Monday, June 21, 2010

Kokinshu Commentary -- 8

Kokinshu Commentary 8

Book 1 – Spring 1

8. Fun-ya no Yasuhide. On the Third of a certain First Month, the Nijoo Emprress [Kooshi], who was then known as the Mother of the Crown Prince [Emperor Yoozei], summoned Yasuhide to receive some instructions. As he bowed below her veranda, she observed that snow was falling on his head while the sun was shining. She commanded him to compose a poem

Rare is the fortune
Of one who basks in the sun
On this springtime day,
Yet how can I not lament
That snow should whiten my head?

Comment: This is the first Tanka that is given a specific date; the Third day of the First Month. The First Month here was according to the lunar calendar, the same as the Chinese Calendar, so the First Month would begin, usually, sometime in February. This is also the first Tanka with a substantial lede or introduction, explicitly setting the scene. It shows us how important it was for courtiers of this period in Japanese history to be able to compose a Tanka on the spot.

The theme of elegant confusion, which began with Tanka 6, continues here. Tanka 6, 7, and 8 form a linked series of three Tanka all of them using elegant confusion as the central technique for the construction of the Tanka. With Tanka 9 this technique is left behind. It is appropriate, therefore that this Tanka uses elegant confusion in a subtle way. The implication is that white snowflakes resemble the gray beginning to appear in Yasuhide’s hair; but this is not stated explicitly. In Tanka 6 and 7 the confusion is explicitly stated. Thus this Tanka, number 8, functions as a way of smoothly leaving the technique of elegant confusion behind, preparing for its disappearance in Tanka 9, by muting its usage. The reader is invited to compare white snowflakes and graying hair, but such a confusion is not mentioned overtly.

There is also the implied metaphor that Yasuhide is “basking in the sun” of his royal patronage, the Nijoo Empress, and by extension the Crown Prince. All in all this Tanka is thoroughly metaphorical, which is in keeping with a less explicit use of elegant confusion.

We are still in early spring. It is a sunny day, but snow is falling, probably lightly. I can envision the snow melting quickly as it lands. Flowers are not mentioned for the first time since Tanka 5, but that theme is resumed in the very next Tanka 9. The gap created here by the absence of flowers, allows for the subsequent Tanka 9 to depict flowers in a new way; flowers falling, and thus allowing for the movement into the spring season, away from its very beginning.

All in all this verse functions as a kind of turn; one can recognize how this kind of verse is used in Renga so that the series can move on to a new perspective, topic, person, or view.

The author of this poem, Fun’ya no Yasuhide is mentioned in the Japanese Preface (there are two prefaces; one in Japanese and one in Chinese). The preface reads, “Fun’ya no Yasuhide’s language is skillful, but his style is inappropriate to his content. His poems are like peddlers tricked out in fancy costumes.” (Page 7) The preface then quotes an example of his poetry as follows:

The plants of autumn
Droop and wither at its touch –
That explains, of course,
Why a wind from the mountain
Has come to be called a storm.

This poem is found in the Kokinshu at Tanka 249.

The rather negative evaluation of Yasuhide found in the Preface raises the question of why he was included. Again, I think this points to how the editors of the Kokinshu, and particularly Ki no Tsurayuki, as the principle compiler, viewed their task. It seems that they wanted the Kokinshu to reflect the actual usage of Tanka in Japan rather than imposing on the collection their own esthetic. This is not easy to do and I think it is likely that the compilers’ own preferences did play a part. Yet it is also a laudable goal and I think it contributes to the enduring value of the Kokinshu in that the editors were willing to include Tanka by poets that they may have had reservations about if that poets exemplified a certain approach to Tanka that was valued at the time; that is to say valued by others. This approach would resemble an editor today of, say, modern sonnets, and deliberately including sonnets that they didn’t think highly of because these sonnets had become widely appreciated or represented a way of approaching the sonnet that was widespread. I think this is highly commendable and it continues to be one of the reasons why I enjoy reading the Kokinshu.

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