Tanka: Poems for Kids - and adults

Updated on May 4, 2013
Tanka poems can be about anything.
Tanka poems can be about anything. | Source

Tanka

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, as 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 just recently begun to write 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, the interest in haiku and tanka had greatly declined, yet he began writing haiky in 1833 and pressing 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 for 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 - Tanka:

Poems in English

Poems in English, as far as tanka is concerned, are usually much different than the traditional Japanese poems. 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, either, 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 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. Evidently, many of the Times readers liked what they saw, as tanka has become popular in the United States and in other English-speaking countries. It’s even taught in some American schools as poems 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 were 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 for 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. | Source

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 | Source

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

poem about aging
poem about aging | Source

the child in the glass

left me many years ago

an aging woman

devoured her completely

forever stealing her place


tanka about death
tanka about death | Source

we cried our goodbyes

in the cold December rain

to our fallen friend

drops spattering the flowers

requiescat in pace

Poems about love and loss are popular.
Poems about love and loss are popular. | Source

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 | Source

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
about a storm | Source

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 | Source

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 | Source

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 | Source

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 | Source

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 | Source

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 | Source

dust floats in the light

from the bare broken window

of the old farm house

the walls are echoless now

only memories remain


Poems for Kids: Tanka and Haiku

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      • Jonas Rodrigo profile image

        Jonas Rodrigo 

        2 years ago

        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.

      • habee profile imageAUTHOR

        Holle Abee 

        5 years ago from Georgia

        Darryl, I'm glad you stopped by!

      • Darrylmdavis profile image

        Darrylmdavis 

        5 years ago from Brussels, Belgium

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

      • habee profile imageAUTHOR

        Holle Abee 

        5 years ago from Georgia

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

      • Storytellersrus profile image

        Barbara 

        5 years ago from Stepping past clutter

        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.

      • habee profile imageAUTHOR

        Holle Abee 

        5 years ago from Georgia

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

      • habee profile imageAUTHOR

        Holle Abee 

        5 years ago from Georgia

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

      • habee profile imageAUTHOR

        Holle Abee 

        5 years ago from Georgia

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

      • habee profile imageAUTHOR

        Holle Abee 

        5 years ago from Georgia

        lovebug, thanks for stopping by!

      • Mhatter99 profile image

        Martin Kloess 

        5 years ago from San Francisco

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

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        5 years ago from The Caribbean

        Thanks for this introduction to Tanka. Seems very interesting.

      • drbj profile image

        drbj and sherry 

        5 years ago from south Florida

        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.

      • lovebuglena profile image

        Lena Kovadlo 

        5 years ago from Staten Island, NY

        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.

      • habee profile imageAUTHOR

        Holle Abee 

        5 years ago from Georgia

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

      • wetnosedogs profile image

        wetnosedogs 

        5 years ago from Alabama

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

        And thanks for the lesson.

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