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The enduring tradition of tanka

by David Burleigh

WHITE PETALS by Harue Aoki. Shichigatsudo, 2008, 126 pp., ¥1,500 (paper)

HYAKUNIN ISSHU, introduced by Mutsuo Takahashi, translated by Emiko Miyashita and Michael Dylan Welch. PIE Books, 2008, 420 pp., ¥3,800 (paper)

The hefty bilingual edition of the classic poetry collection “Hyakunin Isshu” has a nonce subtitle on the inside: “100 Poets: Passions of the Imperial Court.” The rationale informing the passionate lives of emperors and court officials is described in a helpful introduction by the distinguished modern poet Mutsuo Takahashi, who sets this work on a par with “The Tale of Genji.”

Consider, though, how extraordinary it is that all the poems take the same form precisely: the 31 syllables (5-7-5-7-7) of the tanka, or waka, as it was originally known. This short, evidently representative collection “spans more than five hundred years,” while the form itself has been around for more than a thousand, and is still widely used today. This is hardly thinkable in a Western context, where few literary traditions stretch back quite that far, especially in the same language.

The 100 poems, one each from 100 poets, were selected by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241), originally to decorate some screen doors. More properly called the “Ogura Hyakunin Isshu,” the anthology became the basis for a card game played at New Year, for which the poems must be learned by heart. And the heart is deeply involved in the contents, for this, says Takahashi, is an “anthology of love” besides being a “great funeral march” for a lost age.

Chosen from a wide range of work and arranged throughout in pairs, the poems are not just representative but constitute the cream of classic composition in this form. Needless to say, there have been numerous versions of it done before in English, including an early rhyming one by William N. Porter, which is still in print. The present translators adopt a fairly plain approach:

a boatman

crossing Yura Strait

has lost his rudder . . .

so, too, the passage of my love

knows no destination

Sometimes one can recognize a personality, such as the arch author of a Heian pillow-book, Sei Shonagon:

while it is yet dark,

your crowing like a rooster

may deceive some folks,

but not Meeting Hill’s gate guards

who still will bar your passage

The exchange of poems was part of the whole courtship process, and parting at dawn is one of its regular themes, here given an amusing turn. Other notable features of the collection, apart from its emotional regrets, are the autumnal flavor, and the prevalence of the color white. The whiteness has many meanings, including seasonal references to snow and dew or even cherry blossoms, while it is also the color of autumn on the classic spectrum inherited from China.

Each poem has a four-page format, the last page carrying an illustration. There are no people in any of the photographs, the mood conveyed instead by a natural surface or scene. One only has a pair of birds in the distance, another two sticks swirling in white water, the barest hint of emotional entanglements. Takahashi provides a brief prose commentary on each poem, explaining the content but, unlike the introduction, this is not translated.

The aesthetic of this volume comes right down to the present age, to the writings, for example, of the novelist Yasunari Kawabata, the source of which is recognizable here:

the autumn wind blows

from the mountains of Yoshino

deep into the night —

as the ancient capital grows colder

the villagers beat fabric into softness

There is even a reference in one later poem to “tangled hair” (midaregami), the title of a famous volume of tanka by Akiko Yosano at the beginning of the 20th century. Kaoru Yosano, a grandson of the author, is currently minister of finance. But more remarkable than faint echoes in the corridors of power is the fact that the tanka remains in use among living poets.

Harue Aoki (b. 1944) has published several volumes in Japanese, and “White Petals” is her third bilingual collection of tanka. Having raised a family, and divorced, she celebrates a quiet life:

how many years

have I lived singly?

I gather

butterburs silently

in my garden

Her life is also, however, enriched by memories and travel, meetings with friends, books, the cinema and so forth. It is not a sad life, but one in which feelings of desire arise, and may have to be laid aside:

an intention

hard to abandon —

this day in spring

the fountain sparkles

in Nanai Pond

That is all, just a hint, in the traditional manner, of something deeper. It is delicately stated, and left to the reader to imagine and enjoy. The author studied Spanish at university, and has taught Japanese abroad; she has lived in Germany, and traveled in England, to which she seems particularly attached. Her tanka show admirably how the long tradition continues to be productive.

For more information on “Hyakunin Isshu” see www.piebooks.com. To order “White Petals” contact Shichigatsudo at 2-26-6-103, Matsubara, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo 156-0043, or write to the author at 3-24-4, Inokashira, Mitaka-shi, Tokyo 181-0001.