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Haiku and related forms: TANKA

Tanka is a Japanese form that has a longer tradition than haiku. Traditionally, in Japan, a tanka is a five-line poem with lines one and 3 having 5 syllables each, and the other lines having 7 syllables each. That means the first three lines (with 5, 7 and 5 syllables) are the "size" of a haiku. I'm no expert on the tanka tradition; I have far more familiarity with haiku. But here and there I've written poems I consider to be tanka (though I've cheated on syllable counts).

I recently realized that many of my short poems are tanka in disguise and can easily, with slight revision, be tailored to the form. What you have here are poems I wrote, intending them to be tanka, plus a few (out of many) I've recently converted to tanka.

Here they are:

No Bra

The girl in loose blouse
with no bra walks past looking
ahead with no smile.

But I smile and her boobs
bounce their laughter in reply.

Old Poodle

Old poodle can't see
Or hear much. He wobbles up
To my leg, leans there,

Wanting love, also to rub
Runny eyes on my clean pants.

Early Iris

Well aren't you something!
You designed it yourself? I
wish I had your flare!

(Isn't she something!) Ta Ta,
Dear! (She does it every year!)

Just a Word With Basho on Kikaku

A poet! Tear off
his wings and you get a critic
or a scholar.

Now that's poetry, for who
Could tear the wings off a poet?

[Note: Basho is considered the originator of the haiku form. One of the other haikuists in his circle, Kikaku, showed Basho a haiku that said (more or less) "a dragonfly -- tear off his wings and you have a pepperpod." Basho said, "No, to make a haiku you add wings to a pepperpod and get a dragonfly." Personally, I'd rather eat a pepperpod.... The point of my version is that the idea of tearing the wings off a poet is suitably imaginative to constitute poetry (though seemingly as negative as de-winging an insect), because a poet's "wings" are not so easily removed. It's awfully hard to stop a good poet from "flying", though psychiatrists keep trying.]

On the Variety of Faulty Asses?

The asphalt mounds up
before it cracks -- homily
for ambition.

Whoops -- not true: Here
are LEVEL cracks. Humble vices?


Something like the sky
breezes past. I turn -- gone! --
far down the hall,

but you look back; suddenly
your smile's all around me, Yvonne!

[No, Yvonne was not a lover, but a friend and inspiration to many artists, including me.]


On the beach tonight
we play at pushing each other
off a log -- whoops!

I hurt him. I didn't mean
to... Apologies. Jokes. Thoughts.

[Note: We were pushing using Tai Chi arm-against-arm motions. I think my wrist watch scratched him slightly. He, usually charming and insouciant, suddenly put on a resentful face I'd not seen on him before. Years later that brief flash of something raw and resentful became him fully.]

Tanka, But No Tanka

He sends me his poems.
They are bad. What can I say?
Say I grow old and

lies are not true. Say I'm a
fool; teach me how to teach you.

Stopping for Nothing

Poet out walking
stops here and there just looking...
"BARK! BARK! Go away!"

People who stop for nothing
make domestic dogs nervous.


Issa wanted friends -
frogs, mice, snails, his own fleas, his
children who died small -

he speaks to these as equals.
He will even speak to us.

[Note: Issa is my favorite among the great haiku poets, and perhaps my favorite poet.]

Our Smile

I smile at a friend
in passing. Some pigeons, two
kids, an old woman,

drifting clouds and the rest of
a spring day float through our smile.

Vagabonding by Greyhound

I too prefer to
walk, but I have only four
days, not a season.

(Will Basho accept my poor
excuse for journey by bus?)

[Note: Basho and other haiku poets would take long jaunts on foot during which they'd write prose descriptions of what they experienced, interspersed with haiku. An example is Basho's "Journey to the North".]

Turning Point?

Christmas. He talks of
getting even. We eat. Nothing
is as it was.

Then he laughs. "Blehert, I'm evil!"
he says. Dessert goes better.

[I don't know if it was a turning point for him, but it was for me. I was tired of hearing him explain how he planned to get even with the woman who'd left him. I was about to end the friendship. Then he caught hold of sanity by one hand and pulled himself back into present time (this was about 30 years ago), and we have remained friends.]


Toddler rolls on the
floor, hangs on Mama's calf, jigs
across the carpet,

waving both hands, inventing
new ways to be a body.


Snowing. Hot cider.
Folksinger sings every song
with the same sadness.

Setting... set a poem in it
or call it a haiku?

[Note: This is about a folksinger in a warm cafe in wintry Minneapolis, but it's also about that urge -- given a strong sense of place and atmosphere -- to make something of it, to do more than simply point it out. So this is a haiku that becomes a tanka in order to assert its right to be "just" a haiku. And perhaps the sameness of the folksinger's sadness is a similar attempt to make something out of something.]


The morning after,
out of abstraction I find
myself piece by piece

(Picasso, perhaps, did me) --
and this pain must be the head...

Hokusai's "Mt. Fuji Viewed Through Waves At Kanagawa"

Boats like watermelon
slices -- the waves' open mouths
full of white teeth.

Scared watermelon-seed faces
don't notice Mt. Fuji.

[Note: Hokusai did a large series of paintings, showing Mt. Fuji from different points of view -- many aspects of Japanese life going on in the foreground. In this one (probably the most famous), Mt. Fuji is a distant, hardly noticeable spectator, a peak far in the background, as long boats full of warriors are about the be buried (fatally?) beneath saw-tooth-edged waves, now curling over them.]


Halloween Eve -- I
sit in a Chinese restaurant.
Spooks knock at my door

where nobody's home, hoping
for more candy. Sorry, kids.

The Ground

Old men and women
stand at bus stops or shuffle
up and down Fairfax,

looking at the ground, as if
to see where they are going.

[Note: Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles, not far from Cantors' 24-hour Deli-Restaurant, a neighborhood with many apartment houses full of retirees -- or so it was when I wrote this in the '70s.]


Plastic cup descends,
but can't catch in its circle
the cornered spider.

How did he know where to flee?
Weavers know geometry.

Musashi's "Shrike on Dead Tree"

Shrike, perched where he can
miss nothing, at home on a
dead branch with thorns, glares.

Far below a worm inches
up the branch. Lap of water.

Until Dawn

In the kitchen we
talk and nibble, talk and munch
until dawn. Car sounds.

Snores upstairs. Your face a shiny
apple in the gray room.

Late Autumn

Late autumn -- chilly.
Trees are still yellow. On the
window, frost feathers.

Rough gusts swirl dead leaves past boys
playing football, breath clouded.

Persuading Me

He talks about how
happy he is. A lull. Then,
like one more spasm

of a fish dying on land,
he says how happy he is.

[Note: I think he was the unhappiest person I ever met (though prosperous and respected), but he had the fortune or misfortune never to notice.]

An Alien in the Living Room

If I am quiet
for a very long time,
furniture will forget

I'm sitting in the living room
and resume its secret rites.


What if I woke up
to the same sun and sky,
but could not find you?

How, then, could I hope ever
to be free of sun and sky?

Blame Free

WE care about
each sparrow feather that falls;
else why invent

God to care, so that we can
let ourselves forget to care.

Pardon me?

Reaching out of self,
groping for mystery,
he entered and became

a tree, an interesting
experience for that tree.

Spies Who Come In From the Cold

Agents of rain
follow me inside, concealed
about my person -

Aha! One drops from my hair,
just missing this notebook.

God Among Us

The asylum nut
who says he's God - he IS God.
They put him away

because he claimed to be
hearing human voices.

Gentle Deaths

Tai Chi practice: foes,
invisible, on all sides
are shed; like petals,

fall to perish as if waking
from one dream to another.

Come In, Please, Over

Being me is best.
I've told myself this often,
but someone else

intercepted the message,
so it never got to me.

Are You There?

If I dial the right
number and you're home, you'll answer.
Why else have a phone?

So I keep writing, thinking,
why else have a language?

Unbreakable Mirrors

The enemy faces
(under odd helmets) could be
ours. To shatter

the mirror we fire, but
shattered faces still mirror ours.

Pretending to Pay Attention

The world rambles on,
thinking I'm attentive, for
I seem to take notes,

when I scribble this gossip
to pass around to classmates.


Watch your step -
a thin crust of snow conceals
the crevasses;

you could slip into a poem
and never be seen again.


On the path, a worm,
injured, tries to signal for
HELP! but thrashes out

only esses, rapidly,
both ways, but never
an O.


Together we rose
to touch one another.
Were we presumptuous?

After the tower collapsed
your tongue was strange to me.

These Threats Are Not Called For!

Strong wind: The branches
creak and crack... "Allright! Allright!
We're leaving already!"

cry the yellow leaves, hastily
detaching themselves.

Half a Child?

"The life of
even one child is too great
a price to pay!"

You humanitarians
sure drive a hard bargain.


Slowly I open
my hand. It begins talking
to me again,

telling me what it had done.
I clench my fist tight.


Neat egg-carton lattice -
electron microscope
photograph of...atoms!

Atoms! - I wonder if I'll
ever meet one in person?

Plain Geometry

"Please! Just once!
Just to find out what it's like!"
begs the hyperbola.

"No!" we reply - "Don't you DARE
touch that asymptote!"

My Purpose in Life

A long hard voyage:
I discover my purpose
in life, and am shocked

to find it already
inhabited by savages.

Infinitessimal Rrrrip

Cat extends paw,
catches it in blanket, withdraws,
each motion with its

arch and reverse arch, the curl
and uncurl of a wavelet.

Dear Reader

I just turned off
the TV set. At last, we
can be alone.

It's nearly 1 a.m.
Welcome to the Late Poem.

All We Want

"We can't all have
everything we want." We can't
all be me and you?

We can't have the light that pours
forth from our own eyes.

You're ON!

"Go ahead, poet - you're
ON! Say something to the reader."
O World! O uh...Wait!

Wait! Can't we start over - One
more chance? I wasn't ready...

Home Sick

Weary of man's needs,
the prince roams the marshes,
croaking to each frog,

hoping one may have the stomach
to kiss him and take him back.

To Be Continued

At the end of each
lifetime, the hero is plainly
wiped out, but

the next episode tells us
it was only a flesh wound.

Making Ourselves at Home

We put our houses
here and there - by the sea, on
hill, in valley, woods -

and watch TV - the fun of
doing it in odd places?

There's Hope

This is just poetry:
It won't save you, but perhaps
it will locate you

so that a rescue party
can be sent out.

Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory

I lied: I DO want to save
the world! Forgive me -

I was afraid you
wouldn't understand.

Note: If, on the MMPI, you ever answered "yes" to the question "Do you want to save the world", the shrinks are probably closing in on you even now.

A Dream

Everything freezes
in place but me; I stroll
among bodies

flung helter-skelter, transfixed
on the barbed wire of their lives.

Sad Serendipity

Dreaming of St. Paul
autumns, I was wishing
Los Angeles leaves

would crunch more underfoot when,
Crunch!... alas, I crushed a snail.

It Was No Dream

Morning. My antenna
extends itself to receive
a sleepy signal.

Turning over, I meet your
eyes, a-twinkle with sending.

Politeness Foils Rage

Trees gently bend
one way, then the other - polite
Chinese. Frustrated,

wind howls louder; the trees just
bend one way, then the other.

Putting On Beingness

A kid pokes his face
through a hole to become a
cardboard cowboy;

the moon peeps through a cloud rift,
the heart of a pearly rose.

Been There, Done That

The ocean thrashes
up waves to become mountains,
falls flat, tries again,

and again. The near mountains,
having made it, are bored stiff.

Slice of Life

Reverently through
gold streams of sunlight, vaulted
chamber after chamber,

my tongue treads the great-windowed
cathedral of an orange.


Porno shop: None looks
at another; each respects
the privacy

of the act of looking at
other people having sex.

Laundromat Follies

The washer goes silent.
I peek in... clothes are heaped there
like dead fish. Careful,

this may be a ruse - here comes
the wildest spin of all!

A Logical Impossibility

Rarely, on the bus,
people greet each other, sit
together, converse -

They've met before. I wonder
how could they have met before?

Note: This poem implies a strange illogic in life: You watch people on the bus (and in other places where one is likely to be among strangers) and they never speak to one another unless they already know each other, so the question arises, how could they ever have come to know each other in the first place. Not hard to spot the fallacies in this reasoning, but at some points in life (for example, to a horny male adolescent who wonders how he'll ever get to first base with a girl), such questions arise, along with other things that arise on buses for horny adolescent males, who, fortunately, can rest their school books on their laps and think about baseball or impossibly old ladies and hope to be presentable by the time they have to stand up.


Cat curled on the lawn,
tail stabbing down like the
dagger from a

comic-strip balloon containing
what the grass is saying.


You stir me, yet
find me blah? How can you wield
such keen loveliness

yet strike no spark of loveliness
off even this stone of me?

Breaking Up

Floundering in a
sea of bad dreams, trying to
change what's happening

the way one does when
beginning to wake up.

Driving my car,
I flash on touching your cheek
before kissing it;

I touch the steering wheel...Ah!
the tenderness! for my car!

Last updated: February 13, 2006