Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Autumn 2007, vol 5 no 3

An Interview with Michael F. Marra
by Robert D. Wilson

RW: You have written a book about Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801). Just how important were Norinaga's writings to the Japanese poetics of his day and what kind of influence, if any, do they have on current day Japanese poetry?

MM: Norinaga was already well known as an outstanding philologist and poetry teacher while living in Matsusaka and practicing medicine every day in his town. He gathered several thousand students, many of whom became poets, including several women. Many late eighteenth-, early nineteenth-century scholars read with great care Norinaga's essays on matters related to archeology and ancient history, sometime providing detailed rebuttals to his theories. In poetry composition Norinaga was much more traditional than in his scholarly work on the Japanese "classics." His creativity in buttressing the interpretation of poetry with historical documentation is quite impressive. The composition of poetry has changed a lot since the late nineteenth century, when Japanese translations of Western poetry had an impact even on the writing of traditional waka. I doubt any member of the Nativist School to which Norinaga belonged has had any major impact on contemporary Japanese poetry.


RW: You state in your book that "Norinaga believed in the power of the poetic word to recapture spontaneity and the immediacy of the voice of gods (kami). Would you expound on this and what Norinaga was referring to when he wrote of "the voice of gods?"

MM: I believe that Norinaga hoped to create a world without words—a world in which there was no need of linguist articulation in order to communicate perfectly. However, in order to reach such a stage people had to learn how to react properly to common situations (pain, joy, anxiety, etc.). This could only be achieved through language—poetic language. For Norinaga, poetic language reestablished things to their own thingness, without reducing them to simple names. It is something like the phenomenological dream: to make things appear as they are, in the literal sense of "phenomenon" (fainesthai, or "to appear"). The poetic voice was sensitive to the appeal of the Gods, in the literal sense of the word "utau" (to sing) which comes from "uttau" (to appeal to). The interesting thing is that the original appeal was wordless—hence, the difficulty of recording with words the wordless appeal.


RW: Norinaga is well known for his conceptualization of the term mono no aware. Would you describe this conceptualization and, perhaps, include an example or two?

MM: Mono-no-aware simply means to be moved by exteriority. It is the appeal that external things have on people perceiving them. "Aware" conveys the idea of the moving power of "things" (mono). For example, let's say that a brush fire destroys an entire mountain, and that in the fire ten people die and a thousand people lose their homes and everything that took them a lifetime to accumulate. Mono no aware refers to the reaction that people who never experienced a devastating fire should have (and the key word here is the categorical imperative "should"): they should feel the pain of those who have lost everything, including their lives. One might say, this is only natural, but that's not the case. It would be sufficient to turn on the TV in Los Angeles during one of the many Southern California brush fires and to listen to the broadcasters' comments: the fires are consistently "spectacular, breathtaking, sublime (because broadcasting comes from the safety of Hollywood offices), marvelous, sometime even beautiful." Listening to these comments one inevitably feels that the broadcasters are actually the ones responsible for setting the fire in the first place, just to make sure they have the "spectacular" news. Now, for Norinaga, to be moved by "things" is not the result of a natural process everybody develops from birth (the broadcasters of my example are living proofs that Norinaga was right). The ability to be "moved" (aware) is the result of arduous study, especially poetry and the classics that help readers realize the meaning of affects. Apparently, in Hollywood poetry and the classics are not very popular. For Norinaga, ethics is actually the result of aesthetics which is the result of poetics: one knows how to behave because he/she has learned how to feel. But one does not know how to feel unless he/she knows how to read poetry.


RW: The utilization of mono no aware is more evident in Japanese tanka than in English language tanka. Do you agree with this and if so, why the gap?

MM: I believe that Japanese language is a pathic language—it is filled with particles that denote a variety of emotions. These particles are not easily translatable in Western languages. There are markers following verbs that denote the fact that someone experiences an action, and others that stress the allegedly objectivity of the action without denoting any experience. These markers are usually rendered in English with the past tense—something that does not make any sense in the original text, and yet they cannot be left untranslatedů


RW: If Norinaga were alive today, would he tolerate or give his blessing to an English-language tanka that was not entirely based on truth, in light of what he wrote in his essay "The Habit of Creating Appearances":

To argue that moon and flowers are moving but the glow of a woman does not draw one's attention is not the product of the human heart. It is nothing but a terrible lie. This being the case, since to fabricate and to embellish appearances has become a habit everywhere, shouldn't we blame this habit and denounce it as deceit?

MM: I don't think Norinaga meant that a waka should be based on any particular truth. I think he meant that a waka should be true to itself in the same way that a poet should be true to himself. In other words, a poet cannot take language lightly, and pretend to sing things that a reader would immediately understand are contrived. It is a question of credibility. The poet must be credible and so is the language that he/she employs.


RW: Explain for me the pathos (mono no aware) in Norinaga's poem, excerpted from Suzunoya Shu (The Collection of The House of Bells):

How many springs now
Has it lasted through,
Watching its reflection?
The deeply moving
Willow tree by the river.

As he wrote this poem, did he become the tree, in order to fully understand the tree; an empathic transference?

MM: I don't believe it is a case of emphatic transference. It is a case of accumulated experiences and associations. The willow tree has been traditionally associated with tears, fragility, insubstantiality (a reflection). It is also the tree to which an imperial concubine hung her robe before drowning herself in a pond in the ancient capital Nara as soon as she had lost the Emperor's favors. There are so many stories associated with willow trees that a poet and a reader of waka must know in order to appreciate and understand the meaning of willows. If one understands all these implications, he/she is bound to be moved by the willow, and will never look at it with inattentive eyes.


RW: I've noticed in your translations of Norinaga's tanka that you capitalize the first letter in each line and end each tanka with punctuation. What is your reasoning for this, since the tanka was originally written without capitalization and punctuation?

MM: Pure convention that, by the way, has been challenged on numerous occasions. Once it comes to Norinaga's poetry, I stick to convention because Norinaga's verses are profoundly conventional, not necessarily in the negative sense of the word. They tend to conform to convention, with very interesting results. It is not revolutionary poetry. I don't believe Norinaga's poetry should be used as a ground for experimentation for the simple reason that his poetry was not experimental.


RW: Norinaga, like all poets and philosophers of his era, was deeply influenced by the Chinese. I find it odd that a man of his social ranking would assert in an essay ("On Songs"): "What we call uta does not exist in any other country." Yet prior to making this pronouncement, he mentioned that the word uta exists in the Chinese. How are the two country's usages different and what does Norinaga mean by his pronouncement that "what we call uta does not exist in any other country?"

MM: I believe Norinaga meant that in China there are poetic forms which he calls "poems" (in Japanese, shi), poems that were written not just by Chinese poets, but also by Korean and Japanese poets. These are poems in the Chinese language. "Uta" is a poetic form composed in Yamato language—i.e., classical Japanese. When he says that "what we call 'uta' does not exist in any other country," he does not mean that other countries do not have poetry; he means that other countries do not possess this particular poetic form. Norinaga took issue with calling Japanese poetry "Yamato uta" (songs from Yamato)—an expression which he considered tautological, although it was used in the Preface to the Kokinshū (Modern and Ancient Songs, 905). For him, uta could only be in Yamato language, so why bother to state the same thing twice? He also argued that the Chinese characters used to write the word "waka"—the characters indicating Yamato and song—do not mean "Yamato uta" (Japanese song). "Waka" simply meant "a poem composed in response to another poem," following the Chinese tradition of poetic exchanges.


RW: Norinaga emphasized, as you say, four key concepts: koe (voice), aya (pattern), sama/sugata (form), and mono no aware (the pathos of things). Would you expound on these key concepts as they relate to waka and how they differ, if they do, from Ki no Tsurayuki's concept of the same four key concepts?

MM: The Introduction of the book is dedicated to these basic concepts. Readers might want to refer to it for an explanation.


RW: What was your inspiration for writing a book on Motoori Norinaga?

MM: I remember seeing a copy of Norinaga's Sugagasa Nikki when I was an MA student at Washington University over twenty-five years ago, and I always wanted to read it. The editions of the diary back then were not very well annotated. I was delighted when I saw that the diary was included in the new series of the Iwanami Collection of Japanese Literary Texts (Shin Nihon Koten Bungaku Taikei). I immediately invited the editor of the text, Professor Suzuki Jun, to teach a course on the diary at UCLA. The course was so good that I decided to translate Norinaga's text into English.


RW: On a personal level, what struck you most from your readings and study of Motoori Norinaga's writings?

MM: The breadth of Norinaga's knowledge that stretched over what today we would call literature, history, archeology, philology, epigraphy, philosophy, linguistics, and so on. Let's not forget that he did all this while practicing medicine on a daily basis, and writing poetry--over ten thousand verses. These are definitely impressive achievements.


Michael F. Marra is professor of Japanese literature, aesthetics, and hermeneutics at the University of California, Los Angeles.