Approach to classical japanese poetry
Japanese people have always loved poetry, and it holds an important place in their literature. Since its ancient history, Japan has known warsongs, consisting of lovesongs, the so-called elegies. In this distant era the songs and poems were preserved by oral transmission. The first written works in Japan, the Kojiki (year 712) and the Nihonji (720) have preserved 200 of their poetic pieces. They express simply and naively the poets' sensibillity for the beauty and the strength of the body, reveales his sensual appetite; one was seeking in vain for higher spiritual thoughts or a delicate taste which would soon characterize Japanese poetry.
Based on the syllable rhythm, the poems present an undetermined succession of verses with a number of variable syllables, from 3 to 11; but rather quickly it is the alternation with 5 to 7 syllables which prevails. The long poems (chôka) are written in this way. But this form was discarded, now leaving an exclusive place for the short poems (tanka), 31 syllables (220.127.116.11.7). This will be the unchanging mould for almost all Japanese poetry during the centuries that follow.
In the Nara period (710-784) appears a first poetic compilation which will make Japanese poetry famous. This poetic compilation is named the Manyôshu (Collection of ten thousand leaves).
Still written in Chinese characters that have either a phonetic, or ideographic meaning, these poems have for subject, seasons, love, the separation of a loved one; plenty of subjects for elegies.
The love for nature takes a large place, the flowers, the nightingale, the cuckoo, the wild geese, the cranes, the fireflies and the butterflies which Japanese poetry uses without tiring throughout the ages. The virile tone, the natural and warm feeling characterizes Manyôshu.
Owarida no Hiromimi
(Man VIII; 1475)
The most influent authors among the 561 named by the Manyôshu are Hitomaro, Okura and in particular Yakamochi who reveals the most evolved poetic meaning.
(Yakamochi snaps a branch of a blossoming orange tree and throws it to his wife Sakanoe daughter of the great poetess with the same name)
The capital was transferred from Nara to Heian (the future Kyoto) in 784. From the end of the IXth century, literature - in particular poetry- enjoyed a new boom. About 908, the emperor Daigo ordered to compile, the first and beyond doubt, one of the most remarkable official anthologies. Wich were suceeded by many others in a stunning rhythm until the middle of the XVth century. This was the Kokinshû. (collection of poems about the past and the present). Long poems had been abandoned. The poets aimed for elegance, however, an excess of this refinement often lead to a preciosity which did a lot of harm to the poetic elan. They put themselves at stake and locked themselves up in the narrow barriers of the tanka (short poetry with 5 lines). In spite of these reproaches, the tanka is often a delightful poem; the conciseness of its form combines with its elegance. The sentiments expressed are less rough than in the Nara period and love is expressed with delicacy.
The success of these poems was such that the Court instituted an office of poetry, which, between 951 and 1187, published 6 compiles. From this mass of poets, one has to remember Narihira with his love adventures from which a great number of banished poems in a concise prose have formed the Tales of Ise (Ise monogatari). And also, Ki no Tsurayuki (who died in 945) who was highly appreciated by all the Japanese people, and was the principal compiler of the kokinshû. In his time he was named 'the prince of poetry'.
Once I wet my sleeves
It's frozen now
On this first day of spring,
Will the wind melt it, I wonder?
At the end of the XIIth century the Governement went over in the hands of the shôguns of Kamakura who ordered still more compilations. This continued during the Muromachi period (1336 untill 1573); 21 official compilations were published in total. Add up to that amount the private collections of which one of the best known is the Hyakunin isshû (of hundred men every one a poem), made up by the poet Teika (under -secretary of State) who was in charge of preparing the 8th official anthology of the Shin Kokinshû. We should also name other highly appreciated poets like Teika, who was an outstanding poet, the monk Saigyô but also Ietaka, Masatsume, and finaly Sanetomo.
The monk Saigyô (1118-1190)
In the XVth century, the renga, a chain poem, which resulted from the dissociation of the two parts of the tanka, became in vogue. The renga is a series of responding verses, one verse is written by a first poet, the following verse is written by another and so on.
The glory of the literature of the Muromachi period is above all based on the nô. These were lyrical plays in which dance and songs were the essential elements and which showed a high quality of poetic meaning.
After the suppression of the anarchical state in which Japan and its establishement had fallen and thanks to the energy of three great captains - Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu - an era of interior peace was reached, wich was to go on until the imperial restoration in 1868. The Tokugawa era would be the final stage of the classical poetry.
A new kind of poetry became in vogue without equal, this was hokku, which we still name haiku or haikai; names that allude to the humoristic character of a part of these works. The tanka was already very short with its five lines; the haika goes one step further and settles for three lines. The haika was born out of the renga, the chain poem in wich the succesive verses were more or less independent. Sôkan and Moritake are haikai artists to remember, however the Master of the genre is Bâsho, who was considered one of the greatest authors of the Tokugawa period in the XVIIth century. Among his successors,Buson and Issa are some of the ones to be quoted among the best poets, even though the quality of their works cannot be compared with those of the great Bashô.
One continues to write the haikai in the XVIIIth and XIXth century, but they will be the last witnesses of the classical poetry.
(Bashô Kushû, 77;Miyamori,20)
The few words of which a haiku consists, born out of the deepest of our true nature, reveal eternal conscience of the present and the marvellous poetry of the world. Le haiku translates without explaining, but just by suggesting, the experience of a philosophical and poetic detachment, of the world, when everything becomes simply bright and wonderfully obvious. It translates those rare fugitive moments of grace when one is miraculously connected to the world, in the course of things. When one realizes, much more than the sense, the harmony of things and their perfect coincidence.
When time seems to stop and eternity begins.
"The haïku poetry, remarkable for its extreme sobriety of its verbal expression, permits silence to say it all, by making it quiet." (Gusty L. Herrigel: La Voie des Fleurs. Le Zen dans l'art japonais des compositions florales.)
(texts quotes from l'Anthology de la poésie japonaise classique. Poésie/Gallimard, and the Moundarren collections)