Thursday, July 17, 2008

"The greatest period of women writers in the history of any literature"

So says Kenneth Rexroth about Heian Japan, 794-1192. This is the period of Lady Murasaki's Tale of Genji, Sei Shonagan's Pillow Book, and a quantity of poems that is hard to fathom, almost all of them in the five-line tanka stanza. How do specialists in the period keep them all straight?

Here is one of Lady Murasaki's poems, from the late 10th century:

This life of ours would not cause you sorrow
if you thought of it as like
the mountain cherry blossoms
which bloom and fade in a day.

Yes, well, easier said than done.

If I skip ahead to the 17th century, when the haiku makes its appearance, not only only are there no shortage of poems by women, but two of the best known haiku are by little girls. This one was written by Den Sute-Jo when she was six. Yes, as per A. A. Milne, when she was six:

A snowy morning
Everywhere II, II, II
The tracks of clogs.

That's pretty clever.

So what were women writers up to in the West during the classic period of Japanese literature? That's a trick question - what was anyone up to? It was the Dark Ages, for pity's sake. At least there's the example of Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th century.

I'm with Virginia Woolf - the centuries of waste of women's talents is an indictment of Western civilization.* Make yourself a timeline. Start with Sappho in the 6th century B.C.E. Hildegard is next, I think, a gap of 1,700 years. We need another 200 years to get to Christine de Pisan. Things start to improve a bit in the 16th century - Marguerite de Navarre, Gaspara Stampa, Mary Sidney, St. Teresa de Avila. Not exactly parity, but real change. Who do we have in the 17th century? Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Madame de La Fayette's The Princess of Clèves, Madame de Sévigné. Aphra Behn, I guess, although I think she was a hack.

Meanwhile, in Japan, 6 year old girls were writing classic poems.

Translation are by Kenneth Rexroth and Ikuko Atsumi, Women Poets of Japan, also published as The Burning Heart.

* Western civilization also has its good points.


  1. The roof is on, the new windows are in, and I have finally caught up on your postings. Enjoyed your photos and comments about Senegal.

  2. I'm very much enjoying The Pillow Book right now -- it's interesting to see just how important those poems were in their culture.

  3. "The Pillow Book" sounds like a must read, too. It's a different world there isn't it?