Sunday, September 09, 2012

Kanshi, Southeast Asian American poetics and performance

This week I've been considering an interesting literary moment during the Edo period of Japan between 1600-1867, which may be of interest to some of us as we consider our work within the United States.

During the Edo period, literary writing was flourishing not only in native Japanese but in classical Chinese, in a form of poetry known as the kanshi. I'll let you all research the history on your own, but what I found striking was the way it was performed. It's a very liberating concept for those of us debating how to present works in English or other languages.

During most of the Edo period, the kanshi and Japanese verse forms engaged each other, enriching both forms, to the extent that some scholars consider it impossible to consider either tradition without considering the other. How interesting it would be if one day Southeast Asian American poetry reached such a point in mainstream poetics.

What I find of particular interest is when a Japanese poet wished to read their poem aloud, they faced an interesting issue: Few Japanese of the time spoke Chinese or understood the conventions of the classical language.

 What the poet did in practice instead was to take it from the Chinese it had been composed in and arrange it in Japanese, replacing many of the words with Japanese equivalents that worked for the moment. They usually did this on the fly and improvised as necessary.

 What emerged over time was an understanding that what a poet accomplished in Chinese could never be accomplished in the oral version of the poem. So they learned to also be comfortable in the lack of a definitive version of that poem's recitation.

 The poet, and others who read the poem aloud, all had considerable freedom in choosing how many words, which words were replaced and changed. The spirit of the poem took precdent over the exact letter.

A poem was never read aloud in the same way by different people, and on some occasions, even by the original author themselves. It depended on the situation and circumstance. The essence was retained, but it was very dynamic living form, similar to a true live jazz performance vs. a recording. You never knew what might happen.

I think it's something to consider.

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