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    Autumn is prime moon-viewing time in Japan. The yearning summoned up by the combination of chill, moaning winds and a cloud-wreathed moon is one of the major clichés of Japanese aesthetics, known by now throughout the world. But like most clichés, it still seems stark and real in its original formulations. The following are from the Shin-Kokin Waka Shu:



    aki kaze no/itari itaranu/sode ha araji/tada ware kara no/tuyu no yuugure

    kamo no chōmei

    Though the autumn wind
    does not leave as it passes
    sleeves here touched, there untouched,
    on my sleeve alone settles
    the dew of this eventide

    Kamo no Chōmei




    tanometaru/hito ha nakeredo/aki no yo ha/tsuki mite nebeki/kokochi koso sene

    izumi shikibu

    I am not waiting
    for a suitor to arrive,
    but this autumn night
    I sit gazing at the moon
    without any thought of sleep

    Izumi Shikibu

    Kamo no Chōmei is most famous as the writer of the Houjouki, but quite a bit of his poetry shows up in the third of the great court anthologies. Dew in classical poetry usually represents tears of longing. Though Chōmei knows that the autumn wind blows equitably–it literally and symbolically scatters dew everywhere–he feels isolated in his yearning, as if he were the only one weeping into his sleeve with stirred memories.

    Izumi Shikibu is the daughter of Murasaki Shikibu, the writer of the famous (and massive) Tale of Genji . She’s no Princess Shokushi, but she often turns images very well. In this poem, she slyly underscores her melancholy by pointing out that not only is the beauty of the moon keeping her from getting any rest, but she also has no lover to refocus her attention.

    The Japanese have a worldwide reputation for loving nature, and that’s not unjustifiable; they’ve written about it for over a millennium. However, one of the reasons that many Western attempts at waka or haiku fail is that they just describe beautiful scenes…and that’s it. They sound merely quaint. Japanese poetry–the good stuff–doesn’t just document the existence of a stand of pine trees that were sitting there being pretty. It describes nature to convey a moment of keen feeling on the part of the writer, when inner thought and external environment had a spark of connection.

    2 Responses to “Autumn”

    1. Zak says:

      Another reason (among many) that western haiku fail is that you can cram much, much more meaning into X number of Japanese syllables than the same number in English. It’s always annoyed me that people tried to create haiku of 17 syllables in English, almost always creating trite little meaningless snippets, as though that was all the Japanese was, either.

      Good translation on these, by the way. I remember a day when I could read these in the original pretty well, but no longer, I’m afraid.

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      Well, I’m not so foolish as to post things without checking the 現代語訳 myself. Thanks, though.

      As for haiku…I know people always say that Japanese is more compact than English is, but I think it goes both ways. The verb inflections in 古文 can take up a lot of syllables. So can particles. One thing you can’t really do is use a single word and have it set off an explosion of different allusions, but that’s because haiku aren’t part of a centuries-old tradition in English. I think the main problem is that you have to limit yourself to subject matter about which you can convey a flash of awareness in a finite number of syllables, and not all the subjects Japanese haiku poets use can survive the transfer.

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