Saturday, May 13, 2006

Waka Example - classical, courtly

My early poetry was written very much in imitation of the Kokinshu models. Though criticis of the work regard it as deadly artificial, I do not find it so. On the contrary, I found in it a model whereby I could graciously express my own feelings. The poem below may not be great literature, but it sure beats writing depressing angst-ridden diary entries like, "I can't believe he won't even email me, after all I've done for him. You'd think blah blah blah." Given a choice between poetry and somebody's emotional nosebleed, I'll take the poetry. I'm way too old to find anything interesting about angst.

For a certain man.

Though I was sure you
would not be coming, I still
waited at the door;
The cicadas' shrill singing
echoed in my empty heart.
~M. Kei

The above poem illustrates another element of the waka tradition that was also picked up by other genres: The headnote. Headnotes were used in the Man'yoshu as well, but with the brevity of the five lines they provided essential context to help understand the poems. During the time of the Kokinshu -- and most of Japanese history -- exchanging poetry was a proper way for people to share their feelings, conduct courtship, enjoy the pleasures of life, express their condolences, etc. Poetry was not a solitary business and the Western image of the tormented poetic laboring in a garret does not apply. The poets of the Japanese courtly tradition were respectable members of society who believed that graciously expressing themselves was an essential requirement for all educated, well-bred people. A view I happen to share, but one which is admittedly not the majority view in North America.

But look at it from another angle: Hallmark didn't exist. Japanese courtiers couldn't run to the drugstore and grab a card; they had to actually write something of their own to comfort the bereaved, profess their love, or otherwise express their emotional life. They couldn't buy it pre-canned. I started writing poetry to other people for the same reason: I couldn't stand the banality of Hallmark cards.

Hint for men: If you want to get women, write poems. Keep it short and as long as it's not too awful, your ladylove will be impressed. Trust me. It works. I speak from experience.

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