Hototogisu

Emperor riding
Asked bird in oak tree its name
“Hototogisu”
Over wisteria flew
Uguisu bird to willowSugawara no Tokihira

Liner notes:

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.

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4 Responses to “Hototogisu”

  1. Sugawara no Tokihira Says:

    1st Judge (Ceridwen ferch Owain)

    Poem Itself (28 of 28)
    Use of Period Imagery (12 of 12): You have used period throughout the poem beautifully
    Use of Period Style & Conventions (12 of 12): Your poem stayed true to period style and conventions, even when describing modern events
    Complexity of Piece (4 of 4): This poem was woven together with a complex set of images

    Documentation Written (26 of 28)
    Documentation Written (23 of 25): I would suggest in the future that you attach a bibliography to your documentation (the fact that you have cited specific sources leads me to believe you have a list of your sources). I really like how you laid out your documentation to include examples of period pieces in both Romaji and the English equivalent! It was easy to read & comprehensive.
    Documentation Oral (3): [no comments]

    Performance (22 of 22)
    Skill In Perfomance (11 of 11): The Japanese pronunciation in the middle was cool!
    Entertainment Value (11 of 11): [no comments]

    Judge’s Discretion (16 of 16)
    Poem’s Appropriateness to Theme (6 of 6): [no comments]
    Overall Impression (10 of 10): [no comments]

    Bonus (12 of 12)
    Poetic Challenge (12 of 12): It is a neat twist on the theme. The explanation you give ties it all together and makes a really nice poem into an outstanding documentary on a poem of your “dream.”
    …plus the added calligraphy is an awesome touch!

    Total Score (104 of 106)

  2. Sugawara no Tokihira Says:

    2nd Judge (Katarzyna Witkowska)

    Poem Itself (28 of 28)
    Use of Period Imagery (12 of 12): Your imagery is quite beautiful
    Use of Period Style & Conventions (12 of 12): You have successfully integrated the Japanese beauty into English
    Complexity of Piece (4 of 4): This is an extremely complex piece. You have fulfilled the beauty of a tanka. I liked how you used so few words to say so much and convey a complete picture of that one moment in time.

    Documentation Written (28 of 28)
    Documentation Written (25 of 25): Complete and thorough documentation that tells me all I need to know about the style, your process of coming to the imsgery and conveying it to the reader.
    Documentation Oral (3): [no comments]

    Performance (18 of 22)
    Skill In Perfomance (9 of 11): [no comments]
    Entertainment Value (9 of 11): [no comments]

    Judge’s Discretion (16 of 16)
    Poem’s Appropriateness to Theme (6 of 6): I love how you translated the theme into such beautiful imagery. I definitely got it.
    Overall Impression (10 of 10): I am very impressed

    Bonus (12 of 12)
    Poetic Challenge (12 of 12): Outstanding!

    Total Score (102 of 106)

  3. Sugawara no Tokihira Says:

    3rd Judge (Ingeborg Ulfsdottir)

    Poem Itself (27 of 28)
    Use of Period Imagery (12 of 12): [no comments]
    Use of Period Style & Conventions (12 of 12): [no comments]
    Complexity of Piece (3 of 4): On complexity, you have done about all that should be in a single tanka. The next step is to write a series, traditionally one hundred either on the same subject or connected in some way. For me, the “deception” theme predominates over the “yay, she got an award” theme; if this is what you’re going for that’s great, if not try for more balance. For full points on complexity, I would ask you to use a makura[ko]toba or a kakekotoba

    Documentation Written (26 of 28)
    Documentation Written (23 of 25): biblio not listed
    Documentation Oral (3): [no comments]

    Performance (18 of 22)
    Skill In Perfomance (8 of 11): [no comments]
    Entertainment Value (10 of 11): [no comments]

    Judge’s Discretion (14 of 16)
    Poem’s Appropriateness to Theme (5 of 6): [no comments]
    Overall Impression (9 of 10): like the kanji piece

    Bonus (12 of 12)
    Poetic Challenge (12 of 12): [no comments]

    Total Score (97 of 106)

  4. Sugawara no Tokihira Says:

    Note:
    makurakotoba are “pillow words,” words that modify certain other words, similar to epithets
    kakekotoba are “pivot words,” basically homonyms that add depth to a poem (see the “in the Forest Stands” post for an example)


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