Saturday, May 13, 2006

Waka - Fun Example

Lest you think that all of the old waka were erudite and lovely paeans of lyricism, I want to share an example by an early courtier named Okimaro. He was an obscure member of the court, living and writing his verses around about the year 700 AD. At the time there was a game of composing poems that included various improbable items; Okimaro was good at it. His poems composed for the game have the natural rhythm of colloquial speech and present the aristocrats at home, letting their hair down. He gives us a picture as life as it was as opposed to the staged formalities of the royal court.

He was challenged to write a poem about chaps (leather leggings used to protect men while riding horseback), greens, a dining mat, and the beams of a house.

Sukomo shiki
Aona nimochiko
Utsuhari ni
Mutakbaki kakete
Yasumu kono kimi
~Naga no Okimaro, c 700 AD

Spread the dining mat--
Boil the greens and bring them on--
The lord is waiting,
Resting with his chaps off and dangling
Where he hung them from the beam.
~trans. Edwin A. Cranston, A Waka Anthology, Volume 1: The Gem-Glistening Cup, 1993

Nonetheless, he was a courtier and attended his Sovereign in the palace. Palaces in those days were modest affairs with thatched roofs, but all the same, they were large and elegant places compared to the hovels of ordinary people.

Oumiya no
Uchi made kikoyu
Abiki su to
Ago totonouru
Ama no yobikoe
~Naga no Okimaro

Here in the palace,
Even here there comes the sound:
Shouts of the seafolk
Keeping the netmen in rhythm
~trans. Edwin A. Cranston, A Waka Anthology, Volume 1: The Gem-Glistening Cup, 1993

This is not pastorialism, that would come later when the court became truly wealthy and lived separate enough from the ordinary folk to view them through a hazy ignorance that allowed room for Romantic fantasy. Okimaro's Sovereign lived in a palace close enough to see and hear fisherfolk at work, Okimaro was human enough to enjoy the sound and sight for what it was without any hint of condescension. This is a far cry from The Tale of Genji, written three centuries later, where Prince Genji, depicted as a compassionate man, is not entirely certain that the common folk are even human.

Hachisuha wa
Kaku koso aru mono
Okimaro ga
Ie ni aru mono wa
Umo no ha ni arashi
~Naga no Okimaro

Lotus leaves--
So this is the way they look~
What Okimaro
Has at home turns out to be
Nothing but leaves of taro!
~trans. Edwin A. Cranston, A Waka Anthology, Volume 1: The Gem-Glistening Cup, 1993

The lotus is a beautiful flower, the taro is a homely vegetable. Okimaro is not talking about horticulture! I wonder if his wife hit him with a frying pan when she heard this one?

Later such down to earth and humorous poems would be dropped from the canon of courtly poetry, but they could not be supressed. The humor would simply come out in a new genre: kyoka.

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