Review by Michael A. Arnold
I came out to the fields
To pick the first spring greens.
All the while, on my sleeves
A light snow falling
This poem is a typical example of classical Japanese poetry. It is short and unfussy, using the beauty of nature to create a peaceful image in the reader’s mind. However, there is also a strong sense of emotion just under the surface, and even if not immediately understood it is easily felt. The classical ‘Waka’ (the genre of the poem above) has this general attitude, which is very similar to the later ‘Haiku’ that readers are probably more familiar with – making a collection of these poems ideal for picking up at random and enjoying.
In 2018 Penguin Classics reissued the collection of Classical Japanese poetry One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each translated by Peter MacMillan, which is a full translation of an ancient and very popular book that in Japan is called Hyakunin isshu. This book is a key influence on Japanese literature to this day, and (comparable to Shakespeare in the English-speaking world) is a major part of their national syllabus. The poems in this collection originally date from between 800 AD and 1200 AD, and it is notable that the wealthy and privileged: priests, aristocrats and emperors, wrote these poems. This is because of a cultural obsession with wordplay and poetry competitions that has survived from the distant mists of antiquity to today. Aristocratic people, regardless of their gender, were expected to enjoy and to write poetry, even as a form of daily communication if we can believe The Tale of Genji, and Waka poetry was an extremely popular way of showing refinement, poetic skill and sensitivity.
The introduction to this book explains what defines Waka poetry in more detail than can be given here, but because Waka poems are so simple and primarily aiming to ‘delight’ (as the introduction states) they are very easily and quickly digestible. This does not mean that Waka poetry is unsophisticated; this book that will reward repeated and careful readings. Because members of the elite wrote these poems, this book will not give a very good impression of what ordinary life was like during this period, not for the nobility and especially not for the common people. It does, however, give little snapshots of their mental world – revealing their personal anxieties and longings. Not many of the poems are about the poet’s life directly. Instead they will often talk about themselves through invented characters. For example, the first poem in this collection is from the perspective of a man sitting alone:
In this makeshift hut
In the autumn field
Gaps in the thatch
Let dewdrops in,
Moistening my sleeves.
There is absolutely no indication in this poem that it was written by an emperor, but it was – by Emperor Tenji (626-672), and the commentary at the end of the book points to how both this poem could be read and understood in different ways.
The commentary alone makes this book worth buying. It points to recurring metaphors and symbols found in Classical Japanese poetry and explains them in their cultural contexts. In the poem above, for example, damp sleeves are a very common metaphor for crying in despair, often because of an unhappy relationship. A contemporary reader would have understood this, and it would have affected the way they read the poem, but a modern reader is unlikely to have this cultural knowledge. Each poem gets at least a few paragraphs of commentary and explanation, and some get a couple of pages. These explanations can even be so detailed they are revealing about the translation decisions made, or common features of ancient Japanese poetry more generally. This makes the book very re-readable.
There is a lot of beauty in this collection, and some poems are translated very conservatively while others are more experimental. Poem 3, as an example, is in free verse to visually suggest the subject of the poem: a bird’s tail. Translating anything is a difficult task, and that is especially true for translating something from such a different place in time as medieval Japan into modern English. Peter MacMillan has obviously tried to capture the sense and feel of the original more than anything else. Helpfully for anyone who knows medieval Japanese, a Romanized text of the original medieval Japanese texts can be found at the end of the book. This was probably done for students specifically, but their inclusion is still very interesting.
Robert Frost defined poetry by what cannot be translated exactly, referring specifically to things like rhythm, sound, and the associations certain words can suggest. There is a logic to that, and something is always lost when translating a poem from one language to another. Also, poetry is so often defined by what cannot be exactly communicated, and this is why translations can be so interesting. They (are in a way) windows into another culture but often one that has been modified by your own, and without knowing medieval Japanese very well, and so not being able to read the original texts this book provides, it would be impossible to know exactly what has been lost in this translation. But if time is taken with it, reading this book will give the reader an excellent taste of Classical Japanese poetry, and that might be enough.
About the Reviewer
Michael A. Arnold is a graduate of the University of Sunderland and Northumbria University. He is based in North East England, and has previously published essays and short fiction. His influences include George Orwell and Robert Frost.
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