100-Tanaka-art - 10/13/11
"A Gathering of Flowers - 100 Tanka by Lady Ingeborg bildsbriótr Ulfsdottir.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
I saw it afar
tender fruit hanging from boughs
and clumsily rushed
to grab and eat, but I wept
after I had tasted the fruit.
I thought it would be simple to write poetry in the Japanese idiom, but when I saw and learned about the great among the poems, my heart wrung its hands in despair. Luckily for me, in the Kokinshū at least, mediocre poetry was used to set off good poetry.
A Gathering of Flowers
100 Tanka by Ingeborg bildsbriótr Ulfsdottir
Area of Origin: Japan
Period of Origin: The poems I have looked at for examples range from the seventh to mid-fourteenth centuries, though I have focused on the last half of the eighth century.
My aim was to create a collection of original poems, as much in the Japanese style as possible. I chose one hundred, as that is the traditional number for personal collections. Some of my poetry isn’t very good, but in at least the Kokin Wakashū (Kokinshū), the first imperial anthology (compiled 905 A.D.) inferior poetry is included to set off superior poetry.
I wrote on such traditional court poetry subjects as ephemerality, the seasons, the lonely lady (a lady wishing for her suitor), the traveler, the travel-pillow, the Weaver-Maid and Ox-Driver, the moon, orange and cherry and damson flower blossoms, the wood thrush, returning geese, a lost capital, pillowing arms, melancholy, misfortune, grief, love, best wishes, death, parting, tears, waiting, home, autumn leaves, snow, dew, and maidenflowers.
While the simpler English grammar robs me of some of the tools used by the Japanese authors [see pages 8-10 of Japanese Court Poetry by Brower and Miner (JCP) for a discussion of particles, verb inflections, and fluidity of syntax in Japanese], I used a number of the remaining options.
All poems are set in the tanka format of five syllables, seven, five, seven, and seven, though, as allowed by Japanese court convention, some lines are hypersyllabic.
I used techniques common to Japanese court poetry like: elegant or feigned confusion (“resembles,” “one wonders if,” “one mistakes,” or straight one thing for the other);
novel verbs (a verb you wouldn’t expect with that noun); reasoning technique (“this therefore that,”);
honkadori (aka “allusive variation,” “an echoing of an older poem or poems, not just to borrow material or phrasing, but to raise the atmosphere—something of the situation, the tone, and the meaning—of the original.” JCP p.14);
linking human concerns to the natural world;
kakekotoba (aka “pivot-word” “using a particular series of sounds in two overlapping syntactical and semantic patterns” JCP p.13);
makurakotoba (aka “pillow word” “typically a five-syllable formulaic expression, often of unknown meaning, which precedes a specific noun or set of nouns” Brocade by Night (BbN) p.82, “a stylized semi-imagistic epithet, normally of five syllables, used to modify certain fixed words” JCP p.12);
jo (aka “preface,” “usually precedes the basic ‘statement’ of the poem... of unspecified length and is joined to the statement by various techniques of juncture—by word play, by similarity of sound, or by an implied metaphorical relationship.” JCP p.14);
engo (“use of a word that has or creates an ‘association’ with a preceding word or situation, often bringing out additional dimension of meaning” JCP p.14).
Play with sound patterns, sometimes including alliteration and rhyme, was also used.
As was the tradition in Japan in the eighth century (as well as many times and places In Period) I have borrowed very freely from extant poems. I have, however, documented whenever anything so much as directly inspired my poem.
A few of my poems were written with a Christian bent. I believe this angle gives the American reader the familiarity felt by a Japanese reader for a poem that is Shintoist or Buddhist. In other poems I have used themes from Shintoism or Buddhism.
In a few poems such as “Endymion,” I have used images from Greek mythology, as our cultural equivalent of Japanese and Chinese legends, though I did included some images Chinese mythology, such as the Weaver-Maid.
I have based my categories (and indeed the majority of my poems) on the Kokin Wakashū (aka the Kokinshū), Collection of Early and Modern Japanese Poetry, compiled about 905 and mostly written between then and the last half of the eighth century. Since it has 1,111 poems and mine has the personal-collection number of a mere 100, it might have made more sense to use the categories of a personal collection. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find this information in English.
The Kokinshū is broken down into 19 books, of nine Chinese-inspired categories:
Public Seasonal(books 1-6), Felicitations(7), Parting(8), Travel(9), [Names of Things(10)]
Private Love(11-15), Laments(16), Miscellaneous(17-18), [Eccentric Poems (most of 19)]
[Names of Things and Eccentric are in brackets because they were for poems that, “failed to meet the aesthetic standards applied elsewhere in the anthology” (BbN p.425).]
As I did not write poems of Names of Things, I have replaced this category with another traditional Chinese poetic category: Expressing Feelings. I put it in the second set even though this unbalances the numbers of segments per set to better follow the sequence of most to least public poems.
As in the Kokinshū I have sub-categorized Seasonal into seasons in chronological order beginning with early spring. The Love category is also ordered according to the Kokinshū fashion: pre-love (one sided), increasing to mutual love, decreasing to after love.
An interesting facet of the Kokinshū is that the compilers put the tanka in sequences, so the books read almost but not quite like a single poem of many verses. The compilers had the advantage of having a huge corpus from which to choose poems in order to make this work. As I wanted to make my poems on varied topics I wrote them and ordered afterword, so I had varying degrees of success in making sequences. A few poems, such as the “falling snowflakes” quartet, I did write to go together. It was a strange experience writing closely related poems; it’s not something I’d done before.
A Gathering of Flower
Expressing Feelings 7
Eccentric Poems 4
The faint breath of spring
wakes me from winter drowsing
wakes the trees to bud
wakes frozen streams to gurgle;
it wakes all the world anew.
Nature imagery is common to Japanese poetry.
The last line is also meant to allude to how God will “create all the world anew.” In this sense, “the faint breath of spring” is also the Holy Spirit, (which is often associated with “breath” imagery.)
The look of bright wind
and feel of yellow flowers
the scent of clear skies
and sound of does leaping
delight the senses no end.
I can’t remember the word for it, but in the first line I switch the expected sense for another (as in Dante’s “every light was mute.”).
The intimacy implied by being close enough to hear the does leap gives the whole poem a feel of closeness to nature.
This blue butterfly,
drawn by the vibrant color
of my brocade sleeve,
can find no nectar therein.
Seek elsewhere, you silly thing!
The bug is blue in wing color, and blue as in sad, because it can find no nectar.
Inspired by a poem by an anonymous author in the Kokinshū (BbN p.431):
My sleeve is fragrant
just because I plucked a spray.
Does the warbler think,
“I have found a plum in bloom,”
that he comes here with his song?
Warm, gentle, caring,
is it the touch of my lover
or a spring zephyr
caressing me so softly
in the gathering twilight?
Questioning for reality. Enhanced by Greek “Zephyr” myth, in which the woman confuses the name for breeze for the name of a lover.
The gracious moon reclines
upon the mountain’s high rim.
Does she eat dainty foods
and sip at delicate wines,
watching for cherry blossoms?
Here I compare the moon to a picnic-er at a traditional cherry blossom viewing party. Since cherry blossoms are often compared to clouds for the way they bloom whitely and all at once, I am suggesting that the moon watches clouds the way a sakura-party-goer watches flowers.
The moon on the mountain’s rim is a tradition.
Spring is a maiden
a-weeping cherry blossoms
and sobbing bird-song.
Is it right that her despair
brings us mortals such joy?
A pretty conceit as I ween-a. The idea for this came from a poem by Ōtomo Kuronushi, in which he wonders “if spring rain might be tears, shed by someone regretting the cherry blossoms” (BbN p.369).
There is no moon!
Haze behind, drizzle still ahead!
Now is the season
of the pelican rising
from cloudbank into open sky.
“There is no moon” and two exclamation points reference the poem by Ariwara Narihira (825-80) (NP trans. p.660):
“There is no moon!
Nor is this spring the spring that was
In those days bygone!
I myself being the sole one
Remaining the thing it was...”
The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (NP) says (p.660) that this poem was considered too well known to be used for allusion, but since most of my readers will be unfamiliar with Japanese poetry, I think it’s fine. Narihira’s poem is about change and constancy, as is mine.
According to the NP (p.658), “haze represents the spring; the moon is an autumn moon unless qualified; drizzle... belongs to both autumn and winter.” Therefore my first lines can be read: “It isn’t autumn! / Spring behind, winter still ahead!” Thus its placement in Summer.
“The pelican rising” can mean rising in the sky, rising above the competition, and rising in triumph.
I used “still” instead of “yet” so as to also invoke the “non-moving” meaning of the word. The drizzle is unmoving ahead; the season of the pelican is an eternal “now.” It also harmonizes back to the “remaining” of Narihira’s poem.
“From cloudbank into open sky” references the NP translation (p.660) of a poem by Teika (1162-1241):
“The brief spring night,
Its floating bridge of dreams
Breaks all apart
And from the peak there takes its leave
A cloudbank into open sky.”
But the pelican rises from cloudbank into open sky; from obscurity to celebrity, from confusion to certainty, from uncertainty to triumph.
“Open sky” also, in the Budhist tradition of Japanese court poetry, represents “the ‘Void,’ or ‘Emptiness’...to which we awaken only when enlightenment ends the illusory dream of the phenomenal world.” (ItJCP p.114) The enlightened Pelican is not a seeker after the praise of the world, though (s)he rises to it. The tension and harmony of celebrity while letting go of earthly things brings to mind holy hermits, and many Pelicans are solitary workers.
The moon is “a traditional religious emblem” (ItJCP p.133) , and though it wasn’t originally intended on my part, “There is no moon!” might be a nod (protest?) to how the SCA has cut out much of the religion from our version of the Middle Ages. Or the interpretation could be an Ayn Rand-ish: the pelican rising without the moon is the triumph of the naked human spirit. My guess is that this latter would be shocking, as Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry (ItJCP), Japanese Court Poetry (JCP), and Brocade by Night (BbN) mention poetry with religious flavor but no poetry with an atheistic feel. But in later Japanese poetry they sometimes went for somewhat shocking when they departed from the mid-classical period’s “old words, new heart” prescribed by Fujiwara Shunzei (1114-1204) (ItJCP p.109). For instance, here is a formal poem by Emperor Hanazono (1297-1348) which includes dogs, shacks, and little elegance of imagery (ItJCP p.126):
“No trace remains
Among all the crumbling hovels
Of their bamboo fences,
And only a dog breaks the silence,
Barking from the hindmost shack.”
Warm summer sunshine
yellow and black bees drowsing
white blossoms nodding.
With such a sleepy setting,
‘twould be rude not to indulge.
If even the anthropomorphosized flowers are sleeping...
busy lazily buzzing.
Ants march to and fro and to.
Squirrels scold in trees.
Am I the only creature
with nothing to do today?
The questioning, and comparing/relating oneself to nature, are very Japanese.
While busy and lazy are often seen as antonyms, here busy means thoroughly occupied, and the tension adds some interest. The extension of “to and fro” with “and to” emphasizes the never-ending busy-ness of the ants. The alliteration of s in the fourth line is meant to be a hissing sound. Don’t squirrels hiss?
The tone is meant to be mock-astonished, bored, and lonely.
Sun beats eternal
cicadas buzz endlessly.
Stifling scent of flowers
on the flaccid, humid air.
Where are the cool nights of spring?
This poem turns on its head the traditional admiration of sun and the scent of flowers. It has the Japanese questioning.
Ssscicadass buzzz endlessssly.
Stream a rivulet
that whispers of past glory;
grasses rustle brown.
Even the birds do not sing.
Please, turn your bright eye away.
With its title, my poem alludes to one by Takechi Furuhito, “Grieving Over the Ruins at Ōmi”:
I am not one
Who lived through its glorious past,
Yet here at Sasanami,
As I look upon the ruined site,
The lost capital claims my grief.
“Your bright eye” is bright because it is new and unruined, or because it is bright with tears. You must turn it away because the lost capital is ashamed to no longer be glorious.
There is a sub-theme of drought (diminished stream, brown grass), in which case the “bright eye” is that of the burning sun.
Why do geese fly north?
Summer sun is on their wings.
Has no one told them
that by anticipating
they may bring winter early?
This poem cautions against precipitous action.
The second line is taken from the poem “Something Told the Wild Geese” by Rachel Field.
This poem is inspired by one by Ōe no Chisato (BbN p.378):
Why has the cuckoo
ceased to raise his voice in song?
Fresh blossoms remain
on the flowering orange tree
he has chosen as his home.
I am the sole thing
remaining as it once was,
for all else is changed:
plum blossoms, the spring, the year.
Why have my leaves not changed color?
Allusive variation on a poem by Ariwa Narihira (825-80)(ItJCP p.87):
This is not that moon
And it cannot be this is the spring
Such as the spring I knew;
I am myself the single thing
Remaining as it ever was.
These poems speak of nature’s cycles and how a man feels detached from them, although (from his Budhist faith) he knows this is an illusion, and he is a part of nature. My poem adds the question, why does it not seem that he is?
In the long headnote to his poem, Narihira speaks of plum blossoms. This vivid image of spring contrasts nicely with the autumnal image of colored leaves. I chose an autumn icon of change to imply impatience: here it is spring again already, and he doesn’t seem to have even hit autumn yet, himself.
According to the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, this poem of Narihira’s was considered too famous to be used for allusion, but I like it.
What features of fall
Make us fall to contemplating
on this life and its sorrows
Autumn is often associated with sorrow and ephemerality in Japanese court poetry.
Plagued by vague sorrows,
looking at an autumn moon
I wonder at fate.
Did Endymion awake
and weep for his long lost dreams?
Endymion is a figure from Greek mythology (either a shepherd or a prince) who was beloved by the moon goddess, Selene. She begged Zeus to grant Endymion immortality that they might be together always, and Zeus responded by putting the youth into eternal sleep. Each night, Selene kisses her beloved with her beams. In one version of the story Endymion chooses the eternal sleep; in another he is not consulted, it is merely his fate. My poem references both versions of the story: if he weeps, is it for his now-unrealizable aspirations to live his life as a shepherd or king, or is it because he and Selene will now eventually lose each other? In other words, does he weep because he slept, or because he woke? If the former, they are “long-lost dreams,” if the latter, they are “long, lost dreams” of her.
It is an autumn moon, because autumn is a time of endings, and contemplation.
I’m fond of the internal rhyme in plague-vague.
The first two lines are inspired by a poem by Ōe no Chisato (BbN p.378):
Autumn does not come
to me alone among men—
yet I am burdened
with a thousand vague sorrows
when I gaze upon the moon.
a millennium older.
Looking around him,
wept for his changed city
and his unchanging moon.
Does he weep because his city changed, or because he missed the changing? Does he weep because he lost perfection in the unchanging moon, or because she never can change?
As the days grow short,
early shadows seem to lengthen
shadows seem to reach,
enveloping earth and sky,
even to my mirrored face.
Inspired by a poem by Ki no Tsurayuki (BbN p.442):
My heart fills with gloom
as I watch the year depart,
for shadows descend
even on the face I see
reflected in the mirror.
Shadows on my face
before age can put them there.
Shadows on the ground
before early fall of night.
Shadows in the sky draw close.
Close: near, shut.
A brocade by night
is only half as lovely
in the paling light
of the distant, jealous moon
as in the friendly sunlight.
The moon is jealous of autumn leaves.
Joy is more conducive to beauty than jealousy.
Things should be looked at in the proper environment.
My purse is empty
today at Offertory.
Perhaps God will accept
the golden leaves I gathered
from the ground on my way here?
As I have no gold to offer, perhaps God will accept these autumn leaves? Or perhaps the golden leaves represent prayers, hopes, good thoughts... You give what you have, give what you bring. There is humor at first that the speaker would offer God something He just gave the speaker, until you consider that by Christian tenant, even money we’ve earned is a gift from God. That the speaker appreciated the leaves enough to gather them makes the speaker giving them to be giving appreciation of God’s Creation to Him.
Adapted and Christianized from a poem by Sosei (Yoshimine Harutoshi)(BbN p.375):
I have journeyed here
without bringing strips of cloth.
Let the gods decide
whether to accept brocades
of red leaves on Offering Hill.
Deep in shaded glades
Do they fret themselves
at being hidden away
by jealousy of autumn mists?
Maidenflowers, along with their being hidden by jealous autumn mists, is a conventional theme in Japanese court poetry (BbN p.394-5).
Autumn mists conceal
rich brocade of red and gold
created by turning leaves.
For whose eyes is it intended,
and why is it not for mine?
This is meant to be an allusive variation on a poem by Ki no Tomonori (BbN p.400):
For what person’s eyes
might it intend the brocade—
the autumnal mist
rising to conceal from us
the slopes of the Sao hills?
For solace I gaze
at many-hued autumn leaves,
recalling their show.
If beauty is remembered,
then can it be truly gone?
Allusive variation on a poem by an anonymous author from the Kokinshū:
O gale from the hills,
do not blow them all away—
those many-hued leaves
at which I gaze for solace,
recalling their autumn show.
Leaves fall is ending;
soon bright winter comes skirling,
her skirts swirling
brown leaves and white snow whirling
as she’s laughingly twirling.
“Fall” in the first line is a kakekotoba, or “pivot-word.” Separated, it would read, “Leaves fall; fall is ending.”
Rhyme is not a major technique in Japanese court poetry, but I have noticed it in a few poems, and the same authors used it when they wrote poems in Chinese, so it was known to them as a technique.
The kakekotoba slows the reader, while the following rhyming (and feminine endings to the lines) speeds, or whirls, the reader along, emphasizing the difference between slow, dying autumn, and screeching, spinning, laughing winter.
We saw it briefly
when the new snow was falling,
but now it’s hidden
and unseen at the bottom
first snow melts in darkness.
Those who come first, and form a foundation for the achievements of others, are many times forgotten.
The idea of snow melting unseen at the bottom came from a poem by Mibu no Tadamine (BbN p.391):
For me these are days
when I seem likely to die
of a secret love,
as banked white snow from dark skies
melts, unseen, at the bottom..
When like falling snows
his white hair drifts away from him
and his body stumbles
will I have defiant strength
to bear his aging body up?
This one is autobiographical, as my husband is thirty-five years older than me. I am determined that the answer is “yes,” but it is one of those worries that come on the blackest nights. This poem is inspired by one by Ōe no Chisato (BbN p.379):
With the falling snows,
old age, too, has descended
upon my body,
but my heart—ah, that remains
Howling, roaring, moaning,
it sulks round the countryside.
Why the complaints, wind?
We would all come play with you
if only you were less bitter.
The speaker teases the personified wind. Bitter: we would play if you were less grumpy / we would play if you were less cold.
Inspired by a poem by Sosei (Yoshimine Harutoshi) about a singing warbler (BbN p.373-4):
Whom would he reproach
With his incessant crying?
Are not the blossoms
Scattered by his own wing breeze
as he flits from bough to bough?
Waterfalls of tears
cannot wash away the pain.
Blinding, dizzying snow
cannot obscure emptiness.
What use, then, all this water?
The traditional nature-man connection is made in an unconventional way—nature exists for convenience. That sentiment isn’t terribly Japanese, though the self-pitying speaker is.
As early spring growth
is killed by late winter frosts,
your feelings for me
should be cut off at the start
for you mistake winter’s end.
The first two lines are a jo.
In the last line, she might be saying, “I’m still angry with you,” or she could be saying, “I’m still in mourning.”
That she’s angry, and the feelings she rebuffs are amorous, is supported by “should be cut off.”
The falling snowflakes
must be melting as they strike;
from shining brilliance
becoming wet spots on the ground.
Even so is a man’s life.
I borrowed the first two lines from an anonymous poem of the Kokinshū:
The falling snowflakes
must be melting as they strike:
the sound grows louder
from the boisterous waters
flowing in the mountain stream.
Thus is a man’s life:
powerless and transient
as falling snowflakes
that are melting as they strike,
soaking traceless into earth.
I like the internal contrast of “powerless strikes.”
The falling snowflakes
must be melting as they strike;
watering parched ground
as their frozen form would not.
Sometimes, change brings life, not death.
The falling snowflakes
must be melting as they strike,
for the rivers rush
and the cold lakes are swelling.
Can you feel spring on its way?
Though they melt in hand,
my heart goes running after
of the pure, six-petaled snow.
How I wish I might keep them!
Though I’ve changed the blossoms into a metaphor for snow, this poem is an allusive variation on one by Ōshikōchi Mitsune (BbN p.401):
They are not such things
as a man’s hand can detain—
and yet absurdly
my heart goes running after
every scattering blossom.
These pure snow petals
are raining down from Heaven.
Might they be a gift
from a celestial garden
containing a cherry tree?
Questioning. Elegant confusion of cherry blossoms for snow.
The lifespan of a crane
may we bask in your glory.
May we share your light
as the stars reflect the moon
for all eternity’s span.
The crane was a symbol of longevity.
for a thousand thousand years
may you live and reign,
imparting to your subjects
the light of your fair wisdom.
Fair: just and lovely.
Until mountains break down,
becoming mossy boulders,
until boulders break down,
becoming well-worn pebbles,
may our gracious lord live on.
Until round pebbles
grow into mossy boulders
and return again,
may our loving lord live on,
cradling his subjects.
The first two lines are from an anonymous poem (BbN p.444):
May our lord endure
for a thousand, eight thousand
may he live until pebbles
grow into mossy boulders.
Do the jealous mountains
hide away the moon so soon?
We exchanged greetings
and paused to talk a moment
such a short while ago, friend.
Two friends have stayed late, talking. Since it seems to have been only a short time, the speaker suggests the apparent passage of time is due to the jealousy of the mountains for the moon.
A similar poem by Ōshikōchi Mitsune (BbN p.406):
Day has dawned, it seems,
before we have had our fill
of intimate talk.
What can have become of it—
the autumn night they call long?
We must part, old friend
and the mountains grow between us.
What right has distance,
most patient of enemies,
to separate two such friends?
Growing is a novel verb for mountains.
The mountains are both physical, and a metaphor for difficulty of communication, or emotional distance.
Distance is patient because lack of communication often slowly causes emotional distance, to separate friends in feeling as well as space.
No, they are not tears,
these droplets wetting my sleeves
as you are leaving.
Surely they are merely raindrops
falling from the empty sky.
Tears being raindrops is a cliché which I’ve livened up a bit by making it clear that the speaker is being facetious: everyone knows raindrops fall from clouds, not empty sky. And yet the sadness is real, and the emptiness of the sky reflects the emptiness of the speaker’s heart.
In Kokinshū poetry, much is made of tears wetting or soaking one’s sleeves.
From my warm embrace
you slip away like sunshine
hidden behind clouds.
Must you make your way alone
to the far horizon’s shore?
the capital behind me,
like the autumn geese
I long for my proper place
and wish I could return there.
In Japanese court poetry, journey is always away from the capital, never returning. Geese returning home is a common theme.
My red, burning eyes
can hardly see through the snow
as it falls in waves.
At times like these I wonder,
why did I ever leave home?
The Japanese court poetry conception of the traveler is always melancholy. I wrote this for convention’s sake, that the popular “travel” category might not be quite so underrepresented.
Do not spring away
like a startled doe, my love,
for you is flowering
in the gentle rains of hope.
Beautiful one, do not leave.
“My love” is a pivot-word; written out: “Do not spring away like a startled doe, my love. My love for you is flowering...”
Flowers, gentle rains, and leaves are engo for spring, which now appears to reference the season as well as the action.
Not a raging heat
like a funeral pyre.
My passion, instead,
is as warm and inviting
as the hearth-fire in winter.
Passion need not be out of control to be wonderful.
Bright sun shines loudly
while the dim moon shines softly.
Spring flowers, autumn birds—
all these things meld seamlessly
while I wait in hope for you.
The speaker waits, confident that while her lover has not yet come, he will. (And yet, what if he doesn’t?)
The sun shines loudly to invite you to consider it in a new way.
That sun (day) and moon (night) each receive their own line, but spring and autumn share the one after, gives a feeling of time speeding up, speeding along. The sun and moon sharing a time (while) reinforces “meld seamlessly.” But as time melds and speeds faster, it reaches the eternal; will she always be waiting?
Returning geese cry
with a loneliness for home.
Lady of white sleeves,
beloved I long for you,
as the black night for the moon.
“Lady of white sleeves” is a pillow word of my creation for “beloved.”
The first two lines are a jo, connected to the main by the longing all feel.
A woman and the moon are often connected in Japanese court poetry. The whiteness of her sleeves recalls the whiteness of the moon.
From my great yearning
I may perish and vanish
like the dew from soft petals
when touched by harsh morning sun.
“evaporating” to “sun” a jo.
The softness of dewy petals (and the speaker’s love) contrasts with the harshness of sun and whatever keeps the speaker and his heart’s desire apart.
This poem was inspired by one by Ki no Tomonori (BbN p.397):
My yearning is such
that I may perish of it,
melting like hoarfrost
on chrysanthemum hedges
in the garden at my house.
Can it be your voice
joyfully calling my name,
or is it only
a small cruelty of wind,
gleeful at deceiving me?
Fact from illusion. Personification of wind.
It is not as sad,
the pale moon’s indifferent face
wreathed in autumn mist,
as the hours before dawn
since that leave-taking from you.
I am uncertain whether this attempt at allusive variation might have come out too similar to the original.
Mibu no Tadamine (BbN p.394-5):
The hours before dawn
seem saddest of all to me
since that leave-taking
when I saw in the heavens
the pale moon’s indifferent face.
It reminds me not,
the scent of orange blossoms
of your bright white sleeves;
soap and spices are ever
the heralding scent of you.
Owain smells like soap and Old Spice. This poem is in response to one by the Priest Shōtetsu (1381-1459), about a man remembering the scented sleeves of a lover from before he became a priest: (ItJCP p.140)
Overgrown with moss,
The eaves brighten with the blossoms
Of the orange trees;
Through the old boards to my mossy robe
Comes the scent of sleeves of long ago.
My poem is simpler in content, but is consistent with the style of many of the poems of the Kokinshū.
As the Weaver-Maid
runs to her Ox-Driver,
skirts all river-soaked,
so when I run to see you,
I race with all of my heart.
The Weaver-Maid and the Ox-Driver or (Herd Boy) are constellations in Chinese astrology that face across the Milky Way, known as the River of Heaven. Legend tells that once a year the Maid is able to ford the river and visit her beloved. This was a popular topic in Chinese, and occasional in Japanese, court poetry.
Though in graceful song
you can’t perform before court,
though in moving words
you can’t compose for pleasure,
your heart is as great as the sea.
For my beloved husband, who has no gift of poetry and can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but has a loving, generous, sensitive heart.
stem and root of water lilies.
Your support of me
keeps me firmly, safely anchored
and not floating out to sea.
The first two lines are a jo.
Strong and yet unseen
the tough roots and graceful stem.
Work and dedication
keep it healthy and anchored:
waterlily of our love.
I dream of my home
my own dear little cottage
dwelling among trees,
where clear streams burble and sing
in pale imitation of you.
Dwelling is a novel verb for cottage. Dwelling could also be taken as the last half of cottage-dwelling.
“Dear cottage” and “clear streams” are less important than the speaker’s spouse, who either has a lovely singing voice or sounds lovely because she is his own dear one.
Long ago the year
when our hearts first met in joy,
and we sat and laughed
and talked of little nothings.
I still treasure every word.
The first line is an allusion to Master Dolan’s “Reign for all time,” which has a similar theme.
This neglected bed
sits rumpled in the corner.
Without your presence,
I cannot bear to use it.
Will you ease its loneliness?
The Lonely Lady asks her lover to ease the loneliness of the poor, neglected, anthropomorphosized bed, when it is she who is lonely.
Inspired by a poem by Ise (BbN p.388):
If I now wipe clean
this neglected bed, awash
in a sea of tears,
may my sleeve, like a bubble,
float on the water’s surface?
There is joy in your eyes
when you reach out to touch me.
I wish I could match it.
When we pillow arm in arm,
my heart is like a sieve.
In Japanese poetry, lovers are said to make pillows of each others’ arms.
When the moon lights your way
but you follow it not to me,
my passion freezes
and burning cold subsumes
fragile heat in my brittled heart.
This poem, written in the traditional Japanese persona of the Lonely Lady, alludes to one by Ono no Komachi (fl. ca. 890): (ItJCP p.82)
On such a night as this
When no moon lights your way to me,
I wake, my passion blazing,
My breast a fire raging, exploding flame
While within me my heart chars.
For but a short time
I knew you had loved others,
like the prairie fire
that burns brightly and is gone.
Why did I think myself different?
She knew his previous romantic relationships had been short, but had thought it would be different with herself.
Last night I had a dream
that you and I were friends again,
my misplaced passion gone.
But awake, I do not know
if I could stand to be friends.
Inspired by a poem by Fujiwara Okikaze (BbN p.376):
Goaded by misery,
I resolved to forget you
at whatever cost,
but now I find that a dream
has revived all my old hopes.
Oh, only a dream,
your gentle touch in my spring!
For summer faded,
and in autumn you are gone.
Must I still endure winter?
“Only a dream!” alludes to a poem by the Priest Saigyō (1118-1190):
Only a dream!
The bygone glories of the spring
At Naniwa in Tsu—
Everywhere the rough wind rustles over
The frost-withered leaves of reeds.
Which itself alludes to a poem by the Priest Nōin (998-1050):
If I could only show it
To someone with sufficient feeling—
Here in Tsu Province
The vicinity of Naniwa
Is filled with sights of spring.
My poem has two levels. The woman whose beloved came in spring and summer and did not return in autumn now looks at spending the winter alone. And a possible future version of myself in my sixties, looking back on how I had Owain in the spring of my life, he faded in its summer, and died in the autumn of my life. The question isn’t just rhetorical—she’s wondering if she may kill herself.
can your anguish exceed mine?
Have you lost more than
the light more lovely than God?
Poor bird, who had him not to lose.
This poem refers to the Chinese legend of the suffering wood-thrush, “resembling the Philomela legend of the nightingale” (ItJCP, p.93). “The light more lovely than God” refers to a lover and the joy he brings. “Him” refers to the lover, (poor bird, who never had such a lover as mine!) but also to God. In declaring her lost beloved more lovely than God, the speaker knows she turns away from God, and thus loses Him. The bird could never turn away from God—it never had the beautiful kind of relationship with God that could be lost, and so she pities it.
I am fond of the way the final line goes sideways from expectation: the first four lines are self-pitying, the fifth line pities another.
can your anguish be greater?
Could you sorrow more
if you knew what I have lost?
Greater soul, to mourn for less.
Another poem about the lady and the wood-thrush. The first four lines at first bring you to feel that no, the bird is incapable of feeling emotion as great as human pain, but the fifth line brings it into perspective: the wood-thrush is the greater for suffering with all his heart over something less than that for which the human suffers. Admiration of great sensibility is a hallmark of Japanese courtly culture.
Today you are gone.
I know whereof the wood-thrush sings:
today you are gone.
Echoing fills the rainy sky:
today you are gone, we cry.
A third wood-thrush poem, this one alludes to a poem by Ki no Tsurayuki (868-945):
Echoing fills the sky
From which the summer rain is falling—
And you, you wood-thrush,
What anguish is it that brings you
To sing uninterrupted through the night?
The repeated lines call to mind the pre-literate Japanese songs, though my use is more sophisticated. My poem also uses rhyme, but while rhyme was not the rule as it is in Western poetry, sound patterns were used in it.
In this third poem in the “Wood-thrush Trilogy,” rather than competing with, pitying or admiring the bird, the lady finally identifies with it.
The repeated phrase, “today you are gone,” drums like the rain, and it also shows the woman’s despair: she is unable to get past that one idea.
“Cry” here means both “shout” and “weep.” Weep is reinforced by the rain.
Red-blotched sleeves of white
we look a flock of pelicans
messy with plumage
as we follow behind it—
the reason we wear these colors.
White is the traditional Chinese color of mourning, also used in Japan at this time. Deep grief is said to yield tears of blood. Tears are said to wet one’s sleeves. The SCA’s Pelicans wear red drops on white. If blood-tears dripped on a Pelican’s red-and-white robe, you could say he had messy “plumage.”
The coffin is both the reason they wear white for mourning, and the reason they wear red-and-white for service—it is the coffin either of their Pelican “parent,” or of someone who inspired them with his or her service.
May my grieving tears
flood the underworld rivers
making them conjoined.
That way, when he crosses Styx,
he’ll Lethe behind his pain.
Styx is the river separating Earth from the Underworld in Greek mythology. Lethe is the Underworld river of forgetfulness. The speaker speculates that if her dead beloved crossed a river that was combined Styx and Lethe into the Underworld, he would forget her, and the pain of loss. There’s a weak pun between “Lethe behind” and “leave behind.” It works better if, like me when I wrote it, you think “Lethe” is pronounced “leeth” instead of “lee-thee.”
Why of all seasons
did he take his leave of us
in these days of spring
when we should be budding hope
instead of raining sorrow?
A party-pooper in life...
Engo: spring: leave, bud, rain.
From a poem by Ki no Tomonori (BbN p.467):
Why of all seasons
did he take his leave of us
in these autumn days
when loneliness chills our hearts
even at the sight of the living?
Expressing Feelings 7
Brightly burns the flame
of my hope for your safety.
Will it be enough,
bright candle in the darkness,
to draw him safe home again?
In line three, the speaker switches from addressing “him” to addressing a burning candle that stands for her hopes. She sees them as only a candle rather than a lighthouse because she fears they are not enough.
When longing for you
spells the end of self-restraint,
I prostrate myself
in a plea for your mercy,
uncaring of others’ eyes.
The first two lines are taken from a poem by Ki no Tsurayuki (BbN p.409):
When longing for you
spells the end of self-restraint,
I leave my dwelling
like the moon leaving the hills,
and make my way to your door
A sensitive man
looks at life through his soul’s eye
must find a way home
through my detractors’ slander
to my rightful place at court.
“Eye” is a pivot-word; written out: ...looks at life through his soul’s eye. I must find...”
“A sensitive... eye” is a preface; finding his way back to his place will require a sensitive and discerning eye on his part and that of his patron. Also, the man feels alone against the slanderers—his is the “sole eye” that can see truth.
The slandered official was a common topos in the Chinese literature to which Japanese poets often looked for inspiration.
Trapped inside the room,
from the dark I can see light,
sunlight through the screens.
If I can see the glad beams,
Why can the light not touch me?
Why can’t I feel the sunlight from my dark room? If I can see happiness and joy, why can’t I feel it? Why can’t I go outside, into life/light/joy?
Cherry blossoms fall,
but I, I cannot touch them.
Birds must sing sweetly,
but I, I cannot hear them.
So distant to me, nature.
Is the speaker trapped in a room, like in the poem above? Or is she dead? Dead to the world. Perhaps he is a Budhist priest, regretting how he must let go of everything in life, and could not now feel it even if he wanted.
Nature is distant.
Why so cold to me, Mother?
It is not my fault
I am trapped within this room,
unable to praise your charms.
Mother nature, who must be appreciated to be felt, and placated in order to be encompassing. I wrote the previous three while making up time at school.
Must the sensitive soul
dam the spring of poetry
or endure always
the slings and arrows of life
determined to destroy it?
The question. Self-indulgent, it is still true that the world can be cruel to the sensitive soul. The speaker wonders if there’s any alternative to pain besides “turning off” her sensitivity.
“Dam” here also means its homonym, “damn.” If you damn the spring you dam it so it no longer flows in the soul.
“The slings and arrows of life” along with the question format allude to Hamlet’s soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
charming and mysterious,
roots in human hearts
flourishes in leaves of words
flowers in the human soul.
The final line is my own, but the rest of this poem was adapted from a quote from Tsurayuki’s preface to the Kokinshū: “The poetry of Japan has its roots in the human heart and flourishes in the countless leaves of words.”
Ancient, stately tree
groans softly as it lies down
on the welcoming earth;
making a final pillow
out of bright clover and dew.
The tree is the laurel tree, representing the Laurel order, or Laurel side in the Laurel vs. Pelican battles.
The earth welcomes the tree, because it is time for the tree to pass.
“Final” and “dew” reinforce the death-meaning of a tree lying down. (“Dew,” by Japanese poetic convention (NP p.658) is an agent of change.)
“Ancient,” “groans,” and “final” contrast with “welcoming,” “bright,” and the image of sleep, to show that the laurel-tree’s death is no tragedy, but part of the natural order. “Dew,” as a natural symbol of change, reinforces this.
“Final pillow” means the final gentle resting place, but also references the common topic (NP p.658) in Japanese poetry of making a pillow in travel (death is a journey). It is also an allusion to a poem by Kakinomoto Hitomaro (fl. ca. 680-700), the NP translation of which reads,
“From open sea the waves
Break upon a rugged coast
Become your bedding
For the pillow you have made,
And so, my lord, your rest is here.”
It is a common tradition in Japanese poetry (especially in the 12th and 13th centuries) to “echo... and allude... to older poems or other parts of the shared cultural tradition in such a way that the older meaning is added to, or harmonized with, one’s own surface meaning.” (ItJCP p.24)
“Pillow,” “groans,” and “lies down” (as opposed to “falls down”) anthropomorphosize the tree which is itself a metaphor for a certain person or people.
Is it that somehow
bubbles have become heavy?
From flowers and grass tips
hang delicate but ponderous
instead of floating in wind?
Elegant confusion of bubbles for dew drops, instead of the more conventional glass beads for dew drops.
Oh, charming dewdrop
ever hanging from a leaf,
nestled gently as a thought,
sensibility is yours.
Put together, the first syllables of each line make “Oh, evanescence,” a hidden comment on the dewdrop.
This idea comes from a poem by Ariwa Narihira (BbN p.480) in which the first syllable of each line make up the word for iris.
Dew brings evening,
Evening brings your song,
and your song brings my tears.
What might my gentle tears bring?
Reasoning technique, questioning.
Sunset is colorful,
but afterwards the beauty.
white blossoms tinge indigo
in the numinous gloaming.
This poem is meant to be in the en (charm) style articulated by Fujiwara Shunzei (1114-1204).
Contemplate with me
stillness after breathing out.
The gentle beauty
of trembling possibility.
An ending, or a beginning?
Questioning. This poem asks both about the stillness between breaths, and the stillness after the final breath. Is the stillness between breaths the ending or beginning of the cycle? Is the stillness after the final breath the end of life or the beginning of the next life? Both tremble with possibility.
I don’t know if anyone else would see it this way, but this poem puts me in mind of a butterfly: still, breath, beauty, trembling. The last line could be the cocoon, in which case we have a sort of phoenix butterfly, breathing, spinning, and breathing.
as the lonely damselfly.
Man’s life may be short,
but his footprints linger on
long in the hearts of others.
This poem is in response to one by Ōe no Chisato (BbN p.379):
than leaves from autumn branches
the wind chooses to take them—
even such is a man’s life.
I saw it afar
tender fruit hanging from boughs
and clumsily rushed
to grab and eat, but I wept
after I had tasted the fruit.
This poem is meant to bring to mind the Biblical story of Adam and Eve eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. (That’s also why I included the otherwise unnecessary word “had”: to reference the specific phrase, “They have tasted the fruit.”) The poem is about a speaker tasting a fruit, demonstrating the Japanese value of sensibility by weeping because it is so good and, because of the word “but” and the Adam and Eve allusion, weeping because he will never again taste anything as good. The fruit transports him, and he is suddenly ashamed of his clumsiness contrasted to the sublimeness of the fruit.
This poem is about how I thought it would be simple to write poetry in the Japanese idiom, but when I saw and learned about the great among the poems, my heart wrung its hands in despair.
I am distracted
from thoughts of hills and mountains
and the slow march of time
by the sight of the bright moon
skipping across the lake’s surface.
If one is contemplating Time, even the moon moves quickly.
Damson flowers in spring
pure white sparkling snow—
how can I focus
on seeing God if I am
distracted by His beauty?
The speaker is either a Budhist monk with a legitimate concern, or a Catholic monk who just doesn’t get it. It is inspired by a poem by Sosei (Yoshimine Harutoshi)(BbN p.372):
Where might I retreat
to put aside worldly things?
Mine is a spirit
too easily led astray
in fields and mountains alike.
Silly little bird.
Each morn you cry, “I am he!
“I am master of all!”
And yet if my cat got out,
he would swallow you whole.
I use both senses of the word “swallow.” This poem was inspired by one by Fujiwara Toshiyuki (BbN p.381):
What is the number
of the fields he cultivates—
the cuckoo who cries
every morning without fail,
“Here is the field overseer”?
High above harbor
celestial beings sleeping;
by hovering clouds
their bodies represented.
But can they be awakened?
This was my first experiment at creating a tanka based on sound patterns. The “h”s of “high,” “harbor,” and “hovering;” “s” and “z” sounds of “celestial,” “sleeping,” “beings,” “clouds,” “bodies,” and “represented.” The two “k” sounds in the final line represent the harshness of awakening. Sound patterns, including alliteration, were used in Japanese poetry.
High halls of Heorot,
the palace of Calontir
gives scope for great deeds.
Sculpted in spirit’s marble,
enduring as the people.
“High halls of Heorot” is my makurakotoba, or “pillow-word,” describing Calontir’s palace. By some definitions the Heorot of Beowulf was a palace, and it represented goodness, human civilization, and culture. It was also the stage for the great fight between Beowulf and Grendel, good and evil, and so gave “scope for great deeds.”
The SCA kingdom of Calontir doesn’t have a palace building, so I suggest that it is a palace made of our spirit, “spirit’s marble,” and is as enduring as we are. The tone implies that “the people” are enduring, but also shows the Japanese preoccupation with ephemerality by offering the obverse: if the people erode, the palace will fall.
Timbered mead hall to marble palaces, the poem also shows the temporal and cultural diversity of Calontir.
Sons of the falcon
we are fierce warriors brave
with piercing talons.
Since none would dare test our might,
we play at fighting ourselves.
This poem refers to Calontir, and her War of the Lilies.
The trappings of battle,
the feel of a victory,
I love war, and yet at night
icicles form on my nose.
Some years, this is barely hyperbole.
Frost forming on the sleeper is in this poem by Ōshikōchi Mitsune (BbN p.453):
During this long trip
I have lain time after time
with grass for pillow,
brushing away the first-frost
that forms when the nights grow cold.
as Minos’ maze in Crete
this road I’ve chosen.
Oh, to have that ball,
that magical ball of twine!
The last two lines are similar to a pre-literate song. Compare this anonymous, pre-712 song:
Among the rice stalks,
Among the rice stalks of the fields,
Lying side by side,
They twine and crawl about—
The creeping vines.
Eccentric Poems 4
Hasten, o white bird
flapping over our kingdom.
Cherry droplets fall
to mingle with morning dew.
This is the only non-tanka poem in the collection, which is why it is in Eccentric Poems. As a tanka, this poem should theoretically have an additional line of seven syllables at the end, but it feels complete to me without it. My poem is four lines long, as is this anonymous early song (ItJCP p.12):
“You skylark in the heavens,
O skylark, fly down here;
Rich grasses bear to me.”
Variation is also shown in Princess Nukata’s (fl. ca. 660-90) poem “On Preferring the Autumn Hills.” (translation ItJCP p.38) As a chōka it can alternate lines of five and seven syllables indefinitely, but then should theoretically end in two lines of seven, not three lines.
“However, when I see
The leaves upon the autumn hills,
My eager hands
Tremble with their load of crimson leaves
And with reluctance
Leave the green ones on their boughs—
Yes, the green ones are the pity,
And the autumn hills for me.”
“Hasten, o white bird” is an allusion to “Song of the Shieldwall’s” “Hasten, o sea-steed.” Both phrases begin with “hasten, o” and end with a spondee. If the Japanese reference their previous poetry, why should I not reference ours? “Song of the Shieldwall” is one of our kingdom’s great national treasures (even if outkingdomers wrote it) as are our Pelicans.
“White bird” is the pelican, representing the Pelican order.
I chose “flapping” over “flying” or “soaring” because flapping is evocative and means hard work, a hallmark of the Pelican.
“Cherry droplets” are drops of blood, a symbol of the Order of the Pelican. Since this is Japanese-style poetry, I also intend the phrase to bring to mind “cherry blossoms,” which symbolize spring; this is the springtime (auspicious beginning) of the time of the Pelican. “Morning dew” reinforces this idea of beginnings.
The pelican gives its blood to nurture its young; the pelican of the poem gives its blood to nurture spring; hard work brings forth the spring.
There’s a bit of an in-joke in “droplets” and “dew.” According to the NP p.659, “The erotic was expressed by images of wetness... and symbolized by spring...” and my Pelican husband is sexy.
The lonely wolf howls,
feeling his gnawing belly
cry out for a meal.
Be cheered, Brother, you’ve at least
a reason for your sadness.
I placed this in Eccentric because I haven’t run across poems mentioning anything like wolves.
In his unhappiness, the speaker feels a kinship with the wolf. Or perhaps a blood relative is being likened to the pained wolf—if so, is he hungry because he is alone? And was it his choice?
The evening brings rest,
poor, fretting baby;
it brings peace and silence.
Would you deny us one
by regretting the other?
How poetically do you say, “Shut up, kid”?
At glorious war
an inglorious happening.
This slick hill of mud,
regretting future absence,
has drawn me to its bosom.
Or, in less courtly language: splat! Personification of a mud hill.
This is relegated to Eccentric Poems for being an insufficiently lofty subject.
Brower, Robert H., and Earl Miner. Japanese Court Poetry. Stanford, California: Stanford
University Press, 1961. Print.
McCullough, Helen Craig. Brocade by Night ‘Kokin Wakashū’ and the Court Style in
Japanese Classical Poetry. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1985.
Miner, Earl. Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry. Stanford, California: Stanford
University Press, 1968. Print.
Ueda, Makoto. “Japanese Poetics.” The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and
Poetics. Princeton New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993. Print.
Ueda, Makoto. “Japanese Poetry.” The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and
Poetics. Princeton New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993. Print.
Miner, Earl. “Tanka.” The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton
New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993. Print.
Copyright 2011 by Caitlin Johnoff, <mailing address>. <alianoraree at yahoo.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.