Japanese Poetry and Song

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The Aesthetic of Uta

"The seeds of Japanese poetry lie in the human heart and grow into leaves of ten thousand words. Many things happen to the people of this world, and all that they think and feel is given expression in description of things they see or hear. When we hear the warbling of the mountain thrush in the blossoms or the voice of the frog in the water, we know every living being has its song."[1]

Ki no Tsurayuki (紀貫之) begins his Japanese preface (Kanajo 仮名序) to the Kokin Wakashū (古今和歌集) with these words, stating that poetry and song is of a natural possession, inherit in all living creatures. Whether you agree or not that the desire and ability to communicate emotion through poetry or song is of natural predisposition, such a statement demands a basis on which to evaluate these artistic expressions. How do you separate the songs of a bird from the poetry of man? What constitutes the difference between the poetry of an uneducated commoner and that of a nobleman? What defines the work of a masterpiece from inferiority? Guided by the six classifications of Chinese poetry (Liushi 六詩) as explained in the "Great Preface" (Daxu 大序) of the Shi Jing (詩經 "Book of Songs"), Tsurayuki attempted to answer such questions by classifying and setting standards for the growing genre of native Japanese poetry.

Indeed, Tsurayuki begins his Japanese preface in much the same way as the Great Preface of the Shi Jing.
"Poetry is the place where intention (zhi 志) goes. In the heart it is intention, when expressed in words, it is poetry. Emotions (qing 情) are stirred within and take shape in words. "[2]

We see similar sentiments in the preface to the Chinese classic, the Yueji (樂記 "Record of Music"), found within the Liji (禮記 "Book of Rites"), which most likely influenced the viewpoint presented in the Great Preface.

"As for the emergence of tones, they are born from the human heart. That the human heart is stirred is due to the influence of the external matter/world (wu 物)." [3]

This idea that the external world incites emotions internally, which man must act as a medium to in order to release externally in the form of song, gained popularity in philosophy, religion, art, and politics in China before being carried over to Japan. Tsurayuki continues the tradition, observing that,

"…many poems have been composed when people were attracted by the blossoms or admired the birds, when they were moved by the haze or regretted the swift passage of the dew, and both inspiration and forms of expression have become diverse."[4]

In typical Japanese fashion, the external matter/world (wu 物) that seemed to compel the creation of Yamato uta most often was nature. Included in this passage is also a hint at Tsurayuki's ideal for Japanese poetry, found in a play on the words translated as "inspiration" and "expression" in the last sentence. The Japanese words kokoro (心 "heart", "inspiration", "spirit") and kotoba (ことば "expression", "diction", "materials") are the principle elements in the Japanese view of poetry. The ideal set forth in the Kokinshū was a balance between the two. In an effort to describe this harmony of emotion and form, the preface attempts to categorize and explain the rikugi (六義 "six principles") of poetics as taken from the Chinese model, while exemplifying both success and failures along the way.

The Great Preface of the Chinese Shi Jing describes six types of songs, classified as feng (風), fu (賦), bi (比), xing (興), ya (雅) and song (頌). Tsurayuki, in his preface, adapted his translations as necessary. Feng (風) for instance, is described in the Shi Jing as a type of didactic allegorical poetry, in which rulers admonish their subjects and subjects criticize their rulers. The form relies on artful subtlety so as not to bring trouble to the speaker, but effectively influence the listener into modifying their behavior. While China was ripe with political movement and philosophy, such moral and civic criticism was practically unknown in Heian Japan. Therefore, Tsurayuki labels the first principle of poetry soeuta (諷歌), and describes it as a form in which "the surface meaning of the poem conveys an unrelated hidden meaning"[5]. It is allegorical, but it does not serve a didactic purpose. The second principle of poetry, known in Chinese as fu (賦) is described in the Great Preface as a narrative which employs a direct style. In the Kokinshū's preface, it's given the Japanese term kazoeuta (数え歌) and labeled as poems in which things are described clearly without analogies. The poem offered as an example however, does a poor job fitting into this category, as it employs two kakekotoba (掛詞) and artfully hides the names of three separate birds within its lines. It's worth considering whether rhetorical devices and word play had become so standardized within the Japanese language that Tsurayuki didn't consider them allegorical, or if the problem with finding a fitting example was simply that Japanese poetry does not properly correspond to the Chinese liushi system. I believe it to be a matter of both, but find it interesting how word play was so commonplace as to be taken for granted.

Continuing on with the third principle of poetry, known in Chinese as bi (比), the liushi classifies such poems as metaphorical, in which meaning is expressed through allegory, but without didactic purpose as in the feng. This was problematic for Tsurayuki, who already had discarded the didactic purpose of the feng. He calls this third principle nazuraeuta (準え歌), and describes it as poetry that present similes describing one thing as like another. But how now are the Japanese to discriminate between the soeuta andthe nazuraeuta, which without the didactic modifier, are homogeneous? The fourth principle, known in Chinese as xing (興), are allusive pieces that begin with a description of something in the animal or vegetable world, which the poet later references as means of expressing his message.[6] Known in Japanese as tatoeuta (喩え歌), these poems are interpreted by Tsurayuki as those that express feeling through the use of all the plants, trees, birds, and animal that exist, without a hidden meaning.[7] Ya (雅), the fifth principle, is referred to by Tsurayuki as tadagotouta (徒言歌). In the Great Preface, they are referred to as odes that were sung to musical accompaniment during festive occasions at court. Depicted as representations of the customs of the kingdom, these 'right' and 'proper' songs were recorded as having the power to cause the government to flourish and decay.[8] In Tsurayuki's preface, this poetic principle was interpreted as poetry that described a well-ordered, truthful world. Lastly, the sixth principle, known in Chinese as song (頌), were hymns of praise sung during sacrificial rites at the ancestral temples. The Great Preface states that, "the song are so-called because they praise the embodied forms of complete virtue, and announce to spiritual beings its grand achievements."[9] Translated in the preface to the Kokinshū as iwaiuta (祝い歌), the Japanese appropriately interpreted this form as sung celebratory pieces, which praise the world and are pronouncements to the gods.[10]

After an attempt at assimilating Japanese poetry into the six Chinese classifications, Tsurayuki continues on to his true objective, setting forth standards that will define good Japanese poetry. His complaint seems to accompany the growing popularity of native poetry. As society has come to regard her local poetry with so much value, great masses of people are now writing yamato uta, no matter how poor composition.

"Nowadays because people are concerned with gorgeous appearances and their hearts admire ostentation, insipid poems, short-lived poems have appeared."[11]

Although he also takes offences with the growing trend of private poetry for the explicit purpose of courtship, I believe his central complaint is the deterioration in the quality of the art. Courting poetry is just an area of example where standards had particularly fallen in his eyes. The ideal balance of emotion and form cannot be achieved when the poet is overemotional, nor when he or she is lacking in a sufficiently emotive feeling to compose a proper poem. The poet cannot be rushed to the point where the resulting work lacks form and wit, and yet, over-thinking the form will ruin the poem just as effectively. As in so many Japanese arts, the balance is achieved through years of training in order to reach a point where mastery appears effortless. Essentially, what Tsurayukiis attempting to define is wabi-sabi (侘寂).

Tsurayuki makes several examples of poets who fail to achieve the ideal balance in their works, such as the Archbishop Henjō (遍昭), whose style (form) was refined, but who Tsurayuki criticizes as lacking sincerity (emotion). We can see this in his poem:

along slender threads
of delicate twisted green
translucent dewdrops
strung as small fragile jewels—
new willow webs in spring

The form is lovely; Henjō's choice of words is descriptive and artistic. However, the poem lacks emotion for a simple reason; what was the purpose of this poem? Poetry and song are meant to express emotions that prose fails to convey. As the Great Preface of the Shi Jing states,

"When words are no longer enough (to express the emotions), they are expressed in sighing. When sighing is not enough, they are expressed in singing. When singing is no longer enough, the hands unconsciously dance and the feet stamp."[12]

Tsurayuki also assess in his own preface to the Kokinshū that,

"It is poetry which, without effort, moves heaven and earth, stirs the feelings of the invisible gods and spirits, smoothes the relations of men and women, and calms the hearts of fierce warriors."[13]

It is difficult to believe that dewdrops and dewdrops alone created such a powerful emotion in Henjō that he simply had to find passage for such feelings through poetry. It is equally difficult to believe that such a poem could invoke powerful feelings in the reader, let alone heaven, fierce warriors, or the gods.

The opposite Henjō's failings can be seen in the poetry of Ariwara no Narihira (在原業平), whom Tsurayuki criticizes as having too much emotion without the balance of appropriate form. Take for example the following poem:

is this not that moon—
is this spring not that spring we
shared so long ago—
it seems that I alone am
unaltered from what I was then[14]

The sentiment of Narihira' poem can clearly be felt, however, it lacks the refinement and wit of a truly successful poem. Narihira's fault is that his poetry is too strong and lacks subtlety. In my opinion, an ideal balance of kokoro and kotoba is achieved most beautifully by Ono no Komachi (小野小町), who also projected an ideal vision of mono no aware (物の哀れ) in her work. Take for example the following famous piece:

that which fades within
without changing its color
is the hidden bloom
of the heart of man in
this world of disillusion[15]

Here, Komachi has met emotion with restraint, expressed feeling through aesthetically innovative word choices, displayed subtle wit, and yet, it all appears quite effortless.

The poetry collected in the Kokinshū all seem to work toward achieving this ideal balance, and reflect poems that can favorably stand alone without context. With no explanation given as to the circumstance surrounding the composition of the poem, the poetry throughout the Kokinshū can all be understood, and resonates on an emotional level. However, a noticeable difference is present in the poetry of the Ise monogatari (伊勢物語). The poetry found within the Ise monogatari does need context in order to be understood and appreciated, so much so that the present-day reader is forced to wonder which came first, the poem or the surrounding prose? Without the poem's accompanying story, most of the poetry of the Ise monogatari is ineffectual. For example:

When my beloved asked,
"Is it a clear gem
Or what might it be?"
Would that I had replied,
"A dewdrop!" and perished.[16]

The poem, without context, is convoluted. Given its surrounding story, it retains a feeling of artificiality, as though it was forced. This, of course, goes against the very ideals as set down by Tsurayuki. There are several poems found in the Ise monogatari that would be sure to please even Tsurayuki, however, the majority need support, and are therefore not complete in their own right. The poetry of Ise monogatari also contains many examples of private courtship poetry, which Tsurayuki rebuked. While I personally find a select few of such private poems to be of beautiful quality, the majority are so conversational that it becomes clear why Tsurayuki was a purist about the ideals of public poetry. A work that can stand the test of time and stand alone seems to possess more artistic weight than a piece that is easily forgettable or in need of contextual support.

The lyric ideals of pre-modern Japanese poetry ultimately express an idea of divine poetic inheritance, in which songs came into being along with the formation of the heaven and earth. From the wedding chants of Izanagi (伊弉諾尊) and Izanami (伊弉冉尊) when songs were raw, direct emotion, unpolished to the point of obscurity, to the song of Susano-o no mikoto (須佐之男), by which time, the age of humans began and poems of 31 syllables were composed[17], it is clear that poetry has a divine and organic evolution in the Japanese tradition. It is only natural then that poetry would continue to progress in refinement. As such, the pre-modern artistic ideal was defined as a balance of kokoro and kotoba. Kokoro encompasses the emotional capacity, or mono no aware, to respond to the natural world through the act of poetic creation. Kotoba serve as a medium for the poet's emotion and expresses the internal externally. In reading the poetry, the audience must also possesses kokoro in order receive the emotion conveyed through the kotoba, and make an evaluation as to whether it possesses jōshu (情趣), or sentiment with artistic sensibility.

[1] Mary Catherine Henkenius and Laurel Rasplica Rodd, Kokinshū: A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern (Princton University Press, 1984) 35.
[2] Li Zehou and Liu Gangji (trans.), Zhongguo mei xue shi中国美学史 (Peking: Zhonghua, 1987) Vol. 2, 572.
[3] Shi sanjing zhu shu (十三經註疏) vol. 2, 2527.
[4] Henkenius and Rodd, 36
[5] Henkenius and Rodd, 37
[6] Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen, Murmured Conversations: A Treatise on Poetry and Buddhism by the Poet-Monk Shinkei (Stanford University Press, 2008) 264
[7] Henkenius and Rodd, 38
[8] Ramirez-Christensen, 265
[9] Ramirez-Christensen, 265
[10] Henkenius and Rodd, 40
[11] Henkenius and Rodd, 40
[12] Li and Liu, vol. II, 572
[13] Henkenius and Rodd, 35
[14] Henkenius and Rodd, 44
[15] Henkenius and Rodd, 45
[16] Helen Craig McCullough, Tales of Ise: Lyrical Episodes from Tenth-Century Japan (Stanford University Press, 1968) 73
[17] Henkenius and Rodd, 36

Written by Erin M. Ure


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