Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The new sakura

Poem 49 from the Kokin wakashuu:


hito no ihe ni uwetarikeru sakura no, hana saki hajimetarikeru wo miyomeru
kotoshi yori haru shiri somuru sakurabana chiru to ifu koto ha narahazaranamu
Ki no Tsurayuki

Composed upon viewing the first blossoming of flowers of newly planted cherry trees at someone's residence.
Sakura flowers / bloom, first knowing spring this year, / and how I truly / wish for them not to learn of / the scattering yet to come
Ki no Tsurayuki


Another poem by Ki no Tsurayuki! You're probably starting to wonder why, but, to be perfectly honest, I randomly happened upon this poem and found it quite beautiful. So its authorship is entirely coincidental and won't be the topic of today's post.

Instead, I'd like to talk about the personification of the sakura blossoms. The reason I found this poem so beautiful centers around the poet's wishes for the blossoms and the way that the flowers are personified. In and of itself, it's a pretty metaphor: the poet, knowing that these are the first blossoms of new planted trees, wish that they would never fall and scatter with the wind, despite the inevitability. This sentiment vividly reflects the philosophy of pre-modern, Buddhist Japan. Ukiyo (浮世) literally means floating world and, in pre-Edo times, refers to the transience of everything. So, while the poet is alluding to the transience of life, he is also directly treating the subject at hand. The wish for a beautiful moment to last forever in stasis is hardly a rhetorical conceit specific to Japan, but it is a very important characteric of Japanese poetry.

There is another dimension to the poem that is relevant to its author as well. I promised not to talk about Ki no Tsurayuki, but his authorship adds a significant meaning to the poem in terms of intertextuality. Ki no Tsurayuki is also the author of the Tosa nikki (Tosa Diary), which chronicles his journey with his family and retainers from a post in the provinces back to the capital. Of specific interest to this poem is his daughters death before their departure. Though the diary was written from the perspective a maid in his household, it was clearly written by him. The work includes a large number of poems as well a prose description. It also specifically discusses Tsurayuki and his wife's sadness at the loss of their daughter. While it may be a stretch, the personification of the first sakura flowers for newly planted trees can be seen as veiled reference to his daughters young death. Just as he wishes for the beautiful cherry blossoms to last longer, he wishes that his daughter had lived to maturity. And just as the cherry flowers must, inevitably fall and scatter with the wind, he was powerless to stop his daughters passing.

Even as the poem captures the joy of new flowers and their first beautiful blossoming, it is imbued with a serious gravity that cannot be ignored. Japanese poetry, especially waka, often carries such a heaviness that is in line with the contemporary Japanese world view. Every beautiful spring eventually becomes winter, but every winter eventually melts and spring begins anew.


Thanks for reading! I'll be back Friday with another poem from the Kokin wakashuu.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The warm winds of spring...

Today we'll be continuing in the First Book of Spring Poems from the Kokin wakashuu, with poem number two. (Last Friday was the first poem, in case you've forgotten.)

haru tachikeru hi yomeru
sode hichite musubishi mizu no kohoreru wo haru tatu kefu no kaze ya tokuram
Ki no Tsurayuki

Written on "spring coming"
My sleeves are soaked, but / all the promised water I've / scooped up is frozen / I wonder... will the spring winds / come to thaw the ice today
Ki no Tsurayuki


If you'll remember my first post, you might recognize the poets name--Ki no Tsurayuki. He (and three other men) were commissioned by the emperor to compile the Kokin wakashuu (which translates to An Anthology of Poems Old and New). Before discussing today's poem, I'd like to take some time to talk about one of the things that make the Kokin wakashuu so amazing. The first is how the poems are arranged. Each book of poetry has been compiled in such a way that reading the poems in succession reveals an underlying story. (As we can see even between the first and second poems of the collection: the first wonders if spring has really come and the second wonders if--as the calendar claims it has--its warm winds will thaw the ice.) What makes this characteristic even more amazing is that the poems were collected from the works of over a hundred poets, some of those poems being hundreds of years old. That the editors were able to blend together and create a unified yet diverse poetic voice with such a wide variety of poets is simply (in my mind at least) a staggering feat.

As I've already mentioned, Ki no Tsurayuki was responsible not only for compiling the anthology (and contributing some beautiful poems as well), he also wrote the Kanajo (Kana Preface) that so thoroughly defined Japanese poetic sensibilities for hundreds of years. As Earl Miner, Hiroko Odagiri, and Rober Morrell wrote in The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature:
The conception underlying the collection no doubt reflected then existing ideas about
poetry. But it realized them so well and so influentially that to some degree all Japanese
poetry before 1868 is conceivable only on its terms.
While I personally feel that this may be an exaggeration, I do agree that the influence of the Kokin wakashuu can be seen all the way up to the Meiji Restoration...if not beyond.

Let's turn to today's poem, and discuss a wonderful peculiarity of the Japanese language--homonyms. Many words in Japanese are pronounced the same, but have disparate meanings. Today's poem gives us a slightly difficult example. むすぶ (musubu, in the poem in the conjunctive ren'youkei form to connect to the past tense shi [which is a conjugation of ki]) can mean "to scoop up" (like water in a ladle) as well as "to promise". I've rendered both possible meanings in my translation for two reasons. The first is the lack of a properly poetic word in English that would fit in its place. The second is to hint at hidden meaning in the poem. As with any poetry, what a poet says (or writes) and what a poet means are not always the same. In this case, we have a fairly straightforward poem about the coming of spring and the lingering cold of winter. At the same time, there's a fragrance of love that hangs about in the air. By referring the water as being "promised", could Ki no Tsurayuki be thinking of a distant lover? Perhaps one who once wept so much her sleeves were drenched with tears (a common poetic image in Heian literature and waka)? A lover who now treats him coldly, freezing even as he's reaching to scoop her up? And, just as he hopes the warm spring winds will thaw the frozen waters, does he not hope that the joy of the coming year may also thaw her coldness towards him?

While it's not explicitly in the poem, this sort of double meaning and word play abound in Japanese poetry, especially Heian period waka, and it's hardly a rare occurance to find a love poem wrapped in a seasonal poem. In fact, one of the characteristics of the "storytelling" found in the editors' compilation of the Kokin wakashuu is the that the seasonal books often mirror the ideal love affair with it's joyous beginning, hotly passionate middle, and slowly cooling end.


I hope you've enjoyed today's poem and the commentary. I realize that there's quite a bit being thrown out there, especially if one is new to Japanese literature, so if anyone has any questions, please feel free to post them in the comment section. I'll be sure to check them regularly and attempt to respond to whatever you may have to say!

Preston From

Friday, April 24, 2009

The snow still falls...

Today, we'll be looking at a "simple", as the editors refer to it, poem.

dai shirazu
haru gasumi tateru ya itzuko mi-Yoshino no Yoshino no yama ni yuki ha furi-tsutsu
yomihito shirazu

Topic unknown
Where could it be that / the spring mists are rolling in? / On Mount Yoshino, / in beautiful Yoshino, / winter snows, alas, still fall
poet unknown


This is an extremely simple example of waka. There's only one possible kakekotoba (or pivot word)--between いづこ and みよしの (where and beautiful Yoshino, an area in Western Japan--more on this later)--こみ (komi) can mean "to fill up", as in mist filling a valley. However, that's the limit of linguistic play in this poem. For this poem, the beauty is not in it's structure, but in it's utamakura--its pillow words. I am referring, in specific, to Yoshino.

In his book Utamakura, Allusion, and Intertextuality in Traditional Japanese Poetry, Edward Kamens describes utamakura as words that act as "pillows" (makura) for poems (uta). He cites Keichu in the preface of his book as presenting the idea that writing poetry is like dreaming, and utamakura (like a real pillow) provides a place for the poem (or dream) to develop. In the poem we're looking at today, Yoshino is an utamakura--in specific, it is a meisho (a famous place). The point of Yoshino as an utamakura in this poem is to provide a place for the poem to develop. By place, I do not mean a literal place. While the poem is set in Yoshino, it's entirely likely that it was actually written in some other place, like the capital. Yoshino was (and still is) known for it's beautiful cherry blossoms and, as such, is often associated with spring (when the cherry trees bloom and the entire country side turns pink-white). As the contemporary editors of the collection point out, the poem can be read as wondering what it's like at Yoshino mountain when the calendar says that spring has come, but the snow still fall. So, Yoshino is less a literal setting, and more a metaphor for spring.

By setting the poem in Yoshino, the poem in imbued with all the poetic associations that come with Yoshino. We immediately think of green mountains covered in snow, impatiently waiting for the first thaw and the spring mists. At the same time, it has a sense of longing. Yoshino is a way off from the capital and, as such, could be taken as a place of distant desire. By setting the poem in Yoshino, the poet imagines the longing for spring felt in a distant place, far from the world he or she knew and experienced on a daily basis (if the poet is actually from the capital).


Thanks for reading today! Look for another poem on Monday!

Preston From

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Welcome to Yorozu no Koto no Ha!

Welcome to Yorozu no Koto no Ha! I hope you'll enjoy this journey through classical Japanese poetry as much as I will!

Now, first off, let's just get the name out of the way. It's long and probably a bit cumbersome for any non-Japanese speaker. It literally means 10,000 words and that's all I'm going to say for now. This title will make more sense later on, I promise!

Second, you're probably wondering what my mission statement is. Well, I don't have one. But I can tell you what my intentions are here in my own little hole on the Internet. I love waka...and I'd like to share my love of this magnificent poetic form with you! I know, how lucky you must be. I'm also trying to spend time each day working on my classical Japanese skills, so I think a blog would be an excellent way to both document and share my work. And I encourage comments! (Even the not so nice ones...though I probably will ignore them if they're not helpful.)

So, what's going to happen on a weekly basis? Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday I'm going to check to check out a waka collection fro my local library and translate a few poems for our enjoyment. I'll try to include commentary and some context with each post, to enhance the reading experience. I'll also include the original, so if you want to play along, you'll need Japanese fonts installed on your computer. (And if you really want to play along, I can tell you that I'll be using compilations mostly from the Shinpen Nihon koten bungaku zenshuu.) My plan right now is to use poems the first eight Imperial anthologies, but I do expect to branch out to personal collections and other works that include waka that may not be poetry collections. Also, as time allows, I'll occasionally be adding posts of my own poetic criticism. However these posts will have less to do with specific poems and more to do with the application of post-modern philosophy to the reading and understanding of waka as a whole. Don't worry, these posts probably won't be popping up for a while, and if post-modernism isn't your thing, please feel free to ignore them. (Or berate on them, if you hate post-modernism that much. Though I have to admit, I'll probably ignore those comments. :) Sorry!)

Also, since I'm not terribly interested in using special characters, I'll be using extra u's or o's to indicated long vowels. If that means nothing to you, you can safely ignore it. :)

Now, let's make some sense of the name of this blog. 万の言の葉 (yorozu no koto no ha) is taken from the Kana preface of the 古今和歌集 (Kokin wakashuu), which was written by Ki no Tsurayuki, one of it's esteemed compilers. The Kana preface (which was written with the native Japanese writing system called kana) is one of the first poetic criticism written in Japanese (as opposed to Chinese, which was the common method of writing for men at the time). Personally, I find the opening sentence to be one of the most beautiful and succient commentaries on poetry ever written. I would have liked to title this blog as something along the lines of Seeds in the Heart, but the mere thought of even mildly annoying Donald Keene makes me twitch, so I decided to be a little creative.

So, for the first day, I'm not actually going to translate any poetry... Instead I'll be translating the first paragraph of the Kana preface (or 仮名序). It provided the beginning for the start of a grand tradition that still lives today, as well as influencing poets for hundreds of years.


やまとうたは、人の心を種として、万の言の葉とぞなれなれりける。世の中にある人、ことわざ繁きものなれば、心に思ふことを、見るもの聞くものにつけて、言い出せるなり。花に鳴く鶯、水に住む蛙の声を聞けば、生きとし生けるもの、いづれか歌をよまざりける。力をも入れずして天地を動かし、目に見えぬ鬼神をもあはれと思はせ、男女のなかをも和 げ、猛き武士の心をも慰むるは歌なり。

Yamato uta, from its seeds in the human heart, flows out as ten thousands leaves of words. As the people in this world are overcome with innumerable experiences, what they feel in their hearts, they express through what they've seen and heard. And once you hear the cry of the bush warbler in the flowers and the voice of the frog in the water, what living creature does not sing a song? That which moves the heavens and the earthwithout effort, evokes the deep passions of unseen demons and spirits, eases the affairs of men and women, and calms the tempestuous hearts of warriors is poetry.


For this translation, you'll notice that I've left Yamato uta untranslated. Literally, it means Japanese poetry--Yamato is another name for Japan and uta can mean anything from song to poem, though in this case it means poetry. However, as I feel that what Ki no Tsurayuki has written about Japanese poetry is equally relevant to all poetry, I chose to leave it open to the readers interpretation. This may cause some initial confusion, but I think it helps personalize the work.

Also, you'll notice that I've translated yorozu no koto no ha as ten thousand leaves of words. I'd like to point out a different translation by Helen McCollough as "myriads of words as leaves", which you can find here. I point this out to emphasize the incredibly fluid nature of the Japanese language--particularly classical Japanese. The Kana Preface has been translated innumberable times, and I'm sure each translation says something different. As such, I would not dare to presume that mine is the best--or even 100% right. But I hope that bringing myself to the text will allow for a greater understanding of the text.


Well, that's all for now. But I'll be back on Friday! This time with some actual poetry from the first book of Spring Poems.