39 Following


Currently reading

Taiga?s True Views: The Language of Landscape Painting in Eighteenth-Century Japan by Melinda Takeuchi (1994-06-01)
Melinda Takeuchi
The History of England, Vol 2
David Hume
The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle
Richard H. Popkin
Cicero: On Moral Ends (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy)
Marcus Tullius Cicero, Raphael Woolf, Julia Annas
Das Goldene Vlies: Dramatisches Gedicht in Drei Abteilungen
Franz Grillparzer
Euripides IV: Rhesus / The Suppliant Women / Orestes / Iphigenia in Aulis
Charles R. Walker, Frank William Jones, William Arrowsmith, David Grene, Euripides, Richmond Lattimore
Notes from Underground & The Double
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Jesse Coulson
The World of Thought in Ancient China
Benjamin I. Schwartz
The Last Generation of the Roman Republic
Erich S. Gruen
The Legend of Gold and Other Stories
William J. Tyler, Jun Ishikawa, Ishikawa Jun

River of Stars

River of Stars: Selected Poems - Yosano Akiko, Sam Hamill, Keiko Matsui Gibson

Yosano Akiko (1878-1942) was a dynamo. Among other things, she published some 75 books, of which 20 were her own poetry; she translated The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese (her translation is claimed by some to be definitive); she was a feminist, a pacifist (look at her dates again!), a scholar and a social activist; and on the side she managed to raise 11 children (two others died young). Remarkable.

River of Stars is a selection of her poetry co-translated by Sam Hamill and Keiko Matsui Gibson. It contains approximately 100 tanka (a classical form of 31 syllables in lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables), and 30 pages of poems using more modern forms or free verse. The translations of the tanka maintain the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure of the original.

Yosano's tanka cover a wide range of topics, including many found in the classical Japanese poems whose form she has adopted. However, she re-enlivens old themes in unexpected ways. For example, consider this unorthodox view of the fundamental Buddhistic theme of the fragile brevity of life (a sutra is a sacred Buddhist text):

While mother begins
chanting a deathbed sutra,
beside her, the
tiny feet of her infant,
oh so beautiful to see.

There are many poems about young monks and temptation:

From her shoulder,
falling over the sutra,
a strand of unruly hair.
A lovely girl and a monk.
The burden of early spring.

There are the simply beautiful:

Hair in morning tangles,
perhaps I should comb it out
with spring rainwater
as it drips from the ink-black
feathers of swallows' wings.

There is longing:

I say his poem,
propped against this frozen wall,
in the late evening,
as bitter autumn rain
continues to fall.

And there is passion:

Spring quickly passes.
All the things of this world are
temporal! I cried! -
And lifted his hand to touch
my trembling, waiting breast.

It is remarkable how in poem after poem she finds novelty and insight in a 15 hundred year old art form.(*) I'm tempted to quote at least ten more of these poems, but I don't know where the "fair use" border actually begins.

The modern form poems are longer, too long to quote for the most part, and they, well they remind me of modern American poems of the kind I don't hate but don't love, either. There are strident political poems (feminist, pacifist) and there are personal, familial poems, and they are nice, but I've read too many like them. I can well imagine that the political poems made waves in a Japan already under paternalistic military rule. When I remind myself that they were written before the second world war, I am impressed, for a while. Isn't that curious? They are certainly not the poems of a poetaster, but, well, see what you think of them.

(*) You should try to imagine a country in which, in order to appear to be "above average", one must write tanka or waka or haiku, where every social organization had its poetry contests, monthly if not weekly; and then you must imagine the floods of insipid rubbish which ensued. The art form of tanka was vitiated when it was handed over to Yosano.