Japanese verse form consisting of 31 syllables arranged in five lines in the sequence 5, 7, 5, 7, 5. The classic form of Japanese poetry, the tanka (literally ‘short poem’) dates from as early as the 7th century AD. The tanka is not as well known in the West as the haiku, though it was the origin of the cinquain and inspired several of the poets associated with Imagism.
Early tankas were often written as a form of literary game, with one poet writing the first three lines, a second poet writing the last two lines. In time the first three became a separate form, the haiku. As with haiku, the traditional tanka relies on the use of a few carefully chosen images, the aim being not direct statement or description, but the subtle evocation of a scene or mood. The images are frequently taken from a traditional range of nature images – the moon, pools, autumn leaves, snow, and so on – and show the influence of Japan's nature religion, Shinto. In their emphasis on a few seemingly disparate images meant to produce a sudden illumination, later tanka were also influenced by Zen Buddhism.
Despite this concentration on the subtle evocation of a mood, the best Japanese haiku were also able to suggest a wide range of cultural, social, and historical references, though these are completely lost in translation. The poet's skill was measured by the layers of meaning a tanka, though brief and seemingly very simple, would in time reveal through contemplation.