Universal human feeling in five lines of Tanka

24 Jul 2000 David Anthony is managing director of Hitachi Credit (UK), which provides business finance and consumer credit for retailers. His ruling passion is writing Japanese Tanka poetry. 'I was a founder member of the company 18 years ago and my interest in Japanese poetry has developed since then. I visit Japan regularly and have several good friends there, some of whom are involved in Tanka poetry.

Tanka, when written in Japanese, consists of five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, making 31 syllables in total. This poetic form has a very long history and was first recorded in 712AD. The 17-syllable Haiku, although better known outside Japan, is, by comparison, a newcomer.

Tanka became very popular a thousand years ago when it was customary, after spending a night with your lover, to send a short and elegant thank you note. Obviously, you couldn't be too specific because the messenger might read it, and you gained a lot of kudos by writing it in Tanka form.

I write in English, which is a much more concise language than Japanese and so English language Tanka tends to be shorter. Some of them were included in a book of Tanka that was published in both Japanese and English two years ago. I have also had poems published in The Tanka Journal, Japan's leading English language Tanka periodical, as well as an article on the similarities between Tanka and sonnets. Before I discovered Tanka poetry, I had a long-standing interest in reading and writing sonnets and was astonished to discover the many similarities between two poetic forms that had grown up in such widely separated and different cultures. To me this says something about the universality of human feeling. At 14 lines with 10 syllables a line, sonnets are of course much longer. But like Tanka, they divide into two parts, the first part being observation and the next a statement of emotion or feeling. Also like Tanka, they are often written in series on a theme.

This is a Tanka that came to me as I was driving past a roadside flower-stall in Hounslow:

Glimpsed rose
redolent of dreams
Seller by
The road, I wonder,
Did you sell your dreams?

Many thousands of people write poetry in Japan and Tanka is the most popular form. Poets were highly regarded in ancient China and this has transferred to Japan. There are many different schools of Tanka poetry, however, with several hundred people following a different style that might be more traditional or more contemporary.

Writing structured poetry of any form forces a discipline in the way we think and express ourselves. Everyone should try and write a structured poem at some point in their life. It teaches you how to communicate and write effectively, which is becoming an increasingly rare skill. I would define a poem as a clear, meaningful, musical and original expression of an idea or theme. I have read inter-office memos that meet this definition and published poems that do not.

The internet has been a wonderful invention for anyone with an esoteric interest. I am an internet poet in my spare time and belong to a couple of workshops. I think the internet has worked wonders for modern poetry. How else would I find so many kindred spirits out there in the world? I often wonder how Wordsworth may have altered some of his poems if he had had the benefits of the internet.'