Essay Non-Fiction posted June 15, 2011

This work has reached the exceptional level
how to write a tanka

Bruce-San Is In Love

by AlvinTEthington

Oh, that last Kumamoto oyster was delicious! No quail egg, no sea urchin...None of this Americanized-put-as-many-flavors-as-you-can-in-a-dish for me.

"Hey, Alvin-san!"

I knew my bliss was too good to be true.

"Hello, Bruce. What brings you to this VERY TRADITIONAL sushi bar?"

"Alv, old buddy, old pal, you gotta help me."

No one calls me Alv. No one who wants to live.

"Hey, are these oysters?" Bruce plops one in his mouth. "They're great! I'll have another! Where's the sea urchin and the quail egg?"

He plops another in his mouth. There goes sixteen dollars.

"Be careful, Bruce. Those are aphrodisiacs."

"Afro what?"

"They get your libido going."

"Oh, you mean they make you horny? You aren't lookin' funny at me, are you? I know you're a little light in the slippers..."

Bruce, if you were the LAST person on earth...

"What can I help you with, Bruce?" I curse my mother for teaching me to be polite.

"You know, I'm in love with Hiromi."

"She's an anime character!"

"Yeah, right, well, I wanna write her a love poem. I was thinking about a haiku. I tried one, but she didn't like it too much."

Did they put MSG in these oysters? I have a headache.

"Well, what was your poem, Bruce?" I know I'll regret this.

"I thought it was real good."

"The poem, Bruce, the poem."

"OK, here goes. Roses are red, Violets are Blue, I love you."

I swallow very hard. "What, uh, did Hiromi say?"

"She called me a gaijin."

Do I tell him?

"What does that mean?"

"It's a derogatory term for a foreigner in Japanese."

"Oh, wow, see why I need your help, Alv?"

So help me...

"Look, it's about nature and it's three lines. It's eleven syllables. Did you not tell me that Higginson wrote that the approximate English equivalent for a traditional haiku is about twelve? Should I add another syllable?"

No, you should burn it. Higginson? Bruce actually listens to me?

"No, why is syllabic count so important to you?"

"Isn't that what haiku is all about?"

"No, Bruce. Your poem isn't a haiku. It rhymes, it's mundane, it introduces the author's emotions. Let me get back to eating what oysters you left me."

"Come on, Alv, you gotta help me."

This headache is going to last for days.

"All right, a tanka would be better."

"What's a tanka?"

"It's a five line poem in which the middle line serves as a pivot making a haiku-like poem with the top two lines and another poem with the last two lines. Often the last lines serve as commentary on the first three."

"Oh, that's great. So we can just lengthen my haiku?"

"It's not a haiku, Bruce."

"Can't I love you be a pivot?"

"No, Bruce, let's try to get an image here. What do you think of when you think of Hiromi?"

"Her breasts."

I do have my work cut out for me.

"What, um, do they remind you of?" I know I am going to regret this.

"Champagne glasses!"


"No, the smaller ones that are supposedly fashioned in praise of Marie Antoinette's breasts."

"Where did you read that?"

"It was on this nifty website that has information on all kinds of things. It's where I learned to write a haiku."

"All websites are not created equal, Bruce. You need to take my Shorter Poetic Forms course in October on FanStory. There are seven seats left. We talk about haiku there."

"I'm not a member!"

"If you sign up and pay for a course, you get two months' free membership."

"I'll think about it. Now what about my tanka?"

"What image do you want to use for the pivot?"

"How about champagne bubbles?"

"That's a little ordinary, Bruce. Shall we just leave it at Champagne?"

"OK, you're the writer."

"Thank you. Now when you think of Champagne, er, bubbles, what do you think of?"

"Snorkeling. Hey, maybe I should go snorkeling with Hiromi."

Yes, you should. Maybe she can drown you while she's at it.

"Ok, where do you go snorkeling?"

"I once did at the Great Barrier Reef."

He does get around.

"OK, how about this? coral/barrier reef/champagne?"

"Isn't that a little short?"

"Brevity is important, Bruce."

"How will she make the connection?"

"She's Japanese; she's used to a haiku technique called leap linkage. I teach it next month in my advanced haiku course."

"Sounds heavy. I guess that class is not for me, but for people who have some background in haiku. They should enjoy it. So didn't you say something about breathing once?"

"Yes, a tanka should be short/long/short/long/long as tested by breathing. Does this work short/long/short for breathing?"

"Yeah, it does. Do you think Hiromi will like it?"

I don't know what an anime character will like. She's dating Bruce! There's no accounting for taste in affairs of the heart.

"She'll love it, Bruce."

"Ok, what about the last two lines? Didn't you say a tanka could have exquisite detail once?"

I can't believe he actually listens to me.

"Yes, Bruce, but do you think you are capable of it?"

"Well, give me an example."

"by the old levee
summer's caressing breezes
off the mudriver
whisper so lachrymosely
southern painful centuries

"Wow, that's heavy--what does lachrymosely mean?"


"Why didn't you just say that?"

"It wouldn't have been as exquisite; not as clear and precise. That's what exquisite detail is about--clarity and precision. It also involves complex imagery."

"I think that's a little much for me. She would know I didn't write it."

You AREN'T writing it, Bruce.

"Now about those last two lines, Alv..."

I give up.

"Do you have a memory of when you and Hiromi shared champagne?"

"Yeah, it was the Tawaraya Inn in Kyoto. That place is, like, three hundred years old..."

That's about how old I feel now.

"OK, how about the last two lines as I remember/ the Tawaraya Inn? So the whole poem is

barrier reef
I remember
the Tawaraya Inn

Do you like that?"

"It's awfully simplistic..."

If the slipper fits, Bruce...

"Yes, but it flows. Just like my poem about New Orleans."

"You mean the one you just quoted. It doesn't have a pivot!"

"Yes, I know. It's postmodern. The current scholarly definition of a tanka is five phrases on five lines. That's it."

"What about syllable count? Doesn't that poem have a 5/7/5/7/7 syllabic count?"

"Yes, but that isn't necessary. Remember, short/long/short/long/long as tested by breathing."

"So why did you teach me the pivot if you don't use it?"

"Because you have to learn the rules before you can break them. Are we finished here?"

I would like to eat my oysters before they go bad.

"So the poem is

barrier reef
I remember
the Tawaraya Inn

Do I capitalize anything?"

"Yes, Bruce, Champagne is specific to a region in France, so capitalize it. The Tawaraya Inn is a specific place, so capitalize it."

"I have another question."

I am glad my spiritual director told me to work on patience. On second thought, I'm not.

"Go ahead."

"Your poem uses personification and mine doesn't."

"Yes, personification is allowed in tanka, unlike haiku."

"You think Hiromi will like it?"

"She'll love it."

"OK, I'm outta here."

He plops my last two oysters in his mouth.

"Now don't get any ideas, Alv...."

If only he knew...

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