Attentive readers of Haibun Today, noting recent references to tanka prose, may well ask, “What is tanka prose? Does it differ from haibun?” The short answer is relatively simple. Tanka prose is the marriage of prose and tanka. This distinguishes our subject from haibun, the marriage of prose and haiku.
Isn’t that a rather superficial distinction that serves only to multiply categories arbitrarily? Both combine prose with verse. Why not simply call both haibun?
Dante Alighieri’s La Vita Nuova (1295 M.E.) employs such poetic forms as the canzone and sonnet in its prose commentary. One model for Dante’s Italian achievement was that of the Consolatio Philosophiae of Boethius (524 M.E.), a meditative Latin prose tract that is illustrated by various classical meters like the elegiac couplet or the Catullan hendecasyllable. Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla (1230 M.E.) is only one of many Old Norse-Icelandic sagas that join alliterative meters, such as drôttkvætt, to prose narrative. While these compositions all wed prose to differing verse forms, I doubt that the average reader of Haibun Today would seriously advance such famous works of world literature as examples of haibun.
The anonymous Tales of Ise compiles many discrete prose episodes, each accompanied by one or more tanka, while Ki no Tsurayuki’s Tosa Diary is a travelogue in diary form with many tanka. Both of these works date from the 10th century in Japan. Such writings qualify as early masterpieces of tanka prose. But if Tales of Ise incorporates tanka while haibun incorporates haiku—tanka and haiku being closely related Japanese verse forms—again, someone will ask, why not simply name both haibun?
First, Matsuo Bashō is the earliest poet to place haiku in a prose composition, thereby inventing haibun. Bashō lived in the 17th century—seven centuries after the masterpieces of tanka prose that we mention above and many centuries after the various European prose and verse works that we cite. For the poets who wrote Tales of Ise and Tosa Diary, the terms haiku and haibun quite simply did not exist.
Second, if we compare prose writings that include many tanka as against prose writings that include other types of verse, we discover that the presence of a specific verse form is not without influence on its immediate prose environment. Compare Bashō’s Knapsack Notebook to Dante’s La Vita Nuova. Bashō’s haiku and Dante’s canzoni will not sanction similar prose styles. Now compare the prose in Knapsack Notebook to that of the Diary of Izumi Shikibu (circa 1003 M.E.); the contrast in gender and social milieu answers for some of the difference between these two poets, yes, but the nearly 150 tanka in the court lady’s diary suffuse the whole with a very elegant, urbane and intelligent lyricism that lies quite outside of the rusticity and self-denial, whether real or feigned, of Bashō’s haikai.
Why is Haibun Today then engaged in publishing and otherwise promoting the genre of tanka prose? What right does tanka prose have to a place in a journal that is devoted to haibun?
I started publishing tanka prose in Haibun Today in late 2007. I’d recently published an essay on the subject in Modern English Tanka and had been writing tanka prose myself for some months prior. I began a private correspondence with a handful of other poets who shared my interest and we worked quietly together. No journal regularly published tanka prose at that time, so Haibun Today established itself as “tanka prose central”—by default. Since then, and partly as a result of the same small group of poets directing their submissions to other venues, Modern English Tanka, Contemporary Haibun Online, Lynx and Atlas Poetica now also publish tanka prose regularly.
The curious reader may well inquire, “Does tanka prose offer something haibun cannot? And, for that matter, does tanka prose promise something that tanka alone does not?”
For reasons not entirely clear to me, tanka more easily adhere to other tanka than one haiku to another; tanka more readily join together in sequences or sets than do haiku. Compare the classical norms for tanka and haiku—31 and 17 syllables respectively—and one sees that a tanka is roughly double the length of haiku. Tanka is at once more expansive and more lyrical. This is not to say that one form is superior necessarily but to recognize that tanka and haiku have differing properties.
Modern haibun in which numerous haiku occur uninterrupted by prose are quite rare. Even examples where two or three haiku follow in succession are infrequent. Jim Norton offered a haibun with haiku sequence entitled “Sandscript” in Pilgrim Foxes (2001). Ken Jones did something similar in “Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made Of” in The Parsley Bed (2006). Ruth Franke, as translated from the German by David Cobb, recently wrote the same in “Summit Ice.” Even in the classical haibun of Matsuo Bashō, haiku in sequence are found only in Kashima Journal and Sarashina Journal. The reader will often sense in these works that the haiku are fused together by an act of the poet’s will, that the haibun on close examination demonstrates the poet’s ingenuity and constitutes a tour de force.
What of tanka prose then? Because tanka do combine readily, because tanka are more expansive (and dramatically more so in sequence), the prose component can better sustain an elevated or poetic diction in response to the verse’s call. This kind of heightened prose must be very abbreviated in haibun, for the bare haiku will not support such tension for long. So this is one quality that tanka prose offers that haibun cannot.
Because tanka do join together so successfully, in the classical and medieval periods, the Japanese court established the series of 100 tanka as a kind of standard and one that poets often achieved alone or in collaboration. Modern tanka sequences of commensurable length are not unheard of. Since this is so, what can prose – or, more pointedly, tanka prose—offer that tanka alone cannot? One striking property of tanka prose is the counterpoint of the two modes, verse and prose. Another noteworthy property is the qualitative difference in the transition from prose to tanka (or vice versa) as against the transition from tanka to tanka within a tanka set.
Since tanka prose straddles two literary disciplines, that of haibun and tanka, does it lay a special claim upon the allegiance of both haibuneers and tanka poets?
I believe it does. Specifically, writers of haibun can learn a great deal by reading tanka prose and comparing its best examples to the best haibun. The number and placement of tanka in relation to the prose is critical in the composition of tanka prose, a matter that forces itself upon the practitioner rather early on. Haibun, I am sorry to say, is far too often written by communal habit to the proven formula of one brief paragraph, one haiku, fini. Because this is so, haibuneers rarely examine the possibilities of varying the placement or number of the haiku.
But what claim does tanka prose have upon the practicing tanka poet? I’ve mentioned already what it offers, from the standpoint of form, that tanka alone does not. It broadens the formal possibilities of the tanka genre, in brief. Beyond that opportunity, however, tanka prose promises to reclaim tanka’s venerable past, for tanka came to maturity with its prose accompaniment, whether in the form of a memoir or a romance, a poem-tale or a military chronicle.
And what of haibun then? If tanka prose is all that I say, what will become of haibun? Haibun and tanka prose share a common identity as Japanese hybrids that wed prose and verse. Their respective preferences for haiku and tanka lend not only the relevant verse’s name to the hybrid form but some quality or spirit of that verse as well. I once spoke of haibun as “terra incognita—vast and only marginally explored.” I might apply the same description to tanka prose. Both forms are relatively new in English practice—less than 50 years old! Each form has strengths; each has limitations. I’m confident that both will be here for a rather long stay, indeed.
by Jeffrey Woodward