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pieces. The longer the poem, the greater the risk that it will become
indistinguishable from prose. Instead, poets have since earliest times
preferred shorter poetic forms, usually written in combinations of fiveand seven-syllable lines. No one has been able to say with certainty why
the five- and seven-syllable line units have been so preferred, although
one interesting conjecture is that they are another reflection of the Japanese taste for the asymmetrical.
Precluded by the scope of the waka from writing extended narratives
or developing complex ideas, poets have concentrated on imagery to
elicit direct emotional responses from their audiences. They have also
fully exploited the exceptional capacity of the Japanese language for
subtle shadings and nuance, and have used certain devices such as the
“pivot word” (kakekotoba) to enrich the texture of their lines and make
possible the expression of double and even triple meanings. Use of the
pivot word can be illustrated by the line Senkata naku, “There is nothing
to be done.” Naku renders the phrase negative, but at the same time it
has the independent meaning of “to cry.” Thus, an expression of despair
may simultaneously convey the idea of weeping.
During the Heian period (794–1185), when poetry became the
exclusive property of the courtier class, strict rules were evolved that
severely limited the range of poetic topics and the moods under which
poets could compose. Poetry was intended to be moving but not overpowering.
By contrast, the Man’yòshû contains poems dealing with many of the
subjects that later poets came to regard as unfitting or excessively harsh
for their elegant poeticizing, such as inconsolable grief upon the death
of a loved one, poverty, and stark human suffering. A “long poem” from
the anthology expresses one poet’s feelings after the loss of his wife:
Since in Karu lived my wife,
I wished to be with her to my heart’s content;
But I could not visit her constantly
Because of the...
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- Spring '13