Three weeks ago, winter arrived in Western New York, catching some of us off guard. I was reminded of a poem by the twelfth-century Japanese poet Saigyo:
Neglectful, we’ve yet
to fix the towrope
to the sled—
and here they’ve piled up already,
the white snows of Koshi!
sori no hayao mo
koshi no shirayuki *
Perhaps as you read this poem, you were thinking of something you’ve left undone. For my own part, I’m thinking of a heavy wooden storm window, which I should have put up weeks ago. Across the centuries, it would seem, some things don’t change.
Saigyo, however, was no ordinary homeowner. His real name was Sato Norikiyo, and he was born in 1118 in Kyoto to an aristocratic military family. Skilled in the martial arts, he became a private guard to a retired emperor. But at the age of twenty-two, Norikiyo renounced warfare to become a Buddhist monk. Living a solitary life, he traveled widely, writing lyric verse under the pen name Saigyo. Today he is one of the best-loved poets in Japan, second only to the haiku master Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), who took Saigyo’s life’s work as a model for his own
The form of Saigyo’s poem is the waka, the conventional form of Japanese court poetry. A five-line syllabic form with a pattern of 5-7-5-7-7, the waka resembles the haiku in the first three lines, but the addition of two extra lines allows for greater expansiveness and complexity. Often, as in Saigyo’s poem, an abrupt shift of perspective occurs at the end of the third line. In Saigyo’s mature poems, subjective and objective elements are held in balance, the former expressing the poet’s feelings and the latter describing a natural phenomenon.
In this particular poem the first three lines report an oversight: Saigyo has neglected to fasten the towrope to the sled. Buddhist monks are supposed to be paying attention at all times and to be attuned to seasonal change. Perhaps Saigyo was too busy to bother with the towrope. Perhaps he forgot about it. In either case he realizes, here and now, that he has ignored the advent of winter and overlooked a necessary chore.
In the next two lines, the perspective shifts abruptly, as Saigyo turns our attention to the newfallen snow. Koshi is a coastal province, known for its heavy snows. Although Saigyo does not develop the scene, we can well imagine its natural beauty, which contrasts sharply with the human situation he has just described. If the human error is cause for consternation, the natural scene is cause for joy.
“Like many great Japanese poets,” writes Burton Watson, a distinguished translator of Saigyo’s poems, “he was not afraid of saying something very simple.” Nor was he afraid to look at his human failing in the light of the impersonal natural world. In Saigyo’s vision, human error and unforgiving nature are parts of the one body of reality. Open to both, he gives them equal standing. Engaged with both, he sees them as they are.
* Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home, translated by Burton Watson (Columbia University Press, 1991), 94.
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