Chen-ou Liu's Translation Project: First English-Chinese Haiku and Tanka Blog

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Memorial Tribute Tanka

in memory of Sanford Goldstein

musing, I cram
thoughts of being a poet
into five lines ...
this man's face, his silver-hair 
ripple in the lake of my mind

Ribbons, 19:3, Fall 2023

FYI: My tanka below was recognized as the best embodiment of Sanford Goldstein’s singular style.

at morning lightfall
in the thatched hut
of an everyday mind

Special Commendation for Embodying Sanford-Style
2021 Sanford Goldstein International Tanka Contest

Tanka Society of America Judges' Report: Introducing something new this year, we’ve chosen to honor our contest’s namesake by selecting one tanka we felt best embodied Sanford Goldstein’s singular style. Though several entries skirted the edges, this one seemed to spill top to bottom as though from Goldstein’s own pen. As is often the case in Western poetry (T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, with its salutes to Shakespeare and Dante, springs to mind), Japanese short-form poetry historically makes use of allusion to evoke the work of and pay tribute to past poetic masters. Following suit, our commended tanka harkens to Sanford Goldstein’s aptly named sequence, At the Hut of the Small Mind (which, like the best of folk songs, repeats its title refrain “hut of the small mind” no less than six times). Consider the following tanka from his sequence:

        it was roosters
        at morning light-fall—
        how joyous
        even that crack

Parallels present immediately between the first two lines of the selected tanka and Goldstein’s, not only in their construction but in their use of avian imagery and word choice. Both poems perk our ears with birdsong (though Goldstein’s crowing roosters are arguably more bird than song). The two tanka then echo one another as we learn we are listening at morning lightfall (light-fall). So what makes this echoing different from simply copying or plagiarizing another’s work? U.S. Fair Use doctrine poses questions that might offer answers: What is the poet’s intent? Does the new work in any way unfavorably influence the “brand” or value of the original? Has the poet created something new from the original work? In this case, we feel strongly that the poet set out to honor an acknowledged short-form master by emulating his unique literary style. We find the tanka canon rich with such veneration in the time-and-again penning of phrases such as “tangled hair” (Akiko Yosano) or “red lights” (Mokichi Saito) or “ink-dark moon” (Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aritani’s translations of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu). In the following tanka from At the Hut of the Small Mind, Goldstein himself bows to Bashō while borrowing from his well-known works:

        I too
        am Bashō,
        and that urine smell
        in this mountain hut

Such intentional mirroring, or honkadori, adds another layer to the tribute tanka by reflecting imagery or sentiments from the previous work in order to build upon them. Far from unfavorably influencing, this practice can revitalize and elevate both poets as their works speak to one another. The selected tanka also succeeds in making something new of the original via its solitary pivot word: alone. Unlike the joyous atmosphere created by Goldstein’s boisterous roosters, our selected tanka’s mood is, at a minimum, one of meditative solitude. Given our recent (and in some cases, ongoing or self-imposed) Covid-19 lockdowns, the intended tone may well be a more somber sense of loneliness, further amplified by the image of birds freely gathering together for their dawn chorus. As mentioned, Goldstein returns to his hut of the small mind, with all its possible implications, throughout the sequence (perhaps pointing to his ongoing struggle to bring mind under control to achieve his satori goal, as well as his humble accommodations). Our commended poet’s hut of an everyday mind conveys a sense of the “ordinary” and “ongoing,” exhibiting a universality reflective of the “new normal” many of us are still coming to terms with daily. The two poems reinforce each other by modeling one possible way to cope: we can attempt to attend to sounds and situations surrounding us in a Zen-like state of mu, a concept meaning “nothing,” which manifests itself as “mind-less mind.” In this hut of the centered self, one can awaken to acceptance and the accompanying peace of simply being. Taken together with its philosophical balm, we find this tanka by a poet inspired by a master-inspired-by-a-master . . . inspiring.