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Summer 2007, vol 5 no 2

Traditional Japanese Literature:
An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600

edited by Haruo Shirane
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


To gain a good understanding of Japanese short form poetry, one needs to dig deep, to go beyond the few handbooks readily available in area bookstores and the advice received on on-line poetry forums.

Professor Haruo Shirane's new book, the companion volume to Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology,1600 -1900, is an excellent introduction to early Japanese literature and the mindset that gave us Japanese short form poetry.

As Professor Shirane says in his introduction:

Traditional Japanese Literature . . . embraces the diversity of texts, genres, and languages that existed before the construction of the modern canon while highlighting the dominant role of the high genres. . . . In a departure from previous anthologies, I also offer extensive commentary and notes on the poetry, which loses much in translation because of its brevity and allusive nature.

The chapters and periods in this anthology (Ancient, Heian, Kamakura, Northern and Southern Courts, and Muromachi) begin with short, concise summations of relevant political, social, and economic changes, accompanied by short introductions indigenous to specified texts.

An excerpt:

sora ni naru                                                The empty sky
kokoro wa haru no                                      of my heart
kasumi ni te                                               enshrouded in spring mist
yo ni araji to mo                                          rises to the thoughts of
omoi tatsu kana                                          leaving the world behind.


This poem was composed seven months before Saigyō took vows. The opening phrase (sora ni naru kokoro) literally means "my heart that is the sky" or "my heart that is empty," which suggests that the poet's heart is becoming the sky, spreading infinitely until it becomes clear and empty. The verb tatsu means both for a person "to resolve" (on leaving the world) and for the spring mist "to rise." The combined image suggests that Saigyō wishes to rise above the world, where he can freely gaze on the clear and empty sky of his own heart.

Although labeled an anthology, this book is much more than a collection of early Japanese literature. It offers detailed analysis of periods and styles of writing, coupled with thorough commentary.

Professor Shirane chose to use a variety of translators "for the poetry to avoid," as he states, "the monotony of having one translator or voice for multiple poets."

Some of the translated poems:

In the slack of the night
I lie awake, my heart grown
helpless at the sound
of plovers crying in the stream,
seeking the shallow water.

Translated by Edwin Cranston

In boundless desire
lit by the fire of love
this night at least
may you tread the path of dreams
and no one blame us.

—Ono no Komachi
Translated by Anne Commons

The mugwort grows more
and more rank, the dew on it
soaks through and through;
not visited by anyone,
my voice is only raised in sobs.

—The daughter of Takasue
Translated by Sonja Arntzen

Rising up into the sky---
it looks like a speck of dust.

Lifted by the wind
over the misty fields---
evening skylarks.

Translated by Steven D. Carter

Professor Shirane's new book is a valuable resource. I echo what University of Pittsburg Professor Thomas Rimer said regarding Shirane's book:

The first single volume I know of in any language to encompass with such gusto the best and most representative writing accomplished during these many decades. There has quite simply never been a collection like this one.

Traditional Japanese Literature:
An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600

Edited by Haruo Shirane
Columbia University Press (2007)
ISBN 13: 978-0-231-13696-6