Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Takayama Sōzei: Renga from the Ashes

By the time of the Ashikaga Shogunate (1336-1573 A.D.), Japanese poetry was in a period of regression. Composition of tanka (5-7-5-7-7), akin to what we saw from the Heian period and the Kamakura Shogunate was not being genuinely pursued. There were aristocrats still producing poetry that was reminiscent of this period, but, with the exception of Shōtetsu and perhaps a few others, the poetry was mediocre.
Can be found here

During this dearth of creativity arose a new form of composing poetry: renga. To one who is unfamiliar with all this jargon renga actually looks a lot like tanka. Renga is “linked verse” and consist of two parts. The first part is called a hokku and has a 5-7-5 syllable structure and it is followed by a 7-7 couplet. When read it all together it looks exactly like a tanka. For those of you paying attention, the hokku is the same as a haiku. The art of haiku came from renga, but was not popularized until a few hundred years later.
The reason why renga was novel and interesting was that people would compose poetry together. No longer were poems static pieces of text attributable to only one person, but instead they became a cooperative work of literary art. One person would write a hokku and then another would cap it with a couplet. And then somebody else could stick another hokku after the couplet so that the couplet worked with both, and so on, and so on. There were all kinds of rules about what kind of language can be used, and how often a topic can be repeated. But most important rule was that the poetic sequence had coherence. Sometimes people would take previously used hokku and attach a completely different couplet to it; changing the meaning entirely.
Can be found here
People interested in this kind of thing would get together for poetry gatherings and have a blast. It seems to me that most of the poets of this time were either samurai sensitive to aesthetics, or Buddhist monks who probably had nothing better to do.
The guy I want to talk about today is Takayama Sōzei (d. 1455 A.D.). He was a military man who studied under Shōtetsu and was one of the founding fathers of medieval renga (there was another guy by the name of Nijō Yoshimoto who could probably be considered the founding father, I will address him later). After the death of Nijō Yoshimoto renga fell into decline. Sōzei revitalized the art. He was a versatile poet who could write with a sense of miyabi (courtly charm), ushin (unapologetic pathos), and the Buddhist concept of sabi (loneliness). Most importantly, he was renga poet, which means he was adept at adding depth to someone else’s poetic fragment.
Unfortunately, I could not find much of his poetry, and what I found was already put together like a tanka. I am not even sure if he wrote both parts. Soon I will translate some transcripts for the more famous poetic gatherings.

Japanese Pampas Grass



Autumn in the countryside,
How lonely is the sunset!

Patches of pampas grass,
You beckon all to you, yet
Who’ll come and visit?

Takayama Sōzei

As you can see form this poem, the 7-7 couplet comes before the 5-7-5 hokku. The initial couplet has a strong element of sabi combined with the feeling of being in a new places, which makes me think of Saigyō, since he was always travelling. The hokku utilizes the kigo (seasonal word) of pampas grass, susuki in Japanese. Susuki is always associated with autumn so there is an obvious convergence between the couplet and hokku.

Can be found here



I can see the snow falling,
The moon remains in the sky,

A new day has come,
There’s not a trace in my mind
Of yesterday’s dreams.

Takayama Sōzei

I like this poem a lot because I think it creates a nice scene.

This last poem is just the hokku, so in essence, it is a haiku.



Bright rustling leaves
Contrast the dreary showers
Of waning autumn.

Takayama Sōzei

This hokku was difficult to translate and I am not sure I got the main verb “kaesu” right. I do like the juxtaposition of shigure (late autumnal showers) and momiji (leaves changing to their fall color). He used seasonal words from the beginning and end of autumn. It’s a nice contrast.

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