The Spirit of Japanese Poetry/Chapter 1

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I come always to the conclusion that the English poets waste too much energy in "words, words, words," and make, doubtless with all good intentions, their inner meaning frustrate, at least less distinguished, simply from the reason that its full liberty to appear naked is denied. It is the poets more than the novelists who not only misinterpret their own meaning, but often deceive their own souls. When I say it seems that they take a so-called poetical licence, I mean that what they write about, to speak slangily, by the yard, is not Life or Voice itself; from such a view-point I do not hesitate to declare that the English poets, particularly the American poets, are far behind the novelists. I can prove with many instances that there are books and books of "poems" in which one cannot find any particular design of their authors; it is never too much to say that they have a good intention, though not wise at best; but, after all, to have only that good intention is not the way to make art or literature advance.

I always insist that the written poems, even when they are said to be good, are only the second best, as the very best poems are left unwritten or sung in silence. It is my opinion that the real test for poets is how far they resist their impulse to utterance, or, in another word, to the publication of their own work—not how much they have written, but how much they have destroyed. To live poetry is the main thing, and the question of the poems written or published is indeed secondary; from such a reason I regard our Basho Matsuwo, the seventeen-syllable Hokku poet of three hundred and fifty years ago, as great, while the work credited to his wonderful name could be printed in less than one hundred pages of any ordinary size. And it is from the same reason that I pay an equal reverence to Stephane Mallarmé, the so-called French symbolist, though I do not know the exact meaning of that term. While they are poets different in nature, true to say, as different as a Japanese from a Frenchman (or it might be said, as same as the French and the Japanese), it seems to me that they join hands unconditionally in the point of denying their hearts too free play, with the result of making poetry living and divine, not making merely "words, words, and words," and further in the point that both of them, the Japanese and the Frenchman, are poetical realists whose true realism is heightened or "enigmatised" by the strength of their own self-denial, to the very point that they have often been mistaken for mere idealists. Putting aside the question whether they are great or not, the fact that they have left little work behind is the point that I should like to emphasise; blessed be they who can sing in silence to the content of their hearts in love of perfection. The real prayer should be told in silence.

For a poet to have few lines in these prosaic days would be at least an achievement truly heroic; I think that the crusade of the Western poetry, if it is necessary, as I believe it is most momentous, should begin with the first act of leaving the "words" behind, or making them return to their original proper places. We have a little homely proverb–"The true heart will be protected by a god, even though it offer no prayer at all." I should like to apply it to poetry and say that poetry will take care of itself all by itself without any assistance from words, rhymes, and metres. I flatter myself that even Japan can do something towards the reformation or advancement of the Western poetry, not only spiritually, but also physically.

Japanese poetry, at least the old Japanese poetry, is different from Western poetry in the same way as silence is different from a voice, night from day; while avoiding the too close discussion of their relative merits, I can say that the latter always fails, naturally enough through being too active to properly value inaction, restfulness, or death; to speak shortly, the passive phase of Life and the World. It is fantastic to say that night and day, silence and voice, are all the same; let me admit that they are vastly different; it is their difference that makes them so interesting. The sensitiveness of our human nature makes us to be influenced by the night and silence, as well as by the day and voice; let me confess, however, that my suspicion of the Western poetic feeling dates from quite far back in the days of my old California life, when I was quite often laughed at for my aimless loitering under the moonbeams, and for my patient attention to the voice of the falling snow. One who lives, for instance, in Chicago or New York, can hardly know the real beauty of night and silence; it is my opinion that the Western character, particularly of Americans, would be sweetened, or at least toned down, if that part of the beauty of Nature might be emphasised. Oh, our Japanese life of dream and silence! The Japanese poetry is that of the moon, stars, and flowers, that of a bird and waterfall for the noisiest. If we do not sing so much of Life and the World it is not from the reason that we think their value negative, but from our thought that it would be better, in most cases, to leave them alone, and not to sing of them is the proof of our reverence toward them. Besides, to sing the stars and the flowers in Japan means to sing Life, since we human beings are not merely a part of Nature, but Nature itself. When our Japanese poetry is best, it is, let me say, a searchlight or flash of thought or passion cast on a moment of Life and Nature, which, by virtue of its intensity, leads us to the conception of the whole; it is swift, discontinuous, an isolated piece. So it is the best of our seventeen-syllable Hokku and thirty-one syllable Uta poems that by their art, as Tsurayuki remarks in his Kokinshiu preface "without an effort, heaven and earth are moved, and gods and demons invisible to our eyes are touched with sympathy"; the real value of the Japanese poems may be measured by what mood or illusion they inspire in the reader's mind.

It is not too much to say that an appreciative reader of poetry in Japan is not made, but born, just like a poet; as the Japanese poetry is never explanatory, one has everything before him on which to let his imagination freely play; as a result he will come to have an almost personal attachment to it as much as the author himself. When you realise that the expression or words always mislead you, often making themselves an obstacle to a mood or an illusion, it will be seen what a literary achievement it is when one can say a thing which passes well as real poetry in such a small compass mentioned before; to say "suggestive" is simple enough, the important question is how? Although I know it sounds rather arbitrary, I may say that such a result may be gained partly (remember, only partly) through determination in the rejection of inessentials from the phrase and the insistence upon economy of the inner thought; just at this moment, while I write this article, my mind is suddenly recalled to the word which my old California poet-friend used to exclaim: "Cut short, cut short, and again cut short!"

The other day I happened to read the work of Miss Lizette Wordworth Reese, whose sensitiveness, the sweetest of all femininity for any age or race, expressed in language of pearl-like simplicity, whether studied or not, makes me think of her as a Japanese poet among Americans. When I read "A White Lilac" from A Quiet Road (what a title with the sixteenth-century dreaminess) I was at once struck by her sensitiveness to odour; as a better specimen let me give you the following:

"Oh, gray and tender is the rain,
That drips, drips on the pane;
A hundred things come in at the door,
The scent of herbs, the thought of yore.

"I see the pool out in the grass,
A bit of broken glass;
The red flags running wet and straight,
Down to the little flapping gate.

"Lombardy poplars tall and three,
Across the road I see.
There is no loveliness so plain,
As a tall poplar in the rain.

"But oh, the hundred things and more
That come in at the door;
The smack of mint, old joy, old pain,
Caught in the gray and tender rain."

With all due respect, I thought afterwards what a pity to become an American poetess if she has to begin her poem with "Oh, gray and tender is the rain"—such a commonplace beginning. I declared bluntly that I, "as a Japanese poet," would sacrifice the first three stanzas to make the last sparkle fully and unique like a perfect diamond. Explanation is forbidden in the House of Poesy for Japanese, where, as in the Japanese tea-house of four mats and a half, the Abode of Imagination, only the hints tender and gray, like a ghost or Miss Reese's rain, are suffered to be dwelling. Although of this American poetess it is said that her rejection of inessentials is tho secret of her personality and style, it seems that that rejection is not sufficient for my Japanese mind. If I be blamed as unintelligible from too much rejection, I have only to say that the true poetry should be written only to one's own heart to record the pain or joy, like a soul's diary whose sweetness can be kept when it is hidden secretly, or like a real prayer for which only a few words uttered are enough. Here I am reminded of a particular Hokku, a rain-poem like Miss Reese's, by Buson Yosano of the eighteenth century:

"Of the samidare rain
List to the Utsubo Bashira pipe!
These ears of my old age!"

Is it unbelievable to you when I tell you that such is a complete Japanese poem, even a good poem? The poem, as you see, in such a Lilliputian form of seventeen syllables in the original, carries my mind at once to the season's rain and the Utsubo Bashira, or Pipe of Emptying, that descends from the eaves (how like a Japanese poem with a singular distinction of inability to sing!), to which the poet Buson's world-wearied old ears awakened; you will see that the "hundred things and more that come in at the door" of his mind should be understood, although he does not say it. Indeed, you are the outsider of our Japanese poems if you cannot read immediately what they do not describe to you.

My Japanese opinion, shaped by hereditary impulse and education, was terribly shattered quite many years ago when Edwin Markham’s The Man with a Hoe made a furore in the American Press. I exclaimed: “What! You say it is poetry? How is it possible?” It appeared to me to be a cry from the Socialist platform rather than a poem; I hope I do not offend the author if I say that it was the American journalist whose mind of curiosity always turns, to use a Japanese expression, to making billows rise from the ground. Putting aside many things, I think I can say that Mr. Markham’s poem has an inexcusable error to the Japanese mind; that is its exaggeration, which, above all, we cannot stand in poetry, and even despise as very bad taste. Before Edwin Markham there was Whittier, who sent out editorial volleys under the guise of poetry; it is not too much to say, I dare think, that An American Anthology by Mr. Stedman, would look certainly better if it were reduced to one hundred pages from its eight hundred; we are bewildered to see so many poet-journalists perfectly jammed in the pages. One cannot act contrary to education; we are more or less the creation of tradition and circumstance. It was the strength of the old Western poets, particularly Americans, that they preached, theorised, and moralised, besides singing in their own days; but when I see that our Japanese poetry was never troubled by Buddhism or Confucianism, I am glad here to venture that the Western poet would be better off by parting from Christianity, social reform, and what not. I think it is time for them to live more of the passive side of Life and Nature, so as to make the meaning of the whole of them perfect and clear, to value the beauty of inaction so as to emphasise action, to think of Death so as to make Life more attractive, although I do not insist upon their conforming themselves, as we Japanese poets, with the stars, flowers, and winds.

We treat poetry, though it may sound too ambitious to the Western mind, from the point of its use of uselessness; it rises, through a mysterious way, to the height of its peculiar worth, where its uselessness turns, lo, to usefulness. When one knows that the things useless are the things most useful under different circumstances (to give one example, a little stone lazy by a stream, which becomes important when you happen to hear its sermon), he will see that the aspect of uselessness in poetry is to be doubly valued since its usefulness is always born from it like the day out of the bosom of night; you cannot call it, I trust, merely a Japanese freakishness or vagary if we appear to you in the matter of poetry to make much ado about nothing. I dare say we have our own attitude toward poetry. I have no quarrel with one who emphasises the immediate necessity of joining the hand of poetry and life; however, I wish to ask him the question what he means by the word life. It is my opinion that the larger part is builded upon the unreality by the strength of which the reality becomes intensified; when we sing of the beauty of night, that is to glorify, through the attitude of reverse, in the way of silence, the vigour and wonder of the day. Poetry should be meaningful; but there is no world like that of poetry, in which the word "meaning" so often baffles, bewilders, disappoints us. I have seen enough examples of poems which appealed to me as meaningful and impressed another as hopelessly meaningless.

I deem it one of the literary fortunes, a happy happening, but not an achievement, that till quite recently our Japanese poetry was never annoyed, fatigued, tormented by criticism; it was left perfectly at liberty to pursue its own free course and satisfy its old sweet will. The phenomenon that the literary part of criticism could find a congenial ground in Japan might make one venture to explain it from the point of our being whimsical, not philosophical; emotional, not intellectual. I have often thought that this mental lack might be attributed to the inconsistency of climate and sceneries, the general frailty and contradictions in our way of living. What I am thankful for is that it has never degenerated into mere literature; when the Western poetry is in the hand, so to say, of men of letters, the greatest danger will be found in the fact that they are often the prey of publication; it is true that the Western poets, minor or major, or what not, have had always the thought of printing from early date till to-day. I know that at least in Japan the best poetry was produced in the age when publication was most difficult; I dare say that the modern opening of the pages for poets in the press, and the easy publication of their work in independent books, both in the West and the East, would never be the right way for the real encouragement of poetry. I read somewhere that a certain distinguished European actress declared that the true salvation of the stage should start with the destruction of all the theatres in existence; I should like to say well-nigh the same thing in regard to the real revival of poetry. Let the poets forget for once and all about publication, and let them live in poetry as the true poets of old days used to live. Indeed, to live in poetry is first and last. When one talks on the union of poetry and life, I am sure that so it should be in action and practice, not only in print. I have seen so many poets who only live between the covers and die when the ink fades away.

I often open the pages of Hokku poems by Basho Matsuo and his life of fifty years. He gained moral strength from his complete rejection of worldly luxuries. He lived with and in poverty, to use the Japanese phrase, seishin or pure poverty, by whose blessing his single-minded devotion was well rewarded; of course it was the age when material poverty was not a particular inconvenience, as to-day. I read somewhere in his life that he declined in the course of his pilgrimage to accept three ryo (equivalent to seven or eight pounds in the present reckoning), the parting gift by his students, as he was afraid his mind would be disturbed by the thought that his sudden wealth might become an attraction for a thief; oh, what a difference from the modern poets who call for a better payment! He had one of his poetical students at Kaga, by the name of Hokushi, who sent him the following Hokku poem when his house was burned down:

It has burned down:
How serene the flowers in their falling!”

The master Basho wrote to Hokushi, after speaking the words of condolence, that Kyorai and Joshi (his disciples), too, had been struck with admiration by the poem beginning “It has burned down,” and he continued “There was in ancient time a poet who paid his own life as the price of a poem. I do not think that you will take your loss too much to heart when you get such a poem.” When Basho said the above, I believe that his admiration for Hokushi was more on account of his attitude toward life’s calamity than for the Hokku poem itself. Hokushi did not study poetry in vain, I should say, when his own mind could keep serene like the falling flowers, while seeing his house burn to ashes. That is the real poetry in action. With that action as a background, his poem, although it is slight in fact, bursts into a sudden light and dignity.

Indeed the main question is: what is the real poetry of action for which silence is the language? To say the real poet is a part of Nature does no justice, because he is able more often to understand Nature better through the very reason of his not being a part of Nature itself. It is his greatness to soar out of Nature and still not ever to forget her in one word, to make himself art itself. And how does he attain his own aim? Is it by the true conception of Taoism, the doctrine of Cosmic change or Mood of the Universe, of the Great Infinite or Transition? Or is it through the Zennism, of whose founder, Dharuma, I wrote once as follows?

Thou lurest one into the presence of tree and hill;
Thou blondest with the body of Nature old;
List, Nature with the human shadow and song,
With thee she seems so near and sure to me,
I love and understand her more truly through thee;
Oh magic of meditation, witchery of silence,–
Language for which secret has no power!
Oh vastness of the soul of night and death,
Where time and pains cease to exist.”

The main concern is how to regulate and arrange Nature; before arranging and regulating Nature, you have to regulate and arrange your own life. The thoughts of life and death, let me say, do not approach me; let me live in the mighty serenity of the Eternal! By the virtue of death itself, life grows really meaningful; let us welcome death like great Rikiu who, being forced to harakiri by his master’s suspicion, drank the “last tea of Rikiu” with his beloved disciples, and passed into the sweet Unknown with a smile and song on his face for the very turn of the page.

When I think on my ideal poet, I always think about our old Japanese tea-masters who were the true poets, as I said before, of the true action; it was their special art to select and simplify Nature, again to make her concentrate and emphasise herself according to their own thought and fancy. Let me tell you one story which impresses me still as quite a poetical revelation as when I heard it first.

Three or four tea-masters, the aestheticists of all aestheticists, headed by famous Rikiu, were once invited by Kwanpaku Hidetsugu, a feudal lord of the sixteenth century, to his early morning tea; the month was April, the day the twentieth, whose yearning mind was yet struggling to shake off the gray-haired winter’s despotism. The dark breezes, like evil spirits who feared the approach of sunlight, were huddling around under the eaves of Hidetsugu's tea-house; within, there was no light. And the silence was complete; then it was found that its old rhythm ("Oh, what a melody!") was now and then broken, no, emphasised, by the silver voice of the boiling tea-kettle. No one among the guests ever spoke, as the human tongue was thought to be out of place. The host, Kwanpaku Hidetsugu, was slow to appear on the scene; what stepped in most informally, with no heralding, was the Ariake no Tsuki, the faint shadow of the falling moon at early dawn, who came a thousand miles, through the perplexity of a thousand leaves, just enough to light a little hanging by the tokonoma, the shikishi paper tablet on which the following Uta poem was written:

"Where a cuckoo a-singing swayed,
I raised my face, alas, to see
The Ariake no Tsuki only remaining."

All the guests were taken at once with admiration of the poem and the art of the calligrapher, famous Teika, who wrote it, and then of the art of the host, this feudal lord, whose aesthetic mind was minute and most fastidious in creating a particular atmosphere; and they soon agreed, but in silence, that the tea-party was especially held to introduce the poem or the calligrapher's art to them. And I should like to know where is a sweeter, more beautiful way than that to introduce the poem or picture to others; again, I should like to know where is a more beautiful, sweeter way than that to see or read the picture or poem. Great is the art of those old tea-masters who were the real poets of action.

There is the garden path called roji, so to say, the passage into self-illumination, leading from the without to the within, that is to say, the tea-house under the world-wearied grayness of age-unknown trees, by the solitary granite lanterns, solitary like a saint or a philosopher with the beacon light in heart; it is here that you have to forget the tumultuous seas of the world on which you must ride and play at moral equilibrium, and slowly enter into the teaism or the joy of aestheticism. Now I should like to know if our lives are not one long roji where, if you are wiser, you will attempt to create the effects or atmosphere of serenity or poetry by the mystery of silence. There are many great tea-masters who have left us words of suggestion how to beguile and lead our minds from the dusts and ruin of life into the real roji mood that is the blessing of shadowy dreams and mellow, sweet unconsciousness of soul's freedom; I agree at once with Rikiu who found his own secret in the following old song:

"I turned my face not to see
Flowers or leaves;
'Tis the autumn eve
With the falling light:
How solitary the cottage stands
By the sea!"

Oh, vastness of solitariness, blessing of silence! Let me, like that Rikiu, step into the sanctuary or idealism by the twilight of loneliness, the highest of all poetry!

This same Rikiu left us another story which pleases my mind greatly. Shoan, his son, was once told by his father to sweep or clean the garden path as Rikiu, the greatest aestheticist with the tea-bowl, doubtless expected some guest on that day; Shoan finished in due course his work of sweeping and washing the steppingstones with water. "Try again," Rikiu commanded when he had seen what he had done. Shoan again swept the ground and again washed the stones with water. Rikiu exclaimed again: "Try once more." His son, though he did not really understand what his father meant, obeyed, and once more swept the ground and once more washed the stepping-stones with water. "You stupid fool," Rikiu cried almost mad; "sweeping and watering are not true cleaning. I will show you what is to be done with the garden path." He shook the maple-trees to make the leaves fall, and decorate the ground with the gold brocade. "This is the real way of cleaning," Rikiu exclaimed in satisfaction. This little story always makes me pause and think. Indeed, the approach to the subject through the reverse side is more interesting, often the truest. Let me learn of death to truly live; let me be silent to truly sing.