Thursday, March 08, 2012

Down to Earth with Tanka, a guest blog by Elizabeth Bodien

Here’s what concerns me.

I worry that our cellphones and other grand inventions have contributed to our losing our connection to earth. When we call each other now, we have to ask, “Where are you?” Unlike the landline tied to a specific locale, the cellphone travels with a person. This could be anywhere. Cellphone conversations float in a communication haze somewhere just above earth. The buzz is bumped from tower to tower to cellphone users in perpetual motion.

I must be old-fashioned. If I call an 800 number, which could also be based anywhere, I want to ask the person where he or she is, to get some idea of where on earth this human being I am talking with is located. What is the distance between us? What time is it there? What is the weather like? Usually I can ask about those but if I ask about anything more, it begins to sound strange, perhaps too personal, less efficient. And then one can worry, if so inclined, about whether someone is actually listening in or recording -- that ubiquitous threat of “quality control.”

We are physical creatures who have created a non-physical environment. The gadgets are wonderful. And the technology wow continues to lure us. But we give up something with each of these so-called advances.

Think of the difference in speed between modes of travel-- walking, bicycling, driving, flying. If one walks from place to place, one feels what one passes. One feels the distance, too. Bicycling is faster but the engagement with the environment is diminished. Each increase in speed means a greater buffer from sensing what is around us.

I remember many years ago when I lived in Oregon, a cousin in California decided to visit, making the trip by bicycle. When he arrived after pedaling for hundreds of miles, he offered numerous observations of my own region – complete news to me, accustomed as I was to driving all but the closest distances.

The advantage of flying is even more speed. Most people wouldn’t want to walk, say, from New York City to Los Angeles. Of course, the only option our prehistoric ancestors had was walking. Now, we don’t even need to travel physically but can travel virtually by means of these communication devices.

The tradeoff is that we lose our connection to nature. Nature becomes something to transcend, to get over, get beyond, even to control -- leading to a kind of human arrogance. I remember seeing an advertisement (for what I cannot recall) after the devastation of the Katrina hurricane. It said: “Human nature is stronger than Mother Nature.” The development of civilization meant the increasing control over the environment. Also the increasing destruction of the environment. When Mother Nature’s ways are horrific, of course we want to control the environment. But the whole notion of dominion over the earth has gotten not just us but a whole bunch of other creatures into big trouble. Think of the BP-Deepwater Horizon oil gushing in the Gulf of Mexico.

So what are we to do? Is there some way to balance this unearthly digital direction that most of us are travelling quite happily? Some way to re-connect with nature?

I propose tanka. It is only a small corrective, but I believe it can lead in a better direction.

Some people reading this will know that tanka are five-line lyrical poems that come from the Japanese. Older than haiku, they share some characteristics of haiku, such as an observation of nature. Unlike haiku, tanka also can include an additional comment, some observation on the observation.

at my window
diminishing light
as on any day
I fend off the thought
of my own fading

(Published in red lights June 2011)

A tanka (same word for plural) allows, as haiku do not, for some direct expression of human emotion or thought. There are a number of journals, in print and online, that publish tanka:

Tanka, at least those written in English, follow a loose form of short line--long line--short line--long line--long line. In some, the third line serves as something of a pivot or turn between the first two lines and the last two lines, as if two haiku, upper and lower, shared the middle line. (This has its historical basis in Japan where people wrote back and forth to each other linking their poems.)

after many gray days
at last brilliant sunshine
warm on the skin
just as plants do
I lean toward the light

(published in Magnapoets January 2012)

Writing tanka encourages attentiveness to nature, like fly fishing. Someone who fly fishes observes what insects are hatching, how they behave over the surface of water, and what the fish are rising to eat. One has to watch the water, watch the insects, watch the fish in order to mimic with an artificial fly what is going on naturally. If you are going to catch a fish by fly fishing, you pay attention to nature. If you are going to compose tanka, you pay attention to nature.

I travel alone
this yellow autumn day
my eyes alive
without conversation
I can hear the wind shifting

(Published in American Tanka December 2010)

Not all tanka are written about the other-than-human natural world, but that is a starting point for the genre. And tanka, unlike haiku, allows for simile and metaphor.

he pulled and pulled
his heavy line from the sea
surprised to find
the weight of history
and himself tangled in it

(Published in GUSTS #14 Fall/Winter 2011)

There is plenty of instruction available on how to write tanka, for example:

If a person is accustomed to writing haiku, tanka will feel very roomy. But if tanka still feel too constraining, if there is more to be said than can fit in five lines, there are also tanka sequences, series of three, five, or more tanka in a series, and tanka prose which combines prose and tanka. Here are three tanka which begin a five-tanka sequence:

fairy-tale trees
in dry, dusty light
knot themselves
as if searching for water
years before we arrive

here to visit
student friends
from a lifetime ago
have we changed?
have we stayed the same?

our first dinner out
in a historical building
with false facades
like an old cowboy movie
we all swagger in

(Part of “Texas Reunion” a tanka sequence published in red lights January 2012)

If one wants to find other tanka writers, there are tanka groups one can join, such as the Tanka Society of America

Of course, reading or writing tanka is enjoyment in itself. One might write a tanka a day, as one might write in a diary or journal. Writing tanka need not be pursued solely for the sake of reconnecting to earth or some other goal. But if one writes tanka regularly, one’s awareness of the natural environment, of the physical world we all live in, can be enhanced. It might just result in a more humble living within the environment—this wonderful world we share with so many other creatures (the ones without the cellphones).

clouds line up
in rows across the sky
like questions
are there any answers
or only endless gray?

(Published in bottle rockets Vol. 13 No. 2)

Happy International Women’s Day to all!
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Elizabeth Bodien lives near Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania. She taught anthropology at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, PA until 2007. Many years ago she lived in Japan, teaching there and learning Japanese calligraphy. Her tanka have appeared in Modern English Tanka, Eucalypt, Ribbons, Atlas Poetica, and other forms of poetry in The Litchfield Review, The Fourth River, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Mad Poets Review, US 1 Worksheets, and Cimarron Review, among other publications. Her chapbooks include Plumb Lines, (Plan B Press 2008), Rough Terrain: Notes of an Undutiful Daughter (FootHills Publishing 2010), and the recently published Endpapers (Finishing Line Press 2011).

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