Thursday, February 18, 2010

An Important Anthology of Japanese Poetry



I was in a used bookstore in Berkeley, CA, yesterday, and found a couple of good volumes to add to my library. I was in Point Reyes today, and did the same. Whenever I'm on a roadtrip, I try to find a few thrift stores and used book stores, because the selections vary from place to place. In a college town like Berkeley, you often find very good, hard to find, useful scholarly books.

From the Country of Eight Islands: An anthology of Japanese Poetry, edited and translated by Hiroaki Sato and Burton Watson (1981), is an essential volume for every student of Japanese poetry to own. I've been looking for a copy for some years. At 650 paperback pages, the anthology begins with the very earliest recorded poems in Japanese literature, from the 8th Century, and ends with 20th C. poet Mitsuo Takahashi, a personal favorite poet of mine. He was a poet who, beginning in the 1950s, began writing explicitly homosexual poems; but he had a real knack for combining spirituality and sexuality in his poems, and making them both soar.

Along the way, the anthology includes large selections from all the well known haiku masters, from each of the classical Japanese "official" anthologies (that is, sponsored by the royal court or the shogunate), and a generous selection of contemporary poetry. The latter selections are particularly useful for the reader who might already know the classics, but doesn't know the contemporary poetry, or its relation to the past. Many other of the most famous and influential historical poets, such as Ryokan and Saigyo, are also well-represented herein.

That there is a vast and deep literary tradition in play here becomes apparent, and the form of the anthology brings out the many allusions and connections across time, which are essential aspects of Japanese literature. I find this anthology therefore to be both illuminating and comprehensive. There are many wells to tap into, here, that will guide the reader towards new favorites.

So this is a great overview of the entire history of Japanese poetry, which every serious student of haiku, tanka, and other Japanese poetic forms would find useful and interesting. The two translator/editors are among the best of those who have compiled many translations from the Japanese. Both are poets in their own rite. Sato has also written scholarly analyses of Japanese poets and poems, which I've found useful.



Although haiku and tanka, and to a lesser extent renga and haibun, have become well-known Japanese poetic forms, and spread internationally to be written in many languages, there are other related forms that are less known and used, for example, among English-language haiku writers. The anthology contains a Glossary of terms used in the book, which mentions some of these other, related poetic forms, which might be interesting for the experienced haijin to explore.

Here's a sampler:

Choka (long songs): A poetic form of varying length, composed of alternating 5- and 7-syllable units, usually finishing with an extra 7-syllable unit, and longer than tanka. In the Man'yoshu, the shortest choka consists of 7 units, the longest of 149.

Sedoka (head-preparing song): A poetic form consisting of two 5-7-7 syllable patterns.


Since a great deal of Japanese poetry, although not all, consists of various patterns of 5- and 7-syllable lines, it's interesting to encounter and use formal variations on those forms. There are some much looser forms; and in contemporary Japanese poetry, equivalents of prose-poem and free-verse forms are also found, including numerous examples in this anthology.

So I recommend this anthology as essential. There is a great deal herein that will open doors into poetry you might never have associated with Japan, both ancient and modern. Each important poet is given a good representation, which might lead the interested reader to go find out more about their poetry elsewhere. You can't ask more of an overview anthology than that it might lead to more specialized interest in some readers.

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