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Untitled -- Yamabe no Akahito

Guest poem sent in by Jeffrey Sean Huo
(Poem #1208) Untitled
 The mists rise over
 The waters at Asuka;
 Memory does not
 Pass away so easily.
-- Yamabe no Akahito
       (trans. K. Rexroth)

The poem in the original Japanese:

        Asuka gawa
        Kawa yodo sarazu
        Tatsu kiri no
        Omoi sugu beki
        Koi ni aranuku ni

The _Manyoshu_ (literally, "collection of ten-thousand leaves") is the most
ancient, and largest, compiled collection of Japanese poetry. Over 4,500 poems
were compiled into twenty books during the Nara Period (710 - 794 AD). The
_Manyoshu_ shows a wide variety of forms and topics, rather than the more
restrictive rules that would govern court poetry in later ages.

The _Manyoshu_ also is unusual for including poetry written from many different
social levels, from conscript soldiers up to members of the Imperial Family,
again in contrast to later works composed mostly by the nobility. While many of
the poems are anonymous, a score of different authors are identified by name.
Considered among the greatest of these is Yamabe no Akahito.

Little is actually known about Akahito beyond what is collected in the 50 poems
in the _Manyoshu_ that bear his name. He is famous for writing one of the first
known descriptions of Mt. Fuji (the area that is now modern Tokyo, where Mt.
Fuji lies, was then a swampy, thinly inhabited region, and would remain
insignificant for the next five-hundred years, while the capital remained
further west) and was considered by others to be one of the four great poets of
the _Manyoshu_. As hinted at by his poems about Mt. Fuji, it is believed he
traveled a great deal, at least some of that time in the company of the
Imperial Court for which apparently some of the poems were written. But Akahito
was most famous for being able to simply capture a thought or a scene in a few
short lines -- such as the poem I include here.

I have had, like Akahito, the great fortune of travelling many places in my
life. I have watched the white wisps dance across the waters of the Japanese
Inland Sea from the steps of the great shrine at Miyajima; I have seen the fog
rise from San Francisco Bay and the Chicago Lake Michigan coast; even just the
morning mist coming off the Huron River that runs behind the medical school at
which I now spend my days. And so I identify very much with Akahito's thoughts:
while, like mists and fog, the mornings and evenings of our lives come and go,
the memories that we take away endure.

Thank you,

-Jeff

[Martin adds]

Mist is one of those 'intrinsically poetic' topics - rich with connotations,
evoking a plethora of memories, and possessed of a number of well-accepted
metaphorical associations. This is a two-edged sword - a poem whose central
metaphor involves mist can easily slip into cliche. On the other hand, as
today's poem clearly shows, a good poet uses those associations as a tool
rather than as a crutch, and the result is often far better than if he had
totally eschewed familiar imagery in pursuit of 'originality'.

Akahito handles the image beautifully in today's poem - he has a very light
touch, subtly suggesting the flow and direction of the poem with simple,
unembellished statements, and creating an effect that is softly rather than
starkly elegant.

Interestingly, I read the poem quite differently from Jeffrey - I saw it as a
wistful commentary on his inability to let go of painful memories. Thinking
about it, this is likely because, for me, the image of mist imbues the poem
with a slightly melancholy tinge that then colours the second half.

martin

Links:
  Another exquisite poem on the mist is Sandburg's "Last Answers",
  Poem #713

  And on memories, see Poem #236

35 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Johann and Susanne von Rennenkampff said...

Having grown up with German poetry, living in Canada has increased my appreciation of "world poetry". The "Wondering Minstrels" have done their part in exposing me to works from the far East. While the form of these poems quite often is so very different from our western way of expressing things, it does, in its seeming sparseness, convey so many things with so few words. How wonderful to hear the singing quality of the poem when saying it aloud!
I also marvel at how the same words can strike people so very differently, depending on - what? Age? Mood? Life circumstances? I, too, read the last line of this poem like Martin, containing a measure of sadness. It quite likely has to do with the image of mist, but to me also the phrase ".does not pass away so easily" suggests melancholy rather than joy. It is a nice thought, however, that you could look at it from another angle altogether.

Thanks for the poem, Jeff!

Susanne

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