Saturday, May 13, 2006

Origins of Japanese Poetry - Choka

There are about 400 choka, or long songs, in the 8th century collection entitled the Man'yoshu, or Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves. Although it falls short of the 'ten thousand' promised, the Man'yo collection contains approximately 4400 poems, making it one of the most substantial poetry anthologies ever collected anywhere in the world. That Japan of the 8th century -- when most of the people were illiterate -- was capable of produce 4400 decent poems that people of the time actually wanted to read -- says volumes about the importance of poetry to the culture. Poetry is entrenched in Japanese culture to an extent not seen in any other culture. Consider the 700s in Europe... The Anglo-Saxons produced Beowulf, a rather violent story about a monster killing men, then getting his arm written off by a hero who procedes to kill him. Which may explain why English-speaking Americans, direct heirs of this tradition, prefer their violent movies over poetry.

But to return to choka... Choka were long, elegiac poems. Poems of 30 - 100 lines in length were quite common. Being elegies they covered the usual elegiac topics: homages to emperors, lovers, gods, natural beauty, etc. They followed the basic 5-7 form for an indefinite number of lines, then tacked on an extra line of 7. The final 5-7-7 was the 'stop sign' for Japanese poetry. Given that nobody knew how long a poem was going to last when the reciter started chanting it, the 5-7-7 ending was the signal that 'the poem is done, you can clap now.'

Given that most people weren't literate, poems had to be memorized to be shared. Needlesstosay, the typical person wasn't about to memorize 100 lines of anything. Further more, when gossiping with their friends after the fact, their friends probably didn't want to sit through the whole 100 lines, either. And so the custom of the envoi developed.

The 'envoi' is a summary verse of five lines, in the form of 5-7-5-7-7. Those already familiar with Japaniform poetry will recognize the pattern immediately, nowadays it is called 'tanka.' Choka did not always have envois, and they might have one or two envois when they did, there was no firm rule about it. The envois needed to cram the important points into five lines and as a result they tended to be more emotional and less detailed than the choka. In other words, they were short lyric poems. The good envois were good enough to stand on their own, and lo, a new genre was born, a genre which the people of the time were soon calling 'waka'. In fact, approximately 4000 of the poems in the Man'yoshu are waka, which is to say, standalone poems having no connection at all to choka.

I have written one choka, but I wrote it before I understood the choka pattern and so it ends with 5-7 instead of 5-7-7. The choka was written in honor of an actor friend who was portraying a Chinese Emperor.

The palace lanterns
burn like stars without number
as His Majesty
ascends the Eternal Throne.
The frogs murmuring
in the swamps sing out His praise
and the nightingales
rejoice amid spring blossoms.
The tumbling rivers
never cease to shout His name
as the ocean waves
spread their bounty on His shore.
The common people
give gifts of silk and saké
but the courtiers
compose poems of praise.
May His Majesty
Live a thousand years or more,
and may peace attend
His long and prosperous reign!
~M. Kei

While there are some defects of form, over all I think it is a successful poem. "His Majesty" was certainly gratified by it! It's not as long-winded as the usual elegies in praise of a Japanese Sovereign, but I like to think that had I lived at the time, it would have been considered a satisfactory work.

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