FORM AND FLOW OF R.K.SINGH'S TANKA AND HAIKU IN THE RIVER RETURNS by Dr Asha Viswas
The Art of Tanka Composition
Born in Japan, Tanka is as old as 1300 years. From Japan it traveled to the West and has many lovers in English speaking countries. Tanka is much older than Haiku but younger to Waka. It was first practised in feudal Japan (Heian period) where it was a prerequisite for every courtier to write and appreciate aesthetically beautiful poems. Thus classical tanka reflected the refined tone of Japan’s courts and its courtesans. The traditional classical tanka was used to exchange love notes between the lovers. The courtly lover, after spending a night with his lady love, sent a “thank you” note to her in the form of a tanka. The feeling and experience of the previous night was artistically written on a fan or on a stem of a blossom. A messenger delivered these love messages. While this “go between” waited, a tanka, in reply to the love note received, was composed and sent back. The tanka, sent as a relply, was not easy to be composed but the Japanese courtesans had learnt this art to please their lovers. The messages were written in a language which could be understood and appreciated only by the lover.
These morning love note became so famous that contests were held for reading and writing of the tanka, and Japanese emperors ordered the collection of these short love notes.
This traditional expression of passion has undergone great change in the present times. What has not changed is its number of syllables. In Japan it is still written in 31 syllabic units, 5-7-5-7-7. Tanka written in English does not follow this syllabic pattern and often uses less than 31 syllables. As far as the subject matter of modern tanka, specially the tanka written in English, is concerned, it can now be any human emotion expressed in simple language. Images are used to express human emotion. In his article “ From Haiku to Tanka : Reversing Poetical History” Gerald St. Maur writes :
"In going beyond the experience of the moment, the tanka
takes us from delight to fulfillment, from insight to
comprehension, and psycho-organism to love; in general,
from the spontaneous to the measured. To achieve this
requires a fundamental shift in emphasis : from glimpse
to gaze , from first sight to exploration, … from
awareness to perspective… to compose a tanka is to
articulate reflectively… it takes us from the simple to the
complex. More pointedly, it moves us from the poetry of the
noun to the poetry of the verb; in weaving terms, from the
thread to the tapestry; in botanical terms, from seed to
plant, in chemical terms, from element to compound ; in
painting terms, from sketch to picture; and in musical terms
from chord to melody."1
Tanka, as a lyrical form, uses figurative language and is autobiographical in tone. It creates a balance between the self and the outside world. The outward phenomenon is used as a backdrop to express the inner world. Tanka is not rhymed, its one is elevated and it never becomes vulgar in themes.
Contents and Structure of Haiku
Haiku, in its present form, is only 300 years old but Hokku, the original form, is as old as the Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhism accepts the limitations of language owing to its human origin. Nagarjuna believed that language can refer only to those objects that are mortal. It fails to reach the truth of things. This conviction that metaphysical assertions cannot be made through ordinary language is accepted by Ch‘an Buddhism. It was for this reason that Ch’an tradition invented new ways to use language that could help the seeker in his search for liberation.
One of the Ch’an masters Yun-men wen-yen(862-949) was known for his one word answers to questions. These short answers revealed his spontaneous reactions to questions, rather than well thought out, premeditated answers. In spite of their limitations, words are not completely useless. Language becomes transmuted by the attainment of realization. Dogen calls such enlightened words “dotoku”. Yet another important thing in Ch’an Buddhism was the way they looked at nature. Dogen believed that mountains and rivers are ’sutras’ or texts.2 The entire world is a sacred text and nonsentient objects of nature can act as preachers of these sacred texts. This wordless preaching of nature cannot be heard with one’s ears but with one’s eyes.
Hokku retains both there features – the spirituality and deep understanding of nature. It focuses on the essence of an object or an event in nature without the intrusion of the poet that would distort the reality. The perception in hokku is an intuitive one and not an ‘I’/‘other’, subject/object kind of process. Being rooted in Zen, Hokku is nonintellectual, has no faith in reason and words. It emphasizes all that is natural and concrete, It is also a pure experience of enlightenment (Satori).
From Hokku lto Haiku has been a long journey. The early translators of haiku into English were R.H. Blyth and Harold G. Henderson. Blyth’s four volumes of haiku were published in 1949 and Henderson’s in 1959. Both these translators differ in their views about haiku. While Blyth believed that Zen is at the center of haiku, Henderson stated :
"Primarily, it (haiku) is a poem; and being a poem it
is intended to express and to evoke emotion … it
may be noted in passing that the use of ‘ki’(season)
is probably at the base of a charge that has been
advanced that haiku are more concerned with nature
than with human affairs. Such a statement is ridiculous.
Haiku are more concerned with human emotions than
with human acts, and natural phenomena are used
to reflect human emotions…" 3
While Henderson believes that subjective human emotions are the most important part of a haiku, Blyth rules out subjectivity. In contemporary haiku even technology is accepted as a form of nature. Thus the meaning of nature is completely changed. While Blyth believes in the spiritual effect of nature, Pizzarelli plays with the word ‘nature’ and completely disassociates it from the outward phenomenon :
"To say that nature is all and all is nature,
that the substance of this planet, the universe is of
one nature is also to conclude that nothing is unnatural
Apart from their contradictory views about the content of a haiku, the modern practitioners of this form differ in their use of punctuation also. While some use minimal punctuation, others, imitating Ezra Pound and Company, use no punctuation at all. Thus each practitioner of haiku has become the arbiter of content and structure of his verse. There is no prescriptive critic now who can say this is/not a haiku because it does not use/uses spirituality, has / has not nature, does not use/ uses punctuation.
R. K. Singh’s Sensuous Tanka
In the light of this discussion of traditional and contemporary tanka and haiku, we can study R. K. Singh’s collection of poems The River Returns. The title of the collection is taken from his haiku No. 347 – “Dancing/ a few muddied crocs:/the river returns”. In his preface Singh confesses that he seeks to be “visual or sensuous” and has tried to express :
"natural concrete action or object or
experiences from one’s whole being , and
does not’fake’ poetic feelings or render
fictitious or imaginative experience …
I have tried to evoke the essence of the
moment in its sensory details as selflessly
as possible. Even as I appear to speak
directly, the subjective and the objective
tend to mix up."5
The first section of the collection consists of 144 tanka. This section begins with spring season and ends with summer and dust storms. The poet is left “awaiting the wave/that will wash away empty hours/and endless longing.” With spring comes love. Love (kama) is predominantly associated with the renewal of the world, the spring. The voluptuous spring time brings in the biological rite of the amorous play. Love is presented in its dual aspect – separation and union. The anonymous woman of the first few pages is seen waiting for the love tryst. Each of these early tanka is a visual of her different emotions. Her yearning for the lover is augmented by the song of the Koel (the basic emotion of love is aroused in tanka 1) . The promise of a love tryst makes her face glow with passion. ( The basic emotion changes into passion in tanka 2 ). Tanka 3 presents her as a teasing wanton waxing and waning like the moon ( the pleasure of feeling). From tanka 4 to tanka 10 her loneliness and sadness ( the basic emotion of grief in separation) is depicted. The season of spring is simultaneously a source of misery and delight. Separated from her lover, the woman is presented as a conventional “Virahini” . She is delpressed, she weeps, she is afraid of going to bed alone and wants to die. In tanka 10 her loneliness is presented through an apt visual :
At the river
she folds her arms and legs
resting her head
upon the knees and sits
as an island
This love in separation ends by the 12th tanka. From tanka 15 love in union is presented in all its boldness. Singh revisits his favourite trope.
In tanka 13 we move from separation to union, “after three decades love waves/tense the flesh and rock the night”. Singh surpasses others in the description of fragmented female anatomy. The reader is brought to the key hole to peep at the “erect nipples” (tanka 15 ), “foamy water… sting her vulva/a jelly fish passed/ through the crotch making her shy”, ( tanka 16 ), “nude dance…/ to match upstanding/ nipples under the blouse” ( tanka 18 ).
As in conventional love-in-union, Singh’s woman, too, is bashful :
When I wanted to change
seats my friend said she can
only if the door is locked
the light out and her mom
in another city ( tanka 20 )
She is also presented as a wanton who takes delight in the love play and the
amatory art. In tanka 102 she “loves the etching on skin/to enhance nudity”.
The traditional tanka expressed the emotions of the lovers, specially their grief resulting from their separation, their desire for reunion, sadness caused by old age, unhappy present and absence of the lover. Singh’s collection of tanka too presents this basic contrariety between pleasure and grief. Intense love fills the lover with fear. First, there is fear of rejection:
sun and wind to clear
the baleful fog :
I fear she’ll say no
to my love again ( tanka 72 )
A number of tanka depict night and nightmare. Darkness and light are archetypal symbols and denote the duality of flesh and spirit, female and male, unconscious and conscious, evil and good, tamas and rajas etc. In Singh there is only one tanka ( No. 15 ) which shows the lovers together at night- “You and I alive/in cold winter night feeling/ warmth of your body…” In the rest of these short poems, night is the backdrop of fear, grief, loneliness, physical pain etc. In tanka 39 it is night that turns his dreams “to nightmare/again fear grips my soul/ I sense her presence around”. In tanka 49 the lover’s loneliness during night is vividly described. Thus :
My hand held out
in the dark remained empty:
no one reached it
to give joy of
the meeting hands
In the absence of the loved one, the lover is haunted by her memories. Each object of nature, specially the flowers and their fragrance, brings back her memories. In tanka 69 it is the “little petals to the ground/ echoing our first embrace”. In tanka 138 “ her letter smells/ the lotus she wore each time/meeting in the dark”. The lotus image here is brought from Indian erotics where it was a representative of the force and energy inherent in the waters. Water was also regarded as a female substance and the lotus was associated with similar creative female principle. The lotus image in Singh does not have a tensive quality. It suggests only the erotic and sensuous and hence the smell of lotus causes the separated lover to grieve. Memories of the past (happy days) rise like ghosts and turn the heart into stone :
Ghosts rise to mate
in moonlight tear the tombs
frighten with fingers
rhino horns rock the center
granite sensation ( tanka 39 )
This reminds us of Shelley’s lines :
Forget the dead, the past
Oh yet there are ghosts,
the memories that make
the heart a tomb.
Besides this grief and pain that result from separation, we also find sadness in Singh on account of old age, asthma and insomnia. Tanka 58 shows him as “ an insomniac/ weak with desires” while in No. 89 “wrinkles on the skin” remind him “ of time’s passage”. In No 108 “ asthmatic bouts haunt” him. In 119 he is again “ down with stroke”. Tanka 120 presents him as an old man thinking of death
Aging he thinks of
the ashes and the long trip
ahead in spirit
feels the earth he would
become celebrating life
“Allergic asthma” recurs in No. 134. In No. 142 “dust storm and rain shatter/all hopes hanging by snapped wire”.
Amid this scenario of separation and union of lovers hyphenated by hope for reunion and depression at separation, a few visuals of conjugal love come as a jarring note. The lover, who was heard singing the “body’s song”(54), finds his voice “brown like autumn/crushed in noisesI can’t /understand…” (95 ). There is no love between them and they sleep with their “backs to each other” (87). In spite of being together, there is no understanding between them :
One thousand miles
in tense silence
he and she contemplate
the next round of duel (tanka 111 )
To escape the boredom of these scenes, one can come to such intense sensuous visuals as :
A cloud - eagle
curves to the haze
in the west
skimming the sail
on soundless sea (tanka 45 )
Singh is capable of creating pure poetry where nature is left to itself but observed from a close angle. It is not a glance but a gaze.
R. K. Singh’s Haiku for All seasons
The second section of The River Returns consists of 372 haiku. The collection begins with a dash of bright colours -- hibiscus, oleanders, rose, chrysanthemum, and ends with three visuals of rainbow. Here Singh gives us sequences and each sequence is related to a season. It is reminiscent of Bhojpuri cycles of seasons called “ Barahmasa”, the traditional folk poetry from eastern India that celebrates seasonal changes and diverse moods of nature. In Singh’s haiku too this cycle begins with spring. In the vernal symbol there is a translucence of primary principles. Hibiscus, in the very first haiku, becomes a description of the male element : “ Love tickles/with erect pistil/hibiscus,” while oleander stands for the female element. This vernal union of male and female elements at the natural level reconciles union at human level. This depiction of flora also gives life to an interior landscape – there is a whole gamut of human emotions.
Even the winter season is not presented in its negative shade. We have a crystal pure visual of the snow covered hill :
Veiling her breasts
with the seasons first snows
the hill blushes
Singh tries to strike a balance between the personal and social concerns yet most of the times it is the personal that is privileged over the public. In this section also there is recurrence of old motifs – monotony of married life (49, 180, 181), shadow of old age (61), his loneliness and asthma ( 74, 90, 97, 114, 207, 208, 209). From haiku 150 to 200 there is love play and female body, sometimes covered :
Her shapely figure
in orange blouse and blue jeans
strained at the hips (22 )
and sometimes bare :
sheds its sultry light :
her bare back
In his Preface Singh clearly says that he does not make any difference between haiku and senryu, so we cannot criticize his miniature poems for the absence of the ‘satori’ state of consciousness.
As an old practitioner of haiku, Singh no longer adheres to the 5-7-5 syllabic structure and makes minimal use of punctuation.
All lovers of tanka and haiku would love to read this collection.
1. Maur. Gerald St. “From Haiku to Tanka : Reversing Poetical
History” , (TSA Newsletter, II : I , Spring 2001. )
2. Dogen Zenji, Shobagenzo (The Eye and Treasury of the True Law)
4 Vols. Trans. Kosen Nishiyama (Tokyo: Nakayama Shobo,1986),
Vol. I, p. 105.
3. Henderson, Harold G. An Introduction to Haiku (New York :
Doubleday, 1958), pp. 2, 5.
4. Pizzarelli, Alan. A Haiku Path (New York : Haiku Society of
America, 1994), p. 116.
5. Singh, R.K. The River Returns (Bareilly: Prakash Book Depot, 2006), pp. 1 –2.
--Dr Asha Viswas, (Retd) Professor of English, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi 221005, India
The review essay first published in Indian Book Chronicle, Vol. XXXIV, No.6, June 2009, pp.3-6.
Also it can be viewed on: http://www.poetasdelmundo.com/verNot.asp?IDNews=1887