How to Write a Tanka Poem

The word tanka means “short song” and is one of the oldest Japanese forms of poetry originating in the seventeenth century. The tanka is related to the haiku but isn’t as popular with American poets. Traditional Japanese tanka poems are made up of 31 syllables written in a single, unbroken line. However, the tanka poems in English take on a five-line form, consisting of a 5/7/5/7/7 syllable count.

Here are the rules:

  1. The modern English tanka consists of one stanza of five lines.
  2. The tanka is untitled.
  3. Punctuation is not used in a tanka.
  4. The tanka is unrhymed with a syllable count of  5/7/5/7/7 for each line.
  5. The poem is written in a single unbroken sentence of deep meaning or purpose.
  6. There should be a change in perception (pivot) midway through the tanka.
  7. Start lines one and two by addressing a personal observation or experience.
  8. The poem is meant to be written from the point of view of the poet. Show emotion by using sensory detail and descriptive language.
  9. As with any poem, lines should not begin with articles (e.g., “a” “an” or “the”) as they weaken the impact of the poem.
  10. End the poem with a profound statement as your poem should leave the reader with a strong feeling.
  11. Rewrite your poem, polishing until it shines.

Example #1
 Notice how this traditional tanka, written by Tada Chimako (born 1930), ends with a profound statement. The 31 syllable count is off due to the translation from Japanese to English.

The hot water 
in the abandoned kettle
slowly cools 
still carrying the resentment
of cold water  

Example #2
  Here's my attempt at a modern tanka (5/7/5/7/7). I wrote this poem during the devastating 2020 wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington. 
fires lick the land 
running wild with parched tongues 
so desperate for rain
that never falls from the sky
they lap up lives—still thirsty

© Danna Smith at