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Tanka: Poems for Kids And Adults

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Tanka poems can be about anything.

Tanka poems can be about anything.

Tanka Poem Examples

Are you familiar with tanka? It’s a type of poetry that’s quickly gaining popularity around the world, as simple poems for kids and more serious poems for adults. The form lends itself well to practically any topic. To be more specific, tanka is lyric poetry, verses that express an emotion. Trying to force tanka into a specific category of poetry can be tricky. However, some tell a brief story, which would make them seem more like narrative poems. If you’re interested in experimenting with tanka, don’t get too “bogged down” in the terminology. This is especially important with poems for kids, in my opinion as a retired teacher. Most examples of modern tanka don’t adhere to a strict set of rules about form and subject matter. In fact, many would be considered free verse - short, simple expressions that take full advantage of an economy of words. As a retired literature teacher, I’ve known about tanka for years, but I’ve recently begun writing some of my own. I dabble with writing poetry from time to time, and I find tanka to be an enjoyable form. I’ve included a few of my attempts at tanka in this article, along with tips for using tanka as poems for kids.

Japanese Tanka:

Japanese Tanka

Tanka started in Japan some twelve hundred years or so ago. At the time, however, it was called “waka,” meaning "song" or "poem." The term “waka” was first used to describe several different types of Japanese poetry, including “choka,” meaning “long poem,” and “tanka,” meaning “short poem.” By the tenth century, choka had fallen out of fashion, while tanka remained popular. As a result, waka and tanka came to mean the same thing. The term “tanka” was dropped and not generally used again for a thousand years.

Enter Masaoka Noboru, an author, poet, and critic born in Matsuyama, Japan, in 1867. He wrote under the name of Masaoka Shiki. During his literary career, interest in haiku and tanka had greatly declined, yet he began writing haiku in 1833 and pressed for its reform. In 1898, he did the same with tanka poetry. Through the efforts of Shiki, haiku and tanka enjoyed a resurgence.

The traditional form of Japanese tanka is strict. It consists of thirty-one units of “on,” or sound. A loose translation of this in English is “syllables.” The tanka structure is for five lines of poetry, with a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern, although some earlier tanka poems consisted of a single line. The numbers represent the number of syllables in each line when lines are used. The end words should not rhyme, and the poem should not be given a title. Capitalization and punctuation weren’t used in early tanka poetry.

Traditional tanka often represents an image or an experience first, described in the first two lines, and then a “turn.” The turn describes the speaker’s emotional response to the experience or image. Typical themes might include love, nature, loss, death, or sadness. Many tanka poems are about a specific memory, “spots of time,” as Wordsworth would have said.

Poems in English

As far as tanka is concerned, this poem type in English is usually much different from the traditional Japanese type. Modern tanka, especially American versions, follow less strict rules. One reason for this is because of translating “on” into English. Japanese syllables are shorter than syllables in English, so it’s hard to get the exact same effect. Traditional tanka wasn’t always formed into lines, but American tanka is. Modern tanka doesn’t always follow the 5-7-5-7-7 rule for the number of syllables included in each line. When a different number of syllables is used, it’s often referred to as “free verse tanka.” Sometimes lines might be indented for a specific effect, and unlike the traditional form, capital letters and punctuation are often used.

The first introduction many Americans had to tanka poetry was via the New York Times when they published an example of tanka in 1980. Many of the Times readers liked what they saw, as tanka has become popular in the United States and other English-speaking countries. It’s even taught in some American schools as poetry for kids.

Poems for Kids

If you’re looking for poems for kids, tanka could work. I think writing this type of poetry would help students learn to express themselves without having to worry about rhyme scheme. When my students wrote poetry, they often worried so much about rhyme and meter that the overall meaning of the verses was lost. The rhymes were often forced, which usually made the poems awkward.

Writing tanka can also help students learn to control their words. They’ll have to be concise, choosing just the right words in their poems. Writing poetry of any sort can help students experience connotation, where a single word can carry much more meaning than its literal definition. Changing just a word or two in a short poem can greatly alter the overall meaning and the visual imagery intended.

Poems for kids can be about practically any subject, and tanka is a “good fit” for this. The poems don’t have to be about deep or serious topics. They can be about something as simple as discovering a flower in a patch of weeds or watching a storm roll in. Poetry helps teach kids that even everyday occurrences can be interesting and worth remembering and sharing with others.

To get your kids or your students started with tanka, have them brainstorm for some topics first. Have them jot down ideas on paper as they think of them. Suggest that they pull from their memories. If they have trouble thinking of topics, provide them with some prompts:

What's something that made you really happy?

What's something that made you really sad?

Have you ever had a surprise encounter with an animal?

Have you ever felt sorry for another person or an animal?

What's the prettiest thing you've ever seen?

Once the students come up with a topic or two, have them jot down words that describe the topics. They can make a column for adjectives for this purpose. Is the subject large, tiny, colorful, old, young, etc. Once they have a list of adjectives, encourage them to turn ordinary, ho-hum adjectives into more interesting descriptors. for example, instead of "red," they could use "scarlet" or "crimson." They can also make a column for adverbs. Did the subject run swiftly, flow slowly, drip steadily, move painfully, etc. With older students, you might want to have them think of some similes, too. Just be sure to tell them to avoid using tired old comparisons.

Once the students have completed the first two lines of their tanka, have them think about how the topic made them feel. Whatever feeling the subject provided for the student, have them write it down and come up with other terms for the emotion or closely related terms. Have the young poets craft these into lines. You might not want to worry about the number of syllables at this point, but I suggest requiring five lines.

Once the first draft of the tanka is completed, have the students go back and count the number of syllables in each line if you want the requirements to include the 5-7-5-7-7 form. Using just the right number of syllables in a line is a great way to encourage your students to discover different ways of expressing the same thought and ideas.

The first poem is about finding a shell in the sand.

The first poem is about finding a shell in the sand.

Tanka Poems

Below are some tanka poems I wrote. I mostly stick to the 5-7-5-7-7 form because I find it more challenging. On the other hand, I don’t use capitalization or punctuation because I find it less restrictive to avoid those conventions. I’m new at composing this type of poetry, so please keep that in mind. Don’t be too harsh with your criticism!

the pink pearly shell

half buried in the brown sand

I bend to pick up

the clammy foot inching out

I give it back to the sea

Tanka about fishing

Tanka about fishing

it was an old fish

tattered and scarred from battles

black eyes look at me

without feeling or judgment

my hook dangling from its jaw

On Aging

the child in the glass

left me many years ago

an aging woman

devoured her completely

forever stealing her place

we cried our goodbyes

in the cold December rain

to our fallen friend

drops spattering the flowers

requiescat in pace

I watch as you go

engine growling angrily

the dry leaves disturbed

they lift on the winter wind

flying away forever

About trees in winter

About trees in winter

About Trees in Winter

the trees undress now

discarding their finery

they wait in silence

to be wrapped in a blanket

as they dream of warming spring

About a Storm

the mackerel sky

beckons Zeus for attention

angry winds bellow

consuming the sun and light

spitting it out in droplets

tanka about the end of a storm at sea

tanka about the end of a storm at sea

the bow in the mist

over the old wooden pier

the waves now calming

the gulls reclaim the heavens

I rebait my hook and wait

About an encounter with a horse

About an encounter with a horse

Animal Subjects

I called her softly

to the old fence where I stood

she answered in kind

liquid brown eyes spoke beauty

the velvet muzzle caressed

about an old, beloved dog

about an old, beloved dog

the ancient blind dog

stiff with the pain of long years

beseeched me for aid

I held his fate in my hands

another day or kind death

a childhood memory about the last day of school before the freedom of summer

a childhood memory about the last day of school before the freedom of summer

Childhood Memories

we wait for the bell

watching the clock all day long

to reach magic three

it rings the bell of freedom

eternity of summer

tanka about the memory of my father

tanka about the memory of my father

Memories of a Loved One

your chair is lonely

dust covering the arm rests

nothing disturbs it

preserving a memory

only your shadow remains

about an abandoned farm house

about an abandoned farm house

Poems About Home or a Place

dust floats in the light

from the bare broken window

of the old farm house

the walls are echoless now

only memories remain


Jonas Rodrigo on August 04, 2015:

I've never heard of this type of poetry before and I'm glad I stumbled upon this hub to learn about it. Great job, Holle.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on May 23, 2013:

Darryl, I'm glad you stopped by!

Darrylmdavis from Brussels, Belgium on May 22, 2013:

A solidly good read...nice one :-)

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on May 05, 2013:

Thanks for that, storyteller! Best of luck in your new hobby!

Barbara from Stepping past clutter on May 05, 2013:

I have not heard if tanka, but am excited to try my hand at this new-to-me form. Thanks so much! My favorite of your poems is the one about the fish.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on May 05, 2013:

Mhatter, I did, indeed, have a sneaky feeling you might show up! lol

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on May 05, 2013:

MsDora, I'm glad you think so. I think tanka poems are great for dashing off short verse.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on May 05, 2013:

Howdy, Doc. I really appreciate your kind words. You are a gem!

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on May 05, 2013:

lovebug, thanks for stopping by!

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on May 05, 2013:

Now you knew I'd be here. Great hub. Thorough facts. thank you

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on May 04, 2013:

Thanks for this introduction to Tanka. Seems very interesting.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on May 04, 2013:

What a great summary, Holle, of the art form that is traditional Tanka. Your well-chosen photos match your Tanka selections perfectly. Each one is a gem. Trust me.

Lena Kovadlo from Staten Island, NY on May 04, 2013:

Thank you for introducing us to Tanka. There are surely many poetic forms that people have not heard about and this is one of them.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on May 04, 2013:

Many thanks, WND. I think my fave is the one about the breakup.

wetnosedogs from Alabama on May 04, 2013:

Oh, your words are just great. I loved them all. My favorite is about the girl and the horse.

And thanks for the lesson.