Sunday, February 24, 2013

Secretary Shotetsu: Diamond in the Rough

Shōtetsu, or Secretary Shōtetsu, lived from 1381-1459 A.D. By this time, traditional tanka (poems with a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable structure) were in the muck of creative stagnation. The great visionaries of Ki no Tsurayuki and Fujiwara no Teika seemed like ancient history. Most tanka poets of this time were pretty uninspiring.
Can be found here
The beginning of the Kamakura Shogunate and the collapse of the Heian aristocracy was a period of transition, and the strife inspired great creativity, most notably, Teika and Saigyō. After the new shogun fully established his power, traditional literary arts degenerated because of mediocre, factional discord by aristocrats lost in existential anxiety, trying harder to ingratiate themselves with the new samurai authority rather than producing real works of art. After the Kamakura Shogunate collapsed due to infighting among the samurai clans, the Ashikaga Shogunate arose. It was a short-lived feudal system in which the shoguns further weakened the aristocracy and royal family in Kyoto.
Shōtetsu was a diamond in the rough. He was classically trained and considered Teika to be the best of the best (I would agree). "In this art of poetry, those who speak ill of Teika should be denied the protection of the gods and Buddhas and condemned to the punishments of hell.", he went as far to say. He composed thousands of poems which contained rhetorical complexity as well as the poetic concepts yūgen (deep, subtle profundity) and ushin (less subtle, but more heartfelt). Shōtetsu can be easily overlooked because his style of waka was dated in his time. However, his students Takayama Sōzei and Bishop Shinkei set the stage for the next evolution in the Japanese poetic tradition: renga (linked verse).



Let the wind blow
With color and vibrancy!
So the grass may know,
That the hearts of men can feel
Spring’s first perfumed breeze.


This poem has some nice, fantastical imagery, such as the wind blowing with color. In the last line Shōtetsu writes “hana no hatsukaze” which literally means the “flower’s first wind”. In this case, since spring is mentioned before, I assume he is referring to the scent of newly bloomed flowers carried by the wind that marks the beginning of spring.
I think most people can relate to this. When winter is coming to an end (if you live in temperate place) there is usually one day when you hear the birds chirping again or catch the scent of a flower, and you realize that spring is finally here.


Can be found here


Blossoms at morning
Scattering amid moonlight.
In the realm of dreams
One may mistakenly see
Silver clouds floating on high.


This poem’s dreamy setting harks back to the old poetry of the of the Heian Period and before. Dream images and the dream world were used frequently by earlier poets to express anxiety or passion in regards to romance. In this case, Shōtetsu created a witty conundrum. Do the blossoms that fall from the trees at night enter people’s dream as beautiful clouds?  

The next three poems are set in a place called Kumano which is Wakayama prefecture. It is a mountainous region on Kii peninsula, south of Osaka and Kyoto. It is considered a holy place and there are three very famous shrines there called the Kumano Sanzan. They all correspond to different mountains. This all very in tune with Shinto religion putting special emphasis on natural phenomena and land formations.
I had some trouble with the next few poems but I think they turned out alright. They were relatively simple.



My heart, in disarray,
Vexations within myself
Make the moss feel rough,
I tread only on the dew,
In the peaks of Kumano.




Clouds betwixt the peaks,
Long ago resided elsewhere.
The moss covered path
Cleared by a spring tempest,
The mountains of Kumano.



Crinum Japnonicum

There’re no crinum left
On the shore at Kumano.
Yet, the sacred rope
Will remain, everlasting,
For you let us pray.


Crinum is a flower that blooms by the sea. It is supposedly very sensitive and will only bloom if the exact prerequisites are met. It can go years without blooming, so it was perhaps kind of rare to see it.
The “sacred rope” the poem mentions (in Japanese: “shimenawa”) which my dictionary translates to “rope used to cordon off consecrated areas as a talisman against evil” which was hard to fit into a poem of only 31 syllables, so I translated it as “sacred rope”.
Whether the “you” is referring to a person or shrine is unclear, but I think he’s talking about a Shinto shrine due to the natural imagery. 

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