Knowing or not knowing. . .

(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.

3 thoughts on “Knowing or not knowing. . .

  1. I don’t know why so many of your older posts just showed up in my RSS reader, but after commenting on several thinking they were new, I just realized they were not.

    Well, in any case, I do hope that all is well with you, and that our paths should cross again sometime soon. You really whet my appetite for life in Kyoto, and for life surrounded not so much by the academic study of Japanese culture (which I do my fair share of in Hawaii these days) but for the genuine experience of attending tea ceremonies, Noh performances, and Alex Kerr parties, not solely as an outsider visitor spectator, as I so often am, but truly as a member of a community.

  2. Travis,

    That is weird. I have been reorganizing the site, though, and editing the categories, so some things might have showed up as new that weren’t. It’s still strange, though.

    Recently, I’ve become very skeptical of the false conceptions that go into creating the world of the traditional arts. Sometimes it’s as if the participants are denying their own creativity in a sense. What I mean to say is that the difference between conservatism and the avant guard is simply a difference in attitude towards the act of creation. Well, obviously that attitude is not quite so insignificant to most people. I just wish more people were aware of their own views and approaches. As long as they question and understand the value of what they’re doing, in other words, as long as they make authentic choices to pursue the traditional arts, I support their activities wholeheartedly.

    Enough of my rambling though. It was nice to see a few new comments scattered across the blog. Thank you.

  3. A person who was a friend and teacher of mine for many years wrote Haiku poetry.He spent a lot of time talking about it’s history and connection to renga or linked poems. Your post and the beautiful poem bring our conversations back to life. Thank you.

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