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Poetic reasons to take a card game seriously

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ONE HUNDRED POETS, ONE POEM EACH: A Translation of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, by Peter McMillan with a foreword by Donald Keene and an afterword by Eileen Kato. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007, 280 pp., with line drawings, $39.50 (cloth)

This is a new translation of one of Japan’s most famous poetry collections — one hundred waka (31 syllable poems), each by a different poet, arranged chronologically from the Emperor Tenji (626-671) to the retired Emperor Juntoku (1197-1242). The noted poet known as Teika (Fujiwara no Sadaie) is believed to have edited this collection and its creation is commonly dated as around 1240.

One reason for the fame is its agreed-upon excellence. Another is that it became the basis for the popular card game known as uta karuta. From the Edo Period on, opening and closing lines of each poem were printed on separate cards and the idea was to match the two parts and complete the poems.

Until fairly recently such games were a part of New Year celebrations.

Though critical acclaim remains high in Japan, the collection elsewhere has had its critics. Arthur Waley declared that “artificialities of every kind abound and the choice does little credit to the taste of Teika.” In addition, “these poems have gained an unmerited circulation in Japan, owing to the fact that they are used in a kind of ‘Happy Families’ card game.”

This is not the opinion of Peter McMillan, responsible for this new translation, nor is it those of Donald Keene and Eileen Kato who contribute an appreciative foreword and an afterword. The translator calls the work “a concise history of Japanese poetry from the seventh century to the middle of the twelfth” and says that along with the “Tales of Ise” and “The Tale of Genji” it is one of the three most influential classical works of Japanese literature.

One of the great strengths of classical literature, he writes, is the countless number of waka that can express deep emotion and refinement of sensibility in images of profound simplicity.” He then presents us with a spectacular exegesis.

His text is the famous ninth poem, the one by Ono no Komachi that runs (in the new translation): A life in vain. / My looks, talents faded / like these cherry blossoms / paling in the endless rains / that I gaze out upon, alone.

Studying each word, testing its associations, reverberations, he gives probable and possible meanings, a listing of the ingredients that make up the world of this short poem, demonstrating through the form of the poem itself the multiple meanings of which it is capable, all within the limit of an amazing brevity.

McMillan concludes that “it is impossible for an English-language translation to capture all the nuances in the original without becoming over-loaded. And there is not only the problem of translating all the innuendo and multiplicity but the task of conveying that which is unsaid but so apparent. “This extraordinarily dense poem is brilliantly confined to thirty-two syllables in Japanese, an extra syllable being a code for emotion too great to express.”

Keene has called this “by far the best translation to date” and it comes to us with full notes on the poems as well as notes on the poets, a listing of the waka in Japanese and in transliteration, a full glossary, and each of the poems illustrated by line drawings (from various sources) that render the plainly aristocratic tone of this collection.

Whether the “Hyakunin Isshu” will serve as a popular pastime in the Age of Pokemon or not, its aristocratic credentials continue. The imperial family still write poetry and I am told that the small granddaughter of the present Emperor, Princess Aiko, is memorizing the 100 poems.