Kokinshu Commentary 6
Book One – Spring 1
6. Monk Sosei. On fallen snow clinging to a tree
Now that spring has come,
Does he mistake them for flowers –
The warbler singing
Among branches deep-laden
With mounds of snowy white flakes?
Comment: This is the first example in the Kokinshu of a technique that the reader will encounter frequently. The technique is called “elegant confusion”. The technique allows the poet to draw a comparison, using the pretense that the observer is confused. In this Tanka the elegant confusion is the mis-identification of snowflakes for plum blossoms, or spring blossoms. Here, I think, the translator may be off somewhat. The previous Tanka, Number 5, specifically mentions plum blossoms, while this Tanka, Number 6, uses the generic “flowers”. However, the deliberate linking here is, I think, supposed to guide the reader to inferring that the flowers in question are plum blossoms, and not just any kind of blossom. It is rather like flowers/”hana” functions as a kind of pronoun, or place holder, for the plum blossoms of Tanka 5. This kind of usage was later encoded in Renga where the word “blossom”/”hana” was understood to mean cherry blossoms unless otherwise specified. This is still the rule in traditional Japanese Haiku. However that may be, the linkage to Tanka 5 would lead the reader to infer plum blossoms if the two Tanka are read together as a single, longer, poem.
But back to elegant confusion; this is a technique that was inherited from Chinese poetry. Elegant confusion was, at one time, widely used. It has fallen into disfavor in modern times because it seems to us to be too affected. Who ever really confuses snowflakes and blossoms?, our realistic approach to the world asks.
I think this misunderstands the technique. My sense is that elegant confusion was a form of structured metaphor. In East Asian poetry in general, and Japanese poetry in particular, explicit metaphor is not a widely used, or admired, technique. One does not often come across the deliberate comparison through a linguistic structure of “X is like Y”, or “X is Y”. Elegant confusion, however, provided poets a means for stating a metaphor which would be accepted by the canons of their poetic culture. If we look at elegant confusion as “elegant metaphor” I think we can be more accepting of what the poet is offering. We do not blanche when the poet says, “My love is like a red, red, rose.” We accept this because it is part of the structure of western poetic culture. Similarly, we can be accepting of “X looks so much like Y that I got confused between the two when I saw them . . .”; such an approach is similarly a means for making a metaphorical statement within the acceptable range of Japanese poetic culture. In other words, the elegant confusion between the plum blossoms and snowflakes draws our attention both to how they are alike and how they differ; this is exactly the beauty and function of metaphor.
The author of this Tanka was the Monk Sosei, a famous Tanka poet who lived from 816-910. His work appears in many Tanka/Waka anthologies. He has been elevated to one of the Thirty-Six Poetry Immortals in Japan; in other words he has been deified in the same way that many living figures have become deified following Japanese Shinto custom. An earlier example would be Sugawara no Michizane, who became the deity Tenjin. A recent example would be the great Renga and Haiku poet, Basho.
I find it instructive that the editors of the Kokinshu placed this famous Tanka poet between two anonymous Tanka; both Tanka 5 and Tanka 7 are Anonymous. I think this achieves several purposes. First, it allows Sosei’s Tanka to stand apart somewhat. Second, I think it is a signal to the reader that the editors may have particularly liked this Tanka and may also reflect their admiration for Sosei.
The links to the previous Tanka are: the warbler, the setting of spring flowers/plum blossoms that are blooming in the snow. The shift is one of perspective. Tanka 5 is a simple landscape. Tanka 6 is more introspective and takes us into the mind of the poet, in this case Sosei. Here the poet is explicitly speculating, wondering, thinking about, the scene. It is this speculation that gives rise to elegant confusion.
In closing I’d like to say a few words about “topic”. After the author attribution the Kokinshu has a brief phrase. Sometimes it is “topic unknown”, and sometimes there is a statement of topic, and at other times there is a brief description of the circumstances under which the Tanka was written. When there is a specific topic that indicate to the reader at the time that the Tanka was likely written during a poetry meeting in which the gathered poets were given an assigned topic upon which to write their Tanka. This was a widespread custom in Japan for many centuries; perhaps it is still done, I’m not sure. The idea is that someone, the host, would gather the poets together and then at the gathering the topic would be announced. All the assembled poets would then compose a Tanka on that theme. The poems would then be judged and the winner receive accolades. If the gathering was put on by a high aristocrat there might be considerable material rewards. Teachers would use such gatherings for their advanced students to hone their students’ abilities. Topics were not spontaneous; there were lists of appropriate topics. Certain subjects were off-limits among which were explicitly erotic or pornographic subjects, political commentary, or subjects that might endanger the participants in the highly volatile world of Japanese politics. Acceptable topics were the seasons, love, travel, parting, impermanence in all its manifestations, religion (which meant Buddhism and Shinto), occasional Tanka that were usually laudatory of the sponsor or the sponsor’s family and/or clan affiliation, etc. Though there were numerous examples of acceptable topics, they all fell under a few headings. For example, there were many topics that fell under the category of Spring, or under the category of Love. Poets practiced writing Tanka on these specified topics so that they would be prepared for poetry gatherings.
So when we read that the Tanka was written on a specific topic it is likely that this particular Tanka won at whatever gathering it was written at. When the editors say “topic unknown” the inference is that they think that the Tanka was written at such a gathering, but they are not sure; perhaps it has folk origins outside of this kind of refined poetic culture. “Topic unknown” is a signal to the reader of the time that the source of the Tanka may lie in the wider public sphere, beyond the refined aristocratic pursuit of poetic excellence in accord with specific canons. When the situation under which the Tanka was written is explicitly described, this is done because the circumstances are meant to show the reader the talent and ability of the poet and give us a context under which it was written.
In this particular instance the topic was “On fallen snow clinging to a tree”. We do not know how many others were gathered at this poetry gathering, or when exactly it took place. But we do know that Sosei’s Tanka carried the day, eventually ending up in this anthology.