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#3201 - Wednesday, June 18, 2008 - Editor: Gloria Lee
Nonduality Highlights

For today, we have a reader contribution from ts, an article he found on tanka.      

nice spiel on tanka.

i like very much this form
which is capable of transmitting:

... a sense of subconscious recognition,
a kind of emotional déjà vu as well as an
original encounter with life ...


 ... the sense of refined human dignity and
elegance in the face of what was (and is)
essentially transient ...


 ... accept and express all that life can
bring and take away. Both joy and sorrow
being the mirror of each at that point where
the present is always becoming the past ...



Tanka: poetry of reconciliation
by Brian Tasker

Originating more than 1200 years ago, tanka is the classical lyric
poem of Japanese literature. The first anthology (Manyoshu) containing
some 4,000 poems was published in the 8th century and over six
centuries some twenty-one anthologies were published comprising around
30,000 poems. From about 700 to 1200 A.D., tanka or waka a they were
then known, were written by courtiers often in the form of notes
between lovers expressing love, desire or unrequited love as well as
an appreciation of nature. The development of tanka broadly paralleled
the absorption of Buddhism into Japanese culture from the 6th century

What appears evident in the content of many tanka is the tension
between the pull of human affairs and the world of nature.  This was
reflected in the way that human experience, the ever-changing constant
of the natural world and the ceaseless flow of time refined the
feelings of poets into a compressed poem. As in this example from the
Manyo­shu, by an anonymous frontier guard in a translation by Kenneth

Over the reeds
Twilight mists rise and settle
Wild ducks cry out
As the evening turns cold
Lover, how I long for you.

A mood of unmitigated loneliness pervades the poem.  But what resolves
this surface reading is an acceptance and reconciliation to the
passage of time and to the cycles of nature that will eventually yield
a reunion. The frontier guard's initial inaction is contrasted with
the action of nature.  Actually, the frontier guard was fulfilling his
role of watching: observing the process of unfolding events until he
had no choice but to respond - his defences were breached.  What is
striking about this poem is that the frontier guard was allowed to
feel his loneliness - his humanity was respected.

Over the centuries specific poetic concepts were developed. The use of
pivot words (kaketoba) to shift the meaning between one phrase and the
next, (yojo) surplus meaning, (hakanasa)  the lack of stay in human
affairs and (mihatenu yume), the likening of life to an unfinished
dream among many others. Earl Miner has described tanka as
'island-like moments of rich significance that might arrest, however
briefly, the inexorable flow of time.'  An important characteristic
was the sense of refined human dignity and elegance in the face of
what was (and is) essentially transient. Another aspect is that the
Japanese have always lived under some sort of social restraint. In a
moment of openness, with the need to express their feelings in a brief
poem, the depth of feeling became implicit rather than stated; an
implicitness also rooted in the Japanese language. The feeling or mood
would be contextualized in time and place to root it in the personal,
yet operate on an archetypal level, universal rather than just the
personal, enabling anyone whether moving forwards or backwards in time
to relate to the underlying mood, if not always the context.  It is
this archetypal transference, at the same time, a sense of
subconscious recognition, a kind of emotional déjà vu as well as an
original encounter with life, that needs to be preserved in the tanka
that we write in the West. Otherwise, tanka risks becoming just
another vehicle of self-expression or artistic statement and losing
its essentially defining characteristic and attraction. The
differences between the archetypal and homogeneity, between ancestral
feeling (something that we are constantly adding to) and dull
uniformity can be explored through the medium of tanka as a poetry
born more of experience than of ideas.

By the 12th century, Court poetry had according to Burton Watson,
become increasingly shallow and mannered and the monk-poet Saigyo was
a major influence in introducing unconventional subject matter, more
rustic and more openly spiritual than the previous courtly
preoccupations. This new style was marked by images that conveyed the
loneliness, melancholy and colourlessness embodied in the concepts of
sabi and yugen. One of Saigyo's most famous poems in a translation by
William LaFleur illustrates this theme:

Thought I was free
of passion, so this melancholy
comes as surprise:
a woodcock shoots up from the marsh
where autumn's twilight falls.

I have chosen LaFleur's translation over Watson's (and they are very
different) because of the commentary that LaFleur provides in his book
The Karma of Words, Buddhism and the Literary Arts in Medieval Japan
(pages 103 - 105). This commentary is far too complex to summarise
here other than to say that LaFleur explains that it would be a
complete misunderstanding to classify Saigyo's poem as a sad poem, and
says that 'while the imagery and emotional range of the poem encompass
the two poles of our usual dichotomies - light and darkness, life and
death, being and non-being, joy and sadness. One always implies and
elicits the other.'  I'd suggest that it's well worth tracking down
this book (now out of print) as it shows how limited our Western
understanding of Japanese poetics can be and how much our lives can be
enriched by its study.

But even with our limited understanding, I feel that there is some
intuitive connection that can point to a quality of authentic and
genuine contact with life, (the external world) and our human
vulnerability (the internal world) that can be found in tanka as a
moment of reconciliation and acceptance to give tanka its place in
world poetry. Tanka can offer an opportunity to accept and express
(and I feel that the acceptance is somehow deepened and integrated in
the expression) of all that life can bring and take away. Both joy and
sorrow being the mirror of each at that point where the present is
always becoming the past. The poetry is in the spontaneity and
unguardedness of that: the somehow effortless reconciliation of our
human life to life itself.

long after she's left
the garden she tended
weeds reclaim the flowerbeds
my heart too
has grown wild



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