Over the June moors
A skylark is sucked into
The wide timeless sky.
From the edge of blue stillness,
The faint bleating of a lamb.
A resident of England, Japanese born Hisashi Nakamura composes tanka with a strict adherence to the 31 syllable format used in traditional Japanese tanka. States Nakamura in the book's introduction, "Many are against writing tanka in English following the 5/7/5/7/7 structure because of the fundamental differences in the Japanese and English languages, and only a very small minority of people involved in writing tanka in English do so with 31 syllables. . . . I am convinced through my experience that using 31 English syllables makes it possible to create a poetic realm that is similar to the world of Shin Kokan Wakashu [the first imperial anthology of Japanese poetry, 905 AD].
Nakamura credits Saigyo, Shunzei, Yoshitsune, Teika, and other poets whose waka are included in the Shin Kokin Wakashu, as his major influences. He is also a translator. Interestingly, when translating waka from the original Japanese into English, Nakamura deviates from his adherence to the traditional Japanese 31 syllable formula.
Some examples of Nakamura's translations, excerpted from the book's introduction:
Sending my soul away
To where the moon has sunk
Behind the mountain,
What shall I do with my body
Left in this darkness?
As spring passes
I do not know
Where its harbor will be ---
A brushwood barge on the Uji River
Falling into the haze.
Says Nakamura, "In my translations of Japanese tanka I do not attempt to replicate the 5-7-5-7-7 form in English, but rather to express the original meaning as exactly as possible."
Let's take a closer look at Nakamura's tanka:
The blue sea spread out
Under a white noon-day sun
Sings a lullaby
To one who does not hear it,
Always waiting on the shore.
Referring to his own style of composition, Nakamura waxes philosophical: "Tanka does not seek the beauty of the eternal or permanent. It finds beauty in fleeting existence. It echoes the view of Buddhism, whose first teaching is that everything is subject to change. A tanka poet would never wish cherry blossoms to be in full bloom permanently. Cherry blossoms are beautiful because it is inevitable that they fade and fall."
Through the empty nest
Lodged in the swaying branches
Of a churchyard elm
The winter moon gazes at
A name newly carved in stone
The poet is outdoors at night in a church graveyard looking up at an empty bird nest lodged in a mishmash of swaying branches belonging to an elm tree. It is winter during a full moon. He notices the moon's light shining on a newly carved gravestone. The poet in him sees beyond the obvious and imagines the moon gazing at the gravestone in reverence. It is a poignant scene with more than one tier of meaning, expressed lyrically like a song (waka).
On a northern shore
Snowflakes are borne on the wind
Over roaring seas.
Is this today's lullaby
For the gull lost at nightfall?
Seagulls don't listen to lullabies. Or do they? From sunrise to sunset, they are active and appear to be tireless. At night, they sleep. Nakamura is imagining a gull lulled to sleep by the sound of a frigid coastal wind during a snowstorm. Skillfully written, the poem allows room for interpretation, causing readers to speculate what the poet means by "today's lullaby" and "the gull lost at nightfall." A metaphor, perhaps, the unsaid lingering in one's mind.
Nakamura's style works at times as evidenced by the above examples, but it can also hinder a tanka's sense of flow:
At the moonlit bay
The breeze over the cliffs faints
In the evening calm
As wild thyme scents the soft air
In tune with the cobalt tide
In the piercing wind
An old icicle breaks off.
The still morning brings
Black figures against the snow
Under a bright blue heaven.
The above poems read as if they were forced to conform to the 31 syllable formula. The word "the" is overused as are descriptive modifiers (adjectives). And the meter in these examples is uneven. Without good meter and white space (yohaku), a tanka can falter.
One of the characteristics of Japanese poetry is an economy of words, the white space referred to as the unsaid. Japanese painter Tosa Mitsuoki (1617 - 1691) wrote regarding the use of white space in a painting, which can equally be applied to Japanese short form poetry, "Do not fill up the whole picture with lines; also apply colors with a light touch. Some perfection in design is desirable. You should not fill in more than one third of the background. Just as you would if you were writing poetry, take care to hold something back. The viewer, too, must bring something into it. If one includes some empty space along with an image, then the mind will fill it in."
Overall, I enjoyed Hisashi Nakamura's book, Floating Bridge, a collection of 70 tanka written in the classic Japanese syllable format 5/7/5/7/7. There are strong poems and not-so strong poems in almost any book of poetry, this one included. I like Nakamura's imagery, his love of language, and the way he expresses himself. Does he create a poetic realm similar to the world of Shin Kokan Wakashu by adhering to the 31 syllable format when composing English-language tanka? This is debatable. Since syllables in the Japanese language have shorter intonations, a 31 syllable tanka in Japanese has a different meter than one in the English language with the same amount of syllables. The poetic realm the Shin Kokan Wakashu represents is not dependent upon syllable count. Content, meter, use of white space all need to be factored in.
How sad to think
That my body will end in pale green;
A mist over the fields.
Ono no Komachi (circa 850 AD)
Translated by Hisashi Nakamura