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Let’s Talk: tanka prose

Let’s talk tanka… tanka prose, that is!

The Basics of the tanka prose form:

I try to adhere to the basic structure of tanka prose—which includes the five-line tanka written mostly in the form 5-7-5-7-7, but always in the format of s-l-s-l-l; where the middle line is a pivot between the first and the last two lines. In addition, tanka prose contains a title. As in most Japanese poetry, there is no rhyming.

Tanka poetry is not 31 continuous syllables written in a sentence.

Tanka poems derive from the Japanese waka, which is a song-like chanted poem. We write tanka in quick, breathy phrases. And like a haiku, a tanka should share a moment of awareness with the reader.

The pivot, or turn, usually happens in the third line. The pivot connects the upper poem with the lower poem with a transition from examining the image to sharing the poet’s personal response to the image.

Example from pg. 64, Word Craft: Prose & Poetry:

a coral sunset—
impressions left on pale clouds
finding clarity
when I listen to the wind
echoes of the masquerade

Colleen M. Chesebro

The pivot line is: finding clarity

Read the first three lines together:

a coral sunset— 
impressions left on pale clouds 
finding clarity

In the first three lines, I share the beauty of a spectacular sunset. The pivot is the aha moment when everything seems to come into hyper-focus.

Now take the pivot line and the last two lines:

finding clarity
when I listen to the wind
echoes of the masquerade

I reflect on my feelings in the last three lines. The sound of the wind reminds me of impermanence and how temporary this moment of splendor truly is. The last line reminds me that the colors are a short-lived illusion.

Notice how this tanka has two different meanings… also, each section can be read backward, which gives another dimension to the tanka.

The Prose Part

I also feel that the prose paragraph(s) must also seek to be, if not poetic, at least something that grabs our attention. It must compete with the verse in its style, intending to be inventive and expressive all on its own.

In tanka prose, there is one basic requirement: one paragraph, and one tanka.

However, there are different combinations:

  • Idyll (one prose paragraph and one tanka) tanka/prose or prose/tanka.
  • Verse Envelope (tanka/prose/tanka)
  • Prose Envelope (prose/tanka/prose) including alternating prose and verse elements of your choice.

There are two basic forms in classic tanka prose:

The Preface (explanation): This is where the prose paragraph is narrow, concerned with only providing the reader a factual summary of the basic information including the time and place, the name of a person, or a public occasion as the reason for writing on the set topic. A tanka follows the prose. Or you can write your tanka as the preface, and your prose reflects on the tanka.

Poem Tale (episodic narration): gives way to a subjective and more expressive interpretation of the scene or event the poet is writing about. It gives the poet the opportunity to share intimate details or thoughts with their reader. A poem tale can be a mini short story or even a biography. Remember to include a beginning, middle, and ending.

My first example uses the preface (explanation):

My next example is a prose envelope (one tanka, two prose paragraphs) Poem

Another prose envelope (two tanka, multiple paragraphs) Poem Tale, episodic narration:


Graceguts – Tanka

Twenty-five Examples of Tanka Prose & an Editor’s Thoughts about Tanka Prose

Spilling Tanka: An Interview with Sanford Goldstein

Graceguts: The Seed of the Human Heart: Writing Tanka

29 thoughts on “Let’s Talk: tanka prose”

  1. I love that you give great examples to help us better understand the form, Colleen. And I chuckled at you highlighting that a tanka is not one long sentence split into lines. 😉


  2. Great explanation and examples of the tanka prose. This format offers a way to really express what we are trying to say or are seeing. Thanks, Colleen 🙂


  3. I love these lessons, Colleen, and the deeper look into the forms. They are so much more than just numbers of syllables. Beautiful examples, too. Your poetry is amazing. ❤


  4. I’m glad I’ve got your book to look at. Though I often break the ‘rules’ it is nice to know I can find them 😀


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