Monday, April 06, 2015

Monday Poetry Stretch - Somonka

The somonka is a Japanese form that consists of two tanka written in tandem. The first tanka is usually a declaration of love, with the second a response to that declaration. While this form usually requires two authors, it is possible for one poet to write from both perspectives.

Writing somonka requires that we revisit the guidelines for tanka. Tanka is a form of Japanese poetry that has been practiced for more than 1000 years. Tanka are composed of 31 syllables in a 5/7/5/7/7 format. Most tanka focus on nature, seasons, the discussion of strong emotions, or a single event of some significance.

In her article Tanka as Diary, Amelia Fielden writes:
Tanka, meaning ‘short song’, is a 1300 year old Japanese form of lyric poetry. Non-rhyming, it is composed in Japanese in five phrases of 5/7/5/7/7 syllables.

In English, tanka are normally written in five lines, also without (contrived) rhyme, but in a flexible short/long/short/long/long rhythm. Due to dissimilarities between the two languages, it is preferable not to apply the thirty-one syllable standard of the Japanese poems, to tanka in English. Around twenty-one plus/minus syllables in English produces an approximate equivalent of the essentially fragmentary tanka form, and its lightness. To achieve a “perfect twenty-one”, one could write five lines in 3/5/3/5/5 syllables. If the resulting tanka sounds natural, then that’s fine. However, the syllable counting does not need to be so rigid. Though no line should be longer than seven syllables, and one should try to maintain the short/long/short/long/long rhythm, variations such as 2/4/3/5/5 or 4/6/3/6/7 or 3/6/4/5/6 syllable patterns can all make good tanka.
Here is an example, translated by one of my former colleagues at the University of Richmond. These tanka were sent back and forth between a nobleman named Mikata No Sami (Active C. 700) and his young wife, the daughter of Omi Ikuha (N.D.)

Tied up, it loosens,
untied, it's too long
my love's hair --
nowadays I can't see it --
has she combed it together?

Everyone now says
my hair is too long
and I should tie it up --
but the hair you gazed upon
I'll leave in tangles

Translated by Stephen Addiss in The Art of Haiku: Its History through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters (pp. 19-20)

Since it's spring and love is in the air, I'm focused on writing some animal-themed poems. I hope you'll join me this week in writing a somonka. Please share a link to your poem or the poem itself in the comments.


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  2. Hi Tricia,
    Here are a pair of tankas I wrote today--not exactly a declaration of love and a response to it, but still written in tandem. Can you tell I was up late last night finishing writing something to make a deadline?

    Squirrel gathers nuts:
    digging here, burying there,
    mapping his treasure,
    compelled to hoard and prepare,
    hustling from daybreak to dusk.

    I squander my days,
    no frenzy of gathering,
    no furor of work
    until a deadline draws near--
    rousing my inner squirrel.
    --Buffy Silverman

  3. Ordinary

    I had an ordinary day.
    Well, maybe not. I typed the invoices.
    Ordinarily I think of you
    3 or 4 times for each invoice, but today
    it was 5 or 6, maybe 10 for each one.

    I took a lot of calls.
    Ordinarily I pretend every other person
    I talk to is you,
    but today it was every single one. And now
    we are home, my extraordinary love.

    —Kate Coombs, 2015
    all rights reserved