The merchants and artisans of Old Japan

So I was reading Czeslaw Milosz's Selected Poems ("Revised") and I came across one which mentioned Japan. In translation (credited to "A.M.", which apparently stands for Anthony Milosz), it goes like this:


I should relate sometime how I changed
My views on poetry, and how it came to be
That I consider myself today one of the many
Merchants and artisans of Old Japan,
Who arranged verses about cherry blossoms,
Chrysanthemums and the full moon.

If only I could describe the courtesans of Venice
As in a loggia they teased a peacock with a twig,
And out of brocade, the pearls of their belt,
Set free heavy breasts and the reddish weal
Where the buttoned dress marked the belly,
As vividly as seen by the skipper of galleons
Who landed that morning with a cargo of gold;
And if I could find for their miserable bones
In a graveyard whose gates are licked by greasy water
A word more enduring than their last-used comb

That in the rot under tombstones, alone, awaits the light,
Then I wouldn't doubt. Out of reluctant matter
What can be gathered? Nothing, beauty at best.
And so, cherry blossoms must suffice for us
And chrysanthemums and the full moon.

Google Books reveals that Milosz himself discussed this poem in a lecture entitled "A Quarrel with Classicism," collected in The Witness of Poetry. In this lecture, Milosz frames the poem as an exploration of the tension between "classicist and realistic tendencies residing in one person and struggling with each other." This contradiction, argues Milosz, "was not clearly perceived" by Renaissance poets but "resides at the very foundation of the poet's endeavor" today.

It seems to me that the poem is quite perverse. We are used to viewing Chinese and Japanese poetry as examples of a peculiar attachment to conventions. Thus the persona speaking here renounces his ambitious pursuit of reality and chooses instead cherry blossoms, chrysanthemums, and the full moon; those are permanent accessories of the kind of poetry that is not unlike a societal game, for it is universally practiced and assessed according to one's skill in the use of those accessories. "Merchants and artisans of Old Japan," average people who practiced poetry in their free moments, are introduced in order to stress the integral place of the versifier's craft in the habits of all society. We have here a radical renouncement of the heritage of bohemia, with its pride in the isolated and alienated poet. And yet the speaker affirms that his choice is an act of resignation, made because the achievement of certain goals was for him impossible. "If only I could," he says. Could what? Describe. Then follows a description of Venetian courtesans, which paradoxically shows us the poet achieving what, in his opinion, was beyond his power. [...]

The description of the courtesans in my poem is placed between "If only I could describe" and "Then I wouldn't doubt." And the doubt comes from the fact that matter resists amorous possession by the word, and what can be gathered out of it is "beauty at best." If I understand the persona, with whom I am identical to a certain extent, he does not have in mind the beauty contained in Nature, in views of sky, mountains, sea, sunsets, but the beauty of form in a poem or painting. He proclaims that this does not satisfy him, since it can be obtained only at the price of renouncing the truth, which would be tantamount to a perfect mimesis. Cherry blossoms, chrysanthemums, and the full moon are ready-made pieces serving a merchant or artisan of Old Japan to arrange beautiful forms again and again. The statement affirming that this should suffice acquires a shade of irony and in fact a declaration of disagreement with classicism.

Meanwhile, Emily Grosholz in "Milosz and the Moral Authority of Poetry" (an essay in the James McCorkle-edited Conversant essays: contemporary poets on poetry) takes a slightly different view:

What I find so attractive about the poem is the richness of nuance in the poet's depiction of the courtesans and of his relation to them. [...] Like Carpaccio, to whose painting the poem makes reference, Milosz balances the demands of aesthetic paganism and Catholic asceticism; he mourns and celebrates these women who, like him, endure their mortality even as they (paradoxically) await the light. The tense, erotic sympathy which exists between artist and human subject applies as well to Carpaccio and his original models and, no doubt, to the artisans of Old Japan who commented on human affairs when they used the convention of flower and moon.

Years of nerd training took over to provide my first instinctive reaction to all of this: indignant scorn over a relatively insignificant technical issue. Chrysanthemums aren't that prominent as a theme in Japanese poetry! You're just saying that because of Pierre Loti! There isn't a single one in the Man'yōshū! ... But, actually, it turns out that chrysanthemums weren't even introduced to Japan until the Nara period, which makes them roughly contemporaneous with the MYS (and also explains the Chinese-only name, now that I think of it; duh), and chrysanthemums do appear in later poetry collections: eleven times in the Kokin wakashū (10th century), twelve times in the Shin kokin wakashū (15th century) — that's only about half as frequent as in the Kokin wakashū, given the difference in size, but it's once more often than wisteria, for example — and by the Edo period Japan had cheerfully adopted the Chinese concept of the "four gentlemen" (四君子) of botanical aesthetics: plum, chrysanthemum, orchid, bamboo. So I suppose my first reaction is just straight-up Naracentricism. I need to unpack my invisible eboshi, for sure.

My second comment is similarly point-missing: it wasn't really "merchants and artisans" of "Old Japan" who wrote poetry like this. By the time you had merchants and artisans notably active in poetry, simply arranging flowers and moons was no longer enough. I am thinking in particular of the Edo period and the rise of haiku. Ironically, what you had here was an attempt to take the Japanese poem beyond artisan-like classicism and towards a more bohemian, realistic approach, to use Milosz's terms.

There is one big difference, though: Milosz's poem's narrator seems to believe that if he can't capture everything in a poem, then he shouldn't bother capturing anything at all. Haiku avoid this problem by capturing just one thing, leaving the galleon skippers and miserable bones for the reader to fill in (or not, as they please). Perhaps Milosz's poem can also be read as a "perfect is the enemy of the good" allegory.

Popularity factor: 11

language hat:

Funny, I usually like Milosz a lot, but this does nothing for me. It has a certain Percy Dovetonsils air that puts me off. And whether "cherry blossoms, chrysanthemums, and the full moon" is accurate or not, it's sadly formulaic. I know, I know, that's the point, but it still does nothing for me.


> and also explains the Chinese-only name, now that I think of it; duh)

True, but there are other old words to describe it as well, including kawarayomogi and kawaraohagi.

There are also indications for fluctuations between kiku~kuku, as seen in the toponym 菊池 (kukuchi) [Wamyōshō], the personal name 菊麻 (kukuma) [Kujiki], and the goddess 菊理媛神 (kukurihime no kami) [Nihon Shoki].


Kujiki? Shenanigans!

The only problem with using toponyms for guides on how kanji were pronounced is that the Nara-era reforms included reducing the number of kanji for place names (to two)--some violence might have been done to the base phonology to make things fit. (Kukurihime no kami, I cannot wave off this way.)

i2 (presumably) -> u just strikes me as odd within one lexeme. True, people talk about Tsukuyami/Tsukiyomi as being a i2->u but.... The problem with kami names in the Nihon Shoki is it seems pretty clear to me that you've had a lot of collapsing of *different* kami into one.

And I'm not sure I would expect much sound shift in a word imported and made popular post Man'yoshu.


Maybe also point-missing, but...

I agree that "merchants and artisans" is a little wide of the target you'd first think of for "cherry blossoms, chrysanthemums and the full moon", but you don't think his larger idea is sound?

Even with the expansion of the poetic profession in the Edo period, I think the bulk of poetry was still composed by enthusiastic amateurs. It could be mere ignorance, but I can't think of an equivalent in Western literary history to the sort of linked-verse sessions that so many of Basho's haiku were the hokku for. Or to put it another way, where the largest number of poetic producers were people with day jobs for whom poetry was a cultural ornament like piano-playing or dancing, more a social skill than a means of individual expression in the bohemian sense.

L.N. Hammer:

Maybe it's that I'm too deeply seeped in the Kokinshuu right now, but at that time all those cherry blossoms and full moon were all about the "pursuit of reality" of the human spirit, as reflected in the natural world. The balance of kokoro and kotoba, and all that. No renouncement involved, with those conventions, but a deeper engagement.

Or maybe translating one too many poem about plum blossoms has rotted my critical facilities ...



LH: This is the first time I've read any of his poems, but none of them are really doing that much for me yet.

KDI + MMS: Curses, I knew there would be native names too. Still, names that are so obviously long and recent compound words (kawarayomogi etc.) are also evidence of non-ancientness. As for the proper nouns, I'll leave that to the experts.

azuma: That's true, but then, even those merchants and artisans were aiming at something more than just a clever arrangement of the same cliched concepts (if they were writing haiku) -- there were strict rules for form that no doubt helped amateurs approach it as a social skill, but an innovative presentation of a new idea was definitely the goal. (I had another argument about how "real" poets didn't have much respect for amateurs who didn't take the endeavor seriously, e.g. Shiki and his endless withering scorn for the "tsukinami", but I guess it doesn't apply since Milosz did specify the amateurs.)

L.N. Hammer: I think once you get to, say, the Shin kokin wakashu, with honkadori a major player, you can argue that the poems involved are no longer trying to part the veil and seize the real, but rather arguing amongst themselves. If Milosz had specified the "nobles and priests of Old Japan" I think I'd have a much shakier case against what he implies.


> Still, names that are so obviously long and recent compound words (kawarayomogi etc.) are also evidence of non-ancientness.

You either missed the quantifier "old" or did not understand. Wamyōshō (c. 934) glosses 菊 as kawarayomogi and kawaraohagi. Specifically,

菊: 加波良与毛岐, 可波良於波岐

Sure, they are obvious compounds, but they are most certainly not recent.


I guess I should have said "relatively recent"-- my point is, given the structure of the words "kawaraohagi" and "kawarayomogi", you would expect them to have entered the language more recently than "hagi" and "yomogi". That doesn't prove that the referent of kawarayomogi/kawaraohagi also arrived later (e.g. maybe chrysanthemums were always in Japan, but there was no need to distinguish them from their generic class at first), but if you have other evidence that the referent did arrive later, well, the linguistic shoe fits. So to speak.

L.N. Hammer:

By Teika's time, yeah, definitely mired in the intertextuality. I suspect the reason so much Kamakura-and-onward poetry leaves me cold is I (still) don't have the (back)grounding in the texts being played off of.

I'm more a Tsurayuki kinda guy. (Though he'd sneer at me even worse than Sei Shonagon.)



Hm, actually, regarding Wamyōshū... here's a question/thought brought upon by looking at pictures from an out-of-season trip to an iris garden. How were foreign plants nativized over time?

(Pace, Kindaichi, but Wamyōshū doesn't count as old for linguistics purposes. It's merely classical. Kujiki, for all that I seriously call shenanigans on it, at least has the trappings of Old Japanese in it. Quite possibly forged, some of it, I personally think.)



Wamyōshū is of course a little too late for Old Japanese, but it does still exhibit some 甲乙 distinctions, which is what I assume you mean by "trappings". It is often used as a strong supplementary source for OJ, which is my primary area of research.

Comment season is closed.