Friday, May 8, 2009

Misty snow fall...

Today we'll be starting in the Shinkokin wakashuu (新古今和歌集), the eighth of the imperial anthologies of the Heian period. It, along with the Kokin wakashuu and the Man'you wakashuu, is considered one of the three most important waka anthologies compiled. However, before we get into the anthology, let's look at one of it's poems.

Poem 1 from the First Book of Spring Poems.


haru tatsu kokoro wo yomihaberikeru
miYoshino ha yama mo kasumite shirayuki no furinishi sato ni haru ha kinikeri
Setsujou Dajoudaijin

Composed on the "heart" of the coming of spring
In Yoshino and / in the mountains, too, the mist / rolls in; white snow fall / still covers the old village / at long last, spring has arrived
Setsujou Dajoudaijin


Let's start by discussing the poem. If you remember the first poem I posted, you probably noticed the surprising similarity the poems have. This is due in part to the "motto" of the Shinkokin wakashuu--"kotoba furuku, kokoro atarashi" which translates most simply as "old words, new heart". This was the compilers' way of maintaining the classical waka tradition while simultaneously allowing room for new personal and artistic expression. It is important to note that, as the eighth imperial anthology, the Shinkokin wakashuu compilation was officially completed in 1205, about 300 years after the Kokin wakashuu and about 400 years after the Man'youshuu, the oldest extent collection of Japanese poetry. I mention these dates to give you a sense of the length of the tradition the compilers were drawing from and carrying on with their completion of the Shinkokin wakashuu.

Of additional significance is, once again, intertexuality. Like the Kokin wakashuu, the arrangement of the poems tells a contiguous story, moving through the seasons and onto a variety of topics ranging from departing to love. Additionally, as each poem is so brief, the poets had to rely on allusions to enhance their poems beyond simple sentences. Each poem is imbued with the weight of all the poems it directly and indirectly references. So, while the words are old (i.e. the allusions, vocabulary, and grammar all hearken back to poems from the last four hundred years), they can express a new feeling. If a poet is feeling sad, for example, at the departure of a loved one, he or she can use place names that invoke similar feelings, kakekotoba (or pivot words--homonyms that can have multiple grammatical functions as well as definitions) that allow for closer connections between clauses (as well as more meaning per syllable), and allusions to other poems that may be expressing similar sentiments. For a modern (or postmodern) reader, this can result in a particularly challenging read--contemporary audiences were expected to memorize and be fluent in the poems and language of their tradition. Thankfully most modern editions have editors who will point out poems of significant allusory importance!

Please look over the first posted poem if you need a bit of a refresher on the significance of Yoshino (as well an idea of what the "original" poem was).

For today's poem, I'd like to first point out the differences between the Kokin wakashuu poem and the Shinkokin wakashuu poem. In the Kokin wakashuu poem, spring has officially arrived (according to the calendar), but the snow is still falling (leading the poet to wonder where the mists could be rolling in). In the Shinkokin wakashuu poem, the mist has rolled in--despite the snow cover still laying over the village. While both poems exist in very nearly the same temporal space (the beginning of spring), they express distinctly different sentiments--the first the longing for spring to arrive and the second a quiet thankfulness and amusement at its arrival.

Additionally, this poem features a kakekotoba. Furinishi (in between the fourth line) has two meanings. The first (and most obvious grammatically) is "has fallen", as in the rain or snow has fallen. Furi is the ren'youkei of furu and has ni (the ren'youkei of nu, a past tense suffix) attached, which in turn has shi (the rentaikei, or adjectival/nomintive form of ki, which is an additional past tense suffix) attached. You may be wondering why there are multiple past tense suffixes attached to one verb. While one suffix indicates past-tense-ness, the other indicates super-past-tense-ness, if you will. One is a past tense suffix, the other is the completed-past-tense-suffix. If this sounds confusing, please ignore it and move on. While it is these kinds of nuances that make waka be waka, I do not think that it is necessary to understanding the translation.

The other meaning of the previously discussed verb is a bit more complicated. Furusato is literally old village. You'll notice the lack of a "furusato" in the original. This is not a mistake. Instead, the poet knew that his audiences would immediately pick up on the intended meaning, so it was not necessary to use an exact homonym.

For the waka poets of old (and, indeed, even of today) the beauty of the poems lied not only in the images and emotions expressed, but also in the way they are expressed and how the poet "plays" with the language.


I hope you've enjoyed today's poem and discussion! If you have any questions or comments, please post them in the comment section below!

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