Santa Fe Poetry Broadside / Tanka Prose Special Issue
Jeffrey Woodward, Guest Editor
A Brief Note Concerning Tanka Prose
[small image of painting]
Gary LeBel
Shipyard Figure (tempera on paper)
larger version of image

Tanka prose, like haibun, weds two modes of writing -- verse and prose. Tanka prose employs tanka with prose while haibun employs haiku. Tanka were composed in Japan for nearly a millennium before the advent of haiku. Early examples of tanka prose are the Tosa Diary by Ki no Tsurayuki (940 M.E.) and the Gossamer Years by the woman known as "the mother of Michitsuna" (980 M.E.). Early haibun, by contrast, are the works of Matsuo Basho (1680 M.E.), some seven centuries later.

Tanka prose, in its many varied forms, is built upon one common basic unit of composition (one paragraph, one tanka). The simplest applications of this “basic unit” are two and are common to classical Japanese and contemporary English-language practice: preface and poem tale. The preface is expository and often concerned with little more than sketching the motive and setting of the composition. A poem tale, as the name implies, adopts narrative qualities, whether the narration is abbreviated and anecdotal or expansive and closer to the short story proper.

Variation in the number and placement of tanka in relation to the prose is widespread in today’s practice of the tanka prose genre. The basic unit of one paragraph of prose, one tanka is a very common form while inversion of that unit (one tanka followed by one paragraph of prose) is a frequent variation. Another common form of tanka prose is the verse envelope - tanka, prose, tanka. Many other forms are in use, most generated by inversion or compounding of the basic unit of one paragraph, one tanka. These variations in number and placement of tanka are not without effect upon the flavor and character of the individual tanka prose work.

Tanka prose in English is in its infancy. Sanford Goldstein’s “Tanka Walk,” around 1983, is perhaps the earliest example known. Jane Reichhold, Larry Kimmel and Linda Jeannette Ward are some other notable tanka poets who adopted tanka prose in the 1990s. Online journals where new examples of the genre appear with some regularity include Haibun Today, Lynx, Modern English Tanka and Contemporary Haibun Online.

August 3, 2008


Woodward, Jeffrey (Editor). The Tanka Prose Anthology. Baltimore, MD: Modern English Tanka Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-9817-6913-4.

Woodward, Jeffrey. “The Road Ahead for Tanka in English,”, Modern English Tanka V2, N2 (Winter 2007).

Woodward, Jeffrey. “The Elements of Tanka Prose,”, Modern English Tanka V2, N4 (Summer 2008).