Walking around the Tokyo National Museum gallery this summer, I saw this scroll of poems with words that looked more like chicken-scratch than actual Japanese. Originally I took this photo because I intended to ask my host family whether or not they could read it.
For those who are unfamiliar with Japanese, it looks like this:
*Hiragana is used for Japanese words and Katakana is used for foreign words (and some miscellaneous usages such as for onomatopoeias)
With my limited knowledge of the language, I could make out a few characters,
but as for the rest, all I saw were scribbles.
Before I ever got around to asking my host family, I met a Japanese student who had studied Japanese calligraphy for nearly a decade during her childhood. So naturally I showed her the picture I had taken and asked her what she thought. “This is very beautiful calligraphy,” my new friend said, “The balance is very good.”
When I told her I didn’t quite get what she meant by “good balance,” she explained that,
1. The lines went straight up and down and did not curve or slant
2. The connection of letters within individual words was smooth
3. The spaces between letters were all even, including the spacing of the connected letters.
The “fluid” look actually required years of training to master. My friend said she would practice writing individual words over and over again until her teacher approved.
But what I found most interesting was that the writing on the scroll was poetry. I still don’t know what it says, as my friend said the Japanese was too old for her to understand, but I imagine the reading of the poem flows just as smoothly as its lettering: a wonderful fusion of visual and written art. From past experience, I don’t remember the last time I saw a poem in which the visual components (besides the spacing) were taken into as much consideration as the poem itself. And I’m sure many writers don’t give a second thought to whether their writing is printed in Times New Roman or Arial.
That led me to wonder what would happen if we also developed specific English lettering systems to write certain poems. Would it change the way we read them?
(Note: the purple/blue spots on the scroll are part of a “flying cloud” decorative pattern.)
Written by Ginny J.
April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.
-T. S. Eliot
R2: The Rice Review
Rice University's undergraduate literary magazine. Here you can find event updates, monthly writing contest winners, and opinions by the R2 staff on what's new, interesting, or subject to discussion in the literary and arts world.