Awesome Nightfall: The Life , Times and Poetry of Saigyo

I read a book of Saigyo’s poems translated by Burton Watson quite a while ago,and liked many of them, but not nearly as well as I liked those in Awesome Nightfall translated by William LaFleur.

Perhaps that’s because I have a better background to appreciate them now, or perhaps it’s because I find the poems more meaningul presented within the context of Saigyo’s life as LaFleur does in the 70 page opening section. For instance, the following quotation provided a historical perspective that I was previously unaware of:

What is best in his poetry, however, avoids the pius platitude. Much of the time Saigyo, originally a samurai, grappled with the implications of having become a monk. And, because he live in “interesting” times, he struggled to understand and articulate the connection between his religious tradition and the social chaos he witnessed firsthand. Rightly known to many Japanese today as an unusually perceptive celebrant of nature’s beauty, Saigyo’s sensitivity toward human conflict was equally deep. War was much on his mind. And he wrote about it more than any other poet of his era.

One of my favorite poems in this opening section is:

So, then, it’s the one
who has thrown his self away
who is thought the loser?
But he who cannot lose self
is the one who is really lost.

Although the poem certainly stands by itself, it seems even more meaningful when LaFleur adds the following notes:

Concerning this poem Kobayashi Hideo … wrote:

A poem such as this is a conceptual one, looking like it borrowed the dialectal grammatical structures of Buddhist texts… Saigyo, making this paradox in a poem such as this into a reliable source for poetry was opening totally new territory, a place no one had entered before.

The “conceptual” dimension recognized by Kobayashi does not,however, mean that the content was alien to Saigyo’s emotional experience. In fact, this and somewhat similar poems of the time bring to surface the kind of deep struggle this monk poet was having in attempting to grasp what it might mean for him to both reject ordinary society and, at the same time, remain attached to the prospects for social recognition of his obvious poetic skills.

While it’s certainly possible to recognize a simple truth in the poem (the idea that the person who lives solely to satisfy his own ego is truly lost) the poem takes on added dimensions, not to mention more spiritual dimensions, with the added commentary. For those of us who lack knowledge of Saigyo’s personal history and the understanding of Japanese culture during this time, LaFleur’s opening section is quite enlightening.

My favorite poem from the opening section is this one, possibly because of the excellent commentary included:

I thought I was free
of passions, so this melancholy
comes as a surprise:
a woodchuck shoots up from the marsh
where autumn’s twilight falls.

Translations of this poem cannot but stumble in trying to render the Japanese word aware. With a long history of associations (and often as mono no aware) this term, at least for Saigyo, designated the abrupt sense of being confronted with exquisite beauty — but a beauty that, because all things are impermanent, will disappear as quickly as it has arrived. Awe is of its essence. Religious and aesthetic experiences seem to fuse. What makes this poem superb is how Saigyo juxtaposes the subjective experience inthe first part of the poem with a swiftly conveyed depiction of of an objective, natural event in the second portion. The parts mirror one another. What happens in the scene of the darkening marsh is reflected in the person of the poet, soemone in whom, fortunately, long and arduos religious practice had not taken away the capacity to respond emotionally to a sudden manifestation of beauty. That this poem appeared at a time when Saigyo’s own life was drawing to a close and locates beauty and composure vis-a-vis twilight of many kinds has, understandably, made it among the most cherished of compositions.

I’m certainly not enlightened enough to believe I’m free from passions, but I’ve often been shocked by a sense of melancholy that almost seems to be triggered by a random, sudden event. No matter how enlightened one becomes, it’s hard to believe that as long as one is alive they will not be subject to sorrow, whether out of compassion for others or out of a personal sense of loss that accompanies each stage of life.

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