Among the literary devices employed in Japanese tanka and haiku, joshi (preface/ prefatory note) is little known to and thus least used by the English Language poetry community. The sharp brevity of tanka and haiku sometimes tends toward obscurity, and this occasions the prefatory notes that explain the circumstances (such as the setting, sociocultural occasion, and compositional context …etc.) (Keene, p.84). Thus, the note becomes an integral part of the poem. In some cases, even a brief prefatory note can greatly affect our reading of a poem as in the following examples:
Inheriting one of our ancestor’s verses
the old pond's
frog is growing elderly
Comment: Recent studies have showed that even at the summit of his career, Basho was just one of several prominent haikai masters, and was far from having the largest number of followers or having formed the most influential school. At the time of Buson’s writing, Basho’s frog haiku was little known to the Japanese poets. Written in the Japanese tradition of honkadori, "Inheriting one of our ancestor’s verses," Buson’s poem opens up a window into the lamentable situation of the eighteenth century haiku community. (See my in-depth analysis of Buson's haiku here, and for more information about Yosa Buson and the Basho Revival, see my essay, titled "Reviving Japanese Haikai through Chinese Classics: Yosa Buson and the Basho Revival," which was first published in Haijinx, 4:1, March 2011 and reprinted in Simply Haiku, 9:1, Spring 2011)
His Honor Tangan held a blossom-viewing party at his villa. There I found everything as it used to be.
many, many things
they call to mind --
those cherry blossoms
Comment: Tangan is the haikai name of Todo Yoshinaga (1676-1710), a grandson of Yoshikiyo, under whom Basho had served in his youth (Ueda, p. 185). In view of the preface and the occasion for which the poem was written, L3, "Those cherry blossoms," provides a scent link between the preface (especially of the last sentence of the note) and the opening lines of the haiku, and the contrasts (the inner/mental vs the outer/natural; the long-gone past vs the ephemeral...etc) between the two parts of the poem spark the reader's emotions and reflection on human relationships in relation to the passage of time)
On May 23rd there was a large-scale air attack late at night. Carrying my sick brother on my back, I went wandering through the flames all night long in search of Michiko and Akio.
In the depths of fire
I saw how a peony
Crumbles to pieces
Comment: "The most moving of his haiku bore the prefatory note" (Keene, p.164)
Written in response to the official disclosure: The Mormon founder Joseph Smith had up to 40 wives, some already married and one only 14 years old.
Joseph Smith and Emma
on Temple Square, I stand firm
with my drunken shadow
Note: Emma Hale Smith Bidamon (July 10, 1804 – April 30, 1879) was the first wife of Joseph Smith and a leader in the early days of the Latter Day Saint movement during his lifetime. The prefatory note forms a thematically and emotionally dialectical relationship with the upper verse of the tanka)
Sometimes (even as far back as the Manyoshu) ” [joshi (the prefatory note)] was developed into an extended prose passage” (Keene, p.84). Saigyo is well known for his “sometimes lengthy and often personal” prefatory notes, which “include poignant reflections on the madness that Saigyo saw surfacing in public life" (LaFleur, p. xiv)
Take the following tanka for example:
In the world of men it came to be a time of warfare. Throughout the country -- west, east, north, and south -- there was no place where the war was not being fought. The count of those dying because of it climbed continually and reached an enormous number. It was beyond belief! And for what on earth was this struggle taking place? A most tragic state of affairs
There's no gap or break
In the rank of those marching
Under the hill:
An endless line of dying men,
Moving on and on and on ...
Comment: This lengthy and sociopolitically conscious prefatory note establishes the thematic and emotive context of the poem while the tanka visually enhances the tone and mood. Saigyo's use of repetition in the last line adds extra emotional weight and psychological depth to the poem. "The irony is that we learn more about the times from this monk-poet who intentionally put distance between himself and what he called the ‘world’ than we do from the poetry of his contemporaries who went on living in the midst of the national capital, writing verses on set themes as if their society were not, in fact, falling apart”(ibid.)
By the way, in the Western poetic tradition, one of the most famous poems where a note is effectively utilized is "Howl" written by Allen Ginsberg. Thematically and structurally speaking, he wrote the “Footnote to Howl” as a fourth part to the poem that was meant to riff and experiment with the forms of long line he had used in previous sections.
Donald Keene, Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the the Modern Era - Poetry, Drama, Criticism, Columbia University, 1999.
Makoto Ueda, Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary, Stanford University Press, 1995
William R. LaFleur, trans., Mirror for the Moon : A Selection of Poems by Saigyo, New Directions, 1978