The Japanese poetry of Manyoshu, as is true of any culture’s poetry, reflects both similarities based on the culture and differences arising from the natures of the poets themselves. There is a sense of approach that is common and seems linked to the culture, but there is as well the unique quality of each poet defining the poems as different. This is seen in examining two works, “Dialogue on Poverty” and “Poems in Praise of Wine.” As the following explores, both works reflect a relatively practical use of language, varied degrees of lyricism, and also express strikingly different perspectives going to the natures of the poets themselves.
Okura’s “Dialogue on Poverty” and Lord Tabito’s “Poems in Praise of Wine” share one very prominent characteristic. Each poem uses language that is virtually pragmatic and direct, and only rarely employs the lyrical phrases usually expected in poetry. With Okura, for example, the scene is plain and the words are in place to present hard realities. The narrator feels the cold painfully, and because of the poverty he faces: “I put on every/ Sleeveless homespun frock I own,/ Layer upon layer” (ll 21-23). It is a miserable existence and the poet presents every detail of it. In the cooking pot there is only a spider spinning a web, and: “We have forgotten/ The very way of cooking rice” (ll 68-69). The imagery is very strong but it is more in a prose style, relating the truth of the experience of being desperately poor, and in basic language. The same approach is seen in Lord Tabito’s work, even as the subject is more joyful. This tribute to drinking, in fact, reads even more like prose than does Okura’s work, as the poet asks a series of rhetorical questions to make his point: “How could even/ A priceless treasure/ Be better than a cup/ Of raw wine?” (ll 29-32). Both poems then express a distinctly practical and non-lyrical form, or means of expression.
The above similarity also reflects a strong difference. In plain terms, Okura’s poem is a lament and Lord Tabito’s is a celebration of drunkenness. This then reinforces the powerful contrast in the poets’ natures and ambitions. Even as Okura suffers from poverty, there is sympathy for those even more poor: “Yes, you – at times like these/ How do you manage to go on,/ How do you get through your life?” (ll 31-33). Tabito, conversely, expresses a self-centered conviction in the greatness of wine: “Since all who live/ Must finally die,/ Let’s have fun/ While we’re still alive” (ll 44-47). It is in fact difficult to conceive of approaches in poetry more in contrast to one another, and this reinforces how the unique being of each poet dictates the work.
Lastly, the poems in question also differ in regard to another aspect of language. As the quotation above demonstrates, Tabito relies on almost no imagery. His statements are both repetitive and bare of metaphors, a few comparisons between wine and jewels aside. The poem reads more like a lesson than a poem, in fact: “What is most noble/ Beyond all words/ And beyond all deeds/ Is wine” (ll 16-19). Okura, on the other hand, brings certain types of images into play, the directness of the poem aside, as in shreds of his frock: “Dangling like branches/ Of sea pine over my bones” (ll 52-53). A shared quality of directness aside, then, a further distinction between the poets is seen in how each employs, or disregards, poetic imagery.
It is ordinary to believe that a specific culture will produce poetry that reflects that culture, and in terms of the work generally having a similar style. With the Manyoshu poems in question, this is seen to be true to an extent, in that the poets rely on a form non-lyrical and prosaic. At the same time, and going to the reality of all poets as individuals, the works reflect striking differences which emphasize the unique characters of the poets themselves. Most dramatically, Okura offers a heartfelt lament of desperate poverty, while Lord Tabito presents what may be called a rhetorical ode to drinking. Ultimately, then, both poems reveal a relatively pragmatic use of language, varied degrees of lyricism, and they also express very different perspectives going to the natures of the poets themselves.
- Okura, Yamanoue no. “Dialogue on Poverty.” Trans. n/a. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Gen ed. Martin Puchner. 3rd Ed. New York: Norton, 2012. 1096-1097.
- Tabito, Otomo no. “Poems in Praise of Wine.” Trans. Hideo Levy. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Gen ed. Martin Puchner. 3rd Ed. New York: Norton, 2012. 1094-1095.