Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Kokinshu Commentary -- 1

Book 1 – Spring

1. Ariwara Motokata. Composed on a day when spring arrived during the old year.

Springtime has arrived
While the old year lingers on.
What then of the year?
Are we to talk of “last year”?
Or are we to say “this year”?

Comment: The Kokinshu begins with a poem that questions the nature of time. In the traditional Japanese calendar, based on the Chinese calendar, the New Year began on the second New Moon after the Winter Solstice; which turns out to be the New Moon in Aquarius in Western terms. This is the Chinese New Year which takes place sometime between January 21st and February 20th. Traditionally this was thought to be the beginning of spring (the Solstices and Equinoxes were thought to be the mid-points of the respective seasons, rather than the beginning of a season, which is how we tend to regard them in the west).

But while the calendar says “New Year”, or that the New Year is approaching, the rhythm of the seasons and the natural manifestations don’t always match up with human ways of framing the flow of time. Spring has arrived before the official calendar date for spring. The Tanka highlights the artificiality of human constructs, and how tentative they are, contrasting them with the presentation of the natural world. Does the word “spring” mean a date on our calendar or does “spring” mean when certain appearances emerge; plum trees in bloom, quince blossoms, melting snow, the first warm breeze, ice cracking, buds on the branches of the trees, wearing lighter clothing, etc.

I think the Kokinshu starts out with this Tanka to signal the reader that it is going to take a stance with nature; that is to say that nature precedes the human and is the context in which humans dwell. It is this larger context that the Kokinshu will focus on, particularly in the first six books devoted to the seasons.


Dan Gurney said...

Facinating, Jim. I'm with the East Asians in regard to the seasons. The solstices have always felt to be the mid point of their respective seasons, not their beginnings, at least from a "length of daylight" point of view.

But for me, plants are even more telling seasonal calendars. Acacia blossoms announce the first days of spring for me, for example.

Jim714 said...

Dear Dan:

I think the idea of solstices and equinoxes marking the mid-point of the season also feels intuitively right. But, of course, it depends on one's geographic location.

I have an antipathy towards Acacia; for me they signal the allergy season. Quince blossoms are for me the first sign of almost spring; they are very early so they feel like an announcement that spring will appear in a few weeks. After the quince come plum, then cherry, then apple. By the time apple blossoms appear it's definitely spring. (I think acacia are roughly at the same time as cherry?)

There is also for me a signal that has to do with changing my clothing. I have a heavier and lighter coat; when I change to the lighter coat, that's a marker for spring.