Not speaking of the way,
Not thinking of what comes after,
Not questioning name or fame,
Here, loving love,
You and I look at each other.
– Yosano Akiko (1878–1942)
[translation by Kenneth Rexroth]
Before I comment on this tanka, Yasano Akiko should be properly introduced. Yosano Akiko is one of the most famous, and most controversial, post-classical woman poets of Japan and is best remembered for her innovative and controversial use of the tanka verse form. From an early age, she demonstrated an avid interest in literature, which she pursued after her formal schooling ended. As a young woman, Akiko attended meetings of the literary societies in Sakai. Her first published works were traditional poems that imitated classic Japanese literature. The growing influence in Japan of European Romanticism led to the development of “new poetry,” which condoned the expression of personal feelings and expanded the vocabulary of poetic diction. In their search to define a modern Japanese poetic voice, modern poets and dramatists have both revived old forms and created new means of expression. It was in this literary milieu that Akiko wrote the passionate poetry for which she became best known. Her poetry openly expresses personal experience, especially romantic love, in language that was perceived as highly emotional to readers in early twentieth-century Japan. In 1901, Akiko moved to Tokyo to be with Yosano Hiroshi, a writer and editor whom she married later that year, shortly after the publication of her first book of poems Midaregami (Tangled Hair).
Hiroshi was a central figure in the Japanese Romantic movement and founder of the Shinshi Sha, (“New Poetry Society”) which published the “new poetry” journal Myōjō (“Bright Star”). After Myōjō ceased publication in 1908, Akiko wrote prolifically to help support her family. She gave birth to 13 children, 11 of whom survived to adulthood. Akiko wrote over 20 volumes of poetry and social commentary; essays ranged from feminist tracts to criticism of Japan’s foreign aggression, and her poetry reflects some of these concerns as well; also broke social taboos with poems about experiencing labor pains and the birth of her stillborn baby; published translations into modern Japanese of Murasaki Shikibu’s classic Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji, 1912 and 1939) and Shinyaku Eiga Monogatari (“Newly Translated Tale of Flowering Fortunes”); also published a monumental compilation of 26,783 poems (including haiku, tanka, and etc.) written by 6,675 poets in modern times. A prominent pacifist and feminist, Yosano Akiko spoke out against the Sino-Japanese war and the growing nationalistic fervor of the times. She later founded a woman’s college, the Bunka Gakuin, in 1921 and made constructive statements on problems of women and education. [Adapted from the Living Haiku Anthology]
And now on to the tanka. To me, this tanka expresses the ultimate form of engrossed love. And as tradition in tanka, the “beloved” is not named, and sometimes not even hinted at. This universality lends itself to be read in multiple ways, and allows readers to see the experience of the poet in one’s own life without restrictions.
“Not speaking of the way,” is convex. She could be referring to the way she and her beloved love each other, or “The Way” in a spiritual sense in accordance with Zen and/or Taoism.
“Not thinking of what comes after,
Not questioning name or fame,”
These two lines cancel out what lovers usually worry about when trying to express themselves. Instead of thinking of long-time commitments or what the future might hold… instead of thinking of what benefits or drawbacks she can get receive from her expressed love, she is simply loving her beloved without a thought. Just the awareness of love is left.
“Here, loving love,”
This part seems to show a cyclical happening: the poet is in the bliss of love and gets further bliss simply by feeling it. The word “here” also brings the focus into the present moment and shows the importance of being in the now.
“You and I look at each other.”
We imagine the look as readers. Our imagination goes into the depth of what love is to us. Akiko doesn’t describe the look, but infers it instead. Japanese poetry in general seeks to let the reader have a large part in the poetic process. A lack of heavy-handedness is respected in Japanese poetry.
Though tanka was originally court poetry written by elite individuals in Japanese society, Yosano Akiko showed to a greater extent that tanka can be written without inhibition at the highest poetic level.
– Nicholas Klacsanzky