Listen: Odd Jobs - tanka poet, monk Neal Henry Lawrence writes poetry

On this Odd Jobs segment, MPR’s Tim Kelly interviews Neal Henry Lawrence, an 88-year-old monk from Saint John's Abbey in Collegeville, who's lived in Tokyo for almost four decades, and is a pioneer in the writing of Tanka in English.

For 1300 years, people in Japan have written a style of poetry called Tanka. Tanka are 31-syllable poems. They're older and longer than the better-known haiku.


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NEAL HENRY LAWRENCE: My name is Neal Henry Lawrence. I'm a Catholic priest, but also a monk of Saint John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. I'm now assigned to Saint Anselm's Priory in Tokyo, Japan. I've been there for 37 years. This is my [JAPANESE] in Japanese, which means 88th birthday celebration.

Through crystal windows, beauty of cherry blossoms filled my heart with joy. Yet when my eyes looked beneath, fallen petals saddened me. Tanka is the oldest form of Japanese poetry. It's a 31-syllable poem.

So a short poem, but it's also in five segments. So five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables, seven, seven. That's the basic form since before the written language and since the written language. And it's still today the most popular form in Japan.

Haiku, which most Americans know, is 17 syllables. Japanese find, and I find too, you can put into a tanka very much. Haiku is too short, but the extra syllables make a difference in what you can say.

And of course, in English you can say more in 31 syllables than you can in Japanese. So I find it-- to me, it's a very suitable way of expressing whatever idea I might have or mainly whatever inspiration I have had.


Lily of the Valley, sweet fragrance from Hokkaido evokes memory. Sweet fragrance from Tennessee underneath grandmother's tree.


I think what makes it stand out is that it moves you. It excites you or makes you think. Also, it must sound good. In other words, it must be lyrical. And it must be with words which are easily understood.

But they have sometimes many nuances. And most of the tanka are about things which people are interested in, nature, for example. Japanese are interested in nature.

And it's also about human nature. It's about love and almost anything that you can think of.


From within dark church, I could see the bright sunlight and beckoning trees. Yet I was still held in prayer, caught up in God's sweet presence.



Digitization made possible by the National Historical Publications & Records Commission.

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