I entered this poem in the Knowne World Poetry Competition at Pennsic. I placed second, only 6 points behind first place, with a total of 263 points. The following is the supporting text for my entry. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to add a bibliography, and my scores suffered as a result. In the comments section, I will add the judges comments. This poem was composed 14th day of 6th month and presented 18th day of 6th month, AS XLVII, at Pennsic XLI.
For the Knowne World Poetry Competition, I have written a poem in a period Japanese style. The style, tanka, or “short poem,” is a form of poetry native to Japan called waka. It became popular during the Heian era (roughly the 9th-12th century C.E.). Tanka are written with a 5/7/5/7/7 syllable scheme, without any rhyming scheme. Poetic devices are built upon imagery and layered meaning. Nature was a common thematic device, and proper use of seasons was very important. Finally, the poems should convey a moment in time, a fleeting sense of the ephemeral. See the next page for more descriptions of Japanese poetic conventions.
As inspiration for this poem, I took the induction of my wife, Fujinami no Kaede-hime, into the Order of the Silver Oak. The Silver Oak is an armigerous award in the Middle Kingdom for research and the sciences. My lady recently switched personas from a late period Scot to a Heian noblewoman. As such, she has had to rebuild her wardrobe, and on this day, she was dressed in Western garb. The goal of this poem is to convey both the honor of being given an award by the king and the dissonance of seeing a woman wearing Western garb accepting an award for a Japanese persona in recognition of teaching and research into Japanese garb and arts.
Some background is required to achieve a proper understanding of the layered meaning of the poem. The hototogisu is a bird naive to Japan (sometimes called a cuckoo) that is famous for its call of “ho-to-to.” It is known as the “bird that names itself,” as its call is what gave it its name. In combination with wisteria, it is considered an auspicious omen. Due to the time when it begins calling, it is associated with early summer. The oak, as a tree, is also associated with summer. Wisteria is a flowering shrub also associated with early summer. In addition, my lady’s surname, Fujinami, means “waves of wisteria.” The uguisu bird is a form of bush warbler, sometimes called the Japanese nightingale, though it doesn’t sing at night. Its songs ring out in the spring. In the Pillowbook, Sei Shonagon mentions an day in early summer when a hototogisu begins singing, and an uguisu joins in. A willow is a sign of late spring, and the Order of the Willow was the first award my lady received, while she was in her previous persona. Finally, for objects that are associated with certain seasons, it is important to group them with other objects of the same season.
With this background, we can examine the many layers of meaning in the poem. At first glance, it is a poem that captures a brief moment in a natural setting. The ruler, out travelling sees a bird in a tree, asks what is, and startles it into flight. The second layer has the ruler seeing the bird, and hoping for an auspicious omen asks it to confirm it is what he thinks it is, only to be disappointed by an imposter. The deep layer of meaning captures the dissonance created when my lady presented herself to accept the award. The setting established in the first four lines clearly establishes the expectation that this taking place in summer (my lady’s Japanese persona), but the last line harkens back to an earlier time (her Scottish persona).
Writing a Japanese style poem in English is very difficult, as Japanese language and writing is much more conducive to multiple meanings. Being able to take advantage of SCA traditions enabled me to add layers otherwise not available. I believe I was successful in interlacing the SCA and Japanese traditions to create a poem that meets the challenge of layering meanings in just 31 syllables.
However, composing a poem is only part of the process. Just as important to a Japanese noble is applying ink to paper. I am in the process of developing a method of writing each syllable as a block of English text that looks like Japanese writing. Using traditional brush strokes and hand-ground sumi ink, I have included this poem done in calligraphy as part of the display.