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.

1 comment:

  1. Er, this poem doesn't work as a reference to his daughter: Tosa was written a couple decades after work on the Kokinshuu was long since completed.

    (Hi -- I'm a random voice from the future who's been translating his way through the KKS over on my Dreamwidth journal, and found yours while googling for more information about 251.)