The Shisendō is a hideaway villa in the eastern hills of Kyoto, Japan, created by poet and calligrapher Jōzan Ishikawa (1583–1672) as a place where he could read and write classical Chinese poetry in retirement. He chose 36 immortal poets, whose portraits (with their finest verses) appear around the upper portion of the walls in his study. The villa is surrounded by a garden; Jōzan gave imaginative names to ten locales within it, and to twelve scenes beyond its limits. The characteristic sound of a water mortar or “deer-scarer” is heard at regular intervals throughout house and garden.

Shisendo proves to be a wild retreat
As poets brush their phrases near the heart,
Lounging in courtly robes above the feat
Accomplished through their sagely scripted art.
A trysting place it is, where seekers meet
The Lesser Paradise, set far apart
From haste. They climb toward Old Plum Gate to greet
An aura that assuages stressful smart,
Exuding ancient airs with warmth replete.

And why select Immortals to embrace?
Apt classic influences complement
The genius of a meditative space;
These are true friends, who startle and content
The soul with powerfully expressive grace,
All known for resonance mellifluent,
All bearers of tradition’s sacred trace
From varied times and styles and temperament,
Impelling a disciple’s uphill pace.

They ask for ample time to think and read
And study what they mean by wordly acts.
The garden beckons, but the poets cede
So little as their atmosphere diffracts
To variegate the Hundred-Flower Mead,
And spread due rhapsodies through smaller tracts,
Locales whose names have hidden tang to heed:
Whistling at the Moon, Leap from the Deep—relax
And savor joys poetic places breed.

Then nestle here, and Hunt among the Rue,
Or look beyond, to twelve outlying scenes
In middle distance, or too far to view,
But strewn with clues the well-versed gazer gleans,
While steadily there sounds a metered cue—
Sharp clack, and then the quiet intervenes:
Tranquility of water and bamboo.
Spiced musing moments carry scraps of dreams
And puzzles playful poets reconstrue.

 

 

 

Margaret Coats lives in California.  She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University.  She has retired from a career of teaching literature, languages, and writing that included considerable work in homeschooling for her own family and others.  


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23 Responses

  1. Julian D. Woodruff

    A deft and dazzling display, Margaret.
    I especially like “hidden tang to heed” and “tradition’s sacred trace”–lovely use of words.
    I’m uncertain why you’ve capitalized: “Hunt among the Rue.”

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      My capitalizations indicate proper names conferred by Jozan on some of his ten locales. “Nest for Hunting among the Rue” is his rather unwieldy name for the room adjoining his study to the left, looking out from the point of view of the photo.

      Reply
  2. Jeff Eardley

    Margaret, I loved reading this accompanied by the YouTube of this special place. Thank you so much for sharing and putting me into a mood of peace, harmony and tranquility. I had a similar experience last year in Monet’s garden in Normandy where there were so many visitors in Japanese costume. Your poem must be the perfect antidote to your presidential shenanigans going on at the moment.

    Reply
  3. Theresa Rodriguez

    Your poetry is as beautiful as the Shisendo you are writing about. I enjoyed the video as well very much, just stunning. Thank you, Margaret!

    Reply
  4. Joeph S. Salemi

    This is a delightful and evocative piece, done in elegant English. It brings to my mind something from one of H.L. Mencken’s comments (from 1918):

    “My taste in poetry is for delicate and fragile things–to be honest, for artificial things. I like a frail but perfectly articulated stanza, a sonnet wrought like ivory, a song full of glowing nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, conjunctions, prepositions and participles, but without too much hard sense to it. Poetry, to me, has but two meanings. On the one hand, it is a magical escape from the sordidness of metabolism and the class war, and on the other hand it is a subtle, very difficult, and hence charming art, like writing fugues or mixing mayonnaise. I do not go to poets to be taught anything, or to be heated up to indignation, or to have my conscience blasted out of its torpor, but to be soothed and caressed, to be lulled with sweet sounds, to be wooed into forgetfulness, to tickled under the metaphysical chin.”

    (from Damn! A Book of Calumnies, 1918, p. 70)

    Mencken wasn’t a poet, but he knew damned well that a poem shouldn’t be “edifying,” like some moralistic quasi-sermon.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Joe-san, arigatoo gozaimashita, or thanks in formal Japanese for what you’ve done in quoting Mencken’s explanation of the prime aesthetic value of poetry. Long before I knew who the Shisendo Immortals were, or what they wrote, I spent hours in the study, being tickled under the metaphysical chin by this place designed to be poetry in every possible way. I take great pleasure in having been able to convey this to you and others.

      Reply
  5. C.B. Anderson

    This poem embodies sheer formal perfection, and at the same time resonates inside the wheelhouse, I’m sure, of every reader here who habitually puts pen to paper. The Japanese, if nothing else, have a penchant for elevating tradition to nearly divine status, which is where it belongs. One other thing: Many of your lines and extended phrases seemed to be headed toward the deep waters of complex syntax, but you always brought them back to shore and to their proper berths and moorings. You are a master of language, not one who has been mastered by it. This should be a teaching moment for those of us who sometimes lose the way, or navigate with water-damaged nautical charts.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Good use of water imagery to go along with the Shisendo water mortar serving as inescapable metronome day and night! Your point about tradition is especially well taken. The Japanese first named 36 immortal poets about 1000 years ago, but here Jozan Ishikawa applies the Japanese number to the vast tradition of Chinese poetry (Chinese have immortals, too, but use other numbers). He chooses his own group of all Chinese poets, to wade into the wide river of influence from that field. Accepting influence and becoming part of tradition is what classic poets hope to do, as you note.

      Reply
  6. BDW

    Ms. Coats again brings to the SCP, through her poetry and prose, intriguing places. Here, in her nine-lined iambic-pentameter stanzas with an ABABABABA rhyme scheme, she offers a vista of a classical Japanese Edo poet’s place of retirement and tranquility. [Her research has inspired both a tanka on Shisendo and a tennos drawn from a poem of the samarai poet Ishikawa Jozan.]

    Her poem “Shisendo, Hall of the Poetry Immortals“, is reminiscent of Keats in the deluge of adjectives, the colourful diction and the almost elfin tone. Its thirty-six lines link nicely to the thirty-six (Neo-Confucian?) Chinese immortals. It would be interesting to know exactly who those immortals are. Though slightly awkward in instances (Could I say otherwise?), it is a remarkably beautiful poem. Its reach is rich and incandescent, worthy of any New Millennial anthology of English verse.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Bruce! The poem is 4 stanzas to represent the 4 walls of the Shisendo study, with 9 poet portraits on each. Good question as to the who these poets were. I found when looking for an illustration that there are thousands of photos of the garden, but only one photographer seemed interested in the poets. My research is entirely based on the 1991 book “Shisendo, Hall of the Poetry Immortals” by J. Thomas Rimer (lead author), with poetry translations by Jonathan Chaves. Dr. Rimer was kind enough to look over my poem and make some valuable suggestions. The 36 poets are listed on page 29 of his book–but I can’t find any place online that has a list. Unfortunately, the list by Rimer and Chaves uses a Chinese transcription not currently favored. The major poet now known as Li Bai is Li Po in their list, and I don’t know the new names for most of them. Some vary a lot: Po Chu-i has become Bai Ju-yi. Therefore I won’t provide a list, but say that if you are interested, get the Rimer book–a unique treatment of an important cultural site. Most interesting to us poets are the translations by Chaves of all the poems that appear on the 36 portraits, with a brief description of each poet–and a large selection of translations of the Chinese poems of Jozan Ishikawa. As well, there is Rimer’s general introduction, a chapter on Jozan’s calligraphy, a chapter on the villa-garden complex, a fascinating short story, and plenty of black-and-white photos.

      Shisendo now belongs to the Soto Zen Buddhist sect, but functions as a tourist site. Jozan seems to have been a Confucian above all. While preparing to retire, he had to go elsewhere for 12 years to take care of his mother. He and his friend Razan Hayashi discussed selection of the 36 Immortals using Confucian principles. When they disagreed, the choice was Jozan’s, so don’t let Wikipedia tell you that Razan chose. They would do better just to give the list, right?

      Reply
  7. Jack Lantz

    Most beautiful and serene poem for a most beautiful and serene place. Even though Shisendo now functions primarily as a tourist site, Paulette and I treasure our time sitting, meditating and praying in Shisendo’s garden. Margaret’s poem blends Japan aesthetics, refined beauty and language rhythms in English poetry. Margaret has done it well in a beautifully crafted poem that describes space as well as feeling, philosophy, culture and life.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks so much, Jack, for your comments and for visiting this residence of my poetry on Thanksgiving Day! Wonderful how we got together after all, isn’t it? Like you and Paulette, Bruce and I cherish gratitude for the beauty, culture, art, and life of Japan that we have been privileged to enjoy, and keep alive in our hearts and homes.

      Reply
  8. Tom Rimer

    As Margaret noted above, it was my privilege to find that our book was of some use in providing some details for her in writing this lovely poem. How remarkable that in this one spot we have three languages and poetic traditions involved — Chinese, Japanese (for there have been many haiku written about the Shisendo), and English. The video captures some of the gentle atmosphere of this remarkable retreat, and the poem is a eloquent verbal match. Thank you!

    Reply
  9. BDW

    In 1976, the esteemed scholar, Donald Keene, wrote this about Ishikawa Jozan’s poetry: “There was more than a touch of dilettante to Jozan. His poetry is dotted with self-contented and excessively self-congratulatory references to his withdrawal from the strife and ambitions of the world.”

    Still, in Shisendo
    one can read and write in peace,
    with Chinese classics,
    far from the maddening crowd.
    O, ceaseless loud cicadas!

    Part of the appeal of Ms. Coats’ poetry is her willingness to explore, as Mr. Rimer notes, the confluence of various, rich literary traditions.

    Reply
  10. Margaret Coats

    Thank you, Mr. Wise, for posting your pleasant tanka in this discussion, thus offering a work at the confluence of Japanese and English traditions. I suppose this is the one you mentioned above as inspired by my research; you have therefore done something to “reconstrue” my work. I chose that as my poem’s final word because the Chinese Immortals are constantly alluding to and reinterpreting one another’s work. This is part of the game for these playful poets, and also a reason why their “puzzles” demand time for study.

    My poem would hardly have been worthy of them without a little reconstruing of my own, so I quoted “tranquility of water and bamboo” from Shao Yung (aka Yao Fu, and Shao Yong) and “carry scraps of dreams” from Tu Mu (or Du Mu). Or rather, I quoted the English words beautifully translated by Jonathan Chaves, who deserves all the credit I may have for knowing what those poems in the Shisendo poet portraits actually say.

    I also allude to the “Ancient Air” from the Shisendo portrait of Li Bai. He wrote a long series of ancient airs, but none of those I see online are the one selected by Jozan for Shisendo. It gives brief opinions on the history of poetry in China, and speaks of Li’s own work in restoring a great tradition. In that same line of my poem, I take an idea from Japanese fiction writer Shuichi Kato, who in his story “The Hall of the Poetry Immortals” (translated by Hilda Kato), says that the warmth of spring always pervades Shisendo, whatever the season.

    Reply
  11. BDW

    Within the English tradition, allusions run deep in the best of poets, like Shakespeare, Milton and Pope. I know it’s an important part of my work; and in this respect I suspect I am more like Shakespeare than Milton in my willingness to go to both famous and unknown writers. Writers, who have a strong sense of history and literature, are those to whom I naturally go to. Though such works may seem playful, even like puzzles, they are deeper than that; they are links in eternity. I can’t even imagine that greatest classical of the last three thousand years, Vergil, without them. I, too, in my tanka, alluded to and extended two writers, Thomas Hardy and Basho and the haiku tradition. Though I do “play around” with the Chinese literary tradition, I spend more time with the Japanese. I have an online weekly column at a free-verse site, in which I invariably write haiku, or occasionally tanka, both alluding and not alluding to Japanese literature.

    Here, for example, are poems from last week. There are no allusions in the haiku.

    Haiku
    by “Leeward Cub” Ise

    They cover the grounds,
    crinkly leaves of amber brown
    the beige, green-grass lawn.

    Haiku
    by “Leeward Cub” Ise

    The leaves are falling,
    filling driveways, lawns and streets;
    then wind swept awow.

    “Leeward Cub” Ise is a poet of nature who is fond of Japanese poetic forms.

    White Birds in Blue Water
    by E. “Birdcaws” Eule

    To her—on he swoops.
    No egret regrets his act.
    Life is in the balance.
    If you are not sure, ask him.
    So sin. Go in, O, spin. Flow.

    E “Birdcaws” Eule is a poet fond of birds and Japanese poetic forms. Kim Sosin is a contemporary poet and photographer.

    Near Arima Hot Springs
    by “Clear Dew” Ibuse

    Beyond the village lies the citadel of Avichi,
    where, when the sun sets, lumbermen fear fern and shadowed tree,
    when clouds rise in the atmosphere and angry thunder growls,
    disturbing wolves and bears beneath the eyes of watchful owls;
    O, even mountain spirits, tearful in the gloomy rain.
    cringe at the cries of monkeys, howling at the moon’s disdain.
    In this deserted, lonely valley, one could not rejoice;
    for your soul would be frightened even at the cuckoo’s voice.
    No longer Buddhist, even Ishikawa Jozan felt
    that, at Arima, he was near the level eight of hell

    “Clear Dew” Ibuse is a poet fond of Japan. Shidendo is a villa in the hills of eastern Kyoto created by poet and calligrapher Jozan Ishikawa (1583-1672) as a place where he could read and write classical Chinese poetry. I took a poem by Jozan and turned it into a tennos.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks again for bringing in more evidence that we at SCP follow one another in taking note of wide-ranging poetic traditions. Glad to see Vergil mentioned as a prime classic and one who made much use of allusions. I find that more English poets (at least through the 19th century) allude to Vergil than to any work other than the Holy Bible.

      Reply
  12. R. M. Moore

    The garden indeed beckons and becomes a meditative space…giving ample time to think and read and study. The welcome video illustrates these graceful expressions. Thank you, Mrs. Coats!

    Reply
  13. BDW

    Though when Vergil comes up @ SCP (Mr. Krisak’s translation), we can barely muster four comments, and none from the translator.

    “To meditate one does not need a temple.
    —Sri Wele Cebuda

    Reply
  14. RL Mellott

    Memories of many visits to Shisendo flooded back as I read Margaret’s poem. It is a singularly beautiful place, but unfortunately these days daily overrun by hoards of tourists. One has to go very early in the day or during inclement weather to find the space and view of the garden peaceful. Thus, it is the contemplative and evocative atmosphere that Margaret’s poem creates, that I will remember when next I visit Shisendo.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you! It is very pleasant to know that my poem could go with you, to help overcome the hubbub created by tourists at the present time. I sometimes think of Jozan and the clamor of 36 poets in his little study, but the transmission of poetic influence (especially from poets who lived at such vastly varied times themselves) takes place in an entirely different way. Perhaps it is delightful even when more than one is speaking at the same time!

      Reply

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