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

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