Circling around reading Donald Keene's Anthology of Japanese Literature I picked up this little book of five lectures on Japanese literature (though JCircling around reading Donald Keene's Anthology of Japanese Literature I picked up this little book of five lectures on Japanese literature (though Japanese art would be a more apt title). The foremost takeaway from this book is Keene's enthusiasm for Japanese literature. Due to it's length, and the fact that the essays originated as lectures, we do not get the depth of Keene's knowledge on any of the five subjects, instead he gives us a little bit here and there by way of introduction.
In the first essay, on "Japanese Aesthetics" Keene identifies four aspects of Japanese taste which he explains using excerpts from the priest Kenkō's Essays in Idleness (Tsurezuregusa, written between 1330-1333). The four are: Suggestion, Irregularity, Simplicity, and Perishability. Suggestion refers to moments besides the climactic, that suggest the latter -- "But although the Japanese share with other peoples a fondness for flowers in full bloom, their love of the barely opened buds and of fallen blossoms is distinctive" (8) -- or simple brush strokes to imply form and color. Irregularity is "not only...incompleteness...but another variety of irregularity, asymmetry"(10). Simplicity dovetails into the first two, but most closely with suggestion. It is an emphasis on quality over luxury, lightness over weight, and a distaste for ostentatious decoration. Perishability, or impermanence, values signs of age or signals of the fleeting. The cherry blossom is so prized in Japan because it is so temporary.
The second essay is the first of two on Japanese poetry. This one gives a very general historical overview on the development of poetics in Japan starting with poem-like incantations found in the Kojiki (712 CE). He follows by discussing irregular line lengths, and lack of long poetry, and the influence of Chinese traditions, development of themes (particularly season references and love letters) giving examples from the Man'yōshū (759 CE) and Kokinshū (905 CE).
The third essay continues where the second left of, but delves deeper into the "Uses of Japanese Poetry". Keene starts by dispatching the idea that poetry is categorically without function by bringing forth examples of verse in English used for mnemonic and didactic purposes. He ends the mention of English verse by parlaying its raw rhythmic qualities to an example, the "Achime song", a "poem" composed solely of wordless sounds. From there we move to the Kojiki, examples from which are ambiguous in meaning, metric qualities, and use (though their importance is underlined by the fact that they were preserved in their exact Japanese wording), and the Man'yōshū.
In the latter, the majority are five-line waka poems, but there are also longer poems (or Chōka), most often used to eulogize royalty and mark special occasions like trips. Keene uses the poetry of Hitomaro to explain the division of public and private poems. Hitomaro wrote many poems about events he could not have witnessed and people he was only barely close to -- the poems carry private details probably invented for public use. Unique to this book, and to classical Japanese poetry in general, is the social criticism in the poems of Yamanoue no Okura. In his poem, "Dialogue on Poverty" the conversation between two poor men displays a special type of consciousness that surpasses his colleagues in its connection to those of the lower classes. The public/private theme also comes into play with traditional waka poems, these poems are largely about love and nature, but will also occasionally have coded language passing special messages between people that would not be detected by the untrained eye.
Another poetic form, kanshi, was used to promote good government. Many of the poets used their training in the classical Chinese language and Confucian traditions to compose poems to that effect. The third imperially-sponsored anthology, Keikokushū was primarily made up of this type of poetry.
Other uses of Japanese poetry were to express love, in fact, love poetry was "...virtually the only kind of poetry written in Japanese during the ninth century, the dark age of the waka..."(61), calm soldiers hearts (example given from the Tale of the Heike) or help them express their frustrations. The death poems of soldiers, using beautiful stock imagery, allowed these fierce men to die with dignity. In the Heian period (794-1185), many poetry competitions were held in the court, where the majority of the poetry that remains to this day was written. The composition of renga, or linked verse, was a communal activity used to bring people together. Divination was another use of poetry in the Japanese medieval period. Strangely, gambling was a major way in which some people enjoyed poetry through its history in Japan; poetry competitions and games that separated a poem into two pieces were popular pastimes. Besides gambling, money was made by poetry teachers. Today, poetry is still a communal activity in Japan where many haiku and tanka clubs meet across the country.
I listened to the audiobook version of Imagine, but I would benefit from another go-over of a physical copy of the book before I write a long-form revI listened to the audiobook version of Imagine, but I would benefit from another go-over of a physical copy of the book before I write a long-form review. In it's stead, here a shorty:
In Imagine, Lehrer approaches creativity by examining it as a combination of traits both innate and developed, giving readers inroads into the multiplicity of viewpoints into its origins and study. Though quite a lot of the research is not new to me (or truthfully presented, apparently), the author presents it cogently, though not nearly such that the ideas therein could be considered Gladwellian Brainwigs*.
* That thing where you a read a book by Malcolm Gladwell and then can’t ever get the ideas you learned out of your head. ...more