The Poet’s Almanac ❧ Earth

The Poet’s Almanac: 365 Days of Poetry
Week One: Earth

  • Looks like I’ve already fallen behind, but I have most of Sunday ahead of me. Let’s see what I can accomplish.

After the cycles of birth, lovemaking, age and death, the seasonal cycles of the earth are the great subjects of poetry. From the first songs to the modern era, no culture has so closely tied their poetry to the seasons as the Japanese. The development of seasonal references coincided with the beginnings of Japan’s own poetic tradition and the creation of the Tanka. The first references weren’t any more than might be found in the Western tradition, but the Japanese never consistently developed longer verse forms. There is no Japanese verse epic, for example. The closest the Japanese come to narrative verse is in the linkage of much shorter forms like the Tanka. The results can feel disjointed to a Western reader. Perhaps the most famous example of a narrative form by a Japanese poet is Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Interior 奥の細道. The narrative or travel diary, recounting Basho’s journey, by foot, to see some of Japan’s most famous landmarks, is actually prose interspersed by haiku, a genre that was known as haibun.

Pursued,
it hides in the moon—
the firefly

– Sano Ryota (Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems)

Writing in such short forms meant that there was little opportunity for scene painting. A Japanese poet simply didn’t have room to spare. So how does a poet evoke a sense of place while still allowing his or herself the space to poetize? The answer developed over hundreds of years. The quickest way to evoke a sense of place, a seasonal feeling, or mood (a poet’s intuitive relationship with the world) is to indicate one of the four seasons in which he or she was writing. All of us who live in the world’s temperate zones, grow up with strong seasonal associations and the Japanese learned to skilfully evoke those associations with a single word or image. The very first anthology to hint at the direction Japanese poets would take was compiled in the early 900’s (long before the development of haiku), called the Kokinshû. For the first time, Japanese readers found categories for the four seasons. Kenneth Yasuda, in his book The Japanese Haiku, writes that this early anthology “seems to recognise the importance of natural objects as subjects of poetry in the same way as love, or congratulatory, or elegiac poems were recognised”. Not only were the seasonal categories of poetry recognised but, more importantly, the Japanese began to develop the first inklings of Kigo. In other words, a reference to a plum tree became more than just the plum tree. The tree was also meant to evoke a connection with the wider setting of spring with all that season’s concurrent associations – but these were only the first inklings. Over the next several hundred years, the significance of a given image, like a reference to cherry blossoms, might be used without any seasonal resonance whatsoever.

Garden butterfly—
as the baby crawls, it flies
crawls—flies—

-Issa (Ib. p. 99)

A poetic form which was to exert decisive influence on the development of Kigo was the Renga, a form of linked poetry from which the haiku was to evolve. Renga were communal poems that honoured the hosts and celebrated the talents of the poets who participated. Because these renga were frequently published, attaching a particular date to the composition of the renga was considered essential. That task fell to the guest. His task was to write an initial hokku (which would later become the independent haiku) both honouring the host and indicating the date of the renga’s composition. By the end of the 14th century, the twentieth volume of the Tsukubashû (1356) contains only hokku, and though they’re not divided into seasons, all the hokku contain a seasonal reference. By the 15th century, the importance of kigo, as an art in and of itself, was systematically discussed by Sôgi (1421-1502) in his Azuma Mondô (1470). The tradition was now established. Sôgi was also among the first to compile a list (like a dictionary) of season words. His example was followed by Rippo in 1636, who compiled a listing of 650 seasonal references. By the 19th century, a compilation like the Haikai Saijiki (1803) contained 2600 items.

In truth, and with a little practice reading Haiku, a western reader can reliably discern a haiku’s season. Japan’s seasons aren’t so mysteriously different from our own that we can’t recognise the seasonal reference of blossoms or falling leaves.

The seasonal importance of haiku continues into the 21rst century. The modern, and western poet Lee Gurga, author of Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, considers the seasonal reference to be the soul of haiku. He writes:

Season is the soul of haiku, as simple as that. One can write fine short poems that do not have a seasonal element, but they will not offer the same gift that seasonal haiku do.

Many modern haiku poets would not consider a poem, otherwise identical to a haiku, a haiku without some kind of connection to the earth’s seasons.

after Christmas
a flock of sparrows
in the unsold trees

– Dee Evetts (Haiku: A Poet’s Guide, p. 25)

That’s all.
& Further Reading:

The Japanese Haiku: It’s Essential nature, History, and Possibilities, with Selected Examples
Haiku: A Poet’s Guide
The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku
Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems
Basho’s Narrow Road • Spring & Autumn Passages

5 responses

  1. Enjoyed the article very much.

    I’ll have to respectively disagree with: “There is no Japanese verse epic”

    Although the Japanese appeared to concentrate on short poem forms, the 1000 verse renga form (senku) despite being non-linear in its narrative, is still a long poem.

    Also The Tale of Genji is both a novel, a verse novel, and one long inter-connected poem: http://www.taleofgenji.org/

    But what is great about hokku, and its sister but independent form of haiku, is it can be sliced into so many other artforms including classic painting, modern painting, digital photographs etc… becoming “haiga”.

    Haiku in Japan and outside Japan is constantly evolving as any artform should surely do. As haiku itself is such a modern form of poetry, coming out in the 20th century, it’s only fitting that it dominates the internet including twitter.

    Another excellent book about haiku is The New Haiku by Snapshot Press:
    http://www.modernhaiku.org/bookreviews/barlowlucas2002.html
    http://www.snapshotpress.co.uk/orderonline_usd.htm

    all my very best,

    Alan, With Words

    • Hi Alan, not more than two weeks ago I was trying to talk my wife into reading The Tale of Genji (for her book club) – unsuccessfully. I have Waley’s translation and Royall Tyler’s. No scholar, that I’m aware of, would call Murasaki’s novel a “verse novel”. In fact, Murasaki makes a clear distinction between the narrative of the novel and what she considers poetry by interspersing the narrative with Tanka. Tyler writes:

      All of Japan’s early literature includes poems (prose fiction may have first crystallized around them), and The Tale of Genji contains 795. Readers down the centuries have often valued them even above the prose. [The emphasis is my own. Clearly, the Japanese themselves distinguish between the novel’s narrative (prose) and the novel’s verse (tanka).]

      The Renga, while being “long“, is not a “longer verse form“. [That is, from each individual poet’s perspective, the renga is no more expansive than the haiku.] Each poet has either three 5/7/5 or two 7/7 lines in which to communicate their contribution. Their latitude is even less than what’s available to them in Tanka or Haiku. Once again, Japanese poets learn to develop extremely refined and compressive techniques. Rather than being a long poem, the Renga is better understood as a “linked poem”, which is what the term Renga means.

      In this light, the Renga can’t be considered a “narrative poem” – which is my point. No less so than in Tanka and Haiku, Japanese poets work in extremely tight quarters. There is simply no elbow room for narrative and that’s explicitly not the purpose of Renga. The Japanese themselves consider the Renga a game (Surumino Monkey’s Raincoat). Which isn’t to say they don’t treat the game seriously.

      Edit: For those who have never heard of Renga. They are collaborative/communal efforts. Several poets alternate, each poet contributing either 2 lines or 3 lines of the verse.

  2. “No scholar, that I’m aware of, would call Murasaki’s novel a “verse novel”.”

    I’d kinda agree with that, although it’s verse that drives the book, but expertly moulded into the format of a novel, a modern novel at that.

    “The Renga, while being “long“, is not a “longer verse form“. [That is, from each individual poet’s perspective, the renga is no more expansive than the haiku.] Each poet has either three 5/7/5 or two 7/7 lines in which to communicate their contribution.”

    I’d agree, yet disagree at the same time. Setting aside the growth of solo renku, and that none-Japanese renjin are unlikely to recreate three 5/7/5 or two 7/7 lines verses, as we can’t recreate or incorporate “on” counted Japanese language systems into the English language, or other alphabet languages, the renku piece as a whole, although non-linear narrative, is the work of a single ‘verse form’ supported by sabaki and scribe etc…

    But yes, both renga and renku are linked poems, and actively pursued outside Japan, and picking up again in Japan, in popularity, thanks to Tadashi Kondo and Eiko Yachimoto in particular.

    Although renga, and renku, were/are seen as a game, it was developed as a much harder composition as a form of relaxation after a day’s composing of tanka. Go figure. :-)

    I have attempted the old 1000 verse senku linked poem successfully on two occasions, due to be published in December 2010.

    Jane Reichhold of Aha poetry has been very supportive, as she was involved in the very first Western attempt (Germany in the 1980s) which Jane believes wasn’t finished. Perhaps as this was pre-internet, who knows.

    My first senku project was a collaboration between meeting up with people, as well as using various internet means. The second senku is almost exclusively meeting people, and centred on one city.

    Although both are non-linear narrative renku, both are from single cities, so incidently there is an overall narrative, despite the lateral shifts so indicative of both renga and renku.

    Of course once Japan was “opened up” twice (1860s/late 1940s) Japanese poets have become more increasing involved with free verse long poems and less with haiku and tanka.

    Haibun of course is a narrative form despite the inclusion of lateral narrative hokku, and could be argued it is as much prose poetry as it is prose.

    What I love about Japanese poetry is it can never really be caught in definitions: http://www.withwords.org.uk/what.html

    A good site for renku (renga after 1750):
    http://www.renkureckoner.co.uk/

    all my best,

    Alan

    • I have attempted the old 1000 verse senku linked poem successfully on two occasions, due to be published in December 2010.

      Once it’s published, let me know and I’ll post a notice.

      I’d agree, yet disagree at the same time. Setting aside the growth of solo renku, and that none-Japanese renjin are unlikely to recreate three 5/7/5 or two 7/7 lines verses, as we can’t recreate or incorporate “on” counted Japanese language systems into the English language, or other alphabet languages, the renku piece as a whole, although non-linear narrative, is the work of a single ‘verse form’ supported by sabaki and scribe etc…

      Hmmm… I’m not even sure I would call it “non-linear narrative”. I can’t see the advantage in applying the term narrative to renga. At best, it strikes me as misleading – possibly over-simplifying renga’s uniqueness. But we’re hardly the first to have this debate. The Princeton Encyclopedia offers the following: “The uniqueness of linked poetry has led to debate whether it is narrative or (perhaps most likely) an unusual variety of lyric narrative.” Princeton doesn’t tell us what they mean by lyric narrative, but I can hazard a guess.

      For the sake of readers who come to this conversation later: Renga are divided into kami no ku (upper-lines) and shimo no ku (lower lines). These alternate. The “narrative”, such as it is, is in how each poet “alludes”, for lack of a better explanation, to the preceding poet’s contribution. Here’s an example:

      Nanao in Noto–
      a grim winter.

      Old age
      sucking on
      fish bones.

      The lover has a key
      to the small gate.

      Sounds like Ashbery right? There’s no sense of narrative in this passage. Here’s how Suromino explains the linkage:

      “In the first place, religious hermits liked Nanao in Noto (in present-day Ishikawa Prefecture) because it was cold and isolated, so it is not difficult to see why the next verse is about old age: there is much in old age that can be as cold and desolate as the hermit’s life in winter. It is harder, however, to see what a lover at the small gate might have to do with either old age or coldness and desolation. To appreciate the link, the reader must know the precise scene in The Tale of Genji to which this verse refers. When one does know, the association between verses is a particularly rich one. In The Tale of Genji, Chapter 6, Prince Genji is going to visit one of his mistresses, and he finds the gate locked. When the gateman with the key is finally located, he turns out to be very old and feeble. He is unable to push the gate open so that the carriage can get through, even though he is assisted eventually by a large, awkward girl, probably his granddaughter. One of Genji’s servants goes to their assistance, and the gate swings open. Genji, having also noticed that the girl is suffering from the cold, remembers some lines by Po Chu-i (722-846): “The little children run naked in the cold;/ the aged shiver for lack of winter clothes.” It is this leap, from old age and fish bones to the third verse, via the scene from Genji, that is omokage [a form of linkage].

      Ok… so…. while the explanation of the linkage is a prime example of narration, the linkage itself is not. :-)

      The linkage is a combination of allusion and association. If one wants to call this narrative (of any kind) than I suppose “Lyric Narrative” will do. That is, narrative based on lyrical devices. In this sense, narrative is used figuratively rather than literally. Likewise, a forest may be said to display a “narrative”. With experience, one can guess why certain trees fell, and when; and, if one is a tracker, one can also create a narrative based on the trails animals have left behind. But both these are narratives in the figurative sense. They only allude to the narrative which one finds in an epic poem, for example. So, if one wants to apply the term narrative to renga, then it must be with the understanding that it is in the figurative sense and extremely qualified.

      The question of whether to call renga “a longer verse form” probably doesn’t matter all that much. To me, calling the form “linked verse” puts the emphasis on what makes renga unique – the linkage of the individual verses. As I say though, it doesn’t matter all that much. For the purpose of the post, and whether we call the renga a longer verse form or not, the poet’s experience is one of extreme compression – not the expansiveness of what a westerner would consider “a longer verse form”.

      By the 20th century, and as you say, the Japanese certainly began to develop longer forms of verse (from the poet’s perspective).

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