Spots and stripes
Composing a link
霞さへまだらに立つやとらの年 – Teitoku
Renga is a type of collaborative linked poetry that was popular in Japan starting from the 16th century. In a session, poets took turns extemporaneously composing lines off of each other’s verses, connecting directly preceding lines with verbal play to create a thematically continuous poem. When I first learned about renga I imagined a courtiers’ rap battle, in which the artillery was compliments and references to the moon in place of trash talk. Unfortunately this did not bear out in my research. The seshes were apparently so heavily superintended, with so many rules that the participants were wont to forget and would need reminding, according to H. Mack Horton. It was, for example, frowned upon to “gawk at the water and rocks in the garden” and considered uncouth to “noisily open a neighbor’s fan and examine it.” A participant should “be constantly aware of the evanescence of all life” and “revere the Buddhas and gods,” and absolutely never loudly blow his nose or let his shins show.
An exalted renga poet would be tasked with writing the opening verse, known as the hokku, which had specific thematic requirements and was the only section that could be written in advance. Hokku laid the foundation for the stand-alone poem we now call haiku. The above verse by Matsunaga Teitoku is one such hokku, translated to English by Yuasa Nobuyuki:
The year of the tiger
Has come –
Even the spring mist rises
In spots and stripes.
Teitoku founded an important school of witty, playful renga, which started to gain popularity over the refined and lofty ones in the 1600s. “Freedom and open laughter” writes Yuasa, “Suited the taste of the merchant class which was then rising throughout the country.” Teitoku was the first to state that this lower order poetry had artistic merit unto itself and called the verses “the voice of the happy people,” meant to “provoke healthy laughter,” as Yuasa writes.
I spend a lot of time these days feeling like I missed the joke. I think it’s normal in learning a new language, even if you’re relatively far along, to miss slang, cultural references, and very casual speech patterns. Still, last fall, stuck in a car for a few hours on a hiking trip with four strangers, I was disheartened at how few of the punch lines I was catching. Had I learned anything in two years? The car was filled with freedom and open laughter, roars of mutual understanding, the relief of releasing something pent up–while the gas of my confusion continued to sit in my gut, creating a shame-flecked discomfort. I recounted this to a mentor later, and he responded that there are times he’d rather listen to an academic lecture in English than to his non-Japanese in-laws shooting the shit. I recounted this to my family later, and my father responded, “Sometimes I don’t understand what you guys are talking about,” referring to us, his children.
I haven't been home for New Year’s since 2017, but I continue our family traditions from wherever I am, e.g. rush to settle Christmas debts and get a hair cut before new year’s day. I organize a dinner with friends, intent on setting a merry precedent for the rest of the year.
New cases in Japan are at an all-time high, and usually one of the first things to go when there’s a new wave, is alcohol. (The thinking being, when people drink, they get unusually chatty.) At the moment, social life in Tokyo is in limbo as the government figures out what non-science-based measure they’ll implement next to try and curb cases. Fun is just kind of perpetually on the chopping block.
On the first day of the year of the tiger, I went out for xiaolongbao with J, who’s originally from Shanghai. Each of us slumped over in our seats, delirious from school and work and thinking about the future. We asked with hesitant voices if the restaurant was selling beer. An hour later I was slapping the table, my body off its sober axis. The loudest people in the restaurant, we waxed nostalgic about the days we could get on planes, composed alternating odes to our favorite affordable fruits. My eyes were wet from laughing. The peals rang out, and I saw their echos buoying us through the striped and spotted mist.