Guest Post – Listening for Rengetsu: Texture and the Poetry of the Multi-sensory

In Advance of her appearance, and as a continuation of our blog series on Otagaki Rengetsu,  Professor Sayumi Takahashi Harb took some time to pen a guest post just for you, our devoted readers, discussing the dynamic artistry of Otagaki Rengetsu, whose work is featured in our current exhibition, and is the focus of our upcoming symposium. Read on for a preview of some of the themes Prof. Harb will touch on in her lecture.

A mountain keeps an echo deep inside itself.

That is how I hold your voice.

– Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi

Listening for Rengetsu: Texture and the Poetry of the Multi-Sensory  

By Sayumi Takahashi Harb

A few years ago, a potter friend recommended to me a book by the author, potter, poet and teacher M.C. Richards entitled Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person.  In it, the writer traces the near-mystical connections between the practice of forming clay into ceramic and the related arts of poetry and pedagogy.  The thread that holds all three endeavors together is the importance of “listening” to the material at hand – tuning oneself to the rhythms of the mud on the wheel to know when it should be pinched here or expanded there, feeling out the silence for inchoate voices waiting to be translated into words that form songs or verse, and hearing out what the student (or any other person in front of you) is actually reaching for, despite initial appearances.  The multi-media, multi-sensory life-work of Otagaki Rengetsu, I feel, operates on a similar wave-length, teaching us to be more attuned, attentive, and indeed alive to the myriad dimensions of our human experience in a given moment.  Encountering a work of Rengetsu presents an opportunity for re-centering ourselves to that mode of listening with our whole bodies, hearts, and minds.  And this is the paradox and the challenge of her art for us: what seems at first such a trifling, unassumingly simple object (far from the impressive or sublime grandeur of much of the art that populates most museum spaces) can reveal itself to be incredibly rich and densely packed with manifold layers of associations and nuances.

Take, for example, an iconic Rengetsu-yaki teapot.  How do we “read” this object?  At first we notice what is visually available to us – the relatively small size might at first surprise us, but less so when we realize the scale of a typical teapot used to brew sencha tea.  Other things we notice might be the color of the ceramic, whether the surface is smooth or rough, glazed or unglazed, whether the object was thrown on a wheel or formed by slab or coil technique, the shape of the incised characters, and any patterns (Lotus leaves?  Flowers or herbal mushrooms?  Small animals?) worked into the shape of the pot itself.  On an intellectual level we might be curious about the words of the poem inscribed on the surface, and the shape and length of the lines of calligraphy.  Sometimes the text will harmonize seamlessly with the other characteristics of the object – at other times, something mysterious, perhaps even troubling, remains and we are at a loss to make sense of it.   Why was this particular poem chosen, for this particular kind of implement, for what occasion, and to what end?

I am very fortunate to have had the chance to hold in my own hands hundreds of works by Rengetsu, and there are so many other surprises, discoveries, and further questions that continually present themselves.  First of all, one can sometimes tell what kind of beverage was served in the object by the traces of a faint smell (sweet sake, for example, or medicinal tea, or perhaps gyokuro tea which had just been invented not too long before Rengetsu began making pottery).  Certain kinds of teas (for example Haru no Karigane, or “Spring Geese Flying Home,” sold at tea shops such as Kanbayashi in Uji) take their names from famous lines or motifs in classical waka poetry, and some of Rengetsu’s “poettery” actually play upon these layerings of tea culture with the poetic tradition and its seasonal associations.

Secondly, Rengetsu-yaki can vary quite a bit in terms of the weight of the clay and the thickness of the material.  An excavation on the grounds of the medical complex at Kyoto University recently unearthed an abandoned well full of discarded Rengetsu pieces – many of these were astonishingly delicate and thin shards, probably of misfired or cracked ceramic ware that were then discarded.  It is as if Rengetsu were trying to challenge herself during that period in her late 50s-mid 60s to see how light a teapot she could make and still keep the incisions legible.  One can also see from these relatively early potsherds that her handwriting evolved during the last few decades of her life – some speculate that the difficult practice of actually carving letters with a sharp, needle-like implement onto clay in turn affected the shape and rhythm of the brush-ink on paper calligraphy.

Indeed, as an amateur potter I have attempted to carve patterns and words into wet ceramic, but one immediately encounters problems – if the clay is too grainy or dry, the material bunches up into unsightly little sharp peaks around the grooves, and even when one is somewhat successful, there is the problem of how to actually hold the object so as to not obliterate one’s writing with finger smudges and deformations, the worry that one has made the clay too thin at parts to withstand firing, or that the craftsman who is glazing the pot will slather too much on, thus obscuring the characters, and so on.  There is a reason why so few potters before Rengetsu attempted to incise whole waka poems in kana script onto ceramic ware – it is actually not a simple task by any means, and takes extraordinary patience.  It is not hard to see then, that creating one of these pots does indeed involve “listening” intently for the material of the clay, and deciding how much and what kind of poetic text it can hold.

In one of the objects on display at Morikami, the pottery object literally urges us to “listen” to it.  It is an acoustic sake bottle with a “tunnel”-shaped hole extending from the bottom center of the base to the middle of a daisy-like flower shape on the outer surface located about one-third of the way from the top opening where the sake would be poured.  It is shaped like a modified Klein bottle, and the auxiliary air tunnel seems to have the function of producing a “whistling” sound when the sake inside the bottle is heated to a certain temperature.  The poem reads:


松風は あきをしらべて ののみやの しめのうちなる すず虫のこゑ

Wind in the pines

Tuned to autumn music –

From within the sacred enclosure

Of Nonomiya Shrine

A bell cricket rings


The phrase “wind the in pines,” or matsukaze is a code word in the tea ceremony for the sound of water boiling in the kettle.  Here, Rengetsu is transposing the formal language of the tea ceremony onto a more quotidian, humble, gustatory experience – just as the temperature drops in autumn and the cold winds start to rustle the pine trees, one warms oneself up by drinking a bottle of hot sake, listening for the season’s last cricket calls.


2 thoughts on “Guest Post – Listening for Rengetsu: Texture and the Poetry of the Multi-sensory”

  1. I had the pleasure of visiting Morikami in April and seeing the Rengetsu exhibit in person. What a moving experience! To see her pottery or poettery as you cleverly call it …. With her beautiful words and calligraphy…. And even her paintings …. Was so moving and inspiring. I felt like I was standing in her presence. I could almost feel her invisible spirit standing behind me, looking over my shoulder with compassion, as I peered at her work.

    I felt a kinship with her too. I am a beginner potter. I have an English lit degree and have been writing haiku and poetry for years. I decided to write my haiku on my pots and tiles …. Never realizing it had been done so very beautifully before!

    I believe that Otagaki has become my muse now and my secret friend. Every time I think of her I feel inspired and loved. I feel like she is standing just behind me, looking over my shoulder, and saying “don’t be so hard on yourself. Embrace imperfection. Life is a struggle. Look what I had to overcome. So what if you make a mistake. Just enjoy the moment.” xO!

    • We’re so thrilled that you enjoyed the exhibition, Lynn! Embracing imperfection is something we all struggle with, for sure. Good luck with your pottery & poetry and we hope that you’ll be back to see us soon.

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