Poetry, a way of the words.


   A poetic verse, just like a musical phrase has a linear dimension, it exists in time. If the message is clear, expressed in an approachable way (taking into account we can read well in the language it is written) we absorb the story fairly quickly. If the images are somehow veiled, disguised in metaphors we might need further study. If the structure of the poem is complex and mystifies the narrative, we need to work even more diligently to unravel the essence. If we are confronted with translations of works from another culture we may encounter even more challenges. But beyond all those hurdles, what is there to find that we can connect with? What is that silver thread of common understanding? Could it be our emotionality, our humanity?  Don’t people of all ethnicities and cultural backgrounds experience the same feelings of joy, loss, love, disappointment, longing, sadness, confusion, peace, restlessness, fulfilment, excitement, resignation, anger, tranquillity, gratitude and so many more?

Japanese poetry captures this broad emotional kaleidoscope expressing it in various ways: addressing human condition directly, but also by disguising it into phenomenon of nature using season related vocabulary 3.1 indirectly, merely implying.

   “The harmony between the natural and human spheres that exist in waka (…) derives in part from a prominent rhetorical feature that we might call doubleness, in which the text operates at two levels simultaneously3.2

That happens by the use of so called hinge words kakatobe, which are homophones (word phonetically the same although of different meaning in different spelling) pivoting from the upper verse into the lower verse. 3.3  (...) which allows two levels (usually human and natural) to coexist in a compact form. 3.4

   “Mount Fuji (…) was associated with omohi (melancholy thoughts) with a homophone suffix hi (fire) that implied both volcanic fire and soldering passion3.5


   “Japanese poetry rarely uses overt metaphor. (…) Instead, the description of a flower, a plant, an animal or a landscape became an implicit description of a human or an internal state3.6


In our literary journey we encounter the poets calling the mist to stand for the melancholy, morning dew for the tears, the sound of grasses in the autumn translating into the passage of time. The codes are endless. And we can choose to read them on their often charming picturesque surface or dissect them and find their hidden meaning.

The poems, though compact in their form (31 syllables for tanka, 17 for haiku) describe great complexities of human soul.

Interestingly in the process of reading itself, the space between the poem and the reader may itself create a new dimension, a space within intimacy of reader’s own interpretation, adding another layer. The poem is merely a suggestion, a beautifully composed suggestion while the reader is the receiver who with his response gives poems ’implication yet another a shape.


On the representational level, thankfully for a musician, many of the emotional landscapes are translatable into sound (them being encoded in the terminology of seasons’ natural phenomenon and direct onomatopoeias). Poems widely mention sounds of insects, birds, but also the voices of the elements: winds, rains, snow.

   “There are, for example, three major types of rain- drizzle (…), long rains(…), and passing showers(…), each of which came to be associated with a season and a specific psychological state: spring (romance), summer (melancholy), and autumn and winter (uncertainty), respectively." 3.7

 And with that colourful acoustic palette the reader’s ears are stimulated before any sound is produced, when the eyes just follow the text.  Reading those texts from my musical perspective, I can’t help but ask myself: how could “rustling grasses” or “snowflakes falling” inspire an improvisation or a score? Which sounds produced by the human voice could be that wind?


But… what if we leave out the translation altogether? What if we decide to withdraw from interpretation for a moment and only perceive the sound of the language itself? Can we hear between the lines? And does it make any sense to try?


I gladly explore the intensity, sound imagery and sound of the Japanese language form purely acoustic point of view in the improvisations in form of a sound poem (see Sketch 4). Of course, the literary meaning gets blurred but by departing from the atmosphere set by the original texts’ translation I am drawing a new picture by playing with the language's phonology. The poem travels, so to speak, from the written form to its musical expression in a somehow circular manner, undergoing a transformation and returning to the source, which could be seen as follows:

-original poem

-English translation

(Understanding primary and secondary layers)

-musical abstraction of the poems imagery through the sound of the original language as tool for sound poem improvisation; emphasising languages acoustic parameters

-returning to the English translation, the meaning of the words

-returning to the sound of the original poem


Brief note on Haiku and Tanka.

The most popular form of Japanese poetry that has taken root in our Western literary awareness is haiku, a short 17 sound unit (in the Japanese version) poem cultivated since the 17th century. Now it is widely written in English and other Indo-European languages. It is an offspring of a longer poetic form called tanka (31 sound unit poem), which is the main focus of this research. Here, to give you some impression of these forms I present you with some examples of both:


Taking a small

Parasol, I am off to fetch

The morning water

The wheat is greenest green

And drizzle wets the village

Yosano Akiko (1878-1942)




Oiled paper umbrella

Trying to push through


 Basho Matsuo (1644 -1694)

He kept blowing

Sandalwood smoke toward me

With that hateful fan

I grabbed it

From his hand!

  Yosano Akiko


One fell-

Two fell-


       Shiki Masaoka (1867-1902)




On the Eastern horizon

Dawn glows over

The fields, and when

I look back I see

The moon setting in the West

  Hitomaro (-739)




Who is there? Me.

Me who? I am me, you are you.

But you take my pronoun

And we are us.

 Marichiko (pen name of Kenneth Rexroth 1905-1982)




The moon and I

Left alone-

On the bridge

     Tagami Kikusha (1753-1826)


You do not come

On this moonless night

I wake wanting you

My breasts heave and blaze

My heart burns up

  Ono no Komachi (834-880)



One naked baby

Is all I’ve got

And I pray

   Ishibashi Hideno (1909-1947)




 It is remarkable that despite that some of the quoted poems were written a few hundred years ago, they express a quality resonating in us even today. In their empathy with the human condition they are timeless. You could argue of course that it is inherent to any excellent writing, which by itself explains its power to communicate with, and touch the reader to this day and survive the trial of time. Still the haikai forms (tanka and haiku) posess something special which seems to resonate deeper with the 21st century reader’s tastes.


So, which elements could be playing that attracting role? Here some of my suggestions:

-Brevity of each poem, a miniature world in just 31 syllables;

-Here and now presence- being in the moment and not going beyond that (according to the concepts of Buddhist thought);

-Minimalism- the craft of expressing complex feelings or describing elaborate scene in a condensed manner;  

-Visual aspect- photographic, snapshot-like, relevant in our visually oriented culture;

-Humanity- empathy in describing the human condition with a broad emotional vocabulary



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