Last month, the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation held its first-ever event featuring a Japanese poet, and, coincidentally, that poet was giving his first talk in English about poetry.

Kazuhiro Nagata has given presentations in English before, but it was in his role as a 細胞生物学者 (saibō seibutsu gakusha, cell biologist). He also happens to be a noted 歌人 (kajin, poet of tanka poems) and serves on the selection panel for the Asahi Shimbun’s 短歌 (tanka) page.

Nagata introduced 『たとへば君 四十年の恋歌』 (Tatoeba Kimi: Yonjūnen no Koi-uta, “For Instance, Sweetheart: Forty Years of Love Songs”), the book he co-wrote with his wife, the poet Yuko Kawano. It tells the story of their relationship through their tanka and writings about each other. Sadly, Kawano passed away in 2010 from breast cancer; by the end of his presentation, Nagata was on the verge of tears. His talk inspired me to read his books and learn more about tanka.

Tanka are one of the oldest forms of poetry in the world with a 1,300-year history. They are still being composed in their same form: 31 syllables in the pattern 5-7-5-7-7.

When I asked Nagata where students of Japanese should start with tanka, I was surprised he didn’t recommend the classics. He noted that the 『万葉集 』 (Man’yōshū, “Collection of 10,000 Leaves”), Japan’s oldest tanka collection dating from the 8th century and earlier, and the 『百人一首 』 (Hyakunin Isshu, “100 Poets, One Poem”), a collection of 100 poems by 100 different poets compiled in the 13th century, can be challenging because the language is so old.

Nagata recommends two anthologies he put together: 『近代秀歌』 (Kindai Shūka, “Great Modern Tanka”) and 『現代秀歌』 (Gendai Shūka, “Great Contemporary Tanka”). Each contains 100 poems and commentary by Nagata.

I checked out “Gendai Shūka and it’s a great read. Although the language is modern, students new to tanka should be prepared to encounter older 仮名遣い (kana-zukai, kana orthography). Many of the words are the same but feature older kana, such as ゐる (iru, to be) in place of いる, くらひ (kurai, about) in place of くらい, or たとへば (tatoeba, for example) for たとえば, as in Nagata’s book title. Small っ become big つ, as in 行つて (itte, going), and there are some older verb conjugations, such as せり for した (shita, did) with perfective verbs.

Don’t let this intimidate you. There are a number of online resources that can help you sort these out, notably the site 和歌のための文語文法 (Waka no tame no bungo bunpō, Classical grammar for waka poetry).
(助動詞の種類と機能 1)

Tanka were a subcategory of waka (Japanese poem) for a period of time, but waka has since come to mean only tanka.

Nagata organizes the 100 poems in the book by topics: 恋・愛 (koi/ai, love), 青春 (seishun, youth), 旅 (tabi, travel), 四季・自然 (shiki/shizen, four seasons/nature), and 病と死 (yamai to shi, sickness and death) — as he did with the “Kindai Shūka, but he includes one extra chapter titled 新しい表現を求めて (Atarashii hyōgen o motomete, “In search of new expressions”) to show how the language has developed.

The poems themselves can be difficult to dissect, but some are wonderfully simple. One from the category about love, for example, is this tanka from Kyoko Kuriki: 観覧車回れよ回れ想ひ出は君には一日我には一生 (Kanransha maware yo maware omoide wa kimi ni wa hitohi ware ni wa hitoyo; Go round and round, Ferris Wheel, memories for a day for you, a lifetime for me).

The highlight of the book is Nagata’s explication of the poems. He acts as a tour guide of the language and walks readers through how the poems are functioning. For Kuriki’s poem, he notes that the 上句 (jōku, first part of tanka) invites the interpretation that the poem is an illustration of 片思い (kata-omoi, unrequited love).

Nagata’s commentary is especially helpful with some of the 前衛短歌 (zen’ei tanka, avant-garde tanka) in the new language section, which includes the groundbreaking poet Kunio Tsukamoto who experimented with techniques such as 句割れ (ku-ware, split phrases), used in tanka that don’t follow the 5-7-5-7-7 pattern. You can find his tanka on Twitter: The bot account @tsukamotoK_bot tweets out his tanka at four-hour intervals (www.twitter.com/tsukamotok_bot)

While these poems are wonderful, nowhere are the goals of poetry and its effects presented more clearly than in “Tatoeba Kimi.” Nagata and Kawano meet at a poetry group in university and begin spending time with each other. Nagata begins to look at Kawano’s poetry for clues about how their relationship is going, such as the poem that gives the collection its title and is also included in “Gendai Shūka”: たとへば君 ガサッと 落葉すくふやうにわたしを攫って行つては呉ぬか (Tatoeba kimi gasatto ochiba sukū yō ni watashi o saratte itte kurenu ka, For instance, sweetheart, could you run off with me as if swooping up an armful of fallen leaves?).

“We do not recommend explaining your feelings only with words,” Nagata said during his talk; simple adjectives such as sad, happy and lonely are not enough. “I can’t understand how you are lonely, why you are lonely, to what extent you are lonely.”

In the introduction to “Gendai Shūka,” Nagata says that when words fail, 歌でなら伝えられるということがある (Uta de nara tsutaerareru to iu koto ga aru, There are things that can be expressed if you use poetry). He elaborated in his talk: “By describing other things, you can explain your own emotions.” In the tanka above, Kawano at the age of 21 was able to capture the feeling of falling for two men at once and wanting one of them to sweep her away and make the difficult decision for her.

Fortunately for Nagata, she chose him.

One of the sweetest and funniest moments of his talk was when Nagata mentioned the limitations of his own communication: “I cannot say ‘I love you’ to her (Kawano) every day like American people.”

Instead, he used tanka. In “Tatoeba Kimi,” we read about many different actions that also demonstrated Nagata’s love. From the long overnight walks from Ishibe to Kyoto when he escorts Kawano home and misses the 終電 (shūden, last train) back, to their first kiss on a cold winter day, and finally to the way he sits at Kawano’s bedside, transcribing her poetry when she becomes unable to write.

Nagata’s writing is more than great study material for students new to tanka; it’s great literature.

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