From literature to tanka, part 1

ribbons spring summerThe Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Ribbons, the Tanka Society of America Journal, highlights the theme of Novels.

The editor, Michael McLintock, introduces the theme with a memory of being a six year old walking out of the library with a real novel, his first. It was Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron (Little Brown and Company, 1956). He tells of his terror and excitement. I can remember that feeling the first time I was allowed to choose a book that was not in the children’s section. My book was Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, and I took it home feeling very grown up though I was only ten.

We who love reading and poetry have often felt that excitement. It hangs around in our heads for a while, and we don’t want to let it go.

When we write a poem about a novel we’ve read, we get to relive that excitement and let ourselves fall back in time to the books that have changed ou lives or that were exceptionally memorable. It gives us a chance to get inside the book again, and create a new poem from inside the beloved pages.

Literature does many things for us but writing tanka or other literary forms from older literary works gives us a stake in the original story, taking us out of ourselves or deeper into ourselves. Either way, something new is made, and adds to the literature. The challenge is to put a whole novel into five lines.

catcher in the ryegorman tankaLeRoy Gorman has been a longtime supporter of visual poems. As editor of the Haiku Canada Review, he has accepted many such poems, aware of their visual impact and how a visual arrangement can affect the meaning of a poem. Here he arranges the lines into an upside-down A, but the lines step down carefully and deliberately to the possible result of a decision he has to make.

We don’t know whether the student’s work deserved an A, and this hidden aspect heightens the conundrum in this poem. We wonder if he did give her that mark, and the shortening of each line takes our breathing into account as we read it.

Because she loved J. D. Salinger’s fictional rebel in The Catcher in the Rye, possibly because she is one of his few students who actually read the book, Gorman wants to award her, ring the church bells, tell the whole world about it. The student became part of Holden’s life, and LeRoy Gorman celebrates a teenager’s realization of what a good book can do.

war and peace40 years later/ rereading War and Peace ―/ no longer Natasha,/ I’m old Drubetskaya/ fretting about her son

Angela Leuck becomes Tolstoy’s old Princess Drubetskaya fretting, as we all do, about our sons and/or our daughters. Once in a while what we are reading comes so close to personal experience, we stop breathing. At present, reading this poem, I fret about my son far away, and he is forty-eight years old!

Every woman wants to be the gorgeous Natasha. I like that ‘no longer’. She’s been trying to be Natasha in one way or another, perhaps in fantasy. To change, to suddenly prefer being an old poor woman because she knows love in the truest sense surprises the reader. The poem is full of empathy for the long suffering and the powerless. Creating new poetry out of that empathy honours the original work, and gets us thinking more about minor characters in literature and in our own lives.

farewell to arms

the last pages/ of Farewell to Arms/ so unbearably sad/ I play Moonlight Sonata/ again and again

Literature affects. Sometimes it touches so strongly, we have to do something about it. Immediately, right now, before we drown in the feelings the writing has stirred in us.  Luminita plays music, and she writes tanka.  She also has the gift of writing tanka that are concise and precise.

Key words are ‘again and again’, Moonlight Sonata after Moonlight Sonata until the sadness is driven away. Until we come back to earth and see that beauty can help counteract sadness.

Michelle L. Harvey loves the English classics:bronteausten

the old cow pasture/ where it meets the sky/ good enough for Austin and Bronte/ and falling in love

Harvey has entered the lives of the two writers by reminding us of scenes they would have encountered daily. The tanka puts us in a romantic mood, perhaps for some of us, our ancestral roots. It makes us want to go to that pasture and talk with the novelists, ask them how, from such rural settings, they thought to become writers.

I like the line ‘where it meets the sky’. It acts as a symbol of where the writers saw themselves and their writing. They escaped from the cows into worlds of their own making, far away from the everyday. Women of vision. Suddenly we want to go for a long rural walk, watch some cows, see if the cows will inspire us too.

a fine balance

for years I’ve sought/ relief from the seesaw/ of my life…/ today I finished reading/ A Fine Balance

How many of us go through what Dawn Bruce talks about in her first three lines. She’s just finished that novel and perhaps looks up, looks around her and realizes how fortunate she is. A Fine Balance is overwhelming; the lives of its characters are so difficult and they survive on so little.

Characters in the novel are caught up in the middle of great political and economic difficulties, and as always, it is the ‘little man’, the ordinary citizen who suffers the most.  In this novel, dignity is a silent character, its personal defining, its loss, its murder.  Dawn Bruce’s fine poem turns on the fourth line. The first three lines are a simple commonplace remark. The last two hint at awakening.

Dawn Bruce says a great deal in these eighteen words. We look around us stunned after finishing such a novel. How good our life is.  How small our see-saw of troubles in comparison.

The use of the word see-saw is perfect. We’ve been moved by a novel, or come face to face with some other desperate truth, and it’s human nature to look for a way to not let it interfere with what we have. We go out of our way to avoid the homeless, grump because they park themselves outside our favourite Starbucks and we don’t like feeling our uneasy feelings as we exit with our lattes. Some publications of this novel show an image of a balancing act on the cover, but we are the ones balancing.

Poetry as a state of grace, as Susan Stewart says. In writing the tanka above, poets have caused books and literary characters to come to life, to be organically connected with our own lives.

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