Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On Sogi


Today is the anniversary of the Japanese poet Sogi’s death. Sogi was born in the year 1421 and he died September 1, 1502.

Of all Japanese poets Sogi is the one who has influenced me the most. I reread his work in translation regularly and I find both his life and his poetry a personal inspiration.

Sogi lived at a time when poetic tastes in Japan were changing along with political alignments. This is reflected in Sogi’s mastery of two poetic forms; Tanka and Renga. But it is as a Renga poet that Sogi is most remembered. Steven Carter writes, “ . . . [W]e may summarize by saying this his life followed a pattern just as surely as did his many renga compositions. Leaving behind him a score of critical writings as well as several volumes of verse, he spent his professional life in travel between and among the estates of the mighty, where he earned his living as a poet, critic, literary judge, and scholar. He was, in other words, the quintessential Master of Linked Verse.” (The Road to Komatsubara, page 110) As a leader of collaborative Renga, Sogi is remembered for two Renga that are still widely read and studied: “Three Poets at Minase” and “Three Poets at Yuyama”; both of these have been translated into English.

Personally, there is one Renga that Sogi wrote that revealed to me the beauty and scope of Renga and continues to inspire me. It is a solo Renga, or Dokugin, called “Sogi Alone” which Sogi wrote towards the end of his life. It is translated in Earl Miner’s “Japanese Linked Poetry”. “Sogi Alone” is a 100 Verse, or Hyakuin, Renga which was the standard length for a Renga at that time. To give you an idea of how thoroughly Sogi had internalized the rules for Renga, Sogi could compose a 100 Verse Renga in a day or two, evidently upon command, for an event or a special occasion. But “Sogi Alone” took four months of careful work and concentration. Here are some of the opening verses:

Now that they end
There is no flower that can compare
With cherry blossoms

The garden softly stirs with shadows
As a spring breeze brings the dusk

Beyond the eaves
Faintly cast in haze the peak
Brightens with the moon

The contemplative Spring imagery, the mood of calm introspection exhibited here pervades the entire 100 Verses. Here are the closing verses:

The beadlets from the sudden shower
Rest a moment on the leaves and fall

The wind-shattered clouds
Are part of that unfinished dream
From which I awake

To see the shadow of my old age
Cast by the light of a dying lamp.

I consider “Sogi Alone” to be the great masterpiece of Renga. With a deep sense of gratitude I take this moment to remember Sogi:

Who would have thought
That there’s a bridge to the past
Made from falling leaves --
On this autumn afternoon
I am alone with Sogi

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