Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Emperors, Princesses, Prime Ministers - high ranking classical Japanese poets

So last week in my note on Léopold Senghor I mentioned the rare but not unheard of phenomenon of statesman-poets. The briefest attention to classical Japanese poetry reveals that it was not merely common for Japanese rulers and courtiers to write poetry, but it was virtually a duty of office. The great Japanese poetry anthologies like the Manyoshu can contain thousands of tiny little poems. Many of them are by members of the court, generals, provincial governors, Shoguns.

One might be suspicious of the quality of the poems of emperors, or the reasons they are anthologized. Power might have more weight than merit. Could be. Here's the Emperor Uda, who ruled from 880 to 897:

Like a wave crest
Escaped and frozen,
One white egret
Guards the harbor mouth.

from One Hundred Poems from the Japanese, tr. Kenneth Rexroth.

That seems pretty great to me. It looks like just one idea, one precisely accurate visual metaphor. In a sense, I'm completely wrong about that. Most of these poems have, for example, Buddhist interpretations which are entirely opaque to me.

This is a minor example of what I was talking about yesterday. I know so little about Japanese literature that a single 150 page book is full of revelations. Imagine what I would learn if I read two books, or three.


  1. I love the Japanese poems you have been posting. I think I might have to look out for a copy of that book!

  2. For a bit of non-fiction (and very Genji centered) you might enjoy Ivan Morris's World of the Shining Prince.

    I'm also sure you might be able to find a copy online somewhere of the Japanese creation myth...that could be interesting reading for you as you get ready to leave.

  3. Here's one:

  4. I have seen knowledgeable people, including Rexroth, suggest that one should deliberately read multiple translations of Chinese and Japanese poems. This begins to sound suspiciously like a project. but when the poems are only five lines long to begin with, it's not so onerous.

    verbivore, thatnks for the suggestions. The Ivan Morris book seems essential for understanding the "Take of Genji" world.