In a thirty-one syllable poem, there isn’t much room for a narrative context. So, collections, like the Kokinshū, present the poem with the poet’s name (or “Anonymous”) and the topic, which reads “Topic Unknown,” if not presented as a condition preceding the writing of the poem (“Snow on the trees”) or an event (“Composed on hearing the cries of the wild geese” or “From the poetry contest held at the residence of Prince Koresada”) or a headnote. The headnote might describe the poem as a part of a greater narrative context, or show it as linked in a dialogue with another poem in the collection.
For example, the headnote of Poem 857 in the Kokinshū reads:
Soon after the Prince who was the Head of the Household Ministry married the fifth daughter of Kan’in, his wife died. The Prince discovered this poem, written when she was well, attached to the cord of one of the posts of her bedchamber.
if you recall me
fondly if you remember
me when I am gone
then gaze upon the mountain
haze in gentle reverie
The poem takes on an eerie quality following that narrative introduction. Enough information has been left out of the headnote to have it provide context while still acting suggestively—did the wife know that she would be sick or did she forecast her own death while still in good health? Spooky. Some of the annotations dismiss the factuality of such coincides, saying that they are not just doubtful but wholly fictive. Unlike, say, A Million Little Pieces, a fictional autobiography in this style would have been fine, expected even. No ancient Oprah would snap the author like a brittle winter twig for the fabrication of the number of root canals or the veracity in finding a poem begging for remembrance during a time of grief. While Poem 857 does not have such an annotation, a critical Westerner may assume that the narrative is fiction. In tanka, fact and fiction do not conflict, but collide and enrich the experience.
One of the goals of a good poem is to produce a little, peaceful “aha!” moment called a satori, often through jo-ha-kyū: “serene introduction,” then “extended and detailed narrative information, and finally, “an ending which is surprisingly sudden.”
Or, literally, “beginning, break, rapid,” instead of the Aristotelean beginning, middle, end.
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