Saturday, May 13, 2006

Origins of Japanese Poetry - Short Poems of the Man'yoshu

The Japanese people have been composing and singing poems since before they had a written language. Approximately 4400 of these poems were compiled into the Man'yoshu, or Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, during the 8th century AD. They were written down with an awkward system in which Chinese symbols were adapted for phonetic use. Two centuries later the system would be streamlined and become truly useful with the establishment of hiragana and katakana writing systems.

Several kinds of poems are present in the Man'yo collection: waka, choka, sedoka, mondo, and katauta. 'Waka' means 'Japanese song,' and originally meant anything in Japanese, as opposed to 'kanshi,' poems in Chinese, which were also popular among the educated classes. However, the vast majority of poems in the Man'yoshu were five line poems (now known as tanka), and so the term came to mean this kind of poem. Approximately 4000 of the poems in the Man'yoshu are waka/tanka.

The Man'yoshu poems are built on a pattern in which lines of 5 syllables alternate with lines of 7 syllables, and end with an extra 7 syllable line. The shortest possible combination of this pattern is the 5-7-7, which is a katauta. Katauta almost never stood alone, instead they existed in pairs, for a two verse poem (written as one stanza) of 5-7-7-5-7-7. When both verses were written by one author, it was called a 'sedoka,' but an extremely common form for these poems was the 'mondo,'in which a male lover wrote the first half and the second half was the woman's response. Men back then didn't have any better luck than they do now, so the second half was often a lover's retort in which the lady expressed her skepticism. I have not written any sedoka or mondo so I cannot offer any examples here. Although there are several of these sorts of poems in the Man'yo collection, they did not catch on as a genre, and so we may leave the lovelorn Japanese suitors of the 8th century and move on to choka.

1 comment:

  1. Since making the post above, I have written a sedoka, but it is very far afield in tone and subject matter from the classical sedoka of the Man'yoshu. It follows the short-long-long-short-long-long pattern and is lyrical in tone, but that's about it. It records a memory from my childhood visit to the Alamo.

    The heavy beauty
    of a Mexican saddle
    filled my child's eye:
    black tapaderos
    mother-of-pearl pommel
    and hand-tooled roses.