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Headnotes to tanka, haiku, etc

by Suzette Richards

Tanka in Japan sometimes have headnotes as opposed to titles, but it is NOT a sixth line to the poem! Headnotes explain the ‘circumstances of the poem’—the context or setting. Again, though, headnotes are not at all like titles, and one need not be a particularly astute reader of tanka to spot the difference: headnotes are typically factual, locational, or anecdotal, whereas titles are often symbolic or intellectual. The headnotes, if used at all, do not fight with the tanka aesthetic, whereas titles typically do.


As Michael Dylan Welch states in his essay on Graceguts

While focused on tanka, the insights I hope this essay offers apply equally well to haiku.


HEADNOTES are NOT titles and they do not add to the syllable count. They are used with haiku, tanka, and other short form poetry to set the scene—like a signpost. A prime example is Ezra Pound’s In a Station of the Metro, without which the essence of this imaginistic poem would have been lost on the reader. REAMS have been written about the MEANING of some of Basho's haiku. Why? Because they are ambiguous and, therefore, understanding them and translating them is difficult. For example, ‘the crow’ and ‘frog pond’ are only two of such haiku people are having difficulty with coming to a consensus as to what the poet intended to convey. His poetry would certainly have benefitted from the use of headnotes.



Hoeri ‘kwaggo

rises out of the sea –

tablecloth spread


a pallet

on which hope rests –

cold sand clings



  1. Hoeri ‘kwaggo:  Table Mountain, Mountain of the sea in Khoi San.
  2. Table Mountain is renowned for its tablecloth when the strong south-easterly wind blows.
  3. Bloubergstand/Beach: Means blue mountain - hence the place name (and the Atlantic Ocean is very cold all year round).  It is an iconic image of Table Mountain from Bloubergstrand.
  4. The motto of Cape Town, which nestles at the foot of Table Mountain, is Spes Bona (Latin for Good Hope).
  5. Cape of Good Hope is one of the 7 historical names of Cape Town.


Recommended reading:

Why Say More? The Problem of Titling Tanka

‘First published in the Tanka Society of America Newsletter 3:1, March 2002, pages 12–15. While focused on tanka, the insights I hope this essay offers apply equally well to haiku.’