Sentokun

This is a well-known poem in the Hyakunin Isshu, and I felt worth posting here:

世の中よ Yo no naka yo
道こそなけれ michi koso nakere
思ひ入る omoi iru
山のおくにも yama no oku ni mo
鹿ぞ鳴くなる shika zo naku naru

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

Within this world
there is, indeed, no path!
Even deep in this mountains
I have entered, heart set,
I seem to hear the deer cry!

The author, Fujiwara no Toshinari (1114-1204), or “Shunzei”, is the father of Fujiwara no Teika (poem 97) who compiled the Hyakunin Isshu anthology and was the foremost poetry expert of his time. Additionally, a surprising number of other poets in the Hyakunin Isshu were associated with (poem 81, 86 and 87), or studied under Shunzei (poem 89 and 98) or were directly in opposition to him (poem 79). Shunzei is probably the second most important person in the Hyakunin Isshu after his son of course. 🙂

This poem is both moving and technically strong. For example, according to Mostow, the phrase omoi iru is a “pivot word”, meaning that both the words before and after hinge on its double meanings: omoi-iru “to set one’s heart on” and iru “to enter”.

Again, as Mostow explains, the poem generates quite a bit of debate because it’s not clear what concerned him so much. Was it melancholy, a sense of his mortality, or was the state of society at the time (i.e. the decline of the Heian Period)?

Speaking of a deer’s cry, I found this video one of the famous “Nara deer”:

The Nara deer are more domesticated versions of the wild deer in Japan, but it gives you an idea what Shunzei must have heard deep in the woods 900 years ago.

P.S. Photo above was taken of a souvenir we received from a friend in Japan, celebrating the 1300th anniversary of the city of Nara. The little figure on the right is Nara’s mascot, Sento-kun. We’ve been to Nara too a couple of times. Here’s me standing next to one of the Nara deer in 2005.

P.P.S. See poem 5 for something similar.

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Autumn leaves 01

One of the most famous and recognizable poems in the Hyakunin Isshu is poem 17:

千早ぶる Chihayaburu
神代もきかず Kamiyo kikazu
龍田川 Tatsuta-gawa
からくれないに Kara kurenai ni
水くくるとは Mizu kukuru to wa

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

Unheard of
even in the legendary age
of the awesome gods:
Tatsuta River in scarlet
and the water flowing under it.

The imagery of red, autumn leaves flowing along the river provides a very memorable contrast, and it is good reason that Ariwara no Narihara earned a place among the original Six Immortals of Poetry, followed by the later Thirty-Six Immortals of Poetry. The talent for poetry runs in the family, as his older brother Yukihira, wrote poem number 16 of the Hyakunin Isshu as well. Originally this poem was published in the Kokin Wakashū anthology, number 294.

The Tatsuta River can be found in modern-day Nara Prefecture, and is a scenic, gentle flowing river. I’d love to see it someday.

Lastly, the opening line of this poem, chihayaburu, is a prime example of “pillow words” in Japanese poetry. It literally means something like “a thousand swift swords”, but really is an honorific epithet when referring to the gods, similar to how Homer used to use special epithets for each of the Olympian gods. Nevertheless, it’s a famous line, and can be found in Waka poetry written even in modern times, and is also the title of the popular manga exploring the Hyakunin Isshu card game.

Sky Washington DC 2007 005

One of my favorite poems in all the Hyakunin Isshu is also one of the first:

春過ぎて Haru sugite
夏来にけらし Natsu ki ni kerashi
白妙の Shiro tae no
衣ほすてふ Koromo hosu chō
天の香具山 Ama no Kaguyama

Which Porter translated as:

THE spring has gone, the summer’s come,
And I can just descry
The peak of Ama-no-kagu,
Where angels of the sky
Spread their white robes to dry.

Empress Jitō (645-702) is the daughter of Emperor Tenji, who wrote poem number 1 in the anthology, but also became the Empress after her husband, Emperor Tenmu died, and reigned for 11 years.

This poem in general causes a lot of headaches for commentators and translators over generations because of the confusing relation between certain lines. Mostow’s translation is:

Spring has passed, and
summer has arrived, it seems
Heavenly Mount Kagu
where, it is said, they dry robes
of the whitest mulberry!

While the pillow words in the third line, mentioned in an older post, are pretty clear-cut according to Mostow, there’s a lot of confusion over generations about what’s being dried, what does it stand for, and either the seen is directly observed or not. On the note about the pillow word, shirotae 白妙, Mostow explains that the word tahe/tae refers to a kind of Paper Mulberry plant.

Also, where this famous Mount Kagu? Mount Kagu is one of three peaks called the Yamato Sanzan (大和三山, Three Peaks of [old] Yamato), which are pictured here. Yamato is among the oldest part of Japan as we know it, so these mountains, while small by standards of Mt. Fuji, or mountains in other places in the world, have held important cultural significance since the beginning. As Mostow explains, Mount Kagu is the site of the famous Shinto myth surrounding Amaterasu Ōmikami, the goddess of the sun, who shut herself in a cave at Mt. Kagu.

The ancient imagery of such a venerable old mountain, couple with such vivid imagery of a sunny, warm summer day are among the reasons why I like this poem so much. 🙂