Review of Naomi Beth Wakan’s ‘The Way of Tanka’.

Naomi Beth Wakan, author and editor. The Way of Tanka. Shanti Arts Publishing, 2017. pp.146. ISBN 978-1-941830-60-4, £14 paperback, £2.45 Kindle.

Reviewed by Marie Marshall.

Naomi Beth Wakan states in passing that we are still having to live down the idea that the Beat Poets had, that haiku is a Zen art. Well, obviously the editor of the zen space has to hold up her hand and say “Guilty as charged,” although I maintain that it would be hard to unpick from the cloth of haiku, tanka, etc. the thread that is of Zen colour from the threads that aren’t, given the influence of that school of thought throughout the cultures of Eastern Asia. Ah well, as my own first encounter with ‘Japanese poetry’ was in The Jenguin Pennings, what do I know anyway?

In passing, let me make a suggestion. How about I ask you to submit some poetry/words using a five-line format for the next Showcase here at the zen space? I have deliberately avoided saying “Send me tanka,” but feel free to do that too.

coverFor Wakan, writing tanka means “matters that could only be heard in the overtones and resonances of the haiku could now go directly onto the page.” I wonder if this pronouncement so early in the book is a little too prescriptive, telling us that tanka abandons subtlety and suggestion. She goes on to say that her interpretations and opinions “may be considered entirely wrong by more learned experts, yet they may be a fresh way of looking at tanka by an outsider.” I don’t warm to apologias like this in introductions to books – it smacks too much of false modesty, or perhaps it is even too defensive in attitude, which in fact opens up an avenue for the kind of attack she tries to fend off. Better, surely, that Wakan should display the courage of her convictions from the start, and state plainly that this is what she considers tanka to be all about, take it or leave it. She does acknowledge that since Japanese poetry had its first impact on its western counterpart at the time of the imagists, Japanese- and English-user poets have “seized and adapted” each others ideas, and that tanka is still defining itself; but too many ‘on the one hand… on the other hand’ truisms in the introduction to a book lessen the reader’s expectations of its strength. The introduction is not completely unhelpful, however, and I think that readers should not go into the body of the book prepared to argue, but rather to be stimulated.

Having set out her stall by identifying herself as the kind of writing teacher who lets her students plunge in unknowing and untutored at first, and by offering us fifty of her favourite tanka to appreciate intuitively, Wakan then becomes defensive again about her choices.

“The Japanese feel that if the poems are all consistently good, none will stand out. By having the occasional brilliant poem against a background of reasonably good ones, it will seem even more startling, I suppose. This idea is completely alien to Western poets who require that each poem in a collection have distinction. I, myself, can’t see why I would have a collection where only some poems hit their target and the others wavered.”

But surely readers are not going to like every single poem in an anthology. In fact, as I read through I found that some sang for me and some didn’t so much. From amongst Wakan’s favourites I would like to draw three to your attention. They are by Carole MacRury, Reiko Hakozaki (tr. Kozue Uzawa & Amelia Fielden), and Minamoto no Sanetomo (tr. Sam Hamill) respectively:

spring yard work –
together we turn the earth
turn the worms…
the roots of our marriage
both forgiving and deep


a handful of coffee beans
I enjoy
this time of not chasing
this time of not being chased


if only the world would
always remain this way
some fishermen
drawing a little boat
up the river bank

I found the first of these very touching. It demonstrated how the tanka can be a vehicle for a more direct expression of emotion than a three-liner usually is. The first two demonstrate Wakan’s preference for what I call the weak/strong dichotomy in tanka. By this I do not intend a value judgment based on the usual connotations of ‘weak’ and ‘strong’, but rather a means by which we can distinguish between an indefinite, suggestive, or haiku-like three-line section, and two lines which express something clearly more definite, precise, or personal. In the third example, the structure is reversed but is still visible. Not all of the poems in the collection follow this structure slavishly, but Wakan seems to privilege those that do. She says: “Many tanka have two parts: the first is often the setting of the scene, and the last part, generally the last two lines, is a comment that expands the personal to the universal, or vice versa. If the reflection is deep enough, what applies to one person’s moment can become a truth for all of us…” but also acknowledges that tanka can be structured as a single flow. Some raise a smile, such as this one by Michael McClintock:

one at a time
I step on stones
and cross the stream –
when I’m across, the stones
go back to what they were doing

This is almost ‘cute’! Wakan gives us plenty of examples of how tanka can be based on sense – sight, sound, taste, touch, scent – and also how it can be a vehicle not only for sense but also emotion, often wistfully so. With chapters such as ‘Pivot lines and last lines’, ‘Uses of tanka’, ‘Response tanka’, and so on Wakan manages to balance examples of tanka with commentary about tanka. The result is perhaps not as peaceful as a two-per-opening anthology might be, but as a compact, 146-page guide it is a good book to have to hand.

In this review I have been quick to point out that I am not completely convinced by The Way of Tanka, however. That’s just me being critical. In fact as far as I can see there is much more to enjoy, to relate to, and to be informed by in this book than the elements I have seen fit to criticise. To give it three stars would be niggardly, and so I really must give it four and recommend it. It is simply put, yet much more erudite than the author’s falsely modest introduction would suggest, and is thus a very good handbook on the form.

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