in the late 19th century in an effort to bring traditional Japanese poetic forms into the modern age. It is a non-rhymed nature poem consisting of 5 lines down total with a short, long, short, long, long rhythmic count. The concept of mono no aware or the pathos of existence is frequently a key element in all Japanese poetry, but particularly in tanka.


What is “Mono no Aware” or the “Pathos of Existence?

Wikipedia says:

Mono no aware (物の哀れ), literally “the pathos of things”, and also translated as “an empathy toward things”, or “a sensitivity to ephemera“, is a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (無常 mujō), or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.


This phrase comes from the Japanese word mono (物), which means “thing”, and aware (哀れ), which is an expression of measured surprise (similar to “ah” or “oh”), translating roughly as “pathos”, “poignancy”, “deep feeling”, “sensitivity”, or “awareness”.

Thus, mono no aware is often translated as “the ‘ahh-ness’ of things,” life, and love. In Buddhism and in Asian culture there is the awareness of the transience of all things which heightens an appreciation of their beauty, and evokes a gentle sadness at their passing. That is the emotion you want to insert inside your Tanka poetry.

In his criticism of The Tale of Genji Motoori noted that mono no aware is the crucial emotion that moves readers.


Tanka in English consists of five lines which follows a 5/7/5/7/7 syllable structure. Tanka should be written in the first person as it reflects the perspective of the poet.

Don’t forget to include sensory details to your Tanka. You want your reader to feel your words with all five senses (and sometimes, their sixth sense, too). Use lyrical intensity in the first three lines of your Tanka poem. Establish the theme of your poem with your choice of words.


When writing a Tanka, the third line is considered your “pivot,” but feel free to let it happen anywhere, or to exclude it. It is not mandatory. If you do use a pivot, the meaning should apply to the first two lines, as well as the last two lines of your Tanka.

The tanka somewhat resembles the sonnet in terms of treatment of subject. Like the sonnet, the tanka employs a turn, known as a pivotal image, which begins the transition from the examination of an image to the examination of the personal response. This turn is located within the third line, connecting the kami-no-ku, or upper poem, with the shimo-no-ku, or lower poem. (Paraphrased from Poets.org)

“Great tanka can be figuratively read both, forward and backward.” (mandy’spages.com)

The last two lines of your Tanka are where you use the metaphors or similes that complement the first three lines. Click the links and look up the meanings to these words. They are important.

Use words you are comfortable with in everyday speech. Avoid ending your lines with articles and prepositions.

Additionally mandy’spages.com shares:

Each line of the tanka is more of a phrase rather than a sentence.  Do not begin the lines with uppercase letters, nor end the lines with a period.  Restrict your use of punctuations as far as possible.  Avoid ending each line with an article (an, an and the) or a preposition.  Articles and prepositions tend to weaken the quality of the tanka.  When you read the tanka aloud, the five lines should connect as one poem rather than detracted phrases.  Therefore rather than trying to describe the theme in five different ways, stick to a specific imagery.

Imagery and Contrast: 

The first three lines of the tanka should make up the first part of the imagery. The lines should flow and read easily.  That third line acts as a pivot, which gives shape and form to the lyrical aspect of the tanka.  In addition, it allows the reader to read the poem in the reverse order. The last two lines complement the first three.  They can be metaphors, similes or oxymoron juxtaposed in place to bring the poem to life. mandy’spages.com

Diction and Phrasing:

Use natural English.  Tanka is known for its simple, yet lyrical construction.  Avoid ending each line with articles and prepositions.  Each line should be independent phrases: the punch line at the end.  


Make use of the five main senses when writing tanka.  Rather than telling the reader that a mountain is tall and high, it might be better for you to describe it by its smell or sound.  Perhaps explain how the perfume of the fresh, lofty air beckons you climb to the top.  On the other hand, describe how the sound of the twigs crackling under your feet brings life to the mountain forests. Descriptions of sound, smell, taste, hearing and touch bring life and song to a tanka.


The best way to write poetry is to commune with nature. Get up from the computer, put down your phone, and literally go outside and experience the world.

Photography and art are another way to stimulate your creative writing genes. Many times, I like finding a photograph and letting my mind wander over the image. (Pixabay.com is a great place to find inspirational photos that are part of the public domain and free for commercial use with no attribution required).

I write down everything I see in the picture and use my five senses to record my observations.

Let’s take this image below:

These are my observations about the photo:

It’s autumn

Leaves of red, orange, and gold

Autumn is the dying part of the year

Summer is over

Autumn reminds me of the harvest moon

Leaves are like clothes for trees

Falling leaves signal the shedding of summer’s clothes

Harvest the bounty of the summer season

I’m sad that summer is over

First, I start developing the theme of my Tanka. In this case, it is autumn and I describe what I see.

Trees of red and gold

Shedding summer’s finery

Next, I pivot in the third line to describing how fall makes me feel:

like tears of mourning (how the dead leaves look as they fall to the ground)

The third line is where I use a simile. The next two lines directly reflect on my first observations in line one and two. Yet, the pivot line is directly related to what those trees remind me of in the last two lines.

a farewell to the summer

no end to my discontent

Here is the final product:

trees of red and gold
shedding summer’s finery
like tears of mourning
a farewell to the summer
no end to my discontent

©2019 Colleen M. Chesebro

This Tanka can be read forwards and backwards and reflect directly on the pivot line: like tears of mourning.

Remember the difference in writing a Tanka is that you employ the use of a simile or metaphor at the end of the poem. You don’t do that when writing a Haiku.

Now, let’s write some Tanka!

13 thoughts on “Let’s Talk: TANKA

    1. You’re welcome. If we don’t learn how to write these forms correctly, we will find it hard to get our work accepted anywhere. I’m going to give the UHTS Tanka competition a go. I think we all should. I am not an expert, merely a student of poetry myself. You guys need better opportunities and this is one way to get them. ❤


Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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