Syllabic Tanka Day for 2015
Tanka is one of the oldest continuously practiced syllabic forms in the world. It has a written history of about 1400 years; but I suspect its origins go back into the mists of time. In Japan it is the central poetic form out of which both renga and haiku have emerged.
Over all the centuries that tanka have been written the syllabic shape has remained the same: five lines with a syllable count of 5-7-5-7-7. This generates a beautiful rhythm which always reminds me of paddling down a stream in a canoe.
The transmission of tanka to the west has been rough; it has not generated nearly as much interest as haiku. And interest in specifically syllabic tanka is even smaller. There are a number of reasons for this; a general tilt among modern poets towards free verse, the lack of a strong poetic voice in ELT who takes a syllabic approach to act as an example for others, and the lack of any organizational support for a syllabic approach to ELT. There are probably others as well. Still, there are a small number of poets who have taken a syllabic, traditional, approach to ELT. And there a number of resources that can assist those interested in a syllabic approach to ELT; primarily these are the superb translations of Japanese tanka into English which adhere to the syllabic shape of the original Japanese.
The translations of Edwin A. Cranston are unsurpassed in this regard. Cranston has published two volumes containing tanka translations. The first is A Waka Anthology Volume One: The Gem-Glistening Cup. This volume contains translations of poems from the earliest sources through the Manyoshu and a little bit beyond. By far the largest section is devoted to the Manyoshu. This is a very rich anthology. I took a full year to read it. The translations are preceded by the translator’s discussion of the sources. And individual poets are preceded by remarks about their overall output. And individual poems are preceded by notes that illuminate references and allusions. It might seem that all this material from the translator would be burdensome. Remarkably, it is not. The notes are informative and are not overburdened with technical terms. They have a tone that resembles having a learned Uncle by your side, assisting you as you go through the material.
Volume Two is called A Waka Anthology: Volume Two: Grasses of Remembrance. This volume is divided into two sections, which are published as separate books; Part A and Part B. Part A contains translations from the court commissioned anthologies of waka (aka tanka) which have exerted such a huge influence on Japanese poetry. The translations contain selections from a number of these including Kokinshu, Gosenshu, and Goshuishu.
Part B contains translations of all the waka found in The Tale of Genji. Genji contains 795 waka. The commentary places the waka into the context of the story. This is a treasure chest of waka verse.
Cranston takes a basically syllabic approach to his translations. Cranston allows himself more freedom regarding lineation than Helen McCullough did in her translation of the complete Kokinwakashu (I believe Cranston studied with McCullough). But the syllabic count of the original has a central place in Cranston’s approach. Here is an example from Part B:
Dweller by the bay,
To those sleeves that draw the brine
Try comparing this:
A night garment sealed away
From the reach of the road of waves.
The count is 5-7-5-7-8; a close rendering of the original syllabic shape. One observation; I have noticed that often when Cranston translates his line count will be a few counts longer than the traditional rather than shorter. This is important information because it runs counter to the minimalist views held by those who have adopted the nihonjinron view of the Japanese language. In general, I have observed that translators of Japanese poetry, particularly traditional waka/tanka, into English do not fall into minimalism.
For those who are attracted to the traditional syllabic approach to tanka, I recommended these volumes. They will help you, guide you, and offer you exemplars. Structurally they offer many examples of tanka in various configurations; such as the single sentence, the two part type, several sentences, and juxtaposition. They also show the lushness of the tanka tradition and its commitment to the full range of human emotions.
The one drawback is the price: these are expensive volumes. If they are beyond your budget, and for many they will be, particularly the second volume, you might want to see if you can borrow them from a library using interlibrary loan. They are published by Stanford University Press which has an execrable track record for making material like this available to a larger audience. It appears, like many University Presses, that they are not really interested in granting access to this material by those who might reside outside the University. That’s too bad. It is my hope that at some point in the future Stanford will make these specific volumes, and other related volumes, available at a more reasonable price.
Still, I have seen used copies every now and then at Amazon offered at a reasonable price; so if you have an interest you might want to tag them and grab a reasonably priced copy when it appears. Act fast; I have seen them come and go very quickly.
Overall, I am optimistic about syllabic tanka, meaning traditional tanka, eventually taking root as ELT. It is a slow process, but it strikes me that the translations have given ELT a rich trove of syllabic tanka upon which ELT can be nourished.
A Waka Anthology: Volume 1
The Gem-Glistening Cup
Translated with a Commentary and Notes by
Edwin A. Cranston
A Waka Anthology: Volume 2
Grasses of Remembrance
(Part A and Part B sold together)
Translated with a Commentary and Notes by
Edwin A. Cranston