Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Fujiawara no Shunzei: Subtle but still Profound

For this next post I want to talk about Fujiwara no Shunzei (sometimes Fujiwara no Toshinari as well as occasionally he is known as Shakua). He was active during the late Heian period and he lived from 1114-1204 A.D. Shunzei is known for being the compiler of the Senzaishuu which came after the Kokinshuu and was followed by the Shinkokinshuu. He was a contemporary of Saigyo but I'm not sure if they were friends.  There is a story that one of Saigyo's most famous poems was going to be added in to the Senzaishuu, but Shunzei rejected it. Upon hearing that one of his poems was a candidate, Saigyo came out of his hermitage to witness the event, but when he found out that it was rejected, he promptly left. I really have no idea how friendly any of these guys were with each other since we only have anecdotal evidence passed down over the centuries.

Can be found here

Shunzei drew most of his inspiration fro the Kokinshuu. He was a man of convention. He enjoyed nice and sophisticated diction but was not as adventurous as his son (Fujiwara no Teika). If you skim through Japanese history books Shunzei will probably only get a passing mention. His son took most of the spotlight and we know relatively little about him. Shunzei was a very emotional man, and according to the diary of one of his aides, he used to spend his nights weeping and writing poetry. His poetic technique of choice is known as yuugen. The Japanese word is 幽玄 and it is one of those hard-to-define words. I would define it as "subtle grace" or "hidden beauty". The way this plays out in the poetry is that Shunzei used imagery that is very suggestive but simultaneously not saying anything at all. The lack of explicit emotion adds a level sophistication to his verse. It's like those Japanese paintings where most of the canvass is white. There is a small beautiful painting but the vagueness of the blank space allows your mind to paint its own picture. You see everything in nothing or something like that.

Can be found here.

Here are my translations of three of his poems from the Senzaishuu. 



Something flutter by?
The cuckoo awakens me,
Middle of the night.
Soft voice feels like a pillow
Under my weary head.

Fujiwara no Shunzei

I like this poem because although he doesn't use any adjectives denoting emotion, you can still get a feel for the loneliness of the scene. The call of cuckoo sounds like this.



Lovely Yoshino,
Today, if I happen to see
The flowers in bloom...
Spring breezes blowing over
Shirane Peak in Koshi.

Fujiwara no Shunzei

Yoshino has been mentioned probably thousands of times by Japanese poets. I really should go there sometime because I have no idea why it's so great. Anyway, this poem exemplifies that "subtle profundity" Shunzei sought for. The profoundness might be so subtle that you might miss it...



When evening comes,
Autumn wind across the field
Pierces my body,
The quails will be calling me,
My home in Fukakusa.

Fujiwara no Shunzei

I like this poem because of the image of an autumn wind piercing his body. I can relate to a chill wind feeling like it's piercing right through you. I couldn't find an audio clip of a quail's call but I found a YouTube video. He always used "Fukakusa" which is a common place used in Japanese poetry. His use of "Fukakusa", "Yoshino" and even "Shirane Peak" show that he is a man of old convention and only innovated half-way with his poetry. He's still great though. 

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