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Snow on Water

by | Jun 13, 2019

Late last month I was very touched to be part of the life celebration for Antioch College alumna and long time faculty member and fellow student of Japanese culture, Karen Shirley ’61. This Lines of Thinking is dedicated to Karen in gratitude for her decades-long contribution to the education of several generations of Antiochians and through them many more to come. If you would care to learn more about Karen and her work as an artist, educator and human being, I would encourage you to read the lovely obituary written by her husband and sometimes creative collaborator, Michael Jones. It was published in the Yellow Springs News in May 2019 and posted on the College website. It was that obituary that mentioned Karen’s encounter early in her time in Japan with a most remarkable artist, Otagaki Rengetsu (1791 – 1875), who is the subject of this month’s brief entry.

Famous and revered throughout Japan, Otagaki Rengetsu transcended the tragedies of her early life to become a calligrapher, ceramicist and poet whose work in all three genres was sought after greatly during her lifetime and well after her death. Today, her calligraphic style is emulated, her many poems are read and recited, and her simple, somewhat-rustic clay pieces became the models for a type of pottery that bears her name, Rengetsu-yaki (Lotus Moon Ware).

Otagaki was born to a different family and name. Adopted by a samurai household as a child and sent to court as a lady in waiting, she was educated in the traditional arts of calligraphy, poetry and dance. She married twice and had five children, all of whom died by the time she was 33 years old. Deciding to never marry again, she took vows as a Buddhist nun and with them the name Rengetsu. She sought out teachers to school her in the art of Japanese ceramics and developed a style that included decorating vessels with short poems, incised as decoration. These along with scroll calligraphies allowed her to earn an independent living over the rest of her long, very productive life.

Skilled in Japanese verse known as waka (literally “songs”), Otagaki employed mostly the tanka or short 31-syllable-form over five lines with a 5-7-5-7-7 sequence, which predated the even shorter haiku. I have selected four of her poems to share here. Each evokes a season, as is the case with traditional Japanese poetry. The first two were translated by Kuniko Brown, the latter two by Kaz Tanahashi and Joan Halifax.


Fluttering merrily and
sleeping in the dew
in a field of flowers.
In whose dream
is this butterfly?

Old Badger

Old badger
asking for sake
this is the pleasure
of leisure hours
on a raining night

(translated by Kuniko Brown)

Snow on Water

I see it dust
the river wind
then vanish –
fragile snow over water
disappears from my sight.

Firefly in the Field

Even if a thought
of the firefly grass
it may light up as a firefly
in a remote field.

(Translated by Kaz Tanahashi and Joan Halifax Roshi)

About Lines of Thinking

Lines of Thinking is a monthly feature from College President Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.