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Spring 2006, vol 4 no 1

An Interview With Professor Edwin L. Cranston
by Robert D. Wilson

RW: This month, the second volume of your four volume anthology chronicling the history of waka will be published, the volume devoted to the poetry of Japan's Early Classical Period. I feel like a child anxious for Christmas. Down the line when the fourth volume is finished, your anthology will be the definitive work, carrying on where Brower and Miner's treatise, Japanese Court Poetry, left off. How did this project come about?

EC: The project has expanded to five volumes now, for reasons explained in the prefatory matter to Volume Two. In brief, this came about because of organizational problems -- how to do justice to both sources and individual poets. Volume Two has gone to the sources -- in this case the first four "imperial anthologies," two unofficial anthologies, and The Tale of Genji (which has 795 poems). Volume Three will cover essentially the same ground, but be organized by poet, with some duplication and some poems not in Volume Two.

I don't think of my work as "definitive." The notion gives me a cold shudder. My translations come from my own mind/heart and are the results of what I bring to the originals. Somebody else would bring another self. I do think you have to know what the originals are saying, either by virtue of having studied the language, or by having a good informant. Therefore, the number of persons qualified to do this work is not enormous; but I don't have a "definitive" monopoly on it. I hope people will read my remarks on translation in the preface to Volume One.

You also have to care about poetry. Writing it helps. It's not "work," so much as "play." Lovers' play.

Earl Miner suggested the anthology to me, back in 1974. Bob Brower granted me permission to proceed. And then eventually it became my project, and maybe Brower and Miner, especially Brower, would have blanched at the results. Or not, I don't know.


RW: In the first volume, you stated: "The main subject matter for this book is waka, a term I understand in the sense in which it is used in Brower and Miner's Japanese Court Poetry, as encompassing the poetic forms practiced by the early court . . . namely, the tanka, or 'short poem'; the choka, or 'long poem'; the katauta, or 'half-poem'; the sedoka, or 'head-repeated poem'; and the bussokusekika, or 'Buddha's Footstone poem' . . . and by extension earlier, the less formally defined verse out of which all forms emerged." Are you saying that waka is an umbrella term encompassing a variety of closely related genres of Japanese poetry?

EC: It is an umbrella term, as I use it. Just means "Japanese poetry," really. But it excludes haiku, linked verse, and modern poetry.


RW: It is evident that you have a love affair with Japanese poetry. Who introduced you to waka? And what is it about the genre that attracts you?

EC: Love affairs are private matters, and remarks about them take on the character of confessions. Sometimes one can remember exactly when one fell in love; sometimes it creeps up on you. Waka was mostly the latter kind of "affair" for me. First, I had to have had a half-lifetime of reading and writing poems. Old English Major syndrome. Then there was the discovery that the stuff existed in Japanese too. Arthur Waley sneaking in somewhere in my childhood with "The night I went to see my sister, whom I loved unendurably, the river wind was so cold that the sanderlings were crying." (Approximate quotation from memory of his rendering of a waka poem by Ki no Tsurayuki.) Strange puzzle about sisters and sanderlings, but haunting. Later, Donald Keene in his anthology, by which time I was trying to learn Japanese. And then the appearance of Japanese Court Poetry, the Brower-Miner study, in my fourth year of graduate school at Berkeley, which really clinched it.

The prevalence of love poetry in waka attracts me. So much of the tradition is this melancholy song of what it feels like to love and lose. That's why waka speaks to me more than haiku, which is about perception and its leaps. I'm the world's oldest romantic. Thirty-one syllables will sing, while 17 will jab.


RW: Some say a tanka should be written as one line. Others advocate two or three lines. Most English speaking poets use a 5 line format. Which is correct, and why?

EC: There isn't any correct or incorrect way of laying out your translation. What works, works. I am conscious of the pulsebeat of the sevens and fives, the systole and diastole of the poetry, and the five-line form (which I learned as "orthodox" from Brower and Miner) suits me well. But one-liners can work too, though I've not seen so many that do. But, tin ears aside, de gustibus.


RW: Translating a poem from one language to another is a difficult task. The finished translation should convey exactly what the author of the poem intended it to say.

As you've stated, "I have adhered to the best I can recall from graduate school training: make it exact." A worthy goal, Professor Cranston, but how does one translate a poem and still have it come out sounding like a poem? Translating a poem is more than just looking up words in a dictionary. You've also said that you've "listened to other voices. These voices are basically the echoes of poems read and written, echoes that tell me a poem has an inner life that is more than the sum total of its words and cadences, a vital essence that must metamorphose into a new language in translation." Please explain.

EC: Your first quotation is my remark on translating kanshi, poems in Chinese, which I don't think I do well. The "other voices" is about waka, with which I feel more at home. Poems in translation must be poems. What constitutes a poem is the problem. If we all agreed on that, the critics could switch to some other occupation, and odium poeticum would give way to bland good cheer. Waka is close enough to my inner life that I feel free to bring myself to the task of translating it. I also translate modern prose poems, and there I hold myself in abeyance and aim for transparency. Also an OK from the poet I'm translating (Mizuno Ruriko). A very different experience, one challenging and chastising for someone like me.


RW: There are so many, many waka in praise of the Emperor, the local feudal chief or lord, and those around them. How sincere were these poems? I think of what you wrote in the first anthology regarding Prince Omi's exile and his interchange of poetry with a sympathizer in which you stated, "Crossing an emperor could lead to more serious consequences than exile, as we know from the story of prince Arima." To what degree did the Emperor and ruling clans put art (poetry) into the service of maintaining public subservience to the rulers, as propaganda, through control of the cultural climate? Can that even be a fair question? What can this literature tell us about the Japanese political and social fabric during the time in which it was written?

EC: Power elites usually love power, and there was much blood shed in seizing it and preserving it in the era covered by Volume One of my anthology. The public poetry comes out of that age and is best understood with a background in the history of the time. (This goes for any poetry of any age.) "Propaganda" is an ugly word, and I don't use it. What was "expected" of the poets in their public role? I have only the evidence of the what and the when of the poems. Poets accompanied royals and aristocrats in their progresses, or no doubt wished they could. Hitomaro, the greatest of the poets of his time, would appear to have taken upon himself the mission of deifying the "imperial" house. There is no direct evidence that he was ordered to do so. His poetry has an intensity and an authenticity that argue for sincere loyalty and adulation. The larger question of whether "art" was in the service of power has to be answered in the affirmative in most cases of poems on public themes. I suppose one can think of Virgil, but I suspect Hitomaro was closer to being inside his mythos. The contrary example of Yamanoue no Okura (d. 733) needs attention. Okura was a social critic and moralist who did not shrink from "problematizing" power. His voice, a powerful one, is unique among the Man'yo poets. Hitomaro had a tragic sense of man's fate, and this too is one reason why it would be outrageous to label his paeans and laments "propaganda."


RW: What might occidental poets learn from the tanka poets you have translated? Can a similar kind of poetry be written by English speaking poets?

EC: I guess the Imagists had a go at this question long ago. Yes, you can write tanka (short poems) in English. You can make them 31 syllables long if you wish. It's not hard. Training in translating Japanese tanka is a good way to get started, but then, there's that matter of learning Japanese. . . .Tanka are of various types -- not all are hooked on wordplay. A poem has to look and feel like a poem, however. Just running out a given length won't do. Tanka are about feeling. They're not haiku. All this talk about tanka ignores the fact that long poems -- choka -- had their day in early Japan. Readers of Volume One will find poems taking up two or three pages. Those are the ones that drew me into this work.


RW: It took you several years to publish the first volume of your anthology. The second one came quicker. Why? And when can we expect the third volume?

EC: Quicker? Let's see, Volume One took 19 years (really only eight once I realized I was working on a multi-volume set). Volume Two (dating from the publication of Volume One) has taken twelve and a half years (more or less). Volume Three? Don't ask, don't tell.


RW: Surely you have a favorite Japanese waka poet; one who stands above the other poets; whose poetry stirs you in a special way. Name the poet and tell us what it is about the poet's work that moves.

EC: It would have to be Hitomaro (Kakinomoto no Asomi Hitomaro, in full). The power of his long poems is unrivaled, the depth of his sense of loss in his elegies is undeniable, and his tender evocation of love between men and women is as good as it gets. He was a master of prosody and placed his mark on the poetry of his age. He created an edenic world shot through with a sense of divinity and natural beauty, but darkened by a kind irony that is forced to admit knowledge of restful death.


RW: Surely you have a favorite Japanese waka poet; one who stands above the other poets; whose poetry stirs you in a special way. Name the poet and tell us what it is about the poet's work that moves.

EC: It would have to be Hitomaro (Kakinomoto no Asomi Hitomaro, in full). The power of his long poems is unrivaled, the depth of his sense of loss in his elegies is undeniable, and his tender evocation of love between men and women is as good as it gets. He was a master of prosody and placed his mark on the poetry of his age. He created an edenic world shot through with a sense of divinity and natural beauty, but darkened by a kind irony that is forced to admit knowledge of restful death.


RW: You named the second volume of your waka anthology, Grasses of Remembrance. Where did the idea for the title come from?

EC: The idea came out of a shower spout, as far as I can "remember." My mind had been casting for a subtitle for some time, and none occurred. Until, of course, the moment when my mind was relaxed and "not thinking." "Grasses of Remembrance" are shinobugusa, "a kind of climbing fern that overruns dilapidated houses," as Volume Two says on its first occurrence. The next occurrence informs the reader that it is "hare's-foot fern . . . rife at desolate dwellings. . . ." And so it is, or was. But the thing is, shinobu also means "to long for," or "to endure [in lonely longing]." And so it is a key word in love poetry, which is all about longing and abandonment. A powerful nexus of image and affect. Kusa (gusa in combination), "grass," also suggests the sinuous lines of "grass writing," the form in which waka were inscribed. And so, since I was dealing with a poetry of remembrance, and remembering my long involvement with it. . . . You get the point, I think. The dusk jacket will display some grass writing from the Genji scrolls.


RW: One of the challenges you face in translating poetry from the Japanese language to the English is that of "poems, particularly those whose mode of being depends on wordplay, impose other solutions." How is this so, Professor?

    Mogami River ---
Up and down the rice boats ply:
    Ply me with sweet words,
I will never tell you no - - -
After this one month is past

EC: The answer should be obvious -- but, alas, apparently is sometimes not. Douglas Hofstadter deals with this issue in his book Le Tombeau de Marot, which I recommend to anyone interested in translation. If you are translating a tour de force, for instance a novel that never uses the letter "e" (such a thing exists), the translation should also avoid it (or impose on itself a corresponding challenge). Just to translate the plot would miss the point. In a less extreme form, wordplay in waka operates on the same principle. The play is the point, or at least one of the essentials of the poem's being. To ignore it is to fail in your responsibility as a translator. Besides, to pun is fun. Strange animals emerge from that jungle. The poem you cite is explained in the Introduction to Volume Two, and I refer the curious reader thereto.


RW: At the end of the Introduction in Grasses of Remembrance, you said "These poems live in their rhythms, in their need to find expression in another tongue, and in the pleasure their words convey to me . . ." Please explain.

EC: Explain? Well, how could I put it better than that? At the end of the day, or of the Introduction, poetry is to be experienced, not explained. Which is an odd thing to say, since I've written thousands of "explanations"!


Edwin Cranston received his BA in English from the University of Arizona and his PhD in Japanese literature from Stanford. His revised dissertation was published in the Harvard-Yenching Monograph Series under the title The Izumi Shikibu Diary: A Romance of the Heian Court. In 1993, Stanford University Press brought out a compendium of his translations of Japanese poetry as A Waka Anthology, Volume One: The Gem-Glistening Cup, which received the U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission Prize. At present he is translating the work of poet Mizuno Ruriko. A Waka Anthology, Volume Two: Grasses of Remembrance was published a few days ago by Stanford University Press.