Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Leaves of Autumn Past

Today's poem is number 252 from the second book of autumn poems of the Kokin wakashuu.



kiri tachite kari zo nakunaru kataoka no ashita no hara ha momidi shinu ran

yomibito shirazu

Topic unknown

As the mist rolls in/ and the cries of the wild geese/ echo, I wonder/ if the leaves have changed color/ on Kataoka plateau

poet unknown


Today's poem is a bit simpler than most, as there is not any clever word use.  Instead, the beauty of the poem lies with the utamakura "Kataoka no ashita no hara" which refers to an area in Nara prefecture.  It is a lovely area with beautiful mountains covered with trees, and was reminiscent of the previous capital in Nara.  Additionally, it was quite a distance south from Kyoto (the capital at the time).  By wondering about the leaves of the Kataoka plain, the poet actually asking two questions.  First, he or she is wondering how far along autumn has progressed, not an altogether poetic question.  But, second, as autumn and spring both roll north through Japan, he or she is wondering how much farther into the season the area of the old capital was.  One feels as if one is somehow looking back into time and comparing the seasons of the different capitals.  If the leaves of Kyoto were already turns red and gold, how much deeper might be the colors of Nara?  How might the poets of the past felt at seeing those changing colors?

One other interesting aspect of "Kataoka no ashita no hara" is the ashita which can mean either morning or tomorrow.  While ashita is the place name in this case, it's use suggests a temporal leap forward as well, allowing the poet to hint at a third question.  How might the poets of the future feel gazing upon the autumn colors?

Though this poem is not as linguistically complex as some other poems of the Kokin wakashuu, it's temporal and spatial musings give it a unique flavor...


I hope you've enjoyed today's selection!  Hopefully we'll see you soon!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Eternal Leaves of Tokiwa Mountain

Today's poem is number 251 from the Kokin wakashuu.


aki no utaawase shikeru toki yomeru

momidisenu tokiwa no yama ha fuku kaze no woto ni ya aki wo kikiwataru ran

ki no yoshimochi

Composed at an autumn poetry contest

Upon eternal/ Tokiwa Mountain whose leaves'/ colors do not change,/ cannot one still hear the winds/ that tell of autumn's coming?

Ki no Yoshimochi


Tokiwa Mountain is a mountain in Kyoto, once the location of a retreat owned by the court noble Minamoto no Tokiwa (a son of Emperor Saga).  It's name was thus derived from a play on Minamoto no Tokiwa's name, which further inspires the poetic word play in today's poem.  What I've translated as "eternal Tokiwa Mountain" is actually redundant, as Tokiwa would mean eternal.  As such, we see that the poem uses a place name to comment on the coming of spring.  The poet has set the poem on Tokiwa Mountain, and thus assumed that the leaves would not change colors.  Instead, the poet (and the audience) can only mark the coming of autumn by the sound of its winds.

While the images by themselves are may not be particularly engrossing, their application presents an interesting approach to autumn.  A common motif in waka is the changing colors of the season, whether the white clouds of spring blossoms or the golds and reds of autumn's leaves.  By removing the visual impact of autumn, one has a sense of disorientation--as if blindfolded.  Though one can hear the autumn winds and knows from the calendar that autumn has arrived, one's eyes fail to impart such knowledge.


Ki no Yoshimochi, today's poet, is best know for his contribution to the compiling of the Kokin wakshuu, as well as authoring its kanbun preface.  In addition to Ki no Tsurayuki's kana preface, the anthology features a preface written the Japanese version of classical Chinese, which uses no kana (the Japanese alphabet).  The contents of the kanbun are largely the same as that of the kana preface.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Flowers of Autumn Waves

Today, we'll be looking at poem 250 from the second book of the Autumn poems from the Kokin wakashuu.


草もきも色かはれども わたつうみの浪の花にぞ秋なかりける
kusa mo ki mo irokaharedomo watsu umi no nami no hana ni zo aki nakarikeru

Though the colors of/ the grasses and the trees may change/ with the coming season,/ the sea's waves of flowers are/ not visited by autumn.


Like the previous poem, this one was written by Bunya Yasuhide at the poetry meet at Prince Koresada's house.

There are two interlocking images in this poem, that work together to give it an ephemeral and nostalgic feel. The first image is the changing colors of autumn in the trees and the grasses. This is a common image both in Japan and in the West, and one can immediately visualize the myriad colors of fall. At the same time, we are given the image of flowers floating on the waves of the sea--a metaphor for the turbulent ocean waves. Immediately, we see the contrast between the two images: the grasses and trees are not only changing colors, but also at the whim of the seasons--they mirror the temporal nature of human life. Yet, just off the shore, one can see the veritably eternal waves and their unchanging colors--a reminder of the beauty of the warmer seasons (and, one may hope, their eventual return).

While the autumn colors are indeed beautiful, they are melancholy colors--full of memories of the closing year and the passing of what once was. One is struck with the full weight of the meaning of those beautiful colors, the mono no aware (the beauty of transience) of implicit in the golds and reds of fall, while being mocked by the stability and permanence of oceans unwilting, unyielding flowers.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Once more with gusto...

Let's pretend it hasn't been over a year since I've updated this.

It's autumn! Let's have an autumn poem from the Kokin wakashuu...


Poem 249 of the Kokin wakashuu (古今和歌集) from the second book of autumn poems.


Koresadanomiko no ie no utaawase no uta
fukukara ni aki ni kusaki no shihorureba mube yamakaze wo arashi to ifuramu
Bunya no Yasuhide

From the poetry meet at Prince Koresada's house

The moment wind blows/ the autumn grasses and trees/ wither and die, so/ of course bitter winds blowing/ from mountains should be thus named

Bunya Yasuhide


As with much classical Japanese poetry, the poetics of this poem rely on the multiple meanings あらし (嵐・荒らし, arashi)can have. In the first sense, arashi simply refers to heavy winds. However, arashi can also refer to a state of violence or disarray (like what may result from the destructive force of heavy winds). Rendering this English, while maintaining the syllable count, seems nearly impossible. As such, I've chosen "bitter" to function in the place of violence. I've done this for two reasons. First, I wanted to maintain the turn that arashi provides in the original, and "bitter winds" could also be taken by an English speaker to mean either storm winds or the winds of fate, as it were. Second, I wanted to capture the lament that flows through the poem. As many have mentioned before, there is no clear distinction between love and season in waka. Often spring is seen as the beautiful beginning of a relationship, and autumn is thus seen as the inevitable parting and sorrow it entails. With this in mind, we see that the bitter (or violent) winds blowing down from the mountain can be seen as the disarray one may find in one's heart after a particularly painful split. This image is enhanced by mentioning the trees and grasses, which function simultaneously as a potent image of autumn and the lack of joy that seeps into the lovelorn poet's life.


That's it for today! We'll (hopefully) be back soon with more!