Sunday, May 18, 2014

Poetic Musings: Best Known and Most Controversial Tanka by Masaoka Shiki

(Updated, May 19: Shiki's 10-tanka sequence and Donald Keene’s comment added below)

Shiki worked with the small, the finite, the close to home.
 -- Janine Beichman, author of Masaoka Shiki: His Life and Works

To see into the reality of things and represent the life where nature and the self are unified in the original one. This is shasei, drawing from life, in tanka poetry.
-- Saito Mokichi

Kame ni sasu            a tuft of wisteria
fuji no banabusa       arranged in a vase
mijikakereba             was too short
tatami no ue ni          it couldn't reach
todokazarikeri           the surface of the tatami

Masaoka Shiki

Saito Mokichi's Comment:

This poem of wisteria may be considered "objective" in the ordinary sense of the term. But if someone says that there is not enough subjectivity in it to be a poem, he simply does not understand it. People are not aware that mijikakereba/ tatami no ue ni/ todokazarikeri is a voice of subjectivity the poet could not hold. He complains that the tuft could not reach the tatami as though this were important. It was his true inner voice. The poet, who was totally unable to see the grandeur of mountains or the agitation of the ocean, faced instead a tuft of wisteria at his pillow side and made this song. A deep tune comes from inside the poet and appeals to our mind.

-- excerpted from Haga Toru's "Saito Mokichi's Poetics of Shasei," Japanese Hermeneutics: Current Debates on Aesthetics and Interpretation, edited by Michael F. Marra, p. 210)

Shiki's tanka above was written in 1901, the year before he died. It is the opening poem of his famous sequence of 10 tanka about the wisteria, which is prefaced by the following prose:

After finishing dinner I was lying on my back looking to the left when I noticed that the wisteria arranged on my desk had responded to the water in the vase and were now at their peak. I murmured to myself, "How charming, how lovely!" and vague nostalgic recollections of the Heian romances flitted through my head. I felt strangely moved to write some tanka. Considering how neglectful I have lately been of the art of poetry. I took up my brush with some uncertainty (cited in Donald Keene, Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era, p. 53).

According to Haga Toru, this is Shiki's "best known and most controversial" tanka (p. 210). Despite its high reputation among Shiki's readers in Japan, on the surface this tanka appears rather plain or even banal in expression, and for many critics, it is merely about an objective description of the wisteria hanging down not far enough to reach the tatami (the straw matting on the floor of the room) where Shiki lies (as stated in the opening sentence of his prefatory note). However, in the commentary above, Saito Mokichi, the "most representative and the greatest poet of modern Japan" (Toru, p. 207), takes the reader to "see" beyond what Shiki describes in the poem and points out that the key to understanding this poem is: that  why the tuft not reaching the tatami is so important. This urge to see beyond the "what" and look into the "why" stirs the reader's reflection on the gap, thematic and emotive, between what Shiki describes in and intends for the poem.

Evaluated in the biographical and compositional context of the prefatory note, "a deep tune [of sadness] comes from inside [Shiki] through this concrete image of the wisteria hanging down not far enough to reach the tatami where he lies. In the poem, Shiki observes two separate entities (himself and the wisteria) and his thematic concern is the separation between him and the wisteria, a metonym for nature, which he is unable to see ("the grandeur of mountains or the agitation of the ocean" as stated in Saito Mokichi's comment) because of being bedridden. This tanka successfully sets the tone and mood for the whole sequence.

In his insightful comment, Saito Mokichi applies his own theory of shasei in which "to see/ look into" (kannyu) the reality of things is one of the key concepts, which I will further discuss in the next "To the Lighthouse" post.

Updated, May 19

In his 1984 book, titled Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era, Donald Keene thinks “the sixth poem of the sequence implies more” than the opening poem does:

Sprays of wisteria
arranged in a vase --
the blossoms hang down,
and by my sickbed
spring is coming to an end

Below is Shiki’s 10-tanka sequence about the wisteria, which was translated by Burton Watson (Masaoka Shiki: Selected Poems by Shiki Masaoka, Columbia University Press, 1997, pp. 105-110)

Sprays of wisteria
arranged in a vase
are so short
they don't reach
to the tatami

Sprays of wisteria
arranged in a vase --
on cluster
dangles down
on the piled-up books

When I look
at wisteria blossoms
I think with longing of far-off
the Nara emperors,
the emperors of Kyoto

When I look
at wisteria blossoms
I want to get out
my purple paints
and paint them

If I were to paint
the purple
of wisteria blossoms,
I ought to paint it
a deep purple

Sprays of wisteria
arranged in a vase --
the blossoms hang down,
and by my sickbed
spring is coming to an end

Last year in spring
I saw the wisterias
in Kameido --
seeing this wisteria now,
I recall it

Before the
red blossoms
of the peonies,
the wisteria's purple
comes into blossom

These wisterias
have blossomed early --
the Kameido wisterias
won't be out for
ten days or more

If you stick the stems
in strong sake
the wilted flowers
of the wisteria
will bloom again like new

Donald Keene’s Comment:

At first reading, this tanka seems little more than a statement that consists of a single sentence; but if the reader is aware that at the time Shiki composed the poem he was lying immobile in a sickbed, unable to touch the wisteria because it did not reach as far as the tatami, the poem becomes unforgettably poignant. The unadorned plainness of the expression adds to the strength; this is not so much a poem as a cry. The remainder of the sequence is mainly in the same vein. Readers who do not know Japanese may find the sequence among the most difficult of Shiki's poems to appreciate fully, even with Burton Watson's excellent translation to assist them. The bareness of expression is likely to seem prosaic, but with time, as is true of minimalist music, the bareness may seem the essence of poetry…

… The ten wisteria tanka have been well translated by Burton Watson in Masaoka Shiki, 105-110. Robert Brower, in "Masaoka Shiki and Tanka Reform," 403-8, discusses the wisteria tanka, which taken by themselves are "very flat and prosaic," but which acquire other dimensions when one takes into consideration the time of composition.

-- excerpted from The Winter Sun Shines In: A Life of Masaoka Shiki, Columbia University Press, 2013

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