A Spring Poem a Week (April 25th)


Shiho kaze ni yokuyoku akeba kamome naku

In the salty wind–

If you really listen hard,

the caw-caw of gulls

This is the 5th stanza of the linked-verse. It follows the 5-7-5 pattern similar to a haiku. It was composed by a man named Shōkei (昌圭).

According to the commentary accompanying this poem, the image here is of a nightwatchman. He is on guard, somewhere close to the sea. At night, the sea winds  pick up and are kind of loud. He hears sounds carried on the wind which he mistakes for men and horses (or perhaps man and a horse) and instantly becomes tense. But, as he listens more closely it is only the sound of gulls that he hears.

The first 3 stanzas to this linked verse follow a spring theme. These last two (the 4th & 5th) are categorized as “miscellaneous”. To me, what links this stanza to the previous stanza is the image of the nightwatchman. In the previous stanza, he was a warrior putting on his armor by the campfire light. In this stanza it is still night and he is on duty.


A nightwatchmen's robe (jinbei) from the Edo/Tokugawa era. You can see these in souvenir shops all over Japan.

A nightwatchmen’s robe (jinbei) from the Edo/Tokugawa era. You can see these in souvenir shops all over Japan.

So many times I’ve heard animals crying or howling and was surprised at how similar they sounded to humans. Especially cats and foxes–they can really sound like babies crying. That really creeps me out! So in this stanza, I can relate to how this man felt, 300 years ago. I’ve experienced windy nights when I can’t hear anything–couple that with a dark night and it can be a little unnerving.

These linked-verses are being composed in a group. The poets are tying to be clever, but are also trying to appeal to the shared experiences of the other poets and to any audience present. Therefore, there seems to be very little “individuality” in these stanzas–that is to say, the poets don’t seem to be trying to intentionally exclude themselves from the others, but rather are trying to stay included. No loners here.




A Spring Poem-a-Week (April 18th)


Yorohi nagara no hi ni ataru nari

Warriors prepare for battle in the campfire light

This stanza seems to be totally random. In the first few stanzas there are images like the coming of spring, cherry blossoms, spring mists, and then suddenly this image of a warrior dressing for battle.

This stanza follows a 7-7 syllable pattern and was composed by a man named Rifū (李風). According to the commentary, the mention of the large hall, or building [ie, 館], in the previous stanza is what makes the image association here in this stanza. I really don’t understand the commentary’s explanation, but here’s what I do understand: normally, a warrior would be getting dressed for battle indoors, but here he (they) are outside, before a campfire/bonfire. This indicates that the war is already underway and that this may not be a permanent encampment.

The associations that I make from these first 4 stanzas are each related to the idea of “impermanence” (maybe mujō 無常?). In the first two stanzas, spring, cherry blossoms, and travel are each mentioned. New life begins in spring and is fresh, and new, and wonderful. But soon the scorching summer sun causes beauty to fade, which is followed by autumn and winter–further decay. Cherry blossoms are a classic metaphor for the impermanence of life & beauty. The beautiful pink flowers are celebrated in spring, but they are so fragile: even the slightest breeze or the gentlest spring rain knocks them off the branches. Then there is travel, clearly when someone is on the road, they are just passing by and not in one place for long.

The feeling of passing by/transience continues into this stanza as well. The warrior is outside, standing before a fire, and getting his armour on: surely this is not a permanent situation (if it were permanent then he would perhaps be in a castle or someplace). Also, war brings death & decay. A strong, healthy man–>putting on armour–>dying in battle is analogous to a cherry blossom tree–>blooming flowers–>the flowers dying and falling from the tree. Armour adorns the man like blossoms adorn the tree, both of which will soon fall to the earth.

So perhaps this warrior image is not as random as I thought…

A [SPRING] Poem-a-Week (April 11)

I’m posting this a few days later than I intended to–classes started last week and I was just too busy. Since I missed my “one post per week” quota, WordPress started sending me nasty e-mails and calling me at work. If you were wondering what happened to all those people who used to work for Columbia House, well I guess they all found jobs at WordPress…!


山かすむ月一時に館立て Yama kasumu tsuki itsu toki ni ie tachite Spring mists rising from the mountain

shroud the evening moon above the hall

These poems I have been posting are all part of one massive linked-verse poetry session (think something along the lines of rapper’s freestyle-battle–that’s actually a pretty accurate comparison). The first poet, Kakei (荷兮), gave us the the initial stanza (in the 5-7-5 syllable pattern). The next poet, Jūgo (重五), gave us the 2nd stanza in a 7-7 syllable pattern continuing the spring theme introduced by Kakei. Now, the third poet, Ūto (雨桐), gives us the 3rd stanza again in the 5-7-5 syllable pattern.

Itsutoki/ittoki and ie gave me some problems. There meanings don’t precisely come out in my translation. Itsutoki/ittoki [一時] is about midnight to 2:00 am. (if I’m not mistaken…??) The other, ie [館] I just translated as “hall,” but it could mean a hall/large building on a temple-grounds, or a lodge for travelers.

Spring mists: I certainly think of mists/fog in spring. One morning at Susquehanna we were out on the river practicing, probably at around 6:00 or so. It was during the spring season, so it would’ve been March, maybe. We shoved off, rowed out about 700 meters or so, when all of a sudden this thick, thick fog rolled in. We couldn’t see a damn thing, like, not even the hands in front of our faces. Our coach was in a launch and told us to get back to the dock ASAP–we couldn’t even see him. It was pretty nerve-racking. Especially since the current is so strong there and because there is a massive dam/waterfall not far from the dock. If you over shoot the dock the current to the dam gets really strong, and unlike at Boathouse Row, there aren’t emergency/safety ropes to catch you (or rather, for you to catch and hold on to for dear life.)


A [Spring] Poem-a-Week (April 4th)

A friend of mine just recently moved to Tokyo. This morning she sent me a picture of herself in front of cherry blossoms. Apparently this week was the “big week” for cherry blossoms in Tokyo. People all over the city go out during the day or after work for little “Cherry Blossom Viewings”. They’re not so much “viewings” as “parties” though! Imagine tailgating, but outside under beautifully, blooming cherry blossoms.

Here’s 7-7 syllable “couplet” that links to the poem I posted for last week (again, trying to stick to the 7-7 pattern in my translation, too):

桜ちる中馬ながく連 Sakura chiru nakauma nagaku tsure Cherry blossoms in the spring wind.

A long trek with horses


I’m trying to rush out the door, but I guess I should explain this.
In the first “verse” of this poem, it mentions people on the way to the shintō shrine at Ise. So here, that idea or theme is continued by mentioning the “long trek with horses.”

A [SPRING] Poem-a-Week

I’m trying to get in the zone for a course I’m teaching this semester on the poet Matsuo Bashō. He’s mostly known for his 17 syllable haiku poems (open any school book with haiku in it, and chances are you’ll see his haiku). Haiku more or less follow a 5-7-5 syllable pattern, but another poetry genre uses this 5-7-5 pattern and tacks on a 7-7 syllable pattern, kind of like a “couplet”. Sometimes the author of the 5-7-5 would also write the 7-7, and sometimes another person would compose the 7-7 couplet. This went on kind of like a game or a challenge.

March 21st was the 1st day of Spring 2014, if you believe what the calendar tells you. I was up in Aomori studying about the 20th century author Dazai Osamu, and didn’t get a poem up that week to ring in the first day of spring. Also, I was trudging around in about 6 inches of snow, so I wasn’t really in a spring-mood. Here’s my original translation of a poem for March 28th though. It’s a 5-7-5 poem, and I tried to preserve the 5-7-5 in English, too! It was tricky.




Haru mekuyahito samazama no

Ise mairi

The coming of Spring!People from all around visit the Ise shrine.

EDIT: I guess I could mention that this is pretty much a literal translation of the poem. According to a commentary I read on the poem though, “Haru mekuya” [The coming of spring] could also mean “recollecting-memories”. As if the coming of spring brings memories to mind. It certainly does for me! So many! Rowing, winding down the school year, the smell of hyacinths… geeze, so many.