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Tanka of Yearning


Tanka (from the Japanese for short poem) is one form of waka poetry consisting of five lines of 5,7,5,7 and 7 syllables for a total of 31 syllables. Haiku is one of the better known waka forms. It is said that for a Japanese, this is the most natural length for a lyric poem expressing emotion.

Since English does not have the same rhythms and syllables as Japanese, tankas written in English often do not adhere to the strict form. Instead, they are five lines, the first and third being short and the other three being longer. As a way of imposing stricter form to this American cousin, poets may try to follow a pattern of accented syllables, so that a line contains 2, 3, 2, 3, 3.

The first three lines (the kami no ku or upper poem) usually present an image or thought and the remaining two lines (the shimo no ku or lower poem) shift the focus to a related idea. We might see this as similar to a sonnet's "turn."

Tanka stresses the beauty of life and nature, but there is a strong feeling of yearning

in many tanka. It is this yearning that our current prompt will address. The shortness of life, the transient nature of seasons and love are common ideas that seek expression in this form. This allusive feeling contained in Japanese poetry is referred to as yojo.

Write a tanka that focuses on a form of yearning. Adhere as closely as your abilities allow to the strict form, but at a minimum follow the five line, length and content aspects of the form.

Read more about tanka at

The tanka posted as a sample for this prompt was by Carolyn Kizer. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1985 and the Theodore Roethke Award in 1988. Her poetry includes Cool, Calm & Collected.

For more on this prompt and others, visit the Poets Online blog.


under the willow
moss covers the goldfish pond
not a sign of life
rake leans against the old shed
leaves blown up against the barn

Marie A. Mennuto-Rovello

sun through palms
shimmers pool,
little boy dives deeply
into dancing waters,
a thousand joyful bubbles surface.

Clara Luz


fills liquid space
with longing
waves repeat the verse
rhythmic chants on sand

James M. Thompson

One Tanka

Midnight - moon rises
to the surface of the lake.
Beside her, a man
adrift in desire - look how
he tries to hold her in his arms.

Mary DeBow

I wade through fireflies.
Hundreds flash across dark grass,
tiny flames that light,
extinguish, light my face; burn strands of
silver in my hair with brief, fragile gold.

Svea Barrett-Tarleton


I am missing you
when the night stands before me
as a teacher with
a blackboard.  Oh, I cry for
chalk-answers to its questions.



The old cat asleep
on a sunny windowsill
shudders as she purrs.
I snore and join in the dream
of when we both were kittens.

R.G. Evans


when Mind begins to wonder
at Cause & Effect,
the Soul, suffused in Wonder,
transcends into ecstasy.

Catherine LeGault


You are out of reach,
yet I feel myself reaching.
Dry hope, never quenched.
The nose of my toy poodle
Touches mine; my thirst subsides.

Ann Steiner

my words flow
no more.
His back turned,

Heidi Cislo