National / History | THE LIVING PAST

Poetic escapism for the end of the year

Reality as the year draws to a close bears a grim visage. Rarely, if ever, within memory have global politics been so dreary, leaders so small-minded and mean-spirited. Progress is ceaseless but felt by many as harassing and menacing rather than, as to our 19th-century forebears, bright with the promise of a better future.

A festive season looms. Cares are left behind, fears and forebodings cast off. We remind ourselves, if we are sensible, that “the news” can be turned off, if only for a time; that “useful information” is good but uselessness has its merits too — innocent beauty, for example.

We all have our chosen escapes from whatever oppresses us. Some seek remote places. I seek remote times. Japan is rich in them. You can go very far back in time and meet people as civilized as ourselves whose outlook on life is nonetheless so utterly different from ours as to be disconcerting at first — and then, once the bewilderment settles, refreshing, restoring.

I resolved to go newsless for a week. Taking the place of the newspaper would be the 10th-century court poetry anthology known as the “Kokin Wakashu” (“Collection of Old and New Poems”) — “Kokinshu” for short.

It is, says Helen Craig McCullough (whose translations are used here), “one of the world’s earliest, most important and most controversial poetic anthologies.” Its 1,111 poems were written during the half-century or so before 905, the year of its compilation. “The compilers were a committee of bureaucrats, recognized as superior poets” — an inconceivable oxymoron to us — “who worked by imperial command.”

Controversy arises over its merits. It is classical literature that has stood the test of time. All the same, “The ‘Kokinshu’ is a worthless collection,” said the modern haiku poet Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902). Of the anthology’s opening poem he says, “The poem is so silly that it fails to rise even to the level of vulgar wit. … And the rest of the poems … are much the same.”

The first poem does in fact seem too silly to quote — but then there’s this: “For your sake alone/ I went forth to springtime fields/ and plucked these young greens/ while snow fell unceasingly/ onto the sleeve of my robe.” That’s rather nice, isn’t it? Or this: “That the blowing wind/ seems to us to be colored/ in a thousand hues/ is simply because the leaves/ are scattering from autumn trees.”

Seasons are a recurring theme, as is passion: “As now the fires burn/ unceasing, in fields of reeds/ withered by time’s flight/ so smolders the grief of one/ aging and soon to be left.”

Here the poet is a traveler: “Tempestuous winds/ blow cold at Osaka/ but hard though it be/ I will lie down here tonight,/ not knowing where else to go.”

This next one, a prefatory note explains, is by “the daughter of Minamoto Muneyuki. When her borrowed ox died, she composed this poem and sent it to the owner”: “Did he find pulling/ my carriage so obnoxious?/ His herb-sustained life/ proved transient as a dewdrop/ clinging to a blade of grass.”

All of life, it seems, and anything in it, compresses, in the poet’s shaping hand, into 31 syllables. Not a single poem in the “Kokinshu” contains a syllable more or less. The archaic chōka (long poem) was extinct, the 17-syllable haiku yet unborn; if the 31-syllable tanka chafed you, you were no poet. In 10th-century Japan, everyone who was anyone was a poet.

It helps to see this in a global context. In neighboring China, Japan’s mentor in all the arts of civilization, poetry included, the glittering Tang Dynasty (618-907) was crumbling. Europe, mired in the post-Roman Dark Ages, incessantly at war, helpless prey to marauding Vikings, was all but prostrate. The Americas lay swathed in primeval darkness. Two beacons of civilized light stood out as the 10th century dawned: Baghdad, whose splendors illuminate the “Arabian Nights,” and Kyoto — the Kyoto of the “Kokinshu.” Neither knew of the other’s existence.

There was, to be sure, more to Kyoto than autumn leaves, spring blossoms and flowing sleeves drenched in tears of tender emotion. Political intrigue seethed there as elsewhere, ugly and sordid — though not, as so often elsewhere, gross, cruel and sadistic. Politics too was softened by poetry. Emperor Uda (866-931) was a poet, as was his chief counselor, Sugawara no Michizane (845-903).

The “Kokinshu” was Uda’s idea. Emperors in his day were mere figureheads, puppets in the hands of the powerful Fujiwara clan. Uda was determined to be more — a ruler in fact as well as in name. His reliance on Sugawara, a non-Fujiwara, was a direct challenge, which the Fujiwara met not with murder but, characteristically, with cunning. A charge of treason was trumped up and Sugawara exiled to remote Kyushu, where he died two years later — of a broken heart, tradition has it.

His posthumous revenge was terrible. One Fujiwara after another died mysteriously. There were fires, earthquakes. Clearly the ghost was angry. Appeasement took the form of posthumous promotion. Too little, too late. Disaster persisted. Panic spread. At last, some 40 years later, he was deified — “making him,” says historian Ivan Morris, “the first subject in Japanese history to be officially recognized as a divinity,” revered to this day as a god of literature and learning.

Two poems in the “Kokinshu” distantly relate to the affair — one by him, the other by a Fujiwara statesman who helped plot his downfall. The latter reads, “The boat approaching/ with voices raised high as sails/ in the autumn wind/ proves to be a line of geese/ winging across the heavens.”

Sugawara’s, “attached to a suhama chrysanthemum for a chrysanthemum contest,” reads:

“White chrysanthemums/ growing at Fukiage/ where autumn winds blow:/ are they in truth flowers/ or might waves be rolling in?”

This was to have been my news substitute for a week. Honesty compels me to admit failure. The rush of current events, however depressing, proved irresistible. The intention was serious; the execution fell short.

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is an essay collection titled “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos.”

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