Thursday, January 22, 2015

Syllabic Tanka Day for 2015: The Translations of Edwin A. Cranston

Syllabic Tanka Day for 2015

Tanka is one of the oldest continuously practiced syllabic forms in the world.  It has a written history of about 1400 years; but I suspect its origins go back into the mists of time.  In Japan it is the central poetic form out of which both renga and haiku have emerged.

Over all the centuries that tanka have been written the syllabic shape has remained the same: five lines with a syllable count of 5-7-5-7-7.  This generates a beautiful rhythm which always reminds me of paddling down a stream in a canoe. 

The transmission of tanka to the west has been rough; it has not generated nearly as much interest as haiku.  And interest in specifically syllabic tanka is even smaller.  There are a number of reasons for this; a general tilt among modern poets towards free verse, the lack of a strong poetic voice in ELT who takes a syllabic approach to act as an example for others, and the lack of any organizational support for a syllabic approach to ELT.  There are probably others as well.  Still, there are a small number of poets who have taken a syllabic, traditional, approach to ELT.  And there a number of resources that can assist those interested in a syllabic approach to ELT; primarily these are the superb translations of Japanese tanka into English which adhere to the syllabic shape of the original Japanese.

The translations of Edwin A. Cranston are unsurpassed in this regard.  Cranston has published two volumes containing tanka translations.  The first is A Waka Anthology Volume One: The Gem-Glistening Cup.  This volume contains translations of poems from the earliest sources through the Manyoshu and a little bit beyond.  By far the largest section is devoted to the Manyoshu.  This is a very rich anthology.  I took a full year to read it.  The translations are preceded by the translator’s discussion of the sources.  And individual poets are preceded by remarks about their overall output.  And individual poems are preceded by notes that illuminate references and allusions.  It might seem that all this material from the translator would be burdensome.  Remarkably, it is not.  The notes are informative and are not overburdened with technical terms.  They have a tone that resembles having a learned Uncle by your side, assisting you as you go through the material. 

Volume Two is called A Waka Anthology: Volume Two: Grasses of Remembrance.  This volume is divided into two sections, which are published as separate books; Part A and Part B.  Part A contains translations from the court commissioned anthologies of waka (aka tanka) which have exerted such a huge influence on Japanese poetry.  The translations contain selections from a number of these including Kokinshu, Gosenshu, and Goshuishu.

Part B contains translations of all the waka found in The Tale of GenjiGenji contains 795 waka.  The commentary places the waka into the context of the story.  This is a treasure chest of waka verse.

Cranston takes a basically syllabic approach to his translations.  Cranston allows himself more freedom regarding lineation than Helen McCullough did in her translation of the complete Kokinwakashu (I believe Cranston studied with McCullough).  But the syllabic count of the original has a central place in Cranston’s approach.  Here is an example from Part B:

Dweller by the bay,
To those sleeves that draw the brine
Try comparing this:
A night garment sealed away
From the reach of the road of waves.

(Page 761)

The count is 5-7-5-7-8; a close rendering of the original syllabic shape.  One observation; I have noticed that often when Cranston translates his line count will be a few counts longer than the traditional rather than shorter.  This is important information because it runs counter to the minimalist views held by those who have adopted the nihonjinron view of the Japanese language.  In general, I have observed that translators of Japanese poetry, particularly traditional waka/tanka, into English do not fall into minimalism.

For those who are attracted to the traditional syllabic approach to tanka, I recommended these volumes.  They will help you, guide you, and offer you exemplars.  Structurally they offer many examples of tanka in various configurations; such as the single sentence, the two part type, several sentences, and juxtaposition.  They also show the lushness of the tanka tradition and its commitment to the full range of human emotions.

The one drawback is the price: these are expensive volumes.  If they are beyond your budget, and for many they will be, particularly the second volume, you might want to see if you can borrow them from a library using interlibrary loan.  They are published by Stanford University Press which has an execrable track record for making material like this available to a larger audience.  It appears, like many University Presses, that they are not really interested in granting access to this material by those who might reside outside the University.  That’s too bad.  It is my hope that at some point in the future Stanford will make these specific volumes, and other related volumes, available at a more reasonable price.

Still, I have seen used copies every now and then at Amazon offered at a reasonable price; so if you have an interest you might want to tag them and grab a reasonably priced copy when it appears.  Act fast; I have seen them come and go very quickly.

Overall, I am optimistic about syllabic tanka, meaning traditional tanka, eventually taking root as ELT.  It is a slow process, but it strikes me that the translations have given ELT a rich trove of syllabic tanka upon which ELT can be nourished.

A Waka Anthology: Volume 1
The Gem-Glistening Cup
Translated with a Commentary and Notes by
Edwin A. Cranston

ISBN: 9780804731577
Paperback
$49.95


A Waka Anthology: Volume 2
Grasses of Remembrance
(Part A and Part B sold together)
Translated with a Commentary and Notes by
Edwin A. Cranston

ISBN: 9780804748254
Hardback
$180.00



Monday, January 19, 2015

Love of Words

Love of Words

Over the years I have developed friendships with a few potters.  One thing I have noticed about them is how much they love clay.  They love to get their hands on the clay as it is spinning on the wheel.  There is a look of concentration and happiness, their faces light up, as they turn an amorphous lump into a cup or vase. 

I know some gardeners who have the same relationship to their gardens.  These friends who are gardeners are only really happy when working in the soil, planting, weeding, cultivating. 

I see poets as having a similar relationship to words.  Poets take the amorphous cacophony of words and shape those words into significant forms.  Poets are lovers of words. 

Philosophers also love words; but I think there is a difference.  For philosophers the focus is on meaning; and by meaning I mean definition.  Philosophers analyze meanings of words, linking them to other words on the basis of their conceptual content, distinguishing them from other words based on analysis and logical criteria.

The focus of the poet differs.  For the poet the sensual surface of words is central.  It is not that meaning is ignored, but other factors come to the foreground for the poet.  For example, poets will link words by rhyme, assonance, alliteration, metaphor and simile, and other sensual similarities.  The philosopher, in contrast, does not consider these kinds of connections.

I recently discovered Wilfred Owen, the W.W. I British poet.  I find his poetry remarkable.  He developed a type of rhyme, which some refer to as ‘pararhyme’.  In this type of rhyme Owen links endwords for the lines of his poems such as moan/mourn, years/yours, wild/world, hair/hour/here, etc.  These examples are taken from his poem ‘Strange Meeting’.  The idea is the consonants remain the same while the vowel shifts.  The effect is remarkable and alluring to the ear.  I see this as an example of what I refer to as ‘love of words’ and a focus on the sensual surface of words.  This kind of linking, or weaving, of words, this shaping of words in accordance with their sonic surface, is what attracts poets and what we find attractive when we read a poem.  I have the same feeling when I read Emily Dickinson and notice how she will link certain words together based on subtle sonic similarities.

For the poet words are attractive as objects in the way that flowers are attractive as objects.  The botanist will classify flowering plants according to physiological distinctions.  But the gardener does not need to know these distinctions; the focus of the gardener is on their display, the sensual surface that the gardening will result in.

In a similar way poets focus on the sensual surface of words to create what we might think of as a garden of words where each word is a blossom in the garden.  This is what makes poetry attractive to people.

By ‘sensual surface’ I don’t mean ‘shallow’.  The sensual surface of a garden, the sensual surface of a poem, instantiates and offers to us beauty.  It is the same kind of beauty that I observe in a sunset or in a landscape.  The sensual surface of a poem functions as a kind of luminous gate to the realm of beauty.

Beauty is difficult to define and I won’t try to do so here.  When we are in the presence of the beautiful we feel uplifted and this feeling of exaltation, which may be mild or intense, is unmistakable.  This feeling makes poetry worthwhile and attractive across the centuries, across cultures.

In Ennead 1.6, which is devoted to a discussion of beauty, Plotinus writes,

Beauty addresses itself chiefly to sight; but there is a beauty for the hearing too, as in certain combinations of words and in all kinds of music, for melodies and cadences are beautiful; and minds that lift themselves above the realm of sense to a higher order are aware of beauty in the conduct of life, in actions, in character, in the pursuits of the intellect; and there is the beauty of the virtues.

(Plotinus: The Enneads, Stephen MacKenna translation, Larson publications, 1992, page 64.)

For Plotinus beauty exists in the world as an emanation of the One; that ultimate reality that transcends being and out of which all things come, upon which all things depend.  Beauty is the immaterial making itself known in the material.  Beauty is the sign (like an oracular pronouncement) that there is more to existence than the fleeting and ephemeral.  As Plotinus says,

We hold that all the loveliness of this world comes by communion in Ideal-Form.

          (Ibid, page 65.)

One way of looking at this is that from a strictly logical point of view, beauty is not necessary in the material world.  I mean to say that there is a logically possible world in which beauty does not exist, yet all the parts of the world would still follow the laws of material existence.  In a sense, beauty is an add-on to the world.  I don’t mean this literally; rather I am offering this as a thought experiment.  The idea here is that beauty comes to us from another, non-material, dimension.

In this way the sensual surface of a poem is linked to the ultimate; what Plotinus will refer to as the Good, the Beautiful, and the One.  Plotinus will say that this ultimate reality is, in itself, ineffable; that is to say it is beyond any names and beyond any forms.  This is because the ultimate is partless.  Words function as names for parts and will, therefore, always be somewhat off the mark. 

From the perspective of the emmanationism of Plotinus, some words are closer to the ultimate than others.  We can say that the Good, the One, and the Beautiful are ‘next to’ the ultimate; though they are not the ultimate itself, they occupy a position that is near the ultimate.  As long as we comprehend that they are not the ultimate itself, but are next to it, such usage does not generate difficulties.

The beauty of a poem speaks to us of the ultimate beauty of the One because the beauty of a poem depends upon and participates in the beauty that the One is.  And if we follow beauty to its source, we find ourselves in the presence of the Divine.  I believe that this is why poets in the past had a kind of exalted status; because the shaping of words into patterns of beauty can open the gate to this eternal presence.  Such beauty assists us in realizing that there exists a dimension to our existence that we have forgotten about.  Distracted by the concerns of the day, the need to earn a living, the demands of other people, the anxieties we have, both personal and social, we forget about the source and the presence of this dimension.  Beauty reminds us that this dimension is still there.  Beauty beckons us to enter into this dimension.

“. . . The Good, which lies beyond, is the Fountain at once and Principle of Beauty: the Primal Good and the Primal Beauty have the one dwelling-place and, thus, always, Beauty’s seat is There.”

          (Ibid, page 72.)


Monday, January 12, 2015

Country Sestina

Country Sestina

I can see you are about to leave me,
I see in your eyes there are other skies,
Already traces of all those faces
That we used to share are becoming rare,
I’ve begun to fade to something you’d trade,
Things we used to say are just yesterdays.

Isn’t that the way?  Night will follow day.
Seaside memories of just you and me,
A painting I made I’ll now sell or trade,
Though sometimes my eyes see you in the sky
I no longer care that these visions are rare
And that special place no longer holds your face.

At first I would pace, thinking of your face,
Through the month of May, through those empty days,
I no longer care, pacing now is rare,
There’s always T.V. to keep me from me
(I have become shy of the nighttime sky)
E-commerce was made for hours-soaking trade.

Some feelings don’t fade, some things we can’t trade,
We can’t replace a particular face,
There’s no reason why I recall that sky,
Or that I replay what were better days,
Or that old oak tree where you spoke to me,
That is where I dared to think this was rare.

The seasons declare moments that are rare,
Something made from clay that we will not trade,
An afternoon free just for you and me,
The pleasing trace left by a smiling face,
In the sunlight rays autumn leaves and days,
From a mountain high the endless blue sky.

So now I will try to dwell in the sky,
I’ll leave my despair for spaciousness that’s rare,
Through a veil of haze I’ll forget these days,
A long past parade I’ll easily trade;
Dreams without a trace, a forgotten face,
Lost in a vast sea, memories and me.

The thought of me disappears in the sky,
A faceless ev’rywhere like a rare sigh,
A trade for those days at the end of why.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Number Five

The Number Five

I met the number five today
While walking through a city park
He said he was just visiting,
He was both shimmering and dark.

Shadows will blend into the dark
As when the dusk displaces day,
At such times there comes visiting
Five angels in the city park.

Lovers are walking through the park,
They feel at ease in the dark,
They don’t know they’re just visiting,
Five hours away, the break of day.

What is the number for today?
Five flowers blossom in the park,
For a season they’re visiting,
Stars are shimmering in the dark.

 

 

Monday, December 29, 2014

Goat Rock Beach

Goat Rock Beach

I like to walk on the beach by the sea
Along the coast of Sonoma County
I enjoy feeling the give of the sand
Where the continent ends, gives up on land,
Watching the ebbing and flowing of waves,
Feeling the flow of the wind in my hand.

I can remember walking hand-in-hand
On a summer afternoon by the sea
As dreams of the future rolled in like waves
Along the coast of Sonoma County
The wind has carved strange-shaped cliffs from the land,
The wind steadily shifts the shore-side sand.

The wind slowly turns the cliffs into sand,
Like yesterdays dissolving in one’s hand,
Streams that change course from an earthquake on land,
Displaced landscapes from tsunami tossed seas,
Along the coast of Sonoma County
The lunar tides and the sound of the waves.

The last time I saw you I paused to wave
The way I sometimes will pause on the sand
Along the coast of Sonoma County
A friend of mine needed a helping hand
With the great catch he retrieved from the sea
A long way from the sight of steady land.

Some things feel firm, they feel like steady land;
We can’t see that mountains are tides and waves,
That granite cliffs ebb and flow like the sea,
That even a diamond will become sand,
Like the grains that flow through visitors’ hands
Along the coast of Sonoma County.

Along the coast of Sonoma County
Where sky, cliff, and stream, where ocean and land
Meet each other like two friends clasping hands,
The sound of the wind, the sound of the waves,
The shifting of clouds, the shifting of sand,
The grand full moon’s light brightens the vast sea.

By the seacoast of Sonoma County
The sand is all that is left of the land –

I wave at a whale with my raised right hand.

Monday, December 22, 2014

When an Angel Descends

When an Angel Descends

As I stand on the shore of the river,
Memories and recollections and dreams,
Snatches and patches of songs I once heard
Blend with the glow of the leaves that shimmer
In the wind-tossed fading light of sunset,
A moment I treasure and won’t forget.

As I get older I tend to forget,
My mind resembles a flowing river,
The shifting colors observed at sunset,
The sound of a voice heard in last night’s dream,
The way a desert in mid-day shimmers,
A single verse from a song I once heard.

On the tundra plain a caribou herd,
A scene from my past I will not forget,
Crosses a glacier-fed stream that shimmers,
Sunlight sparkling on the flowing river,
Transforming the tundra into a dream
As the sun slows down for a long sunset.

The musicians start to play a new set,
A striking new melody is now heard,
A melody that’s from the realm of dreams,
A melody not easy to forget,
A melody, a song, from the river,
A melody that makes silence shimmer.

Gabriel descends, wings all a-shimmer,
Many hours after the sun has set,
His wings move like the flow of a river,
The sound of a celestial harp is heard,
A sound, a sight, I will never forget,
A vision I’ll carry into my dreams.

What is the waking world?  What is a dream?
Between them’s a barrier that shimmers;
Something unseen, something I can’t quite get,
Something I can’t grasp, something like sunset,
Something like a melody I once heard
While canoeing on a placid river.

On the river of dreams I once heard
Shimmering choirs during a long sunset –
A gift freely given that I won’t forget.

Monday, December 15, 2014

For Cold Mountain


The Tang Dynasty poet Cold Mountain, Han Shan, is one of my favorite poets.  Cold Mountain has been a companion of mine for decades.  He has been a big influence on my own poetry and continues to be a nourishing presence.  Here is a sestina dedicated to Cold Mountain:

For Cold Mountain

On the river
Always flowing
Silver moonlight
Autumn glowing
In the distance
Mountain stillness

Mountain stillness
By the river
In the distance
Always flowing
Fall leaves glowing
Under moonlight

Under moonlight
Mountain stillness
Fall leaves glowing
By the river
Always flowing
In the distance

In the distance
Under moonlight
Always flowing
Mountain stillness
By the river
Fall leaves glowing

Fall leaves glowing
In the distance
By the river
Silver moonlight
In the stillness
Always flowing

Always flowing
Fall leaves glowing
In the stillness
In the distance
Silver moonlight
On the river

On the river
Always flowing
Silver moonlight
Ever glowing
In the distance
Mountain stillness