Saturday, May 13, 2006

Waka Example - modern

There are various groups that admire the classical poetry of the imperial anthologies; they are trying to maintain those virtues in their own modern English-language poetry. Unfortunately, they tend to have rather narrow ideas about exactly what the courtly poetry was, resulting in an even more restrictive genre than the already limited genre of waka. I think it is entirely possible to maintain the lyricism and good taste of the courtly genre while expanding its subject matter and techniques.

For example, the classic 5-7-5-7-7 form does not have to be -- and should not be -- maintained in English. The Japanese language is polysyllabic, therefore the number of words in a waka is much smaller than an English-language poem and the content is therefore more compressed. Waka have a haiku-like succinctness that permits more ambiguity than the carefully spelled out English verses of 5-7-5-7-7. Simply put, 31 English syllables say too much and are not a true analogue to the Japanese originals.

Items such as punctuation and capitalization are also non-essential -- Japanese has neither. Punctuation is through verbal markers, such as 'kana' (a verbal exclamation mark), and other particles. When it is realized that Japanese punctuation uses up some of the syllables of the waka, then it must be understood that the actual content of a waka is even smaller than generally realized.

in winter
the pale sun and moon
share the day sky
leaving my heart
darker than ever
~M. Kei


The above poem is classically formed: an observation of nature comprises the upper verse and an emotional expression the lower verse. The two meld together to give a lyric description of a personal place-time. The number of syllables is 3-5-4-4-5 -- irregular and shorter than the traditional form. While some modern waka poets will accept non-standard lines, they still look for a pattern of short-long-short-long-long, which this poem does not meet. Yet to me, the counting of syllables is not nearly as important as the structure of the ideas and images. The poem is classical in its content, not its trivial details. Because it is shorter than the usual 'classic' English waka, it is closer to the Japanese originals in the amount of information it carries. When read aloud, it reads smoothly and could easily be chanted.

This latter point is one frequently overlooked by English language poets. The word 'waka' means 'Japanese song.' Waka were meant to be chanted or sung aloud and this is still an important part of the modern aesthetic. When the Emperor and Empress of Japan host their New Year's poetry reading party, the selected poems are chanted, not spoken. Western authors, influenced by free verse no doubt, do not give as much attention to rhythm and meter as they should if they intend to write truly 'classical' Japanese waka.

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