Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Summer 2007, vol 5 no 2

An Interview with Joshua S. Mostow
by Robert D. Wilson

RW: You say in your book, Pictures of The Heart, "Because the One Hundred Poets is still used today as a school text for the history of Japanese poetry, the vast majority of Japanese and English editions interpret the poems according to scholars' conclusions about the poems' original meanings, rather than interpreting them either as Teika read them or as they were read in the Edo Period. . . . We must read it as Teika seems to have conceived it." Expound on this, please.

JM: The basic issue is whether one is going to read The Hundred Poets as an integrated work, or simply as a collection of one hundred individual works. It is apparent that there was some structuring principles in Teika's mind as he ordered this anthology. For example, the anthology starts with two poems by emperors, and ends with two poems by emperors. Yet the very first poem of the anthology, by Emperor Tenji (r. 668-671), is now no longer believed to have been composed by Tenji. Nonetheless, Teika no doubt included this poem, and put it at the beginning of the anthology, precisely because he thought it was composed by an emperor.

To understand WHY Teika chose a particular poem, we have to understand how Teika interpreted the poem. However, several of the interpretations Teika seems to have had are no longer accepted by scholars. Nonetheless, through commentaries, Teika's interpretation of these poems was the standard interpretation for almost 800 years. Therefore, if we want to understand the impact The Hundred Poets had on Japanese literature and culture, we again need to understand how the poems were interpreted at the time, and not necessarily what scholars of Japanese literature today say they mean.


RW: One Hundred Poets (Hyakunin Isshu) is an ancient text compiled by Fujiwara no Teika in the 1230s. Throughout the ages it has influenced and continues to have a strong affect on Japanese short form poetry. Volumes of commentaries on this text in Japan have been written since as early as the 13th century. Like anything written long ago, the farther one gets from the date of its origin, the harder it becomes to ascertain and comprehend what the original author had in mind when writing what he'd written. Do you agree?

JM: Yes, of course. And this applies both to the individual poems of each of the one hundred poets, and to the Hyakunin Isshu as an integrated work in its own right.


RW: You mention in your book that most English language translations of One Hundred Poets have included as little annotation as possible. This is contrary to the Japanese tradition of "analyzing and savoring every word and phrase." You further avow that "no translator since the nineteenth century has provided English readers the chance to read the One Hundred Poets as the Japanese do: aided by commentaries, alerted to differing interpretations, or informed about the historical background." Why is this so?

JM: As I try to suggest in my chapter on the history of English translations of waka/tanka, despite the fact that T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land includes notes, the general trend in English poetry since the Romantics has been to view poetry as purely lyrical—"the poet overheard" as I think Northrop Frye put it. Soliloquies—except perhaps for Tristram Shandy!—do not come with footnotes. My approach to translating The Hundred Poets was more along the post-structuralist lines of Roland Barthes, who insisted that every reading was in fact a re-reading. I would hope that the reader could read the translation of the verse, then read all the various interpretive possibilities, and then go back and re-read the verse with a deepened appreciation.


RW: What was Teika's criterion for selection while compiling One Hundred Poems? It is well known that he and many of his contemporaries were deeply appreciative of the aesthetic side of waka. Was this Teika's guiding force?

JM: Teika compiled a number of collections of exemplary poems, many of them consisting of roughly one hundred poems. In most cases, these collections were compiled for specific, individual students (such as the shogun Sanetomo)-they were meant as textbooks designed to meet individual needs. The immediate predecessor to the Hyakunin Isshu, and one closest in contents to the Hyakunin Isshu, was designed to decorate the walls of Teika's father-in-law's villa. It is hard to say how much Teika's choice of individual poems may have been influenced by his knowledge of his father-in-law's taste, or by the way they were going to be displayed. We do know, however, that politics played a role, as Teika left out any poems by either retired emperors Go-Toba or Juntoku, both of whom were in exile after rebelling against the shogunate.

The Hyakunin Isshu is imagined to have been designed for Teika's own villa. Again, maybe these were his favorite 100 poems. Or, since the work has a clear historical structure, perhaps these were the poems that he thought best represented the course of Japanese poetry.

But what is clear is that in all cases, the poems Teika chose were to be USED, that is, alluded to in new compositions (honka-dori), or used as models for new compositions. These were not primarily texts for readers, but for writers, that is, poets.


RW: You assert that "it was the Beats who attempted to recast Japanese poetry in their own image." Please explain. And, how has this affected contemporary English tanka?

JM: I think the Beat poets—and I am actually thinking of the older generation, like Rexroth and Ferlinghetti—inherited an idea of Asian, or "oriental" poetry from Arthur Whaley and Ezra Pound/Ernest Fenollosa. The model was actually CHINESE poetry, which was translated in a kind of telegraphic style, pared-down and "modern." This obviously led to English haiku, via the Imagists. So I think our basic image of Japanese poetry is that is it short, telegraphic (that is, excising "unnecessary" words like particles or conjunctions), and basically imagistic. None of this is necessarily true of waka, however, nor need it be true of its modern incarnation, tanka. In fact, I am not aware of a great deal of English tanka, if by that term you mean original English poetry written in some fashion that can be recognized as related to Japanese verse in a 5-7-5-7-7 meter. English haiku, on the other hand, is obviously alive and well.


RW: You make an interesting point regarding the differences between your translation of the Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poems) and Steven D. Carter's in his book, Traditional Japanese Poetry, by stating, "I have attempted to translate the poems according to a historically specific interpretation—that is, to translate them to reflect our understanding of how Teika himself read the poems."

You go on to say that as translators, "we should not assume that the text is transparent, its meaning clear and fixed. But to appreciate how different interpretations have arisen, the translation must maintain as many of the ambiguities of the text as possible." You add, it is "necessary for the translator to convey some of the complexities of the poem and not suggest that its meaning is wholly contained in a fluent paraphrase." What led you to this conclusion?

JM: There is probably no interpretation of an individual poem from The Hundred Poets that is so off-the-wall that you cannot find someone offering it at some point in the collection's long history. We lose immeasurably, I believe, if we simply cut off that history in the search for a single, "correct" reading. Earlier readers were not idiots, or uneducated, and there is no reason to treat their interpretations as if they were. Nor can we be sure that we will have the last word. As my quote early in the book from F. X. Salda says, rather than simply focusing on the genesis of a work, and what it meant to the particular audience or age it was written for, there is its whole reception history—how subsequent readers made sense of the work and made it relevant to new times and changed contexts.


RW: You state that one of the major theses of your book, Pictures of The Heart, is "that one of these traditional modes of interpretation is to be seen in the many picturalizations of the One Hundred Poets that appeared primarily as woodblock prints during the Edo Period." Tell us more about the "poem-picture" tradition in Japanese culture and how, in the context of the One Hundred Poets, it is an interpretative tool?

JM: Poems have been pictorialized, or illustrated, in Japan since the 10th century. In the Edo period, with the explosion in both printing and a reading population, much of the classical literary tradition was presented in illustrated formats. Such illustrations often can tell us how the book's producers understood specific poems. The clearest example would by HNIS 5, attributed to Sarumaru (an apparently mythical poet):

oku-yama ni
momijhi fumi-wake
naku shika no
kowe kiku toki zo
aki ha kanashiki

          When I hear the voice
of the stag crying for his mate
          stepping through the fallen leaves
deep in the mountains-then is the time
that autumn is saddest.

The Japanese original allows for a bewildering range of interpretive possibilities: is it the stag that is walking through the leaves, or the poet? And what kind of leaves are they? Fallen oak leaves, or yellowed leaves of bush-clover still on the low-lying branches? While the poet doesn't have to specify these things, the artist does, by showing oaks or bush-clover. By showing the poet walking or the stag. In my book, there is an illustration by Moronobu that clearly shows bush-clover rather than oak leaves-none of the illustrations show the poet walking through the leaves, though historically this interpretation was available.

Since from the other direction, such illustrations also influenced the interpretations readers made, if all I see are pictures of the stag walking through the leaves, it is unlikely that I will read the poem as suggesting that it is the poet who is walking through them.

When we move beyond illustrated editions of the HNIS into color woodblock prints (nishiki-e) in the later Edo period by such artists as Hokusai or Kuniyoshi, the interpretations get even wilder and more interesting. Next month I have a book coming out in which my co-author and I have examined a 100-print series by Kuniyoshi, Hiroshige, and Kunisada, called The One Hundred Poets Compared (Ogura Nazorae Hyakunin Isshu) where each HNIS is pared with an event from Japanese history or drama. Understanding how the poem and the event are related to each other requires knowing how the poem was interpreted at the time. All such connections are lost if we discard the history of how people have read these poems over time and restrict ourselves to only the "correct" reading.


Joshua S. Mostow Professor Joshua S. Mostow received his doctorate in the Comparative Literature and Literary Theory Program of the University of Pennsylvania. He has studied at International Christian University (Mitaka, Japan), Universite de Paris (III, VII, and Ecole pratique des Hautes Etudes), and Gakushuin University (Tokyo). He has been a visiting researcher at Gakushuin, Osaka University, and the National Institute of Japanese Literature; and visiting professor at the University of Minnesota; the University of California, Berkeley; and the Institute for East Asian Art History, Heidelberg University (Germany). He is presently Adjunct Professor in the School of Women's Studies, Josai International University (Japan). He has received grants and fellowships from the Japan Foundation, the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Fellowship Committee.

Joshua Mostow is the author of Pictures of The Heart: The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image, published by the University of Hawai'i Press in 1996. He is Professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia in Canada.