National Poetry Month, day 21: Nine hundred years and half a world ago….

One of my favorite collections is An Anthology of World Poetry, edited by Mark Van Doren, a poet and scholar who lived in the 20th century. Van Doren’s collection is an extensive gathering of poems in translation from all over the world, and spanning many hundreds of years. It is a fantastic book to simply dip into, and it’s a reminder that humans have been at the business of poetry for as long as there have been humans at all.

(Trivia note: Van Doren’s son, Charles, would achieve notoriety of his own by being at the center of a big scandal in the 50s involving teevee quiz shows.)

Here we have a poem by Japanese poet Saigyo Hoshi, who lived 1118-1190…meaning he lived nine hundred years ago. That’s a lot of water under the poetic bridge, isn’t it? Saigyo apparently spent a great deal of his life journeying alone throughout Japan, and a love of nature pervades his work.

“Seven Poems”, by Saigyo Hoshi

1.

In my boat that goes
Over manifold salt-ways
Towards the open see
Faintly I hear
The cry of the first wild-goose.

2.

Mingling my prayer
With the clang of the bell
Which woke me from my dreams,
Lo, ten times I have recited the
Honorable Name.

3.

Since I am convinced
That Reality is in no way
Real,
How am I to admit
That dreams are dreams?

4.

Startled
By a single scream
Of the crane which is reposing
On the surface of the swamp,
All the other birds are crying.

5.

Those ships which left
Side by side
The same harbor
Towards an unknown destination
Have rowed away from one another!

6.

Like those boats which are returning
Across the open sea of Ashiya
Where the waves run high,
I think that I too shall pass
Scatheless through the storms of life.

7.

Although I do not know
At all whether anything
Honorable deigns to be there,
Yet in extreme awe
My tears well forth.

The third poem here is the one that stands out for me, not just for the simple style of its wisdom, but for the fact that it makes such a stark contrast with the other six. No sharp images or sounds or tactile senses conveyed there–just a single philosophic thought, dropped in the middle of the larger work.

Saigyo repeats that maneuver in the seventh poem, in which he suggests that tears may be the only good response to “extreme awe”. This whole poem feels like meditations interrupted by nature–or are the meditations interrupted at all? Perhaps Saigyo is simply showing that a meditative life will not necessarily be strongly shaped by the non-poetic world, except by way of inspiration.

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1 Response to National Poetry Month, day 21: Nine hundred years and half a world ago….

  1. Roger says:

    I’m old enough to have heard of Charles Van Doren. The third one reminded me of “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” I relate HEAVILY to the 7th one.

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