The ruin and the wanderer

The introductions that poet Irako Seihaku 伊良子清白 wrote for the republication of his first book, Kujakubune 孔雀船 ("The Peacock-Boat") are really excellent examples of East Asian writerly humility. Here's the 1968 introduction from the first paperback edition:

They say that as akoya pearls age, they grow ever deeper in luster, ever more splendid in color. My words of poetry are crude, their rhythms unnatural; after ten years, their light had dimmed; after twenty years, their perfume had faded; today, their forms lie scattered and forgotten. It is said that Ueda Akinari threw his unwanted writings into a deep well and left without looking back, but I could not even manage this. Now I am two-and-sixty, an aged man; my hair is white and unkempt; my teeth are gone; I cannot see. Only my memories of youth bring me joy. Ah! these empty writings; is there anyone alive today who will favor them with a glance?

This actually represents a dialing-back from his original 1929 introduction:

In these ruins there are no more prayers or curses, no jubilation or resentment; in a world of extinction from which all atmosphere is lost, how could the grasses of life grow? If among the crumbling walls and broken foundations some discovery is made, such must be the creation of its discoverer, and not some regeneration from decay.


And just what were these worthless, abandoned wastelands of lyric? Here's a very quick translation of the first one, entitled "Hyōhaku" 漂白 ("Wandering"):

At reed-door blows the autumn wind;
How bleak the river inn.
The pitiable traveller
Looks up at evening sky
And softly starts to sing.

His long-departed mother's face,
A fair maid's once again,
Appears upon the moon;
His long-departed father's form,
Become a child's again,
Spreads 'cross the Milky Way

In glimpses through the willow-trees
The river, pale in the night,
And fields beyond, with rising smoke
The faint sound of a flute,
The traveller's breast does reach.

The valley-songs that ring from home
Are heard, cut short, and heard again
Their echoes from the sky combine
With groans from under earth
And blend in music deep

The mother of the traveller
Has lodged within him now
And to him in his youth, too, is
His father now descent.
And of the flute of hazy fields
One faint strain now remains

The traveller is singing still
Returning to his days of youth
Smiling, he is singing yet

Hmm. Even allowing for the fact that I've put in hardly any effort in creating a poetic voice for Seihaku in English (sorry, man), the imagery is not that amazing — or I guess not dense enough. I like the way that his parents, the river, the smoke are silent — purely visual — while the sounds that arrive from far away are conversely from sources that cannot be seen. This combines with the fact that we really have no hard info on what it's like where he is to create a sort of comfy dislocation which eventually circles back to suspend his singing voice in the nowhere too. But I think it could have been a little more concise.

Popularity factor: 3


Hmm, not exactly a paean to the joys of travel.


You really got me--I was all set for some Showa writer's critique of the Exeter Book... Now I just wonder if such exists...


Well, as long as someone got it. (And no doubt someone was commenting on it, even back then!)

Bathrobe: No, but it's very pro-smoke and -flute.

Aime la vérité, mais pardonne à l'erreur

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