Engineering Tanka Prose & Haibun:
Considerations Arising from the Tanka Prose Anthology
The Tanka Prose Anthology. Edited with an Introduction by Jeffrey Woodward.
Baltimore, MD: Modern English Tanka Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-9817691-3-4.
Perfect Bound, 6” x 9”, 176 pp., $12.95 USD.
Contributors to the anthology: Hortensia Anderson, Marjorie Buettner, Sanford Goldstein, Larry Kimmel, Gary LeBel, Bob Lucky, Terra Martin, Giselle Maya, Linda Papanicolaou, Stanley Pelter, Patricia Prime, Jane Reichhold, Werner Reichhold, Miriam Sagan, Katherine Samuelowicz, Karma Tenzing Wangchuk, Linda Jeannette Ward, Michael Dylan Welch, Jeffrey Woodward.
In the Werner Herzog film, “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” a group of conquistadors, fraught by the vicissitudes of their long journey down the Amazon river catch sight of a timber boat draped in sails, high in the branches of jungle trees, as their raft carries them along. The scene haunts the viewer with uncertainties: What did I just see? Did I just see that? What is that about?
Another narrative briefly crosses paths with the film’s central narrative. It both questions and affirms the central story, and at the same time wants to take you on another journey.
Here Herzog has composed a cinematic haibun, or, rather a tanka-prose piece – the latter designation because of the complexity of what happens in that cinematic passage, how imbued it is with the human. It also shows that such narrative segues are not uniquely of Japanese origin. What is specific to that tradition is the use of the tanka.
But why is that haunting image of a sail-wreathed boat in the treetops a tanka, rather than a haiku?
A haiku juxtaposes an image or images that may incite human questions, whereas images in tanka are framed within the human condition. The image may come first in the sequence of lines in the tanka, but it is a disequilibrium within the person which pokes a finger into the water to set it rippling. In a haiku, the image itself – perhaps the quarking of a crow, or a leaf fallen to the pond surface – sets up the rippling. In the film, the boat draped in sail, becomes a funereal metaphor. The image is not only the glimpse of another, earlier, narrative, but it also prefigures the fate of the travelers.
In haiku, the humanizing that occurs is in the individual poet’s talent for language, and how they paint their verbal picture. In tanka the language opens itself to metaphor: ‘the sown heavens’, ‘a lullaby of lazy water’, ‘faith is larger than the peaks/a heart is flower of the mind’, ‘Signed in a scrawl/of chicory smoke’, ‘anatomy of indifference’, ‘I feel the silken whisper of an autumn butterfly’, ‘the angel of history’.
But not every tanka flies a flag emblazoned with the motto, “metaphor better or worse”. If it were that easy, Shiki would not have been tormented with the notion of the thirty one syllable haiku when he began his foray into the empire of tanka.
Ancient formalities and codification of word usage were formaldehyde in the veins of tanka at the time of Shiki. Mercifully, modern tanka in English have done what Shiki insisted they must do to survive. That is, to learn from the wider world of literature. For westerners, all forms inform each other, thus is is hardly surprising that haiku and tanka have so soon taken to roosting in the branches of prose pieces. (In chimneys and under the eaves as well.)
Giselle Maya’s Red Berries weighs a short piece of prose that could easily be pruned to a tanka against a tanka that could easily become prose.
* * *
the phrase “glow of raspberry” is hard to believe in winter but they will some day blossom and ripen again the memory of summer afternoons
from hand to mouth
not even one berry goes
into the basket . . .
I keep searching
* * *
No metaphors, but metaphoric thinking, the tanka representing life in general built around the catchphrase, “hand to mouth”. The prose weighs promise against the meagerness experience told in the tanka. I said the prose could easily become a tanka. There is the fine line of the form. Consider that promise might be better represented in a prosaic manner.
Here, as in many haibun and in tanka-prose, the prose quivers with material that might be turned to haiku or tanka. On the other hand, there are pieces with haiku and tanka that might as easily fold into the prose.
The fine line between tanka and haiku possibly folding into prose or separating from it becomes more problematic if you consider Sanford Goldstein’s comment from his longer work, Tanka Walk: “And yet while it is easy to spill (create) a tanka, it is difficult to get a good one.” and further, ”I have yet to hear anyone call a haiku or tanka brilliant, and this too seems right, as if the farthest one can go in these poems is to a kind of middle ground, a kind of good.”
No map of what becomes tanka will satisfy everyone. The decision of what works where comes at the end of a series of questions, which will vary from work to work. The best way to learn what they are (or at least might be) is to read haibun and tanka-prose with an eye to how any particular effect is achieved. Look to where tanka could become prose, or prose become tanka, or how tanka can accumulate purpose as a sequence. This can be done by either accruing tanka as narrative segments or as a sequence of alternative perspectives set in contrast to each other.
For anyone with aspirations to compose tanka-prose – or who simply enjoy the sublime meditative reverie of the form – the Tanka Prose Anthology is a superb tutor.
Happy boating fellow explorers. Look out for that boat in the tree-tops.
by J. Harpeng