Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
Contents Archives About Simply Haiku Submissions Search
Autumn 2007, vol 5 no 3

The Poetics of Motoori Norinaga: A Hermeneutical Journey
translated and edited by Michael F. Marra
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


What is mono no aware? What role do emotions play in the tanka genre? These are questions that every serious student of the genre will sooner or later explore. Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) was one of Japan's greatest intellectuals, a lifelong student of Hermeneutics (The theory and methodology of interpretation of a text). He is best known for his concept of mono no aware, a well thought out premise regarding emotions as the precondition for poetic expression.

Professor Marra introduces readers to Norinaga in the book's preface and Introduction. It is an exceptional read giving a rare glimpse into the inner workings of Norinaga's mind and his conceptualization of mono no aware. A medical doctor and the author of over 10,000 poems, Norinaga formulated, according to Marra, "a sophisticated poetics in which he attempted to recover the voices of the past---a realm of sounds that he associated with primordial voices heard in the most ancient texts [such as the Man'yoshu]."

"Norinaga," writes Marra, "emphasizes four key concepts: koe (voice), aya (pattern), sama/sugata (form), and mono no aware (the pathos of things). Simply stated, the sound of words (koe) takes on a poetic form (sama or sugata) by being externalized into written signs (aya), a process informed by the poet's ability to be moved by the external surroundings (mono no aware)."

This philosophy was nothing new, of course, having been espoused hundreds of years earlier by Ki no Tsurayuki (868? - 945?) who wrote in the preface to the Kokin Waka Sho, "Japanese poetry (Yamato-uta) has the human heart (kokoro) as seed and myriads of words as leaves (koto no ha). It comes into being when men use the seen and the heard to give voice to feelings aroused by the innumerable events in their lives."

It was Norinaga's interpretation of these words and the theory he built upon it that made him stand out as a major influence on Japanese poetics. He saw aware as encompassing the whole gamut of human emotions instead of the common belief that it was a pre-expression of grief (sighs of relief). " Norinaga," Marra states, [saw] " the need for a dialogic structure in all acts of communication. An uttered trace of the heart's outburst, aware requires the presence of like-minded witnesses who share in the emotional experience and help the experiencing subject to get free from the oppressive power of feelings by becoming new transmitting agents in a chain of communications."

Norinaga felt that only poetry could capture nature as it really is.

"Norinaga," posits Marra, "interpreted what he called 'the moving power of things' (mono no aware) as the restoration of godly nature to those who understand how to be moved by the awesomeness of external reality. The potential for intersubjectivity---the very possibility of communication---was contained in the power of things (words) to elicit the same emotions from different perceivers. The subjugation of difference by a universal principle of sameness---'sacred speech' inscribed in 'pattern signs'---made communication possible by recording. Norinaga did not reduce the idea of mono no aware to suffering alone; for him, communication was a pathic experience originating from the sum of human feelings."

Needless to say, this is not a book for those looking for a quick read. Marra's book is an in depth, scholarly study accompanied by translations of Norinaga's poetry hitherto unavailable in the English language. And although scholarly, the book is far from boring, and reads well.

I was continually stopping during my reading of Marra's introduction (26 pages) to reflect and ruminate on Norinaga's philosophy of Japanese poetics. For instance, sound and how words communicate sound, were extremely important to Norinaga. China had a strong influence on Japanese poetry, and although he valued Chinese poetics, he saw it as too intellectually focused on intentionality, preferring instead "the sustained elongation of voice" (song) which to him was set apart the native uta as distinctive.

One of Norinaga's most famous writings, a diary interspersed with poetry, is The Sedge Hat Diary. Marra makes this work available for the first time to English language readers.

An excerpt from Norinaga's diary:

"In a place about six miles from Miwatari there was a post town called Hata. A wooden bridge crossed the Hata River. The rain kept pouring without ever stopping. On the way I kept talking with my travel companions, wondering what might happen to the cherry blossoms in Yoshino given the present weather, and I composed the following poem:

Harusame ni On this trip
Hosanu sode yori I think with more pain of the cherry blossom's color
Kono tabi was Fading away
Shioremu hana no Than of my sleeves
Iro o koso omoe That do not dry under the spring rains."

Take note of the poet's empathy towards the cherry blossoms. He experienced them as a cherry blossom himself, feeling their pain and sorrow. This is not a train of thought common to Western thinking, save for the indigenous peoples of North America, who like the Japanese, saw nature as a cohabitant of the planet and as an ally to be treated with respect and understanding.

This passage underscores Narinaga's belief, as Marra expounds, "the insensitive person ---the person who does not know mono no aware---is the one who does not cry when someone is in tears, and is deaf to the 'ah-invoking nature' of things."

Iterates Marra, "By stressing mono no aware in waka, Norinaga believed that poetry and monogatari (extended prose narrative tale comparable to the epic) had the power to trigger a silent communication that brought expression back to its original focus---the gods."

Equally fascinating are Norinaga's essays. They are deep, philosophical, and challenging. One cannot read an essay of his without being stirred.

Take for example this excerpt from Norinaga's essay on mono no aware:

"Now, with regard to the difference between knowing mono no aware and not knowing it, I would say that to know mono no aware is to be stirred by the view of the wonderful cherry blossoms, or of the bright moon while facing it. One's feelings are stirred up because he understands, deep in his heart, the moving power of the moon and the blossoms. The heart that is ignorant of this moving power will never be stirred, no matter how wonderful the blossoms are and how clear the moon is in front of him. In other words, this is what I mean by the phrase, 'not knowing mono no aware.''"

Not all of the 34 essays in the book are about poetry. Norinaga was a student of language and an astute observer, yet even when he talked about other subjects, their tie-in to poetry was evident.

Look at this passage from Norinaga's essay, "Creating The Habit of Appearances":

"To argue that the moon and flowers are moving but the glow of a woman does not draw one's attention is not the product of the human heart. It is nothing but a terrible lie. This being the case, since to fabricate and to embellish appearances has become a habit everywhere, shouldn't we blame this habit and denounce it as deceit?"

Pretentiousness was not a trait Norinaga tolerated. He was a seeker of truth, and searched for truth in everything he studied, be it poetry, painting, or in interchanges with another. If he were alive today, he would have no tolerance for poetry that omitted makoto and mono no aware. He was for stripping down language until it became pure, unpretentious; uncovering "the true voice of the spirit of language" (kotodama no shingon) imbedded in poetry from its beginning. Writes Marra, "He believed that poetry and monogatari had the power to trigger a silent communication that brought expression back to its original focus---the gods."

The Poetics of Motoori Norinaga: A Hermeneutical Journey is a book you will refer to over and over again.

The Poetics of Motoori Norinaga: A Hermeneutical Journey
translated and edited by Michael F. Marra
University of Hawaii Press
ISBN 978-0-8248-3078-6