A Cold Mat: Poem 91

February 19, 2014

White (3235665151)

A fitting poem for winter and those who somehow missed out on Valentine’s Day recently:

きりぎりす Kirigirisu
鳴くや霜夜の Naku ya shimoyo no
さむしろに sa mushiro ni
衣かたしき koromo katashiki
ひとりかも寝む hitori kamo nen

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

When the crickets
cry in the frosty night,
on the cold reed-mat,
spreading out my robe just for one,
must I sleep all alone?

This sad, miserable poem was ironically composed by a famous poet of his era named Fujiwara no Yoshitsune (1169-1206) whose grandather was Jien (poem 95). He was another member of the elite poetry family, the Mikohidari (see Jakuren poem 87) and was very well-represented in the Shin Kokin Wakashū poetry anthology which he was an editor. Elsewhere, as a scion of the Fujiwara family, he served as regent to the young Emperor Tsuchimikado.

Astute readers may have noticed that this poem sounds similar, especially in Japanese, to a very early poem in the anthology by Hitomaro (poem 3). Even the last line is the same.

But part of the poem also seems similar to another poem in the Shin Kokin Wakashū according to Professor Mostow, which relates to cold reed-mats and waiting alone. So, in a sense, this poem blends two famous poems and adds the novelty of crickets.

But as we’ve seen with poem 90, it was an accepted practice at the time to write poetry which allude to older poems in the poems. Indeed, as the author of the blog, I admit I kind of enjoyed this poem more when I noticed the final line and realized I had heard it before.

Yoshitsune certainly never had to spend a night in the cold as a member of the elite Fujiwara family, but his ability to weave old poetry verses together and paint such a sad picture help explain why he was such a famous poet.

Snowy Plover Morro Strand

As the weather gets colder, I’ve been saving this one for a time like this:

淡路島 Awaji shima
かよふ千鳥の Kayou chidori no
なく声に Naku koe ni
いくよねざめぬ Ikuyo nezamenu
すまの関守 Suma no sekimori

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

The crying voices
of the plovers who visit
from Awaji Island—
how many nights have they awakened him,
the barrier-keepers of Suma?

The author of the poem, Minamoto no Kanemasa (dates unknown) was a frequent participant in poetry contests of the day, but overall very little is known about him, and it doesn’t appear he had any poetry collections of his own.

The first time I read this poem, in Japanese, I misunderstood the phrase chidori (千鳥) to literally mean 1,000 birds (in other words, a lot of birds). But in fact, chidori refers specifically to plover birds. The plover is representative of winter, and as we’ve seen before other birds represent for other seasons:

The location, Awaji Island, is a well known part of Japan’s inland sea, and is culturally significant since antiquity. Though at this time in history, it seemed a bit remote from the capitol.

Professor Mostow notes that this poem uses some strange grammar though. For example nezamenu would normally mean to not wake up, but in this context means “have they awakened” instead. Also, he notes that this poem apparently alludes to the Tales of Genji, specifically the “Suma” chapter, when the prince Genji was in exile.

All told, this poem paints a sad, somber picture that fits well with wintry days.

Kennebunk River, Fog

This is a great poem for the deep of winter:

朝ぼらけ Asaborake
宇治の川ぎり Uji no kawagiri
たえだえに Taedae ni
あらはれわたる Araware wataru
せぜの網代木 Seze no ajirogi

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

As the winter dawn
breaks, the Uji River mist
things in patches and
revealed, here and there, are
all the shallows’ fishing stakes.

The author of this poem is Fujiwara no Sadayori, son of the famous poet and critic, Fujiwara no Kintō (poem 55) and respectable poet in his own right.

The Uji River (宇治川), now known as the Yodo River, is probably one of the oldest and most famous in Japanese poetry, and runs through the Osaka metropolitan area. It is mentioned in the earliest Japanese poem anthology, such as the Manyoshu, and others.

I actually had to look up what “fishing stakes” are. The term, ajirogi (網代木), refers to stakes in the water, like a fence or weir. Fish swim into these places and they were easier to catch with nets because they had fewer places to escape.

Professor Mostow notes that the combination of the Uji River and the fishing stakes was a very famous image in ancient Japanese poetry, and this coupled with the image of a cold winter’s dawn make this a powerful poem. Unlike other poems in the Hyakunin Isshu which might be hypothetical, exaggerated or talk about something abstract such as love, Mostow points out that this poem likely was written exactly as Sadayori saw it. I can only wonder what it was like watching the fishermen go to work early that icy morning.

Snowfall: Poem Number 31

January 4, 2013

Wheeler Crest pink sunrise

Similar to the previous poem, this one deals with the moon, but I think this poem epitomizes the winter season:

朝ぼらけ Asaborake
有明の月と ariake no tsuki to
みるまでに miru made ni
吉野の里に Yoshino no sato ni
ふれる白雪 fureru shirayuki

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

So that I thought it
the light of the lingering moon
at dawn—
the white snow that has fallen
on the village of Yoshino

The author, Sakanoue no Korenori, is one of the Thirty-Six Immortals of Poetry, but otherwise nothing much is known about him.

This poem, as Professor Mostow explains, is similar to poem 29, and is part of a theme on “elegant confusion” which is a hallmark of Chinese poetry. Early poetry in Japan was still greatly indebted to Chinese poetry and many of the imagery, and idioms used in the Hyakunin Isshu anthology are not exception.

I happen to like this poem also because it has a lot of obscure, but cool Japanese poetic terms. We’ve seen ariake discussed in poem 30, but also this poem uses the term asaborake (朝ぼらけ) which means a dawn in either winter or autumn. It’s a kind of slow, late dawn that you only find in that time of year. Compare with akatsuki (暁), which Professor Mostow explains can mean “dawn” any time of the year.

Also, I am not sure which village of “Yoshino” this poem refers to, but I suspect it might be the Yoshino in Nara Prefecture. I could be wrong though.

Fall Sunset

Winter’s always a quiet, lonely time:

山里は Yamazato wa
冬ぞさびしさ Huyu zo sabishisa
まさりける Masari keru
人めも草も Hitome mo kusa mo
かれぬとおもへば karenu to omoeba

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

In the mountain village,
it is in winter that my loneliness
increases most,
when I think how both have dried up,
the grasses and people’s visits.

According to Mostow, this poem was composed in answer to the question of whether Fall or Winter was the lonelier season. Obviously the author, Minamoto no Muneyuki, favored winter. Minamoto no Muneyuki was the grandson of Emperor Kōkō and had a large portfolio of poems published in official anthologies, and earned himself a place among the Thirty Six Immortals of Poetry as well.

To me at least, the poem reminds me also of nobleman from the Heian Court who were required to do at least one tour of duty in remote provinces as a provincial governor for 4 years. The more remote the province, the more menial and degrading the task. Very well-to-do men could usually get themselves out of this obligation but most middle and lower ranking officials could not. Being cut off from the Heian Court was often a lonely affair as evinced in the writings of men like Sugawara no Michizane and others so imagine the author was also conveying this familiar sense of the time of loneliness officials stuck in a remote mountain village away from the Court in Winter and from friends.