Kokinshu Commentary 7
Book One -- Spring 1
7. Anonymous. Topic unknown
That I should mistake
Lingering snowflakes for flowers –
Might it be because
My longing was so fervent
When I broke off the branches?
According to some, this poem was composed by the Former Chancellor.
Comment: The strong link between this Tanka 7 and the previous Tanka 6 rests both on method and on topic. Regarding method there are two aspects: rhetoric and device. The rhetorical usage is that of a question in both Tanka 6 and Tanka 7; both Tanka are in the form of questions. Regarding device, the method is elegant confusion, again used in both Tanka. The topic is confusing snowflakes for flowers in early spring; almost certainly plum blossoms are meant. The shift between the two Tanka has to do with the placement of the elegant confusion. In the previous Tanka 7 the author, Monk Sosei, infers elegant confusion on the part of the warbler, or acts as though he can understand what the warbler is thinking. In Tanka 7 the anonymous author reports his or her own confusion. Tanka 7 is, therefore, more introspective and personal. In addition, the cause of the elegant confusion in Tanka 7 is psychological; fervent longing has confused the observer. This Tanka focuses on how the mind, when it is in a state of deep longing for another often sees the world through perception that is distorted by that longing. We have all been through this kind of situation. Popular songs sometimes refer to it, e.g. “On the Street Where You Live”.
The “breaking off the branches” refers to a custom in Japan at that time where someone would send a letter with blossoms attached. Different blossoms meant different things. I’m not sure what plum blossoms meant, but I bet the intended readers of the Kokinshu at the time it was compiled had a cultural referent for this. The scene this Tanka paints uses what some contemporary Tanka poets call “dreaming room”. That is to say there is implied in this Tanka an expansive situation involving a nascent love, a possible love letter, both a past and possible future for the two people implied. This is a powerful way of composing Tanka; to have the image reverberate in the mind of the reader, taking the reader both into the past and into the future, placing the Tanka in the midst of this field of time.
Incidentally, we do not know if the “I” of this Tanka is male or female. The author is anonymous and this kind of Tanka was written by both men and women. The note attached after the Tanka states that some think the Tanka was written by the “Former Chancellor” seems perfunctory. My sense is that the editors noted this, but didn’t feel the ascription was secure enough to place it where the author’s name would be.
Personally, I think this is a beautiful Tanka. There is a hint that the elegant confusion between the snow and the flowers may be a metaphor for unrequited love. Did the author think that someone else had fond feelings for the author (blossoms), only to discover that this was not the case (snow)? That might explain why the branches, though broken off, have not as yet been sent. On the other hand, the Tanka admits to multiple understandings.