Margaret Bradstock reviews “Eucalypt: A Tanka Journal”


Eucalypt: A Tanka journal, Issue 3, 2007
Beverley George (Ed.)

PO Box 37 Pearl Beach 2256
ISSN 1833-8186
RRP: $30 for two issues p.a





I was impressed by the inaugural issue of Eucalypt, appearing in 2006 and positively reviewed by Jan Dean in Five Bells (vol.14, no.2, p.38). Eucalypt, the first literary journal in Australia dedicated to tanka, published bi-annually, has gone from strength to strength.According to Amelia Fielden:

Tanka, meaning ‘short song’, is the modern name for waka, ‘Japanese song’, the traditional form of lyric poetry which has been composed in Japan for over thirteen hundred years. It is an unrhymed verse form of thirty-one syllables or sound-units. There are no poetic stress accents in Japanese, so traditional poetry is given rhythm by writing to a pattern of 5/7/5/7/7 sound-unit phrases, with varying breath pauses being made when read aloud. (On This Same Star, 5)

Waka remained virtually unchanged from its inception during the Heian period through to the end of the nineteenth century, by which time it had fallen subject to stereotypical imagery and a lack of originality. Beverley George tells us:

In the late nineteenth century, several distinguished poets questioned the lack of originality and adherence to outmoded diction in the waka that were being written. To indicate their desire for reform, they renamed it tanka meaning short song or poem. The broader interpretation encouraged adoption of this genre by an expanded audience outside Japan. (10)

Tanka, then, is modern and modernised waka. Makoto Ueda’s introduction to Modern Japanese Tanka provides valuable insights into tanka reform in the twentieth century.

In English, the requisite format is more flexible still, as Fielden’s preface to her own recent collection makes clear:

In English, tanka are conventionally written in five lines to parallel the short/ long/ short/ long/ long components of Japanese tanka. Few contemporary non-Japanese tankaists adhere strictly to the original thirty-one syllable count, however. It is now generally agreed that English lyrics of around twenty-one syllables in a 3/5/3/5/5, or looser, pattern most closely echo the essential concision and lightness of Japanese tanka. This has been called the ’21 +/- theory’; it is a theory which I endorse, and my poems can usually be counted out in twenty to twenty-six syllables. More important than a specific number of syllables is the internal rhythm of tanka, the impact they make on the ears as well as the mind. And in content, contemporary tanka are unrestricted…. multiple poems – any number between two and a hundred or more – on a similar or related theme, can be grouped under a common title. This is then designated a ‘tanka sequence’. (5)

In order to contain the poetic moment within a set number of syllables, Japanese tanka rely greatly on the power of suggestion. Fielden apprises us that “a certain haziness is an intrinsic, indeed admired, characteristic of the form.”( On This Same Star, 11). The same distillation is apparent in contemporary tanka, which may sometimes seem, as a consequence, fragmentary or ambiguous. However, what is unsaid carries as much weight as the words that appear on the page. Individual tanka are not given titles, and must therefore convey meaning(s) as effectively as possible through an evocative situation.

Issue 3 of Eucalypt is arranged thematically, with topics ranging from the spiritual through family, health, celebrations of life, love and betrayal, to mention just a few. Some ‘sections’ (which segue into each other) are uniformly sad, others joyous or humorous.

The keynote poem sets the tone, matching inner and outer landscapes:

a photo
ghost gums near Kata-juta
the dry heart
too full of memories
to go back alone

    Michael Thorley (Australia)


Barbara Fisher’s delightful closing piece, reminiscent of W.H Auden’s “Thank You, Fog” (written on an afternoon too foggy to take a walk), is rife with innuendo:

lying in bed
this rainy morning
I’m glad
a walk is utterly
out of the question

    Barbara Fisher (Australia)


To my mind the wittiest of these poems, playing with the spirit of tanka without overturning it, is the following:

thirty years later
the pale blue petals
pressed in my journal
what was that flower
– and who was that man

    Margaret Chula (USA)


Likewise, a note of humour creeps into a christening ceremony:

water phobia –
the preacher pushes
her head under
bubbles floating upwards
she’s saved but terrified

    Barbara A. Taylor (Australia)


Other tanka that struck a chord, situation evoking memory and emotion, are:

Christmas time
I remember the little
ice skaters
on a mirror pond –
arranged mother’s way

    an’ya (USA)


another summer gone
not knowing
if I should eat
or store away
the sunflower seeds

    Stanford M. Forrester (USA)


how small
I really am
here between
potato field
and the wide sky

    Mariko Kitakubo (Japan)


spiral overhead
in tandem
on an updraft of our own
we brush outstretched wings

    Rodney Williams (Australia)


a distant roar
of lions from the plains
father’s steady voice
telling childhood stories
by the fire’s warmth

    Maria Steyn (South Africa)


As may be noted, submissions have been accepted on an international basis, and each reflects the writer’s own country. In the January 2008 issue of Stylus Poetry [], Janice Bostok, a pioneer of haiku and tanka in Australia, has said: “The poets of each country, while embracing Japanese forms, need to internalise their cultural origins and hope that they will become distinctive of their own country,” and this is the hallmark of tanka published in Eucalypt. Many of them exploit their own idiom, picking up on colloquial expressions, and all celebrate their native imagery and seasons. Perhaps that’s why my eye has fallen upon so many from Australia.

In an earlier article, “Tanka: ‘the myriad leaves of words’” (11), Beverley George elaborates further:

A convincing argument for the adoption of tanka into foreign utterances lies in this form’s versatility. A tanka poem can capture the essence of human emotion and it can also be demonstratively used as a form of diary writing to chart the more pedestrian aspects of our lives, as well significant events. (p.11)

In Eucalypt # 3, George is to be congratulated on another fine and representative selection.




Amelia Fielden, Foreword to Still Swimming, ACT: Ginninderra Press, 2005:.5.

Beverley George, “Tanka: ‘the myriad leaves of words’ ”, Five Bells, vol.13, no.1 (2006): 10.

Introduction to On This Same Star by Mariko Kitakubo (transl. Amelia Fielden), Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten, 2006: 11.

Modern Japanese Tanka: An Anthology, edited and translated by Makoto Ueda. NY: Columbia UP