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Three “Sketches from Life” in Ueda’s Modern Japanese Tanka

October 5, 2008 by · 1 comment

Barry George

Photo: OiMax

Japanese tanka is often regarded as poetry of strong emotion and self-revelation. From the earliest poems of courtly love to the impassioned verse the early 20th Century reformer Tekkan Yosano heralded as jiga no shi (the poetry of self), tanka poets have exhibited a wide range of feelings: joy, sadness, longing, melancholy, loneliness, regret. Indeed, in Modern Japanese Tanka (1996), Makoto Ueda’s influential translations of the tanka of twenty poets born between 1873 and 1962, this approach to tanka is well represented.

However, Ueda also includes tanka which show no ostensive emotion; they are not so much meditations on the poet’s feelings as the unfolding of his/her perception of a particular event or situation. These poems represent the other modern tanka movement, shasei (sketch from life), which was founded by the great haiku and tanka poet Masoaka Shiki. Three prime sketch-from-life poems are Kondo Yoshimi (b. 1913), Miya Shuji (1911-1986) , and Sasaki Yukitsuna (b. 1938).

One of Kondo Yoshimi’s tanka, as translated by Ueda, is as follows:

with headlights on
a line of bulldozers
bound for home
comes out of a building site
in the lowering blizzard. (187)

How forcefully and vividly the poem announces, in the first two lines, the sight coming toward us. We see the headlights, and then, not just bulldozers, but “a line of bulldozers.” Next, in less insistent imagery, we are given some further perspective, in terms of time and space: the bulldozers are headed home, having come out of a building. The poem’s language becomes progressively less dense and more diffused, until that diffusion is crystallized in the closing image of “the lowering blizzard.” With that last line, we become fully aware of a foreshadowing that we had perhaps only dimly recognized along the way. The phalanx of headlighted bulldozers is on the road because there is a snowstorm. The poem, which began with the focused image of “headlights” ends with the diffuse “snowstorm.” It holds these two images in a tension, while the event unfolds, line by line.

Yoshima’s bulldozers, though presumably driven by humans, are inanimate machines. One of Maya Shuji’s tanka, which has many of the same qualities, is about animals:

out of the shade
and toward the sunlight
a flock of chickens
with their numerous legs
walks on. (171)

Again, the poem, in Ueda’s translation, unfolds an event in remarkably spare, yet vivid image. Here, however, the “subject” of the poem, as well as of the complex sentence which is the poem, appears a little later. Not until the third line do we learn that the scene we are watching involves a flock of chickens. The first two lines occasion some suspense, as something yet unnamed is progressing from shade toward sunshine. We feel satisfaction as we learn who or what it is: a chicken flock. But that is only the beginning of what is intriguing about the scene, because the real focus of the poem is not the chickens themselves, but “their numerous legs.” Or, to say it more accurately, the numerous legs are the flock of chickens in the event we are witnessing. In a structure of disarming simplicity, our attention is drawn to this busyness—for the moment the procession of the legs seems endless! The flock is progressing, yes, but meanwhile we are focused—mesmerized, in fact—by the repetitive motion of waddling chickens.

A third example of an unfolding scene is following Ueda translation of a Sasaki Yukitsuna tanka:

a youngster
coming aboard with a
caged cicada
becomes the focus of our
speeding bus on the midnight road. (224)

The essentials of the poem are developed, in order, with clarity and efficiency. The poem’s subject, “a youngster,” appears at the start. He is “coming aboard,” which implies that the setting is a bus, train, plane, or ship, and that the poem is being related from the perspective of people (including the speaker and audience) who are already in the public conveyance. The third line sharpens the “focus”—a term Yukitsuna/Ueda actually uses—with the image of a “caged cicada.” The last two lines confirm and develop further what has already been implied about the setting: we are on a bus, and it is “speeding…on the midnight road.”

This tanka might well be read as an ars poetica, where the images of the poem are metaphors for the way a tanka works. The “speeding bus on the midnight road” is like human life as it hurtles through time and space; the passengers are the poem’s audience. The caged cicada is the poet, or the poem the youngster (as poet) brings to the audience. Either way, the cicada, which is known for its song, might convey the sense of poetry which expresses subjective thoughts and feelings.

What is interesting, however, is that Yukitsuna’s tanka, like Yoshimi’s and Shuji’s, depicts a situation objectively: nowhere does he directly share his feelings. In these poems, the poet is at most a veiled presence, his state of mind discernible, perhaps, in the animation of the bulldozers, the vertigo induced by the procession of chickens, or the eyes upon the boy and caged cicada. But the focus is on the phenomenon being described, not the poet’s emotion—and the reader’s pleasure comes from experiencing, one layer at a time, the unfolding situation. When, as here, the poet’s perception is vivid and whole, what is ultimately communicated is a fascination that feels like joy.

Works Cited
Ueda, Makoto, ed. and trans. Modern Japanese Tanka: An Anthology. New York: Columbia UP, 1996.

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