The more skillful a poet becomes, the more his work will
display yoyo --- overtones that go beyond the words to the
heart. The goal of poetry should be to convey great feeling
in a few short lines; bad poems do the opposite --- they convey
too little feeling with a superfluity of words.
Nijo Tameyo (1250 - 1338)
translated by Steven D. Carter
Reading Beverley George's new book of tanka, Empty Garden,
I am reminded of the above teaching by Nijo Tameyo.
George's tanka latched on to my psyche, refusing to let go. Very few tanka
affect me this way. Most of what I read today go in one ear and out the other,
and are far from memorable. Most say little, some are pretentious (the antithesis
of makoto), and all too many display a poor understanding of the genre; a
colonialized 5 line poem more akin to William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound
than to the roots that gave birth to tanka (waka).
George's tanka reflect an understanding and respect for the genre that was
handed down to us by the Japanese people. Although she speaks from her own cultural
memory immersed in the social context of her surroundings (Australia), her
poetry is clearly Japanese in its breath and style.
you play saxophone
and i am breathless
how each note will fall
Contemporary, in tune, her poem here jumps out of the written page, stirring thoughts
and memories indigenous to our own experience, which is what a good poem is
supposed to achieve. I can relate to her words, even sense what she is feeling,
allowing for a transference that lingers long after reading this poem. The poet
lays bare her soul, fanning embers that thaw the cold ice pack that much of contemporary
English tanka has succumbed to, resurrecting the warmth, beauty, and
soulfulness found in Japanese Imperial Court poetry by Ono no Komachi and Izumi
Shikubu, and contemporary tanka penned by Yosano Akiko, Fumiko Nakajo, and
Kawano Yuko, and others like them.
roadside grass ---
two blackbirds rise
and I am surprised
In this poem, George juxtaposes something she has seen in nature with the effect
it had on her. Her honesty and openness coupled with a skillful knowledge of
writing tanka makes for a magical moment. It's as if the two of us, author and
reader, are sitting across from each other, in a room dancing with candlelight,
sharing a moment of intimacy; a moment not unlike this waka penned centuries
ago in Japan's Imperial Court:
the long rains falling on this world
my heart, too, fades
with the unseen color
of the spring flowers
Ono no Komachi (834 - ?)
translated by Jane Hirshfield
Although a small book, Beverley George's Empty
Garden is a treasure I will read again and again.
a lightning strike
splits our old apple tree ---
I never dreamed
the death that parted us
would not be one of ours
Says Janice M. Bostok:
Her tanka are sensual and incisive, written with a sensitivity of language
that ensures they will remain as a benchmark for the genre.