My entry to Japanese poetry was, I suspect, similar to most. It began with Matsuo Basho; anthologies by R. H. Blyth and Kenneth Rexroth; haiku by Edo Period (1603-1868) monks; and tanka by Heian Period (794-1185 ) noblewomen.
112 pages, Pushkin Press, Fiction
The heyday of Japanese poetry, these books seemed to say, is long gone. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Machi Tawara is that rarest of things in any culture: A poet famous outside literary circles. “Salad Anniversary” sold more than 2 million copies when it was first published in 1987, launching Tawara, a shy teacher, into a state of celebrity, with critical acclaim and interviews on daytime TV. Pushkin Press’ gorgeous new edition of Juliet Winters Carpenter’s translation should deservedly bring this book to a wider audience.
Tanka is a form of poetry, which, like the more famous haiku, uses an ancient verse structure that by the 20th century was in danger of becoming a museum relic. The stuffy syllable pattern — here rendered into tight, three-line stanzas — had new life blown into it when Tawara dressed its ancient bones in modern clothes. She shows that hamburger restaurants, the Hotel California and differential calculus can support poetic beauty and pathos just as well as cherry blossoms and the reflection of the moon in water.
These poems are alive, fizzing with vitality, dripping with honesty. It is little wonder the original publication was such a phenomenon. (Iain Maloney)
Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.