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Tanka and Japanese Aesthetics

Tanka and Japanese Aesthetics

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Published by Robert D. Wilson
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Published by: Robert D. Wilson on Jun 02, 2011
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By Robert D. WilsonEvery day I read ³junk tanka´ online; people new to tanka posting three to five tanka a day, as if 
 
the composition of tanka were the easiest thing to do in the world. Oftentimes their output lacksmeter, and is far from memorable. They need direction, a helping hand, before they settle into aroutine and disseminate their poetry in venues other than online, their misconceptions regardingtanka extending its reach to people who, for the most part, will never attend a tanka club
 
meeting, participate in a poetry workshop, read a journal, let alone study the form from anacademic perspective; then share their misconceptions with others, etc.
 Ma, the unsaid, yugen, makoto, shasei
? What do these terms mean? They pop up in books,
 
 journals and on the internet, yet finding a clear definition for any of these terms is next toimpossible. I have trouble finding anything about these terms on or offline that¶s written inlayman¶s language, and the definitions vary between writers. Let us look at some of the toolsavailable for tanka poets; tools that will help us to understand the genre better and, in turn,compose better tanka.The East and the West are different mindsets in many ways. Japan is influenced by animism andindigenous beliefs from their Ainu roots, as well as Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and Shintoism. TheJudeo-Christian presence there is minimal. Japan¶s also influenced by a shared heritage with
 
China. It was China who colonized Japan and intermarried with the Ainu and other indigenous peoples living in this island grouping before it was unified and became Japan. The Chinese
 
introduced written language, poetry, etc. to Japan. The terms:
unsaid, yugen, makoto, ma, and  shasei
, can be hard to grasp for some English speaking people because they deal with silence,impermanence, the undefined, the untouchable, the metaphysical, and other forms of non-concrete thinking. Some of these terms have counterparts in the Chinese language. Many
 
Westerners prefer terms with concrete definitions. Nevertheless, these Japanese terms areimportant tools.
The unsaid 
is what its name implies, the unsaid. If only it was a concrete term to explore and
 
look up in a dictionary. That would make things easier. How does one define something that¶sunsaid? How a word is defined in one language isn¶t always the same in another language.Webster¶s Dictionary will not provide you with the meaning of many Japanese words as theJapanese interpret and experience them. Some definitions are richer in meaning in one language,a word having multiple layers of meaning. Every culture has their own interpretation of wordsinfluenced by cultural memory and indigenous experiences.
The unsaid 
? It¶s like trying to describe the feelings of a rejected lover while gazing up at a cloud
 
formation; his longing, loneliness, and perhaps, hope. It is but it isn¶t. How does one include the
 unsaid 
in a poem consisting of only five lines and thirty one or less syllables? A skillful painter uses white space in a painting to draw attention to the painting¶s focus. Too much clutter and
 
extraneous background material and the focus of a painting is muddled. Likewise in tanka,
theunsaid 
, call it poetic white space, is an effective tool to enhance the central focus of a particular tanka. Words that hint at something more, dashes or dots signifying a pause, the end of a givenline, not telling all, an ambiguous line, all are facets of 
the unsaid 
(white space), inviting readers
 
to participate in the conceptualization of the poem. What the poet starts, an astute reader finishes.
 
Wrote the Monk Zenko somewhere between 1330 and 1333 in his work, Essays in Idleness,
 
excerpted from Donald Keene¶s book, Japanese Aesthetics):
³ I 
n everything, no matter that it may be, uniformity is undesirable. Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting,and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth. Someone once told me, 'Evenwhen building the imperial palace, they always leave one place unfinished.' . . . People often say that a set of books looks ugly if all volumes are not in the same format, but 
 I 
was impressed to hear the Abbot Koyu say, ' 
 I 
t is typical of theunintelligent man to insist on assembling complete sets of everything.
 I 
mperfect setsare better.¶ 
³
 
Donald Keene gives this example in his book, Japanese Aesthetics:³
The Sistine Chapel is magnificent, but it asks our admiration rather than our participation; the15 stones of the Ryoan-ji [a stone garden], irregular in shape and position, allow us to participate in the creation of the garden." 
This principle also can be applied to the composition of tanka. Tanka that doesn¶t tell all invitesreaders to participate in the poem. A poet starts the poem and the reader finishes it with hisinterpretation. It is important to include the reader in one¶s poem. ³
 Leaving something 
 
incomplete´
entices readers to look deeper, and through this exploration, sense what theemotional content and meaning of the poem is.
The unsaid 
is a valuable tool for tanka poets who
 
use less than 31 syllables and only five lines in the composition of their poetry. States HasegawaKei, the author of over 20 books on haiku criticism, in an interview I conducted with him in July2008:
³W 
estern culture does not recognize this thing called ma.
 I 
n the literary arts, everything must be expressed by words. But Japanese literature, especially haiku, is different. As with the
 
blank spaces in a painting or the silent parts of a musical composition, it is what is not put intowords that is important.´
This applies to tanka as well, the concept of Ma permeating every
 
aspect of Japanese life. Still hard to understand? Let¶s dig deeper.Adding another facet to the definition of the unsaid, poet/translator, Sanford Goldstein says,
³
 The unsaid is what 
 I 
would call effective ambiguity(aimai).´
Ambiguity?Remember what I said about the differences between languages regarding thedefinitions of various words? Webster Dictionary defines ambiguity as:
 
uncertainty or inexactness of meaning in language : we can detect no ambiguity in this section of the Act | ambiguities in such questions are potentially very dangerous.
 ‡
a lack of decisiveness or commitment resulting from a failure to make a choice betweenalternatives : the film is fraught with moral ambiguity.
 A Japanese poet sees the word in a different light. They don¶t define ambiguity as only
uncertainty, inexactness, or a lack of decisiveness.
Ambiguity is also a tool in which one doesn¶t
 
tell all in a poem, striving for a poem¶s gist, using an economy of words effectively to cause
 
readers to examine a poem more closely,
the unsaid 
painting a cerebral etching in their minds.Think of the headspace a Japanese minimalist painter might use while painting a picture thatisn¶t busy, wanting to connect with those viewing the painting. Color, texture, light, etc. play a part in emphasizing the
unsaid 
, yet, as Amelia Fielden aptly points out,
³
 Japanese as alanguage, not just in poetry, is vaguer than English (re., no definite and indefinite articles, rare
 
use of personals pronouns etc.). Speaking one's opinion too directly is not polite in Japanese. And some people in the translation business have commented to me that one of their main
 
 problems is that English is such a quote, "concrete language", in which it is expected that thehe/she/they and the singulars and plurals will be specified, whereas in Japanese, it is accepted,can be more ambiguous.´
Adds Fielden
 ,
³
The 'unsaid' in Japanese tanka/waka is 'easier' toachieve eg.
, because the pronouns he/she/they/it are mostly not specified,or necessary. Even in
 
contemporary spoken Japanese such words,though they exist in the language, are not used withanything like the same frequency as they are in English. Also,there is rarely a distinction made
 
 between singular and plural, especially in poetry...an apple, the apple, the apples, someapples,apples,.. are all the same, single
word. Japanese has no equivalent of 'the',moreover.´
Take for instance the following tanka composed by Nakajo Fumiko as shelay dying in a hospital room of cancer:
 since that evening 
 
when
 I 
first smelled the stench
 
of my dead body
 
the sharp eyes of a vulture
 
remain forever in my mind 
 ware to waga fushu wo kagishi yube yori taka no surudoki me watsukimatou Nakajo FumikoTranslated by Makoto UedaModern Japanese TankaColumbia University PressFrom a concrete perspective, Fumiko¶s poem makes little sense and reads like fantasy. From theJapanese perspective, however, her tanka says a lot, utilizing an economy of words coupled with

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