Kasasagi no: A Waka across the ages

かささぎの
渡せる橋に
置く霜の

白きを見れば
夜ぞふけにける

Kasasagi no

wataseru hashi ni

oku shimo no

shiroki o mireba

Yo zo fuke ni keru

“When I see the snow fall

on the bridge formed

by connected magpies

I know that the night has deepened”

– Otomo no Yakamochi

This is my favorite waka from the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. Anthologized by Fujiwara no Teika during the Heian period of Japan, the Hyakunin Isshu (“100 people, 1 poem”) is a collection of 100 waka (Japanese poems in 5 lines) by different poets across the ages of Japanese history leading to the Heian. The author of this particular waka, Otomo no Yakamochi, was also a statesman in the Heian court, and compiler of the Manyoshu, the oldest anthology of Japanese poetry.

This poem is one of my first favorites in the Hyakunin Isshu, and that’s because it is easily appreciable with my formal lenses. For me it paints an image of magpies which, while flying together, form the image of a bridge in the night sky.  The concluding line ties it all up by personifying the night and making it “go on” by crossing that bridge, also hinting how the magpies’ flight indicates that dawn is approaching.

But formal reading is a purely Western concept, and this poem is not a Western poem. In fact, Japanese poetry is noted for its high degree of intertextuality and historical context: a poem often involves the personal experience of the poet, and as such it is common for a poem to be accompanied by a prosaic entry explaining the context in which it was written. The poems also allude heavily to earlier texts.

Interpretation of “Kasasagi no” is apparently a point of divisive debate for generations of critics. One camp argues that the “Magpie bridge” is simply a reference to bridges in the Imperial Palace using the utamakura (epithet) “magpie” to make the word fancier, and that the poem is a simple observation of a cold winter night in the Imperial Palace. Another, much later camp weaves in the ancient legend of Tanabata, which tells of the legend of the celestial lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi, who are divided by the Heavenly River but who meet each other once a year by crossing a bridge made by sympathetic magpies. In the latter case, the poem takes a sad tone, for the annual meeting will bode another year of waiting.

In any case, the poem has captured the Japanese imagination for centuries. And I am amused to see that it is still a subject of creative imagination today!

In episode 23 of the anime Chihayafuru, the main character Chihaya makes a call for the first time to her close friend Arata, with whom she had been parted for years and who lives on the other side of Japan. While listening to his voice on the phone, she recalls the Tanabata interpretation of the poem as told by her waka-afficionado friend Kanade. Then, she tells Arata that their phones are like the bridge of magpies which linked Orihime and Hikoboshi in spite of their distance. The allusion not only works perfectly, considering the scene had snow falling, but it also hinted a romantic dimension in the characters’ relationships.

Kasasagi no” is proof that it’s possible to “bridge” the distance between high and popular art, traditional and contemporary art!

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