Thursday, April 22, 2010

Anguished Mind - Shinkei

Anguished Mind
Poet: Shinkei 心敬 (1406-75),
Translation by Thomas W. Hare

To whom shall I speak
of my anguished mind?
The autumn sky.
The evening wind across the reeds,
the cry of geese behind the clouds.

I believe Shinkei's waka poem Anguished Mind is very powerful.

A man, clearly in distress, sitting cross-legged in a vast field asks a solitary question - a lament really. Then the autumn scene is simply and elegantly rendered.

Now the poem is over; thinking about what I have just read, I can no longer tell where it began and where it finished - the words seem inseperable and the image repeats itself as I step into his place.

To whom shall I speak
of my anguished mind?
The autumn sky.
The evening wind across the reeds,
the cry of geese behind the clouds.

Waga kokoro
Tare ni kataran
Aki no sora
Ogi ni yūkaze
Kumo ni karigane

Reference: Thesis: Linked Verse at Imashinmei Shrine, Anegakoji Imashinmei Hykuin, 1447.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

River Snow - A Landscape Poem

Today I write about the poem River Snow. This poem swept me into a landscape where, as you will soon find out, I became an active participant in a work of art!

River Snow
“A thousand mountains
          no birds flying
Ten thousand paths
         devoid of human trace
A lone boat, a bark-caped
         old man —
Alone, he angles
          a cold river of snow”

City University of Hong Kong
Translation by Chunshen Zhu

River Snow is a Chinese landscape poem written by poet Liu Zongyuan (773 – 819). I recently read a scholarly dissertation (click here) about this poem; the dissertation was written by Hong Kong scholar Chunshen Zhu and it included his keen observations and his fine translation into English.

Armed with Chunshen’s poetic analyses, as I re-read the poem it jumped off of the page, picked up a brush, and began to create a vivid work of art!

Liu’s poem began painting a landscape which forced my attention to move from place to place as I could only watch. Recreating the painting in my mind’s eye, I found myself borrowing from memories of real-life landscapes; National Parks, Desert Mountains, rivers, birds in flight, and other scenes in nature that I have often enjoyed.

As I now think about River Snow, slowly reading it line by line, I find I am becoming a part of this landscape and that I am trying to narrate all that I can see and feel.

Narrating my own vision of the poem’s landscape? Well…yes, like this:

Initially, I am standing on a high mountain cliff. I am looking outward over a vast, dry, brown desert - mountain ranges are visible far off on the horizon. Nothing is moving, there are no signs of life, and roadways leading toward the mountains are completely empty. I begin to feel and hear a light wind blowing.

Before me, a narrow river snakes its way out across the desert and vanishes as it enters the distant mountains.

I look down, then over the edge of my mountain cliff and notice a river below; an older man is sitting motionless in a small boat – he holds a fishing rod with its line angling straight downward into the water. Nothing is moving in this scene, there is only solitude.

I look up toward the sky. Snowflakes are beginning to fall and I am feeling chilled.

Glancing back down to the river, I am startled to see that the entire landscape has changed – it is blanketed in whiteness!

Snow is clinging to the old man’s coat; his boat and fishing pole have ridges of snow lining their top surfaces, the river’s banks are rounded with mounds of snow and, what was once a vast brown desert is now a great white expanse stretching outward toward snow covered mountain ranges.

The poem ends and as it does, the scenery dissolves before my eyes. I am back in my home’s office staring at my laptop PC, writing something on this blog while trying to decide what I will say next.

So…what did you see while reading River Snow? Please do comment

Saturday, April 3, 2010

My Reading List (Part 1) : Great Impressions

I finally did it - I wrote up my fleeting impressions of the best books I have read to date (4/3/2010).  All of these books have left some indelible impression on me - they speak to 10th through 17th century  Japanese masterworks of haiku, waka, renga, haiga, landscape painting, calligraphy, and more.

Each book title is a link (blue and underlined) that will transport you to a web site containing all details about the authors, publishers, translators, and more.  Please read on!

My Reading List.
These are books I have read, or at least skimmed since I began writing this blog.  I have been loaned nearly all of these books by university libraries and museums from all across the country.

I recommend reading nearly all of the books in this list; I haven’t listed the books that I didn’t care for, only the ones I benefited from.  Some of these books are truly wonderful as they are enlightening and beautiful!




I enjoyed this book.

It Includes bios of Busōn and his disciples, their origins, influences and, most interesting of all their personalities and hardships.

Paintings of Busōn's are compared side-by-side with paintings of his disciples and similarities and differences in composition are explained.

Good book for understanding style development and composition, brushstroke by brushstroke.

Almost no poetry – this is primarily a study of painting techniques.

I wish the pictures were in color, they were mostly somewhat grainy black and white photos of the paintings.  I will need much more time to read and re-read this book.


I enjoyed this book too.  

It has a very good haiga analysis which vastly expanded my knowledge of haiga. 

Picture plates were probably adequate, but I wish they had been of a better quality.


I enjoyed this small book.  I will probably buy this book just for its intro.

The best part of the book was its 33 page introduction.  It discusses the development of waka/ renga / haikai and includes a few truly great, pre-Bashō poems.

I really did not enjoy the “travel sketches”, but they are famous prose-poems so…  (Update 11/27/2010 - I have since found a different translation of some passages and did very much enjoy them).

Just for the record, the travel sketches are:

The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton
A Visit to the Kashina Shrine
The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel
A Visit to Sarashina Village

Don’t expect pics, there are none – this book is dedicated to prose poetry. 

The book has three (3) small maps of Bashō’s travels.  The maps were an unexpected surprise to me as I had been dreaming of my own possible pilgrimage, in the future; re-tracing the countryside paths traveled by Japanese master poets. 

This is kind of exciting since I may decide to repeat one of Bashō’s travels in the future!  Now if I can get a good modern map and learn to use my GPS…. (Update 11/27/2010 - this was over-exuberant dreaming, but who knows...).

The original Japanese text of the poems is not included, only the English translations for prose/ poetry – I prefer to see the original.


This is a very, very nice, thin, big book containing color and B&W picture plates.

There are very good analyses/ interpretations of the poetry and paintings (although the discussions are squeezed-in using VERY small letter fonts!).

This book contains some of my favorite haiga such as: Rocks Scattered Here and There, Old Pond, a Su Shih prose poem from Red Cliffs, etc... 


Beautiful book.  A must have book.

Everything is great about this book: color plates, discussions, poetry, English/ German translations and original Japanese with calligraphy printed for clear reading.


A must read Shinkei reader (compendium).  It contains many Shinkei waka with verse-by-verse interpretations/explanations which are provided by Shinkei, his disciples, and by Esperanza (the book's author).

The book includes many Shinkei hokku, tsukeku, waka, and the two Hyaku Renga poems: Cuckoo and Broken and Beneath the Snow. 


Incredibly beautiful 500 page book in English with Japanese.
I can’t say more about this book yet.  I just started to read it and it is so fantastic that my words won’t do it justice (yet).

This book has everything: beautiful high-quality color plates of paintings and calligraphy. Also contains Taiga poetry – English translations only.

Mostly, this book showcases and explains, in detail, the paintings and calligraphy of Ike Taiga and his wife Tokuyama Gyokuran.

The book is providing me with insight into their lives, personalities, and friends’ lives; it discusses their painting and calligraphy techniques as well.


Incredibly beautiful book.  I lost my notes for this book, notes I took at the museum library while browsing through it.  I found the one comment I had made though, it said “This is an incredibly beautiful book”. 


This is possibly the MOST BEAUTIFUL book I have ever seen.  It is an incredibly beautiful book with oversized, full page, high quality painting plates (and foldouts) of Busōn masterpieces.

Again, I am struck by the awesome beauty of Busōn’s landscapes and I haven’t yet the words to describe how great this book is.

Like most of the other books in this list, I have this book on loan from a University library – of course I must return it in several weeks, but I wish I could buy it for myself. 

This book is written in all Japanese and I have only been able to locate it on the Japanese – unfortunately I can’t read the website well enough to order a copy.  Someday maybe. 


In this book, 14th century (?) scholars instruct artists and actors on how to depict various Genji scenes in their future paintings and plays. 

In that way the book seemed unique, but I didn’t appreciate it too much since, the subject of this book really isn't of interest to me (yet).


The tale of Genji - by Murasaki Shikibu

a) Royall Tyler's translation was such an unenjoyable read that I almost abandoned Genji altogether. 

Thank goodness I, by pure chance, discovered Seidensticker's  translation very enjoyable; I especially enjoyed the Suma chapter.
Also, I have skimmed Arthur Waley's version  and found passages that were also enjoyable to read..


Yosa Busōn  by Kono, Motoaki  (or is it Ksono?)
I really enjoyed browsing this tiny book.  It has beautiful tiny plates; the text is all in Japanese. 

I would love to have this one to travel with always.  But, I could not locate a copy outside of the museum library. 


This is another great, small book.  No artwork, but very nicely written to explain Haiku masters lives, styles, and translation methods.  This is another book I could easily see myself traveling with, even backpacking!