Your indulgence, my love, for our passion knows no bound or season

Do you remember
The lone plum tree blossoming
In the cherry hills?
We met, then found each other
As cats in love danced
Under rosy-fingered sun.
My dreams were welcome,
Those leaves sweeter than any soft
Grass for my pillow.
You let me visit your home
And then at the third
It was time to change our robes.
Oh, how romantic!
When we moved to the house in
The sixth together.
The cool nights barely quenching
Smouldering passion.
You held me during plum rain
And supported me
When I took the civil exams.
The coming of fall
You went to the eastern shore
At Tanabata
Watching the white waves roll up
The autumn rain when
We went by the woodland stream
Had us laughing though
I was left soaked to the bone.
The water dried up
We went to the winter grove.
Winter seclusion-
Oh! Best spent between the quilts.
We kept ourselves warm,
The brazier hardly needed.
Our parents came by-
How long until we go and
Start searching for plum blossoms?


On the first full moon
I saw you sneaking around
Thwack!- Your victim struck.
Watch over your shoulder lest
Your search for plum blossoms end.
Sugawara no Tokihira

Liner notes:

I entered this poem in the Knowne World Poetry Competition at Pennsic.  Last year I placed second, only 6 points behind first place, with a total of 263 points.  This year, despite two Laurels (the highest level award that can be received for excellence in Arts and Science) -including one who was elevated for his poetry- participating, as well as last year’s winner, I had the honor of my entry being judged the best poem. The following is the supporting text for my entry.  In the comments section, I will add the judges comments; the judging criteria was based on the Kingdom of Atlantia’s A&S Judging Form for Poetry (unfortunately, only two judges were able to make it this year).  This poem was presented 22nd day of 6th month, AS XLVIII, at Pennsic XLII.

For the Knowne World Poetry Competition at Pennsic XLII, I have composed a poem in a period Japanese style. The style, choka, or “long poem,” is a form of poetry native to Japan called Waka. It was popular during the Omi and Nara eras (roughly the 7th-8th century C.E.). Choka are written with a repeating 5/7/5/7/… syllable scheme, finishing with a verse of 5/7/7, without any rhyming or meter. Strictly speaking, it is phonemes (called on) not syllables, but syllables are a closer analog in the way English is structured and spoken and is my preferred method as well as the modern convention. In addition to the main body, many choka are accompanied by one or more hanka (repeating poem), which are short poems that serve to emphasize a key point in the poem. 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.
The theme for the competition is “Passion” and as inspiration for this poem, I explored my relationship with my wife, Fujinami no Kaede-hime This allowed me to explore many different modes of passion, and was also compatible with the style of poem. By the time of my persona, choka was considered old fashioned, and generally only used when struck by the need to write extensively, in a manner unconstrained by the 5 line tanka (short poem), the most popular style at the time. For example, the Kagero Diary, contemporaneous with my period, only contains three choka, the second of which is a response from her husband to the first choka. The epitaph is typical of choka of that period, being an apology stating the necessity of writing in choka. It also sets the idea that the poem can’t be limited to a single season or the strict conventions of tanka or renga.

The poem itself runs through the four seasons, each season corresponding to a phase of our relationship. The seasons are marked by the use of kigo, seasonal words that typify things, events, or activities of the season. The first kigo, plum trees blossoming, also adds layers of meaning. The author’s family is strongly associated with the plum tree, and mentions of plum should be construed to be referring to him or his family. Also, blossom acts as a makurakotoba (pivot word), as it refers not just to the flower, but to the act of developing. Also contained in the spring section are the two types of kakekotoba (pillow words). The first type is similar to the Homerian permanent epitaph (“swift-footed Achilles”), in which a word, typically of 5 or 7 on, is traditionally prepended to certain words. The second type is where words evoke other words or ideas due to some perceived relationship, like how grass for pillow stands in for a journey because that is what one sleeps on while travelling. Japanese poems often use features of a place to invoke that place; Traverse City, where we met, is known as the Cherry Capital. Finally, kireji (cutting words) are words or sounds that primarily serve as a breaking emphasis; it is difficult to translate in English. (In the original entry, I used the sidebar to list these words that are present in the poem)

The first season is spring, which represents our meeting and engagement. It was a long distance relationship, involving much travel and many letters sent back and forth. Summer starts with our marriage, which in Heian Japan is marked by sending three night together. Changing of robes represents both the new clothing worn in summer, and the change in jobs I experienced at about that time. Rain can mean tears, and during this time my father passed away, while I was studying for the professional engineering exams. Fall is marked by my wife’s departure to spend a year out of the country, studying water issues. The third choka in the Kagero diaries uses the phrase “watching to see if the white waves roll up” to mean she was watching to see if her husband would visit her – I travelled often to visit my wife that year. “The Woodland Stream” is the title of a piece of art we bought then, on a day when there was a sudden downpour. “Soaked to the bone“ implies a feeling that pierces to the very marrow of your being. Water drying up is the beginning of winter, in our relationship corresponding to a move to our current residence. Searching for plum blossoms here hints at having kids. At the first full moon of the new year, women make a special gruel. It is held that a woman struck between the legs with the sticks used to stir the gruel will soon bear male children – leading to a great deal of chaos and subterfuge as women try to ambush each other. A number of our friends have recently had children or are pregnant. The hanka warns that we might be next.

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 my life experiences enabled me to add layers otherwise not available. I believe I was successful in interlacing the my relationship and Japanese traditions to create a poem that meets the challenge of layering meanings.  (In the original liner notes, my sources are listed in the sidebar)

Original Poem
Original Documentation

Posted in Poetry, SCA. 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “Passion”

  1. Sugawara no Tokihira Says:

    Judge 1’s scoring:

    Yaakov Hamizrachi (my apologies for any misspelling)

    Documentation: 9.5 (x3) = 28.5
    The form of presentation of the documentation is clever and inventive. My one fault is the interlinear translation, which is confusing for some of us

    Authenticity: 10 (x2) = 20
    I confess it is more than 25 years since I read translations of this verse form. It feels authentic, but lacking in restraint. My (albeit imperfect) recollection is that the fall and winter should have shifted to a less active passion.

    Complexity: 10 (x1) = 10
    The use of complex period imagery is well handled and well explained.

    Workmanship: 9.25 (x3) = 27.75
    Minor “ding” for the lack of transition to a more spent passion. But extremely well crafted.

    Overall Impression: 9.5 (x1) = 9.5
    Extremely well done!

    Total Score: 95.75

    What is good about this entry?
    The poem conveys a passion of love in a period form. The documentation is extremely well done. A virtuoso performance!

    What can improve this entry?
    As, noted, a shift to the passive voice to mark the transition to the fall and winter seasons, recalling the traditional melancholy of the passing of the year.

  2. Sugawara no Tokihira Says:

    Judge 2’s scoring:

    Katarzyna Witkowska

    Documentation: 9 (x3) = 27

    Authenticity: 9 (x2) = 18

    Complexity: 9 (x1) = 9

    Workmanship: 9 (x3) = 27

    Overall Impression: 10 (x1) = 10

    Total Score: 91

    What is good about this entry?
    The poem covered the theme very well. You interspersed elements of your modern life and made them fit perfectly into a medieval theme. You displayed your work well.

    What can improve this entry?
    I would have liked to see your poem displayed more artfully to appeal to the populace.

    Other comments:
    I liked the poem very much. It was one of my favorites in the competition. You took me on a wondrous journey.

  3. Sugawara no Tokihira Says:

    Additional scoring:

    Populace Vote: 1

    Performance: 17 (total)

    Judge 1: 8
    The hanka was the best part. Playful but suggestive.

    Judge 2: 9
    I almost cried!

    Total Overall Score: 204.75

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