Kokinshu Commentary – 10
10. Fujiwara Kotonao. A poem recited at the beginning of spring
Has spring come early
Or might the blossoms be late?
There is no answer –
Not even from the warbler,
Who could tell me if he would.
We return to the theme of the ambiguity of time and season. In Tanka one the question is how to determine the beginning of the year which is marked in the traditional calendar as the beginning of spring. Here the ambiguity relates to how far along we have entered the Spring season.
This points to a way that seasonal verses are organized in Japanese poetry. There is a progression to a season, particularly spring and fall. There are the first signs of spring; where I live that would be the quince blossoms, which are the first to bloom, often in mid-February, before the plums. Where I live the sequence of blooms is first quince, plums, cherry and apple at about the same time. In Japanese poetry this kind of sequence of seasonal events was noted and the sequence of Tanka in the seasonal sections of the Kokinshu replicates these seasonal appearances. Beginning with mist rising from snow because of the warming air, the arrival of the warbler (uguisu), the blossoming of the plum which often happens in the snow, first spring rains, cherry blossoms, etc.
When Renga, or linked verse, developed there were locations in the linked verse sequence which were designated seasonal sequences. The verses needed to be in seasonal order; that is to say if there was a verse that referred to cherry blossoms the next verse could not refer to plum blossoms because plum trees blossom before cherry trees do. Similarly for other seasonal appearances.
These became codified in what are called Saijiki, a book of words and their seasonal associations, among other things. It is a standard tool for Japanese poets. No Japanese Haiku poet would write without one. All of this is rooted in, and takes its nourishment from, the way Tanka were placed in the classic collections such as the Kokinshu.
This consciousness of the signs of nature, and the placement of those signs in the seasonal unfolding, is one of the characteristics of Japanese poetry, particularly Japanese poetry anthologies. This indicates a culture which was acutely aware of this aspect of their environment, celebrated it, honored it, responded to it.
This particularly Tanka points to the fact that the sequence of seasonal events doesn’t always follow our expectations. The warbler is here, which means we are in spring, but where are the blossoms that normally coincide with the warbler’s appearance? As the poet says, “There is no answer.”
The link to Tanka 9 is “flowers have yet to bloom” from Tanka 9 raises the question of why they are blooming late in Tanka 10.
The author, Fujiwara Kotonao, does not appear often in the Kokinshu. However, the Fujiwara clan as a whole makes many appearances. This is the first Tanka from the Fujiwara clan. This clan was the most powerful clan in Japan for a long period of Japanese history. It is not surprising, then, that the Fujiwaras would be significantly represented in the Kokinshu.
The lede to the Tanka indicates that the Tanka was ‘recited’. This likely means that Fujiwara Kotonao was asked to present a Tanka on Spring at a gathering or party of some kind and that he came up with this Tanka spontaneously. Sometimes at these gatherings people would know ahead of time what the topic would be for any poetry offered. Sometimes the host would name the subject after the guests had gathered. In any case, this recitation sufficiently impressed people that it was remembered and included in the Kokinshu.