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Autumn 2009, vol 7 no 3

Seasons and Landscapes in Japanese Poetry: An Introduction to Haiku and Waka
by Michael F. Marra
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


Seasonal words and their integration into one's biosphere are integral to Japanese short form poetry, as is the entwinement of nature with human life. Before the colonization of Japan by the Chinese, the Japanese were animists who believed that souls were not exclusive to humanity; that plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena such as storms, clouds, and rain possessed souls as well. This belief is still evident in the modern Japanese mindset via stories and legends transmitted orally by ancestors and through Shintoism. Shintoism is more than a religion exclusive to Japan. It is the heart of the island nation's identity, proclaiming everything including the sun, bodies of water, and even their emperor as sacred. Although a social religion, Shintoism is not religious and, therefore, is compatible with Zen Buddhism and other Japanese sects.

With this in mind, Professor Marra's book, Seasons and Landscapes in Japanese Poetry is a valuable resource, since most English speakers do not read Japanese and possess little insight into the mindset of the Japanese people.

Says Dr. Marra in the book's Introduction:

. . . no debate can take place without a basic knowledge of the 'grammar' of Japanese poetry—a grammar based on a series of associations between seasonal words which every poet was required to know in order to express his or her feelings in a song.

Adds Dr. Marra further into the introduction:

This book seeks to be a way into this tradition of poetic images, a poetic guide which should help readers to decipher other Japanese poems which they might encounter in the future.

Reading waka (tanka) and haiku that were written centuries ago seems like a relatively easy exercise. The translating has been done for us. We read and interpret, not knowing if the translations are accurate or not. We take it for granted that they are. Some English speaking poets write papers and long discourses on the meaning, rules, metrical schemata, and stylization of the aforementioned poems. Interestingly enough, the content of many of these discourses promulgates differences of opinion and theories, sometimes radically. What gives?

Professor Marra explains the importance of seasonal references in haiku and waka and the need for serious students of classical haiku and waka to go beyond the obvious and understand the codification inherent in most of the Imperial Court poetry. One must remember that every person had his/her fixed place in Japanese society and their words had to be carefully chosen, especially when voicing disagreement with members of the Court. Take, for example, this poem in Marra's book penned by Ariwara no Narihara:

     Many are the people
Hiding beneath
     The blooming cherries—
The shadow of the wisteria
Becomes larger than the past.

translated by Michael Marra

Writes Marra:

This poem is recorded in the Ise Monogatari (Tales of Ise, section 101) in a rather politicized context. In this song, the wisteria (fuji) is related to the name of the powerful family of the Fujiwara (lit. field of wisterias) that had triumphed over other political families. (Otomo, Ki, Minamoto, Ariwaram, etc.) in the race for power. The poet laments the fact that too many courtiers are now looking for shelter in the shade of the wisteria (the Fujiwaras), although in the past (arishi) the same courtiers used to side with the poet's family, the Ariwaras (lit., field of the past). The creeping nature of the wisteria vines (fuji) that attack and kill all surrounding plants is an eloquent metaphor for the suffocating power exemplified by the northern branch of the Fujiwaras.

In reading Marra's book, an informed reader begins to see the importance of kigo and other nature references in early waka and haiku, and from a light most may have not considered. I laugh when I read in high school textbooks (I'm a retired teacher) when they define haiku as a nature poem consisting of three lines of 5 syllables, 7 syllables, and 5 syllables. If it were that easy, we'd be masters of the genre overnight. Classical haiku and waka are anomalies because they are more than what they appear to be. In Israel during the new testament era, the apostle John wrote the Book of Revelation cryptically, utilizing old testament terminology from the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy to pacify a brutal dictatorship that might suspect John's apocryphal words as a political threat. Encrypting and codification have been used in China, the Philippines, and other cultures. Japan's politics at the time the classics were written was a morass of different ideologies and ruthless competition, with power as the prize. And because it was a culture where the elite, the courtiers in the Imperial Court, held sway over the masses, and the political stature, future, and alliance of each courtier depended upon whose allegiance they swore to, Imperial Court poets had to carefully choose their words, utilizing metaphors, cross-meanings, allegories, symbolism, etc., when writing poetry, especially if said poetry were critical of Imperial Court officials' beliefs and mindset.

Authors like William Blake, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg and other English language occidentals created their own mythologies and double meaning word lexicons that even today are not fully understood. We're not Japanese courtiers and the politics of various occidental governments are far from pristine.

When we begin to see the multi-faceted breadth and craftsmanship of classical Japanese poetry, it sheds light that can influence occidental Japanese short form poets in the formalization and utilization of their own cultural memories when crafting haiku and tanka and related genres. What we call an economization of language is not an economization of expression. In actuality, it is an expansion of expression making use of aesthetics, the un-said, codification, transference, experience, biospheric influences, and other tools that expand and deepen Japanese short form poetry in a way that longer free verse and form poetry cannot.

Beneath the following poem from the Kokin Wakashu (The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry), penned by Ariwara no Narihara

     Yo no naka ni
Taete sakura no
Haru no kokoro wa
     If ours were a world
Where blossoming cherry trees
     were not to be found
What tranquility would bless
The human heart in springtime!

translated by Helen McCullough

Professor Marrow explains:

If we took these images to be simple expressions of the natural world, those who claim that Japanese poetry is essentially "aesthetic" would be correct. However, it would be disingenuous to ignore the enormous skills that Japanese poets demonstrated in hiding entire political statements behind these images of nature. After all, poets were in charge of language and language had to be used with extreme care. When it comes to language, no one was more careful than Japanese poets of old including Matsuo Bashō:

Yado karu koro ya
     Fuji no hana
     Tired on my journey,
Just at the time I found lodgings . . .
     Wisteria flowers.

translated by Michael Marra

Michael Marra, Professor of Japanese Literature, Aesthetics, and Hermeneutics in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at UCLA, has written a book that digs deep into the topic of translation and the symbiotic relationship between nature and the Japanese culture regarding Japanese short form poetry. Writes J. Thomas Rimer, Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature, Theater, and Art at the University of Pittsburgh in the book's Foreword: "[I haven't] found anything in similar scope and scholarly detail in Japanese. It is the best introduction I know both to the historical and linguistic structures, and to the real pleasures, that await contemporary readers of classical Japanese poetry."


Seasons and Landscapes in Japanese Poetry: An Introduction to Haiku and Waka
by Michael F. Marra
Edwin Mellen Press