Friday, July 13, 2012

On A Boat At Night, Revisited

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.

                        Kenneth Macqueen (1897-1960), "Beach Patterns"

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.

          Kenneth Macqueen, "Receding Tide Near Coolum, Queensland"

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.

                                    Kenneth Macqueen, "Wave Sketch"


WAS said...

One of your best posts, Stephen! Two exquisite poems, along with thoughtful, clear and careful insights on a "hydrid" form that I (for one) was not aware of.

I like what you say about the non-Western character of its deeper meaning. I look at it, from a recent bout with Stevens' "Earthy Anecdote," as a kind of dynamism - how forces are structured together. Thus, in the Murotsu poem (boy, that one brings me back to my childhood) there's an unspoken contrast between the human ambition of the "numberless" sailboats chasing the wind and the resolute narrator, waiting in the place where he knows they will all come back to rest, patient for nature's gifts. It is, as you say, what it is, but the open space in both these poems brings something out of both the Chinese and Japanese traditions that is different - and very appealing.

It might have something to do with Watson's pitch-perfect translations, of course. "Aboard a Boat" in particular is near-perfect as a poem in English (I'd quibble that "idler" is too analytical a word and that I hear "note" instead of "voice" at the end, but such variations are what readers are for).

Thanks for brightening and lightening up an otherwise hot and oppressive Friday morning!

alice c said...

How fascinating - my knowledge of the Edo period was limited to the art work so I am grateful to you for this post.

Now that I am educated in these matters I find myself wondering what another, more lyrical, translator would have made of the phrase 'his ears washed completely clean'.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sigler: thank you once again for your thoughts (and for your kind words).

Yes, the kanshi tradition is very interesting. I first came across it through reading Ryokan. As you have remarked before, there is a difference between the Chinese and Japanese sensibilities. Thus, it is intriguing to see the Japanese replicating the Chinese poetic forms (in absolutely strict conformance: they consulted Chinese prosodic manuals that set forth the detailed requirements for each form of poem), while maintaining their own unique approach to things.

Stephen Pentz said...

alice c: thank you very much for visiting again, and for your thoughts.

I understand what you mean about "his ears washed completely clean." For example, it is interesting to think of what Arthur Waley -- whose translations are indeed more lyrical than Burton Watson's -- would have made of the line. That being said, Watson's translations are usually praised for their fidelity to the originals, whereas Waley was sometimes known to exercise a little "poetic license." Unfortunately, translations of Ishikawa Jozan's poems are not very plentiful, so I have not yet seen other versions of the line. But your point makes me wish to find some!

Thanks again.