Wednesday Poem – Dickinson

“Hope” is the thing with feathers – (314)

By Emily Dickinson

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

(via The Poetry Foundation)

Remembering Sylvia Plath

Today is the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death, her final suicide attempt.

Although she graduated from Smith College—to my surprise, exactly 50 years before I did!—I have never taken the time to read much of her poetry. I hope that will change in the future, for her poem “Daddy,” for example, is so brutal and beautiful at the same time. It is perhaps particularly poignant for a fellow German-American such as myself, but that contemplation will have to be left to some future post.

Instead of that poem, “Soliloquy of the Solipsist” was the first to captivate me as I searched for something suitable here. For I see in it a warning related to my most recent post, wherein I wrote that history is only truly understood through the lens of personal experience.

In any case, it’s no good to preface a poem too much, so here it is, followed by an interview recorded on October 20, 1962. The interview took place a week before her 30th birthday, only a few months before she died, and if she were alive today, she would have been eighty years old.

Soliloquy of the Solipsist

I walk alone;
The midnight street
Spins itself from under my feet;
When my eyes shut
These dreaming houses all snuff out;
Through a whim of mine
Over gables the moon’s celestial onion
Hangs high.

Make houses shrink
And trees diminish
By going far; my look’s leash
Dangles the puppet-people
Who, unaware how they dwindle,
Laugh, kiss, get drunk,
Nor guess that if I choose to blink
They die.

When in good humor,
Give grass its green
Blazon sky blue, and endow the sun
With gold;
Yet, in my wintriest moods, I hold
Absolute power
To boycott any color and forbid any flower
To be.

Know you appear
Vivid at my side,
Denying you sprang out of my head,
Claiming you feel
Love fiery enough to prove flesh real,
Though it’s quite clear
All your beauty, all your wit, is a gift, my dear,
From me.


To Welcome or Let Go

(The memorial to Saigyo and the courtesan’s encounter at Eguchi, now in present-day Osaka.)

This morning, from the window in the living room, the rising sun could be seen just above the mountains in the distance. Above the sun, dark clouds, their undersides faintly lined in gold. Then suddenly snow started falling in sheets like rain, lightning flashed, and thunder followed. Today is not a day I want to be outside, walking through the changeable weather.

In the Kokinwakashū, a pair of poems exchanged by Saigyo and a courtesan (yūjo in Japanese) on a rainy evening comes to mind. Or rather, these poems, as incorporated in the nō Eguchi, have been on my mind for the last few months, since they comprise a core component of my thesis, but for now I’ll set the thesis aside, because I really just want to tell you the story of these poems as I see it.

Saigyo gave the first poem to a courtesan who had refused him lodging on a rainy evening.


Yo no naka wo itou made koso katakarame kari no yadori wo oshimu kimi kana

To hate the world is hard, but you deny me a moment’s shelter?

Her reply:


Yo wo itou hito to shi kikeba kari no yadori ni kokoro wo tomu na to omou bakari zo

Hearing you hate the world, I simply thought you should not set your heart on a moment’s shelter.

Within the context of the scene, these poems may be easily interpreted. A monk being a monk lives off the generosity of the communities he visits and sees the courtesan’s refusal as stinginess on her part. He believes the reason for her refusal is that she would not be able to make money off of him, a penniless monk who lives off of the goodwill of others. She, however, says she refused to give him shelter because a monk should not spend time in a house of pleasure, thereby taking higher moral ground. But it seems to me that there is more to this exchange than may be gained from a strictly socio-historical interpretation. These poems appear to be interpretable in many, many ways and the following is the most comprehensive possibility as I currently see it.

“A moment’s shelter” alludes to a story in the Lotus Sutra in which a teacher guides his disciples along a long and difficult road. The disciples grow weary, so the teacher leads them to a marvelous city with gardens, beautiful men and women, delicious food, anything they might desire. Once fully rested, the teacher leads the disciples further along the road, but not before explaining that the city was an illusion he created for them. Saigyo’s poem, by alluding to this story, seems to say he is aware of the nature of the activities at the courtesan’s house, but wishes to rest there nonetheless. The courtesan’s response points out the futility and danger of bending to such temporary distractions.

Things are not as they at first appear. Since the courtesan is the one to point out the danger of Saigyo’s desire to rest from his ascetic practice, she seems to be demonstrating a deeper insight into the nature of what it means to “hate the world.” Although as a courtesan, she is representative of a particularly artificial form of lust and passionate love, she herself seems well aware of her position and warns Saigyo against a lack of such awareness on his part. It seems as though her art as a courtesan has exposed her to all the evils of attachment to the transient world. She has learned not to place any value or expectations on the appearances she creates for her customers.

Here, therefore, it seems like the courtesan has gone a step beyond the expected. She is not a woman who places value on worldly possession and emotional attachment. Behind her artistically created facade of beauty, her own self-presentation, there lies a deeper sadness about the futility of the kinds of relationships her art engenders. No doubt she has seen men fall in love with and obsess over her and her fellow courtesans, and yet she does not give her beauty to the person who loves her the most or the person she loves, but to the person who is her customer on any given night.

And yet, it does not seem like she has grown cold as a result of this situation. Her concern for Saigyo demonstrates her respect for him and his specific goals as a monk. As she says in her poetic reply, her decision to refuse him shelter is not because she cannot make money off of his stay with her, but because she sees through his eyes the possible attachment to the pleasures of her house and her art, an attachment that she has seen arise in the eyes of so many men before him.

Does she similarly respect the customers she usually entertains, those who take pleasure in the superficial charms of her art? I think in all likelihood she does not. Thus it seems she is turning away the person she most respects, because he is closest to understanding her insight into the transience of the world she represents, the world she helps create for her customers. I can only imagine a deep loneliness resides beneath her respect.

The Serpent God of Miwa

(The ancient god-tree of Miwa at dusk.)

I just uploaded this photograph onto my other blog and thought I should contribute the legend tied to this tree while I’m at it.

As you may have noticed from my post about oak trees, I love trees and think they have a power that is underestimated in our modern society (we see trees as sources of oxygen and lumber, but little more). An ancient tree can seem to radiate energy.

I’m one of those strange people that actually places her hands on trees to feel their strength, but please don’t dismiss what I have to say because I might seem superstitious. For anyone has to admit, there is something more to trees than the resources they provide us, but what is that “something more?”

I don’t think I have the answer to my own question, but perhaps to think about it, we have to adjust our perspective from the present, technologically-based point of view.

Past societies valued the power of trees and even worshiped that power. The ancient cedar tree at Miwa Shrine in Sakurai, Nara is a marvelous example of this. Here is the legend of that tree as I remember it. . .

A long time ago in Yamato, there lived a daughter of the Miwa clan. Every night she was visited by her husband, but every morning before the sun came up, he would leave.

One night, she expressed her desire to see him during the day time, and he sadly replied that he was too ugly to be seen by day and if she really felt that way, he would have to part ways with her. “Tonight will be our last together,” he said sorrowfully.

As morning approached, the woman took thread and needle and looped one end of the thread three times through the hem of his robe (“miwa” literally means three loops, and looping a thread three times through cloth is stronger than tying a knot).

After he left, she followed the thread. It was threaded through the keyhole of her door and went far, far away. She followed the thread all the way to Mt. Miwa, where she found it was attached to the trunk of the great cedar tree and realized her husband was a god.

The Ghost of Fujiwara no Kamatari

(The sunlight shining through the trees at the alter to Fujiwara no Kamatari at the top of the mountain behind Tansan Shrine.)

I have been struggling with a cold for more than three weeks now, but didn’t let it keep me from travelled to Nara last weekend or from doing a spot of hiking through the mountains, as evidenced by the photograph above. Unfortunately, that wasn’t conducive to the cold becoming better.

It might have been the physical exertion that exacerbated the cold, but oh, how many ways of seeing the same facts there are! When I met my Nô performance teacher (aka sensei) yesterday, he said that it was probably the spirit of Fujiwara no Kamatari. When I visited his grave in Nara, had I performed the mantras and mudras that sensei had taught me? Of course I hadn’t although I had made a polite bow at his alter. But having not prayed correctly for his spirit, the spirit was unhappy with me. So said sensei.

Sigh. Nevermind that Fujiwara no Kamatari (614 – 669) was the first Fujiwara in what would become the aristocratic family closest to the imperial throne for centuries and lived more than a century before Kūkai (774 – 835), who introduced the Shingon form of esoteric Buddhism the mudras and mantras I know come from. Also, nevermind that Kamatari held the position of Jingi no Haku (Shinto ritualist) at the court and opposed the official adoption of Buddhism by Emperor Shōtoku and the Soga clan.

But what’s interesting about Kamatari is his (somewhat weak) connection to Nô through his contemporary Hata no Kawakatsu. First, a little more about Kamatari: to keep Buddhism from entering Japan, Kamatari fought the Soga clan. In the process of this fight, Kamatari probably had a role in banishing another close ally to Emperor Shōtoku, namely Hata no Kawakatsu.

Hata no Kawakatsu is fascinating because of his role before being banished. He was supposedly the creator of kagura (Shinto dances), and Zeami, the great Nô actor, playwright, and theorist that brough Nô to its full blossoming around the turn of the 14th century, claims Hata no Kawakatsu as his ancestor. As the creator of kagura, Kawakatsu made 66 performances to be performed using 66 masks that Emperor Shōtoku created. These were debuted at the imperial palace and have been performed thereafter at shrines throughout Japan. After he was banished, Kawakatsu left court in a dugout boat, which brought him to Harima province, where he was worshiped as a violent god.

Zeami tells this story in his text Fūshikaden (風姿花伝) along with two other origin myths for Nô, one Shinto, one Buddhist. Zeami could simultaneously see multiple explanations for the origin of Nô. Why shouldn’t I believe multiple reasons for the length of my struggle with this cold? Why shouldn’t I believe the spirit of Fujiwara no Kamatari is showing his displeasure? The reason for such displeasure could even be because I am vaguely connected to his enemy, Hata no Kawakatsu, through my enthusiastic engagement with Nô! It makes for a good story, in any case. Haha!

(Historical note: After Emperor Shōtoku’s death and the defeat of the Soga clan, Fujiwara no Kamatari contributed to writing the Taika Reforms, which were established by Emperor Kōtoku.)

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

Continue reading “Knowing or not knowing. . .”

The Lonely Season

Bashoan at Konpukuji

(Bashoan, Basho hut, at Konpuku Temple in Kyoto. Basho was a poet who lived more than four hundred years after Saigyo, but he considered Saigyo his greatest influence.)

Moro tomo ni kage wo naraburu hito mo areya tsuki no morikuru sasa no io ni

If only there were someone who would line up their shadow next to mine in this grass hut that the moon has filled with light.

– Saigyō (My translation)

Continue reading “The Lonely Season”