We’re getting toward the second half of summer, though it’s been rainy and relatively cool in Tokyo over the last week and a half or so. When the sun begins beating down mercilessly again, we’ll all feel like Saigyo:
michinobe ni / shimidzu nagaruru / yanagi kage / shibashitote koso / tachitomaritsure
Just off the pathway,
spring water flowing through the
shade of the willows–
if only for a short while
I will pause and rest
The priest Saigyo
This is one of those poems that people scratch their heads when Japanophiles go ga-ga over. While the Japanese (not unjustifiably) have a reputation for aestheticizing obliqueness, if not downright obscurantism, some of their best art is fearlessly limpid. That’s especially true of the poetry of Saigyo, who favored concrete images with a direct appeal to the senses.
Part of the impact is in the burbling consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel quality of sentences composed entirely of native Japanese words. (Sinitic compounds tend to break up the flow with rounded, drawn-out syllables.) The sibilant shes and hard-aspirated ts can be harsh in some contexts, but in the final two lines of the above waka, there are so many of them that they have a lulling effect–like a brook being channeled through a pile of rocks, or like those unidentifiable gentle snapping sounds you hear around you in the dry grass in late summer. Saigyo gets in both the heat and the respite from it. More poetic, if less effective, than just scooting indoors and turning on the air conditioner.