Monday, February 7, 2011

The Color of Salade

The earliest form of poetry in Japan has at first reading the look of casual, off the cuff expression. This same characteristic is visible in much of modern and contemporary poems, with the impression of bare simplicity and unstudied form that hides or negates meaning beyond that of a momentary observance by the poet. But despite the camouflage that suggests quickly jotted words and lines, traditional Japanese poetry is a form fraught with rules of composition. Many of the modern poets have thrown off those rules, and consistent with the times and the idea of artistic freedom, produce poems in a style more familiar to Western readers. Ishikawa Takuboku is one modern Japanese poet responsible for putting the first cracks and breaks in the old rule book of poetic composition.

Safe bet to say that the Japanese poem most familiar to readers in Europe and the US is the haiku. It has even been adopted by a large number of non-Japanese poets, many of whom may never have even visited the country of origin. But then who says you have to visit Russia to learn how to make borscht? The haiku is basically a shortening of the older waka or tanka form of thirty-one syllables in five lines, a composition using only the first three lines of 5-7-5 syllables. This is a Japanese syllable count and has nothing to do with English translations or English originals. In this sense it is difficult to put a finger on the count, but here is an example of the longer waka showing a thirty-one syllable count:

HI-SA-KA-TA-NO (5) On this early day in spring

HI-KA-RI-NO-DO-KE-KI (7) When the radiance of the air

HA-RU-NO-HI-NI (5) breathes tranquility,

SHI-ZU-GO-KO-RO-NA-KU (7) Why should the cherry petals flutter

HA-NA-NO-CHI-RU-RA-N (7) With unsettled heart to earth

Syllable count was not the only tradition in early poetry. There are lists of words that were allowed for use and others that were not allowed. Seasonal words were important as well, and categories of words linked to others by association. Composition could at times be complicated by tradition.

Takuboku Ishikawa did not write haiku, but tanka, the thirty-one syllable poem. He lived at a time (1886-1912) when many of the old rules—cultural as well as literary—were being broken and he broke many of those rules himself. A major poet of the modern Meiji period of his country’s history he saw himself surrounded on all sides by innovation. Had he lived longer his influence would perhaps have been even stronger, still his poems show a spirit eager to break out of the established conventions of poetry. Ishikawa published his first book of poetry at the age of eighteen. He died from tuberculosis at twenty-six. The five poems below are from his collection, Sad Toys, published two months after his death in 1912.

Like some train across a wild waste

This agony

Now and then through my mind!


From a stethoscope—

As if some hidden thought were being pried loose.


The color of salade!

Chopsticks in hand and yet—

Though I closed my eyes,

Nothing crossed my mind…

Only this emptiness on opening them again

All my past unreal, invented, made up—

Even that pretense

Gives no comfort to this mind!

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America