Monday, December 26, 2016

Monday Poetry Stretch - Somonka

Christmas is over, but Hanukkah is still going strong. The new year is just around the corner. I'd like to write about endings and beginnings, so a form written from two perspectives sounds like a good idea.

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)

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.


  1. Year’s End

    Outside my window
    two blackbirds perch on branches.
    Cold closes the year
    with its white gloves, like a book
    closing its last pages.

    They say there are seeds
    and bulbs hidden beneath the snow.
    My blackbirds will look
    different in the spring, far less
    portentous, building their nest.

    —Kate Coombs, 2016
    all rights reserved

  2. Conversation with A Ghost

    One fourth of our lives
    together is the new count:
    the time you’ve gone.
    The tick and tock of your flight
    cannot measure my deep grief.

    This measure of grief
    has no meaning under ground.
    Do not weep for me.
    You still walk all our old trails.
    Now blaze new ones for yourself.

    ©2016 Jane Yolen all right reserved

  3. "....a shoot from the stump..."
    Isaiah 11:1

    By the grace of God
    shelter waited in your leaves
    dancing proud and high,
    until your joy was ambushed
    by lightening storm and thunder.

    By the wrath of God,
    unnoticed, unnoticing,
    lying wretched, low.
    You saw me as home, not tree,
    freeing fruit to grow again.

    © 2016 Judith Robinson


  4. Mom says, “it’s okay
    to have brillo pad like hair,
    skin like dark chestnut,
    a nose that spreads out
    like Dad’s loving arms.”

    “If that’s the case,” I
    say, “then why does my class look
    like I’m about to
    contaminate their
    alabaster world?”

    (c) Charles Waters 2017 all rights reserved.