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Responding to the growing popularity of Japanese poetry overseas, Tokyo publishing company Hoshi to Mori Co. is sponsoring an international poetry contest featuring tanka, a traditional form of verse dating back to the seventh century.

Poems for the First International Tanka Contest can be in either Japanese or English and must be written on the theme of cherry blossoms, said contest organizer and judge Mutsuo Shukuya. In addition, all entries must adhere to the classic tanka structure of five unrhymed lines, with five syllables each in the first and third lines and seven syllables in each of the remaining lines, he said. Prizes of 500,000 yen will be awarded to the writers of the top Japanese and English tanka.

James Kirkup, a famous British poet and novelist who will judge the English part of the competition, said correct form is as vital in English as it is in Japanese tanka. “The traditional tanka form has endured for many centuries and is still robust, so I do not see why we should now interfere with such a historic lineage,” he said. “It is a test of language as well as poetic ability and sensibility to compose a successful traditional tanka in English,” said the poet, who has published several collections of his own English tanka and haiku.

Kirkup does not agree with those who say tanka in the classic style cannot be composed in English. “Syllables are syllables, whatever language they are written in,” he said. “Japanese syllables are no different from those of English or any other tongue.”

Poets of all levels of experience are encouraged to enter the contest, and Kirkup recommends reference works such as the The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics to the tanka novice. “Being short and concise, (tanka) is good for beginners in the art of poetry. They discover its illimitable possibilities in the unusual syllabic — and deceptively simple — form,” said Kirkup.

Kirkup, who lives in Andorra, will come to Tokyo next May for the announcement of the contest results. To enter, send one tanka written in block letters on a postcard to: the Office of the First International Tanka Contest, 5-15-11 Matsugaoka, Funabashi, Chiba. The deadline for submissions is Dec. 15.


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