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.