Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Yasunari Kawabata: Innate Spirit




"In the spring, cherry blossoms, in the summer the cuckoo.
In autumn the moon, and in winter the snow, clear, cold."

"The winter moon comes from the clouds to keep me company.
The wind is piercing, the snow is cold."
The first of these poems is by the priest Dogen (1200-1253) and bears the title "Innate Spirit". The second is by the priest Myoe (1173-1232). When I am asked for specimens of calligraphy, it is these poems that I often choose.

~Yasunari Kawabata, Japan The Beautiful & Myself (1968)

Kawabata wrote in a style similar to traditional Japanese haiku poetry, known as renga, or linked poetry. His work is filled with imagery and symbolism. Kawabata never wrote about political turmoil, but instead focused on personal and spiritual crises.  (source) 


Why did Kawabata boldly decide to read those extremely esoteric poems in Japanese before the audience in Stockholm? I look back almost with nostalgia upon the straightforward bravery which he attained towards the end of his distinguished career and with which he made such a confession of his faith. Kawabata had been an artistic pilgrim for decades during which he produced a host of masterpieces. After those years of his pilgrimage, only by making a confession as to how he was fascinated by such inaccessible Japanese poems that baffle any attempt fully to understand them, was he able to talk about 'Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself', that is, about the world in which he lived and the literature which he created.

It is noteworthy, furthermore, that Kawabata concluded his lecture as follows:
My works have been described as works of emptiness, but it is not to be taken for the nihilism of the West. The spiritual foundation would seem to be quite different. Dogen entitled his poem about the seasons 'Innate Reality', and even as he sang of the beauty of the seasons he was deeply immersed in Zen.
(Translation by Edward Seidensticker)
Here also I detect a brave and straightforward self-assertion. On the one hand Kawabata identifies himself as belonging essentially to the tradition of Zen philosophy and aesthetic sensibilities pervading the classical literature of the Orient. Yet on the other he goes out of his way to differentiate emptiness as an attribute of his works from the nihilism of the West. By doing so he was whole-heartedly addressing the coming generations of mankind with whom Alfred Nobel entrusted his hope and faith.

~Kenzaburo Oe, Japan The Ambiguous & Myself (1994)




“Kawabata has been put, I think rightly, in a literary line that can be traced back to seventeenth-century haiku masters. Haiku are tiny seventeen-syllable poems that seek to convey a sudden awareness of beauty by a mating of opposite or incongruous terms. Thus the classical haiku characteristically fuses motion and stillness. Similarly Kawabata relies very heavily on a mingling of the senses. In Snow Country we come upon the roaring silence of a winter night, for instance, or the round softness of the sound of running water, or, in a somewhat more elaborate figure, the sound of a bell, far back in the singing of a teakettle, suddenly becomes a woman’s feet. …

“The haiku manner presents a great challenge to the novelist. The manner is notable for its terseness and austerity, so that his novel must rather be like a series of brief flashes in a void.”
~ Edward G. Seidensticker, from the introduction to his translation of Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (quoted here)





The feeling that men and plants share a common fate is the perennial theme of lyric poetry… I do not know if the soul of a plant lives only in the interval between shooting sprout and falling leaf or if it is something more enduring, something that persists beyond all observable phenomena. But if I now address myself to you who have left this world I do not think of you as living in another world as you were in this. There are no better or more pleasing lyric poems than those found in the Buddhist Sutras, so I prefer to think of you, as in a fairy tale, reincarnated as a sprig of plum… 

Yasunari Kawabata, Jojoka (source)

images + sources:


A hand copy of passages from Snow Country (雪国抄) found at Kawabata's bedside after his death. +  a page from memos in Kawabata's hand for Snow Country, from sonic net's Kawabata Folder

A desk once owned by haiku poet Buson Yosa (1716-1783) has been found in a storehouse belonging to the estate of Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972). The picture shows the underside of the desk which notes, in Buson’s handwriting, that it was made when he was 67 years old from the wood of a paulownia tree that had stood in the yard of a house in Sagano, Kyoto. 

Yasunari Kawabata  c 1946, Wikimedia

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