Knowing or not knowing. . .

by Hanna

(Section 99 of The Tales of Ise, curtesy of the Kyoto University Library)

I find the handwriting in old Japanese manuscripts fascinating. When I took lessons in brush calligraphy, I could not get the balance of the kanji right, much less progress to the even more difficult kana letters that constitute this text. Perhaps if I had had a few more years’ patience, I might have some day been able to approximate this style.

Now, my challenge studying noh at the university is to simply read the script. This may be simpler than writing it myself, but I still struggle with the task. I can hardly believe I picked out the beginning characters of the poem I was looking for in an online document that was 211 pages long.

The reason for this search was an intriguing poem, the first line of which I stumbled upon while reading Nijo Yoshimoto’s text on renga (linked verse) today. The whole poem by an unidentified woman in The Tales of Ise fascinates me even more.


Shiru shiranu nani ka ayanaku wakite ihamu omohi no mi koso shirube narikere

Nothing to indicate you know or don’t know, but a sudden flame exciting your thoughts will show you the way

This is the second poem in an exchange, but I think I’m beginning to enjoy taking waka poetry out of their context and thinking of them more abstractly than more traditional commentators do. This way, something almost philosophical seems to shimmer through the words.

When confronted by something new or at least unrecognizable, the first response is generally emotional, not rational. For example, if I see a poem I don’t know, I instantly feel a reaction either to some part of the poem that catches my imagination or general frustration at not understanding much of anything.

If I don’t set the poem aside in frustration, my mind searches for possible connections or meanings that will draw the poem into a cohesive whole, but that search is guided by my initial response, like the flame in the poem. That’s probably why I get upset if I figure out my emotional hunch is completely off the mark.

But this process of recognition applies to far more than poetry. A particular philosopher talks about an initial emotional response he calls “state of mind” that occurs before moving on to the task of understanding. . . but enough of that. Here’s the context for this poem in The Tale of Ise.

(Illustration from the late Heian period, ca. 11th or 12th century, of ox carriages in the Tale of Genji, Niou miya. I’m sorry I couldn’t find a picture of a carriage from The Tale of Ise, which is even older than Genji. Curtesy of Wikipedia.)

In The Tale of Ise, the above poem is a woman’s response to a man’s poetic inquiry after he faintly sees her through the reed blinds of a carriage.


Mizu mo aranu mi mo senu hito no koishiku wa ayanaku kefu ya nagame kurasamu

Neither unable to see nor seeing the person, for no reason this longing lengthens my day

I have taken some liberty on my choice of “lengthen,” although “nagame” could mean slightly long. But in this case, it probably means gazing listlessly as a consequence of being in love.

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