Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
Contents Archives About Simply Haiku Submissions Search
Winter 2007, vol 5 no 4

An Interview with Paul Gordon Schalow
by Robert D. Wilson

RW: How prevalent were poems dealing with male friendship in Heian era poetic texts?

PS: My study argues that male friendship was an important and recurring theme in Heian poetry, but it is difficult to quantify in terms of numbers. The answer is complicated by the fact that poems could be written in either Japanese (waka) or Chinese (kanshi) and for public or private purposes, and poems of each type were composed, consumed, and distributed differently at court. Moreover, kanshi have received relatively less scholarly attention than waka.

In early Heian, public kanshi collections enjoyed prestige and provided a means for the Heian nobleman to show off his classical education at court. Friendship was a topic with a certain status in Chinese poetry and therefore it was often the subject of Heian kanshi. By mid-Heian, the imperial anthologies of waka had attained the highest prestige, eclipsing kanshi. Waka on male friendship did not have a separate poetic category in the imperial anthologies and therefore are found scattered across other categories, especially among the poems on Parting and Travel.

Keep in mind also that poetic composition was often a formal and communal effort, and verse was therefore frequently composed in response to an assigned topic at court functions or poetic competitions. The poetry composed at these events was not always preserved for posterity. In any case, the theme of friendship was probably never as popular as those perennial favorites of the waka poets, love and the four seasons.


RW: Are some of the poems in the Heian poetic texts misinterpreted as poetry written to or about women?

PS: I don't know if misinterpreted is the right word, but certainly it was possible for a friendship poem to be contextualized very differently in different texts, so that a poem in one context might appear to be to or about a man, and in another context to or about a woman. The problem is further complicated by the fact that male and female poets freely adopted the perspective of the opposite sex in their poems, so a nobleman could easily write what would be called a woman's poem, and vice versa. Gendered perspective was a poetic performance to them and it makes it hard to tell what is and isn't a misinterpretation. That's why a grasp of the specific literary context of a poem becomes so central to identifying and analyzing what constitutes a poetry of male friendship in the Heian tradition, as my study shows.


RW: Expand on your assertion that exclusion from court power provided a basis for marginalized aristocrats to participate in a cultural and aesthetic regime of power that emerged in relation to the political power of the Fujiwara Regency.

PS: While the population of ranked noblemen and noblewomen numbered several thousand by mid-Heian, very few of them held actual political power. The Fujiwara Regency came to dominate the imperial court through a system of marriage-politics, and that meant the non-Fujiwara clans as well as the many members of the minor branches of the Fujiwara clan itself had little input into the way the court was governed. There is a good deal of scholarship that suggests the literary and poetic production for which the Heian period is so well known was an outlet for the creative energies of the educated elite that was excluded from political decision-making.

For a while the disenfranchised courtiers' poetic production created an aesthetic counter-culture to the Fujiwara hegemony and also gave emperors an outlet for asserting themselves against domination by the Fujiwara chieftains, but the mid-Heian regent Fujiwara Michinaga mastered the art of making this cultural capital work for his political gain, and for the rest of the Heian period whatever subversive force poetic production may have once had was largely lost.


RW: How was Fujiwara no Kintō the preeminent arbiter of Japanese poetic taste of his day?

PS: Kintō exerted his influence through widely admired poetic treatises that explained and guided fellow courtiers in poetic composition, and through compilation of his famed Wakan rōei shū (Japanese and Chinese Poems to Sing), discussed in chapter one of my study. He was a talented poet, but what made him a force to deal with was not his poems but his ability to define in his treatises and compilations what constituted excellence in Chinese and Japanese poetic composition.

Kintō was an exact contemporary of Michinaga, and he may have resented being eclipsed by his more powerful kinsman. Kintō's resentment never manifested itself in the form of political rivalry or protest, however. In fact, it would be safe to say that Kintō's poetic career ended up serving Michinaga's goal that poetry should embellish and legitimate the rule of the Fujiwara Regency, rather than pose a challenge to it.


RW: Who is addressed in Kokinshū poem 378 and what is the poem's intent? No matter how great / a distance you may travel / my loving heart will / never lag behind though it / may seem to have been parted.

PS: As with most of the poems in Book 8 on "Parting," the poem says farewell to someone who is leaving the capital. It was written by Kiyowara no Fukayabu, and all we know from the headnote to the poem is that he composed it for a "beloved friend who was going to the eastern provinces." The poem expresses devotion to his friend and states his feeling that their hearts will continue to be as one, no matter what the distance that may separate them. As I argue in my study, waka inherited from Chinese poetics a sense of the transcendence of male friendship, and this poem reflects exactly that point: separation means nothing as long as friends live on in each other's thoughts. In that sense, this poem shares much with the poem in the Intimate Friend section (episode 46) of The Tale of Ise, which I discuss in chapter two.


RW: Let us consider this waka from the Tale of Genji: Forlorn in the clouds, I lift in my solitude cries of loneliness, longing for that old, old, friend I once flew with wing to wing. Why do you say that this overtly sensual poem is addressed to a male by a male? As you posit, "The poem is one of the most sensual evocations of male friendship in all of Heian literature."

PS: The poem appears in the Suma chapter (chapter 9) when Genji's friend Tō no Chūjō pays him a hurried visit at his place of exile in Suma. They spend a night reminiscing and composing Chinese poems before Tō no Chūjō, who fears retaliation by the forces of the Minister of the Right, rushes off to return to the capital at dawn. This poem appears in their farewell scene and beautifully captures all of Tō no Chūjō's pent-up feelings of longing for Genji. The clouds represent the lofty reaches of the capital, but Tō no Chūjō feels only hostility and isolation there in the absence of his friend.

I call the poem sensual because it employs the words hitorine "sleeping alone" and tsubasa narabeshi tomo "friend who flew (or lay) [with me] wing to wing," marking To no Chujo's longing for Genji's physical presence. The Genji's author, Murasaki Shikibu, was the one who created the poem, of course, but she situates it in her tale as a poem of male friendship, addressed by one man to another. Unlike the Chinese-inspired poems of friendship, this waka confronts the reality of separation rather than positing friendship's ability to transcend separation's absence and loss.


RW: Why do we see little or no poetry of this nature in contemporary tanka, both Japanese and non-Japanese?

PS: Poetry on male friendship has always retained interest for readers and poets alike, but with the advent of modernity in the late 19th century you have two things that worked against it. One was the decision to dispense with Chinese learning (kanbun) in the Meiji era. The idea was that Japan must liberate itself from centuries of reliance on ancient Chinese literary, philosophical, and poetic texts in order to create a new and modern nation-state that would take its place in the emerging modern world order. By jettisoning kanbun, many of the poetic themes were lost that had been important in Chinese poetics, such as male friendship.

Another factor that helped displace the theme of friendship was the desire to find in Japanese literature an erotic impulse similar to the love between men and women found in European romantic poetry. Literary eroticism in the preceding Edo period had been highly ambiguous, encompassing powerful homosexual and heterosexual impulses that played out as commercial eroticism in the pleasure quarters and kabuki theaters. In order to salvage eroticism in the newly modernizing Japan from its associations with prostitution and homosexuality, which the West deemed uncivilized at the time, literary reformers turned to the Heian period as a source of a purely romantic sensibility that stood on par with European romanticism.

As a result, Heian poetry came to be marketed and appreciated primarily as a poetry of love between men and women (and of the four seasons), and Heian texts such as the Tale of Ise and the Tale of Genji were recast as texts primarily about male-female relations and heterosexual romance. Unfortunately, many of the male-male or female-female dimensions of the Heian literary tradition were suppressed or forgotten in the process. My study is an attempt to recoup one of those dimensions, namely, male friendship in Heian poetic texts, and to rediscover its significance for readers today.


Paul Gordon Schalow is professor of Japanese Literature at Rutgers University. He is the author of A Poetics of Courtly Male Friendship in Heian Japan (University of Hawai'i Press, 2007)

A review of this book appears in this issue of Simply Haiku.