First published in the Tanka Society of America Newsletter 3:4, Winter 2002, pages 7. Also available on the Tanka Society of America website.
I’ve noticed that tanka often exhibit a measure of introspectiveness. The use of subjectivity has been identified as a common characteristic of some tanka that distinguishes it from haiku, which is primarily objective. But introspectiveness is a “type” of subjectivity that does not necessarily resort to overt metaphor, simile, or other rhetorical devices. Instead, the best introspective tanka employ a subtlety that avoids triteness and sentimentality. I believe one of the hallmarks of tanka—which still needs to be differentiated from haiku—is indeed this sense of refined introspectiveness, a sort of gentle self-awareness that the poet presents of this or her own emotional situation. Here’s an example by Zane Parks (from American Tanka #1, Fall 1996):
This credit card
already at its limit
this frosty morning
to scrape my windshield
The poet describes an objective scene with tactile immediacy. We hear the scrape of the windshield, see the white trails of frost curl from the credit card. The credit card may be at its limit financially, but not physically, and now it is gaining even further use as a makeshift ice scraper. The introspectiveness comes from the poet’s awareness that he shouldn’t be maxing out his credit car, just as he would be better off using a proper ice scraper. Not only is he misusing the credit card to scrape the windshield, it seems he is also misusing it financially. The poet is aware of this double misuse and becomes aware of it through this understatedly presented introspective moment.