Poetry has always eluded me.
When I was in college, I was in a tutorial that devoted a whole semester to Matsuo Basho’s haiku travelogue The Narrow Road to the Deep North. There were only three of us in the course, and we had a graduate assistant and two professors guiding us, so it wasn’t the kind of class where you could hide.
I actually did all the reading, and I’m relatively sure my classmates did as well, but our responses must have been lukewarm because one week the professor paused the class and said, “I think you should all take another week and really read the text.”
Which I did. Yet I still remember very little from it. Perhaps it was something about the translation. Perhaps it was my attention span at the time or the fact that I was more interested in modern Japanese fiction, but even when I did remember the content, the deeper meaning and implication behind the text felt just out of reach.
Thirteen years later the only thing that remains with me from that course is a single haiku:
Ishiyama no ishi yori shiroshi aki no kaze
Whiter still than the stone white of Stone Mountain, the autumn wind
The seasonal reference makes it a haiku, but the grammatical simplicity helped me quickly grasp the meaning, and more than anything the sound of the poem became an ear worm and nestled its way into my longterm memory. The repetition of the shi sound in the first two lines sandwiching the y-sounds, and subsequent absence of either in the third…it’s tantalizing. It almost feels like a disservice translating it into English.
Thus, despite being a Japanese literature major, this poem and Basho’s classic frog poem are the only ones I can recite from memory. But maybe this is the lesson about poetry I needed at the time and never realized, the reason why it’s so elusive to me: I’d been thinking about it too seriously, and in the end, it’s simply this—poetry = meaning + sound.
Yet this equation has a third side: poetry = meaning + sound = ___. The third side of the equation is not always balanced. It may be trite to say, but poetry is greater than a sum of its parts. It strives for something more. Basho captures a sense of the cutting autumn wind in this poem, associated with a specific location but also eternal and universal.
Deeper study can also improve understanding and enjoyment of poetry…and perhaps that’s also what I lacked at the time. For more on Japanese poetry, I recommend Ad Blankestijn’s blog Japan Navigator. Ad is currently blogging and translating his way through Hyakunin isshu, one of Japan’s most popular collections of poetry.
Daniel Morales is a writer and translator living in Chicago. He blogs about the Japanese language at How to Japanese (howtojapanese.com) and is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.