Friday, October 1, 2010

My Academic Redux

Western Perceptions of the Painting
"Poet Sogi on Horseback"
Created by Kano Motonobu.

My intention here is not a "scholarly" dissertation on the development and intricacies of Japanese linked verse, nor do I want to dwell on Japanese art alone. Discussions of Japanese linked poetry become quite technical and complex in their focus on style, rhythm, and sequence of verse construction, among other things.

Likewise, art historians sometimes have a tendency to break down an extremely intuitive process into mechanical methods and motives.

My purpose is to briefly blend thought, perception, and emotional response to literature and the visual arts, with the desire for more appreciation than total understanding.

Serious reading on these subjects can aid in a deeper appreciation of the arts. But for me, at least, leaving something to the imagination helps me see more of the beauty and mystique of poetry and art.

Some years ago, for only 85¢ I thought that the greeting card with the Japanese painting of Sogi On Horseback would hang nicely on a wall at home. I think it was the expression on the poet's face that first caught my eye.

Though I never framed the card, I still find the print attractive. Why? Simplicity. Balance. Strength and power portrayed through the horse in contrast to the calmness in posture and subtle sensuality of the poet's face. Highlighting these personal views is the reserved but effective use of color in the painting.

The Kano family in Japan gave to art a number of the leading painters to the Shogunate for more than 200 years from the end of the 15th century to the beginning of the 17th century. The Kano school of art exhibits many Chinese influences but remains distinctively Japanese for several reasons. The main reason is that since the family became firmly established as painters to the Shoguns and feudal lords in the provinces, the Kano school of art gained an official status. Works produced by these artists, as illustrated by "Sogi On Horseback" maintained high standards of craftsmanship and precision of form. The Tokugawa shoguns were admirers and supporters of the Kano school, providing the artists with commissions, land and houses. So with this official mandate, so to speak, Japanese painting began to lose much of the religious and scholarly overtones, and focus more on decorative attributes.

Kano Motonobu, the son of the founder of the Kano school of painting, was
noted mainly for his paintings of landscapes, birds, and flowers. However, this particular painting of a noted poet was a departure from those themes, and I am drawn to wonder about the significance, if any, of that.

Often, appreciation of classical Asian art is enhanced by understanding not only the varied styles and cultural traditions of a period, but by knowing something of the actual subject the artist portrays. This is, for me, true of Motonobu's painting of the poet Sogi.

As mentioned, the expressions that might be read in the face of the man on horseback lend themselves to possible explanations as to who Sogi was and what he wrote that seemed significant to a great painter. With that in mind, I cannot help but believe that art and literature are intrinsically intertwined and involved. While the artist acts in an "official" capacity of sorts, he is able to capture the essence of poetry in the painting of a poet.

So just who was this poet Sogi?

Sogi was a contemporary of Motonobu and lived from 1421 to 1502. He was one of the great masters of Japanese linked verse, or "renga", ( 連歌 renga ) which was usually composed by three poets.

Sogi was an itinerant Zen priest and through his verse he richly described the rural landscapes of Japan during the Muromachi era. This period of Japan's history (1336-1590) has been called the Era of Warring States and was characterized by a gradual disintegration of the power of the shogunate as well as longstanding authoritarian structures. This made it possible for men of low birth such as Sogi to improve their status in life.

Sogi eventually became one of the prime cultural figures during the 15th century and was known as a tutor and confidante of emperors, shoguns, court officials, and provincial barons throughout Japan.

It's interesting that the Edo period (16th century) historical records indicate that Sogi himself painted his own portrait and at one time a portrait of him had been painted by his father Masanobu. Of the four portraits of the poet known to exist, this 85¢ print set me to read portions of Sogi's famous poem of linked verse titled "A Hundred Stanzas Related to 'Person' by Sogi Alone". I've taken just a few stanzas below that seem to give meaning to the expressions on the poet's face and give depth to the simplicity of the artist's style:

41 The direction of return is
obscured across spring fields
the temple bell sounds on
another day that passes
empty of insight

42 The temple bell sounds
on another day that
passes empty of insight
although instructed in the Law
how far I wander from the Way

43 Although instructed in the Law
how far I wander from the Way
almost eighty years bring me
close to the Buddha's age
without enlightenment

44 Almost eighty years
bring me close to the Buddha's age
without enlightenment
the waxing moon that I behold
fails to illuminate my heart

45 The waxing moon that has arisen
fails to illuminate my heart
where the mist is clearing
in the eastern hills take comfort
for unfilled desires

46 Where the mist is clearing
in the eastern hills take comfort
for unfilled desires
as autumn winds go to the pines
he will come if you can wait

I can't help but notice that if the painting of this period negates the religious themes as previously noted, the poetry of Sogi certainly did not abandon those themes. Though many of the painters were striving for "decorative" purposes in their works, I seem to sense those religious themes, (or at least spiritual qualities) were preserved in the sensitive rendering of paintings such as Kano's "Poet Sogi On Horseback." Perhaps it's this allusion to unfilled desires drawn into Sogi's poetry, an ever present, never ending anticipation of insight, that is written on the poet's face by the artist; an intuitive link between poet and artist, verse and portrait.

I sense that the poet on the horse has been infused by the artist with awareness of his insight, and the power that has been expressed in the strength of the horse is an artistic metaphor for the road and path to enlightenment.

Just as art of any given period may to greater or lesser degrees be a chronicle of a culture, much of linked poetry was a narrative of a poet's travels and the people he came in contact with. Such was the case with the poet Sogi, who left home in Kyoto in 1466 to travel throughout the eastern provinces as had other great poets in centuries past. Given the social and political turmoil present in Japan during the years of Sogi's travels, I can't help but wonder if the artistry and intuitive nature of linked verse represented an ecumenical desire for social and spiritual continuity among all classes. In the words of Earl Miner ("Japanese Linked Poetry" 1979), "As all this demonstrated, in those chaotic times culture seemed to matter the more. And then, as at no time we know of before or after until the last century, a person of genius from the lowliest, most obscure origins could become respected as poet and arbiter of learning. In Japan, as in other countries, the rise to eminence is normally accompanied by a certain symbolism by which the established order fits the new person into what it comfortably recognizes."

Certainly if culture becomes precious during chaotic times, then the emotional content of the poet and teacher has been expressed by Kano's painting even in the face of maintaining a "lack" of spiritual and scholarly overtones as mentioned earlier. In my mind, for an artist of "official" status to depart from mainly themes of nature and capture expressions of poetic emotion as seen in "Sogi On Horseback", there must be that intrinsic link between art forms.

These are, no doubt, perceptions that are totally western and lack a high degree of understanding of the art of that period, as well as a comprehensive understanding of Japanese linked poetry.

But a total understanding of any art form is, I feel, impossible, and probably undesirable. That is part of what makes art classic and appealing. It is part of what makes literature emotional and alluring.

Thus, linking the artist to the poet, linking verse with art, offers us some insight into, and is ultimately defined by what I see as the relevance of human experience to the relativity of human endeavor.

Rick B. Baker
Rochester, NY

Note: Bibliography available upon request.
© 1988 and 2010 by R. Burnett Baker

"Pine Trees" by Hasegawa Tohaku, 1599-1610

just beyond

fragrant pine
caressed by fog.

winter just
beyond the mist.

Poem © 2010 by R. Burnett Baker
Essay "Linking Verse With Art" © 1988 and 2010 by R. Burnett Baker


  1. This is lovely. I've been a fan of Japanese verse and art for almost fifty years-- I never tire of it.

  2. The Moon
    on a cat


    As a native Swede, I am particularly proud of my love poetry suite Sonnets for Katie.

    My Poems

    My wallpaper art Babes!)


    - Peter Ingestad, Sweden

  3. Such interesting writing, and I loved the verse.

  4. the linked verse is very cool...i need to look into that more...i have always loved japanese art...some of the early paintings i did were mimicing hte style...

  5. Japanese verse is unique and beautiful...thank you Rick for the wonderful observations and kind words over at my blog.:-)

  6. Thanks for posting on my blog, Rick. It's always good to find another person from the Rochester area on line. I never heard of linked verse, and found what you posted very interesting.

    I think you are going to teach me much about art and literature.