For my project of creating new music adapting Japanese poetry I have chosen the tanka of only one writer in particular: Yosano Akiko; a poetess whose superb writing has captured my imagination. Let me introduce you to both: the poem and the author.
Tanka- (“short poem”) is a Japanese traditional poetic form, synonymous with Waka- “Japanese poem”. It consists of 31moras (translatable, although not exactly, with the term: syllables). Tanka is composed of five verses of 5-7-5-7-7 sound units. The 5-7-5 is called the “upper phrase/poem” and the 7-7 the “lower phrase/ poem”. The poem often appears written in one long line, sometimes in two or three. The author has the freedom of visually composing the poem. The order of 5 verses is the most common in printed English editions.
It has been practised since the 7th century well into modernity, and has served as a basis for the development of other forms such as renga-linked verse (chain of tanka, written by two or more poets) and haiku. The latter was created in the 16th c. by extracting the upper poem from the tanka (the first three verses alone) and evolving it into an even shorter poem.
The most significant compilations of tanka can be found in the volumes of a legendary imperial anthology, the “Man’yoshu” (mid 8thc.), which consists of merely 4000 poems by different authors. This magnificent collection of lyrics, translating into English as “The Collection of Ten-Thousand Leaves” has undeniably set a poetic standard of writing in this genre for centuries to come. Although the direct imagery of the poems seems understandable to a common reader at first, we might find it challenging at times to understand all works without additional information as some cultural connotations ask for more research: biographical background, geographical names, and historical backdrop. Why is that, you may ask?
Many of the poems in “Man’yo” are like journal entries, archiving life at the court but also the courtship itself. As it was common in the Heian period (8th to 12th c.) to completely omit prose and write letters in the form of tanka. In efforts to secure someone’s heart, hand (and fortune most likely) it was essential to exhibit the skill of writing. And yes believe it, it could make or break a marriage! 6.0
So, how can we be sure that we have understood the essence completely? Again the “what is implied”? The big challenge for our understanding may be the Japanese language itself.
“The difficulties of reading Japanese literature can hardly be exaggerated; even a specialist in one period is likely to have trouble deciphering a work from another period or genre. Japanese style has always favoured ambiguity, and the particles of speech necessary for easy comprehension of a statement are often omitted as unnecessary or as fussily precise. Sometimes the only clue to the subject or object of a sentence is the level of politeness in which the words are couched; for example, the verb “mesu” (meaning “to eat”, “to wear”, “to ride in a carriage” etc.) designates merely an action performed by a person of quality. In many cases, ready comprehension of a simple sentence depends on a familiarity with the background of a particular period of history” 6.1
But even though there are undeniable obstacles in our understanding of all historical writing, tanka still has made it out of Japan into the world and conquered our literary consciousness. Here, in my opinion is why:
-It is personal and universally easy to understand on an emotional level,
-it is of great picturesque beauty;
-it is minimalistic, compressed into a short, comprehensible length and, very contemporary.
“Despite the great difficulties arising from such idiosyncrasies of style, Japanese literature of all periods is exceptionally appealing to modern readers, whether read in original or in translation. Because it is prevailingly subjective and coloured by an emotional rather than intellectual or moralistic tone, its themes have a universal quality almost unaffected by time .“ 6.2
Akiko Yosano (1878-1942)
“(…) the only truly great poet to write in traditional tanka form in modern times.(…) certainly one of the greatest poets of her time- the most perfect expression of “Art Nouveau” sensibility- like Debussy, who should have set her poems to music” 6.3
Akiko Yosano was born in Sakai into a merchant family and, quite unusually for girls from her milieu, she rebelled to leave for Kyoto and to study literature in Tokyo at 22. In the capital she polished her writing skills under the watchful eye of her mentor Hiroshi Yosano who, being a poet himself, became her great inspiration. The fascination was mutual and quickly it turned into a love affair. That relationship evolved to a long-lasting, passionate and at times tumultuous marriage, full of professional and personal challenges. Hiroshi and Akiko were the publishers of a renowned but barely profitable poetry magazine “Myojo” –“Morning Star”, which was the mouthpiece of their “New Poetry Society”. They also parented 13 children, and all these events happened against a backdrop of financial difficulties which Akiko managed to resolve single-handedly while also coping with Hiroshi’s mental instability.
Akiko published her first tanka collection “
But what we know Akiko for was her life work as a reformer of tanka.
Although she respected the 31-syllable framework, quoted and elaborated ancient themes, she also altered the way her characters expressed themselves. Women in “Tangled Hair”, are independent, emancipated and daring. One commands a Buddhist monk: “Pray to the peach blossom of my hair!”.
“ Unlike most classical Japanese love poetry, which wove its narrative around moments of longing, a brief period of union, and woman’s abandonment, many of poems of “Tangled Hair” are constructed around the peak of satisfaction: its forecast, its memory, or its actuality”6.5.
In her seeking and experimentation, she abstracted the language and imagery as far as could be understood: The poetess not only adds everyday events, objects (not done in classical examples) but also uses modern, impressionistic, image-infused construction or rather reconstruction of the poem. Following example refers to her “Land of Spring”:
Land of Spring
Country of love
In the half-light of dawn
That clarity- is hat hair?
Oil of the flowering plum
Haru no kuni/ koi no mikuni no/asaborake/ Shiruki wa kami ka/Baika ba abura6.6
“The poem in fact is nothing but a string of nouns held together by no, broken only by one instance each of the subject particle wa and the question marker ka; there are no verbs. The terseness and fragmentation suggest that we are overhearing the thoughts of someone slowly awakening. It is a liminal, half-conscious moment, and a subtle mingling of the senses (…) as awareness of the world slowly returns (…).”6.7
That openness to formal experimentation, diary-like personal language of the poems catching the universal female experience, poem’s atmosphere and encoded picture were the most inspiring ignitions of my search for their musical translations.