Encountering the lack of good English translations (of original Japanese), I tried to translate about 100 classical tanka myself. However, I came to the conclusion that it would be impossible to convey the meaning and the beauty of tanka properly without providing detailed notes because of differences in the natural environment, culture, religion and society as well as the fundamental differences in the way the two languages work. This realisation led to the presumptuous idea that I might be able to convey the beauty of tanka if I produced tanka in English by observing the modern world from the perspective of the realm of classical tanka poetry!
Dr Nakamura has identified 7 main characteristics of classical tanka. Points 1-4 have been discussed in our previous posts, and we will focus on the remaining points in this post.
Characteristics of Classical Tanka
5 A Simple Clear Image with Unlimited SuggestivenessA good tanka has a clear and often simple image without ambiguity but it gives readers suggestiveness beyond the described image itself. Fujiwara no Shunzei sent the following tanka to a lady.
In unbearable longing
I look at the sky
Over your dwelling.
The spring rain falls,
Sifted through the haze.
Fujiwara no Yoshitsune composed the following tanka in 1201. He was an aristocrat and occupied the highest political position in the government before the samurai established a military government (the Kamakura Shogun Government) in 1192. He experienced an epoch in which political power shifted from the aristocrats to the samurai. Fuwa Barrier had once been one of the major check-points to control the movement of people and it was a manifestation of the ruling power.
No one lives
Under the wooden eaves
Of Fuwa Barrier.
In ruins now:
Only the autumn wind.
In general tanka poems have an atmosphere of stillness. Some poets even find silence in the roaring sound of a waterfall. The tanka below was written in 736 by a member of a diplomatic envoy sent to Silla, one of three kingdoms on the now Korean Peninsula.
While I was thinking
That we were the only ones who were rowing
A boat at this time of night,
From afar in the offing
Comes the squeak of a rudder.
Even a passionate tanka by Princess Shikishi (1149-1201) written about her hidden love has stillness in its atmosphere. The example below was written at a time when it was believed that a cord tied the soul to its body. Therefore, “cord of my soul” in effect means life itself since the separation of the soul and body means death. The speaker has been trying to keep her love completely to herself and even her loved one may not be aware of her passion towards him. She must be in a situation in which she recognises that a relationship with him would be morally or socially unacceptable.
Cord of my soul!
If you must break, break now.
For if I live on
My power to keep this hidden
May not endure.
7 All Ranks of SocietyTanka were written by all ranks of society and all kinds of people from an early stage. Manyoshu, compiled in the 8th century, includes tanka by an incredibly wide range of people: men, women, imperial family members, civil servants, monks, farmers, conscripts and entertainers. The tanka below was written by the wife of a drafted “Frontier Guard” who was conscripted to defend the southern coasts of Japan in the mid-8th century.
“Whose husband is going
As a Frontier Guard?”
Someone asks without a care.
How I envy her!
The world of tanka poetry is a rare one in Japanese culture, where men and women were treated according to the merit of their work. In Manyoshu, for example, we find many women poets who candidly expressed their love. Lady Otomo of Sakanoue was one of them.
How it crushes the heart -
A love not known to the beloved,
Like a star lily
That blooms among thick grasses
In the summer field.
Please note: All translations that appear in this post are the copyright of Dr Hisashi Nakamura, and are used with his permission on The Imaginary Garden With Real Toads.
Our Challenge today, is to explore the tanka form as it has been presented to us here. There is no limit to the number of tanka you may write and post to this link. I would also encourage discussion between participants and critical commentary in an environment which respects both the writers and the genre.
Next month, Dr Nakamura will share the first part of his guidelines to writing tanka in English and this feature will conclude in January with the second part of this personal approach to the art of Japanese poetry which he has so generously shared on Real Toads.
Lake Pagoda photo credit: Stuck in Customs via photopin cc
Koi photo credit: Bitter Jeweler via photopin cc
Lantern photo credit: darkmatter via photopin cc