Thursday, July 8, 2010

Me and Japanese Poetry -- 3

Me and Japanese Poetry – Part 3

So there I was going to the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Now I needed a job. So I applied for an opening with the Janitorial staff at the University itself. The rule was that the University wasn’t supposed to hire students as janitors. But I adopted an early version of the Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell policy. When I applied they didn’t ask and I didn’t tell. So I got the job. (The rule led to some funny situations. In my second year I was elected to be the Union Representative for the Janitors. So I would finish class, go to my locker and change into work clothes so I could attend the negotiation meeting looking like a “Janitor”.)

One building I was assigned to clean was the Geophysical Institute, a famous institute that studied mostly high atmosphere phenomena, such as aurora. The institute was linked to two others, one in Russia and one in Norway. I discovered that for the most part scientists loved to talk about their work; even to the night janitor. And they were completely willing to explain technical terms and in general talk in a way I could comprehend. Some of the scientists there were Japanese and I got to be friendly with them. Their English was good, but I would ask how to say such-and-such in Japanese and they would tell me and over time I absorbed a lot of basic vocabulary; things like “hello”, “what time is it”, counting, “please”, “thank you”, etc. It was all very informal. But years later, when I went to Korea and Japan to study Buddhism, I found that I could get around Kyoto with what I had learned. Not bad. (There was no attempt to teach Japanese writing, which was probably a good thing. For those who don’t know, the Japanese writing system may be the most complicated in the world; there are actually three distinct writing systems you have to learn and none of the three are alphabets. All three systems can be used in a single sentence. Imagine having to learn the Latin alphabet, the Greek alphabet, and the Cyrillic alphabet because all three systems of writing could be used in a single sentence in “English” and you have somewhat of an idea of how it works.)

This was an auspicious beginning to learning Japanese. Friendly, informal, intimate. Sometimes I would ask about Japanese poetry and they would respond with as much as they knew. This was the first time I heard about Sugawara no Michizane, a Japanese poet from the from the 800’s who was later deified by the Shinto hierarchy and has now become a major Deity in the practice of Shinto. As a Deity Sugawara no Michizane became known as Tenjin.

This was the first time I caught a glimpse of the high status that Japanese poets occupy in Japanese culture. Sugawara no Michizane is not the only poet to be deified in Shinto; much more recently Basho has been inducted into the Shinto Pantheon. Coming from a culture which relegates poetry to a very marginal role, this information was eye-opening for me. It began a long process of looking at the function of poetry in culture in general, what role it plays, and what is its function.


Dan Gurney said...

Here in America, most poets can't pay their rent unless they're independently wealthy or have day jobs. Maybe Billy Collins or Mary Oliver.

Jim714 said...

Almost all American poets have had day jobs ranging from insurance salesman to fire watch. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is indicative of the place poetry holds in our culture.

In Japan newspapers reglarly publish Haiku, and there are T.V. shows devoted to Tanka. That's because poetry occupies an important place in the national consciousness. I suspect, though, that may be changing under the impact of modernity and as people spend more and more time with the t.v. and the iternet. I'd love to wrong about that.