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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Following the waka into Japanese history

By Michael Dagley

I came to the writing of waka almost accidentally: my wife, a strong believer in intellectual property rights, wanted to use the meanings of many of the Emperor Meiji’s waka for The Reiki Dojo in New York, but without violating any other translator’s or poet’s copyrights. So when I began writing waka, all I knew about the form was that it consisted of five lines with the pattern of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. I had a selection of poetry in Japanese (which I am studying but cannot read) and English equivalent meanings as well as translations. I was amazed that the equivalent meanings sometimes ran for a long paragraph, while the translations always adhered to the 5-line, 5-7-5-7-7 form.

From the beginning, I adhered to the form without questioning it. I found, however, that the waka I was reading made me want to know more, first about the Emperor Meiji, hoping to discover the secrets of his poetry. Thus began a long study of Japanese culture that continues (and likely will for the rest of my life!). I began by reading Donald Keene’s biography of the Emperor Meiji, Emperor of Japan, which led me to Marius B. Janssen’s The Making of Modern Japan.

After that, I simply could not get enough, reading book after book about Japan, non-fiction, books of short stories, novels, books of poetry, realizing through my reading that despite his place in Reiki, the Emperor Meiji as a poet was not considered one of the great Japanese poets. I could find no book on his poetry in English, for instance. When I visited Kinokuniya Bookstore in Manhattan, a wonderful place to find translations of Japanese classic and modern literature (and other materials on all things Japanese), I asked the very knowledgeable staff there whether they had a book of poetry by the Emperor Meiji or perhaps a book of criticism of his poems and was met with a surprised response: not only were there no such books in English, there were only very few in Japanese. One woman asked me why anyone would bother with such a book, the clear implication being that despite his historic significance, his poetic work was not considered of such great importance.

Perhaps something was lost in translation since it was hard for me even to make myself understood when I said “Emperor Meiji.” I had to repeat it several times before I was understood, and in response, she suggested I read Donald Keene’s biography.

But perhaps her reaction can be explained by the role waka played during the Emperor Meiji’s time: waka were most commonly used to send messages to others, almost as if they were letters or short notes. The Emperor and the Empress Shoken exchanged literally thousands of waka, and the Emperor is believed to have written as many as 100,000. Could such exchanges actually result in great poetry?

As I was to learn, the answer is a definite yes: in fact, such was the purpose of waka for nearly 1,000 years by the time the Emperor was born. I learned this by discovering what for me is the sourcebook for understanding and appreciating waka: Murasaki Shikobu’s The Tale of Genji (how it has made me wish I could read Japanese, both ancient and modern!). I read Royall Tyler’s translation, and reading (and re-reading) this amazing book has led me to the following conclusions:

Form matters: while it is common for modern poets to ignore the strict rules of the form, particularly the syllables, no self-respecting character in Murasaki’s amazing book would ever consider a poem to consist of anything else. On several occasions a character will say, often after a bad poem has been quoted, that not everyone who can string together 31 syllables is a poet.

Each line need not stand alone: in The Tale of Genji, lovers exchange poems at daybreak, just after the man has had to scamper off to avoid being caught. He is then expected to send a “letter” consisting of his poem, often with an appropriate flower. His lover then responds with a waka of her own, and such exchanges could occur several times in a day. In these cases, the poetry is used as a code, a method of sending a message to the loved one that the bearer (who could not be trusted not to read the letter he or she carried) could not understand. Thus many waka were a single sentence that carried the lover’s thoughts in elaborate metaphors.

Metaphors matter: since the poem in Murasaki’s time had to be a code, everything had to be conveyed through the use of metaphors.

Nature matters: the brevity of life, the constant changing of the flora and fauna, the phases of the moon, the rising of the sun, fog, rain, snow . . . almost all metaphors used in waka are taken from nature.

Japanese is not English: the 5-line, 5-7-5-7-7 form works very well in Japanese due to its being a language that does not consist of stressed and unstressed syllables. Instead, each syllable is given roughly the same weight, though it might differ in duration. At waka writing contests, then, it was possible to read a waka aloud with a drumbeat precision, slowly stressing each syllable and holding the last of each line an extra beat. It is not possible to duplicate this in English, leading many to decide that the 5-7-5-7-7 form need not be followed, or that it should be replaced with a form using stressed syllables with a 2-3-2-3-3 form.

Good waka have a “turn”: good waka, like good sonnets, contain a turn, usually after the second or third line, the introduction of a new idea or metaphor that deepens the meaning of the poem.

When I write waka, I almost always adhere to the 31-syllable form. As is the case with most forms, having to fit one’s message into such a strict form leads to “lucky accidents” that produce surprising results. In fact, it lets me “play with words,” which I sometimes think is the whole purpose and magic of poetry. Most importantly, some of these results of this play with form are good!

One other point I would make about waka in general and the Emperor Meiji’s writing of them in particular, which is something a high school creative writing teacher quoted, from whom I can’t remember (American poet Karl Shapiro?): “You have to stand out in the rain for a long time before lightning strikes.” Anyone who writes 100,000 waka is bound to have written a number of truly great ones (lightning striking), and from the examples I have seen, the best of the Emperor Meiji’s waka are as good as any.

The lesson for us is not only to contemplate the waka he wrote, but to write our own . . . many of them, on many topics, using good metaphors taken from nature and adhering to form . . . where possible. For me, form is important, but I have read many fine English waka that do not adhere precisely to the form. Most importantly, keep trying, keep writing, keep testing yourself against the form: you never know when magic might happen!

Here are three examples of such waka, the first two mine, the third Beth Lowell’s (you’ll notice that she does not adhere strictly to the form, yet the result is still amazing):

Lightning strikes the tip
Of the forest’s tallest tree,
Snuffing out its life,
Its dried leaves drifting to earth,
Sunlight pouring through the breach.

None can view the sun
Directly lest they go blind,
The fiery white beam
Unwilling to be seen yet
Illuminating our world.

I knew nothing
and I knew everything
as soon as I forgot
where the dog left off
and I began


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