Optical allusions: Screens, painting, and poetry in Heian and Kamakura Japan
The interrelationship between screens, painting, and poetry provides a fertile ground for analyzing the ways poets of Heian (794–1185) and Kamakura Japan (1185–1333) negotiated and established the very aesthetics and conventions upon which classical literature is based. The dissertation examines this interrelationship on several levels.
Chapter One narrates the early history of screens and screen poetry in Japan, beginning with compositions in Chinese based on Tang Dynasty (618–907) poem-painting models. In addition to discussing the physical nature of painted screens within their architectural contexts, the chapter also includes an account of the earliest word-image relationships and the variety of approaches taken by screen poets in the years leading up to the compilation of the first imperial anthology of Japanese verse, Kokinshû, in 905.
Chapter Two focuses on poetic practices, issues of rhetoric and perspective, and the role inscription played in the compositional process. The major points of the chapter are that the composition of screen poetry effected a separation of poet and speaker, helped establish the conventions of poetic topics, and may have had a significant impact on the way monogatari narratives were read and composed. Skilled screen poets capitalized on the limitations of occasional verse by using an “optical allusion” to expand the meaning of his or her poems to include a complex network of poetic associations and express sentiments appropriate to an occasion while simultaneously referring to a specific painted image. Such screen poems enhanced the image on which they were based by adding sensory elements that could not be painted, such as temperature, motion, and sound, and yet could still be appreciated independently, without reference to the pictures upon which they were based.
In Chapter Three, I show how the visual arts played a pivotal role in the early formation of assigned topics (dai) in Heian Japan and helped poets mediate direct experience and poetic expression. I argue that the way poetic topics developed in the period leading up to Kokinshû is inextricable from the rise of screen painting and other visual arts during the same period.
Chapter Four centers on the famous poet-priest Saigyô (1118–1190) and his sequence of twenty-seven poems he composed “Upon Seeing Pictures of Hell.” My major point in analyzing these poems is to show how Saigyô crosses the lines of convention and genre—by using terms not usually found in traditional waka poetry, and by making extensive use of dramatic prose reminiscent of monogatari narrative. In exploring the visual-verbal nexus to an unprecedent degree, Saigyô blurs the line between orthodox and unorthodox composition and ventures into uncharted realms of poetic expression.