Samuel Peralta here…
As a poetic form, the sedoka is one of the rarest forms today, not often seen even within its native Japan.
And yet, some scholars have contended that one of the greatest poems of the Japanese language is a sedoka – a poem composed as a declaration of love by the Princess Nukata.
The Manyoshu, or Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, is the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry.
The anthology was compiled during the latter half of the 8th century, and consists of over four thousand poems.
The vast majority of poems in the Manyoshu are written in tanka – the well-known short verse form with five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables.
Also included are examples of choka, long poems of alternating lines of 5 and 7 syllables, closing with an extra line of 7 syllables. Some reach just under 150 lines.
Finally, making up just one-and-a-half percent of the total collection – over half of them by the renowned poet Kakinomoto no Hitomaro – there are sixty-two sedoka.
The sedoka is an unrhymed poem consisting of two tercets with a scheme of 5-7-7 and 5-7-7 syllables, a total of 38 syllables.
As such, the sedoka contains an idea more subtly complex than a tanka but much less complex than a choka.
Each verse presents an independent thought, and is called a katauta, literally a half-song, suggesting that the sedoka’s origins are musical in nature.
This is emphasized by a few sedoka repeating the third and sixth lines, like a refrain, though this isn’t a rule.
The poem’s two verses usually provide two perspectives on the theme, with a sharp division after the third line, and a soft turn after line five, before the conclusion.
Often the first verse will describe a natural image or scene, and the second verse the same scene from a different perspective, or a philosophical or emotional reaction to the first.
Together, the two katautas embody the full theme of the sedoka.
Because the sedoka was essentially a spoken or sung form, only a few classical pieces have survived today, nearly all via the Manyoshu.
Princess Nukata was one of the first Japanese poets to veer away from a tradition that emphasized spiritual themes, pouring lyrical elements into her work.
She was also a favorite of Emperor Tenji, and one day accompanied him on a hunting trip by the eastern shore of Lake Biwa.
Prince Oama, who was also in the hunting party – and alas! the Emperor’s brother – secretly waved his sleeve as a sign to the Princess of his love.
Unknown to all, prior to the Princess being called to the imperial court, she had been the Prince’s consort.
After the hunt, Princess Nukata chided the Prince with the composition now collected as poem 20 in the first volume of the Manyoshu, rendered below as a sedoka:
You ride purple fields
marked as imperial domain,
these Murasaki grasses.
Will the groundskeeper
be so blind as not to see
as you wave your sleeves at me?
Full of pain and yearning – this is the sedoka that many Japanese treasure as one of the most expressive love poems ever written.
Bolder, the response from Prince Oama to his love is collected as poem 21, an envoy to poem 20, and is no less expressive.
In the original it is not a sedoka, though, for pedagogical purposes, I humbly render it as one:
If I did not care
for you, beautiful as the
glowing Murasaki grass –
Would I then dare be,
though your heart is another’s,
someone who still longs for you?
At the time the Manyoshu was being compiled, and while the tanka and other forms grew in popularity in Japan, the sedoka had already fallen into disuse, a dying form.
History also records that Emperor Tenji eventually succumbed to illness, and a struggle broke out between his eldest son and Prince Oama – who eventually won the throne to become Emperor Tenmu.
Some scholars say that the Jinshin War that changed history had already been portended by the secret lovers’ fateful exchange of poetry.
Tonight, in commemoration of that remarkable Princess who was also a poet, I invite you to write and share your own sedoka.
When the doors open today at 3pm, I’ll begin writing one as well – so if you’ve finished and linked first, please visit back to see what I – and others – have come up with…
Finally, I apologize to any lovers of Japanese literature for my imperfect and un-nuanced renditions of what, in the original, are the most beautiful of verses.
Samuel Peralta – on Twitter as @Semaphore – is the award-winning author of five titles in The Semaphore Collection – Sonata Vampirica, Sonnets from the Labrador, How More Beautiful You Are, Tango Desolado and War and Ablution – all Amazon Kindle top five best sellers in poetry.
Copyright (c) Samuel Peralta. All rights reserved.
Images public domain / via WikiMedia Commons or as attributed.