During the Edo Period (1603-1867) in Japan, a tradition developed of writing poems in Chinese. These poems in Chinese by Japanese writers are known as kanshi. According to Burton Watson, "the writing of such verse came to be an important mark of the educated man, much as the writing of Latin verse was for English gentlemen of the same centuries." Burton Watson (editor/translator), Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jozan and other Edo Period Poets (North Point Press 1990), page x.
In addition to complying with the technical requirements of Chinese verse (e.g., number of lines, number of Chinese characters per line, rhyme, and tonal parallelism), the Japanese poets also echoed the subject matter of the Chinese poets. As I noted in a previous post, poems written while travelling by boat were a staple of T'ang Dynasty poetry. Thus, it is not surprising to see similar poems among the kanshi written by Japanese poets.
The following poem is by Okubo Shibutsu (1767-1837). The translation is by Burton Watson.
Aboard a Boat, Listening to Insects
As though delighting, as though grieving, each with its own song --
an idler, listening, finds his ears washed completely clean.
As the boat draws away from grassy banks, they grow more distant,
till the many varied voices become one single voice.
Ibid, page 92.
Ishikawa Jozan (1583-1672) is perhaps the most well-known kanshi poet (along with Ryokan, whose poems have appeared here in the past). The following poem by him sounds strikingly similar to many Chinese poems of the T'ang Dynasty. It also exemplifies, I think, the distinctive qualities of classic Chinese poetry.
On the one hand, it may be nothing more than a lovely, yet commonplace, observation of a passing moment. But, then again, it may hold within it untold depths. However, it is critical to note that those depths -- if they are there -- have nothing to do with Western concepts such as "symbolism," "metaphor," "allegory," et cetera. Any depth is solely in the thing itself, in the moment itself. But, to bring the circle back around, perhaps there is no depth at all: it is nothing more than a lovely, yet commonplace, observation of a passing moment. And yet . . .
Spending the Night at Murotsu
Numberless sails voyaging west and east --
with evening they'll be scrambling to enter this one inlet.
Ahead of us the waves of eighteen choppy seas;
we'll tie up the boat here, wait for a favorable wind.
Ibid, page 10. Murotsu is a port town on the island of Awaji, which lies in Japan's Inland Sea between Honshu and Shikoku.