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Summer 2006, vol 4 no 2

An Interview With Steven D. Carter
By Robert D. Wilson

RW: You have translated two important books of poetry and commentary by the Japanese Zen monk/poet, Shōtetsu (1381-1459). Professor Donald Keene calls him "the last important waka poet of the Muromachi period." Yet although important, Shōtetsu is remembered more for his critiques of poetry and an autobiography, Tales of Shōtetsu, than for his poetry. Some say he was the most prolific poet of the era. Twenty thousand of his poems were lost when the hermitage he was living in caught fire. And before he passed away, he'd written 10 to 11,000 more. In your introduction to the book you co-wrote with the late Robert H. Brower, you speak of Shōtetsu as being "largely neglected in later years." Why was he neglected? Was it because he defied the poetic conventions of his day? Was it because Japanese court society was coming to an end? Was it a combination of the two?

SC: When poets of later years (1500-1800) give reasons for why they could not recommend Shōtetsu's work as a model for young poets, almost always they say the same thing: that he was very skillful (jōzu, in Japanese) but unorthodox (ifū) and that his style was bad (warushi or waroshi). Unfortunately, almost no one ever defines these terms. From usage examples in other contexts, however, one can be fairly certain that jōzu meant rhetorically skillful, which Shōtetsu was. And since the word ifū is also used to condemn poets like Kyōgoku Tamekane, it seems safe to assume that Shōtetsu was thought of in the same way, i. e., as a poet with overabundant energy and imagination who was too quick to depart from long-established standards of diction and decorum. Warushi, too, is quite vague, but to say that his "style" was bad can only mean that it was not courtly enough, not in "good taste."

Having said this, however, I would also like to emphasize that Shōtetsu's departures from conventional style and good taste, especially from the vantage point of the twentieth century, were actually quite minor. He did employ a few "inelegant images"—monkeys, crows, horses, etc.—with greater frequency than his contemporaries at court, and he did sometimes experiment with unusual syntactical patterns; but it would be an overstatement to characterize him as a true radical. In fact, I would argue that the most important reasons for his unfortunate fate were more political than artistic. He happened to be affiliated with the noble Reizei house (descendants of Fujiwara no Teika) at a time when another faction was dominant at court; and also he managed to somehow offend the shogun, Ashikaga Yoshinori. As a result, none of his poems appeared in the last imperial anthology (1439), and since the imperial anthologies would constitute the canon for centuries to come, his work would quite naturally be overlooked. Furthermore, since it was the conservative standards of the Nijō tradition (also claiming descent from Teika) that dominated critical discourse throughout the Warring States and Edo periods, his work was also kept off the lists of "recommended reading" for poets for that reason—especially, again, for younger readers. Finally, I should add that one early Edo poet—a man named Shimizu Munekawa—admits that one reason Shōtetsu was not liked by some court poets was simple jealousy over the fact that he attracted so many disciples. He seems to have been a charismatic personality who had a real following, and that fact was no doubt offensive to members of the nobility who thought that responsibility for Japanese poetry rested with them as a kind of birthright. Coincidentally, court society did continue on into the Edo period, and in recent years Japanese scholars looking back at texts from that period have discovered that court poets were much more important than one would ever guess from schoolbook narratives.

(The reason why younger readers in particular were counseled not to read his work, by the way, was because their elders worried that Shōtetsu's habits would rub off on them. The gap that now exists between readers and writers did not exist to the same degree in those days. Readers, in other words, were also almost always writers. Indeed, reading was not undertaken for aesthetic enjoyment or edification but as a way to prepare for writing. Hence the importance placed on reading only the proper models.)


RW: A lot of what you have written to date has to do with waka poetry. Why this area of academic concentration, and why do you feel it is important that people become familiar with this poetic genre?

SC: The question of why one ended up choosing one thing over another is a tricky one. Most of us construct a narrative for ourselves and then let it serve as an explanation. My story is nothing at all unusual. Like many others, I began reading Japanese literature—Kawabata, Tanizaki, Mishima, then Sōseki and Ōgai—in my college days. When I went to graduate school, I was still intending to concentrate on modern Japanese fiction. But after taking courses with Helen McCullough, I was introduced to renga and waka. Since I had been interested in poetry from at least my high school days, when I went to readings by William Stafford in my hometown—Portland, Oregon—I suppose there is no real surprise that I eventually ended up concentrating where I did. The honest answer, then, is that I love poetry. Always have, probably always will, donít really know why.

Now, to the more important part of the question: Why is waka important? Well, the simple answer is that historically waka has always been at the very heart of the Japanese canon and that much else in Japanese literature (and aesthetics) flows from it. These days, the very fact that something has been so central a component in the canon is often seen as a reason to suspect itóto see it as complicit in regimes of domination and control, and so on. I have nothing against entertaining such arguments and am indeed politically sympathetic to the instincts they represent. However, I think that attempting to jettison all that has been considered canonical in the past is a misguided and ultimately silly endeavor. Waka is so much a part of whatever narrative one wants to trace that one simply cannot avoid dealing with it. And I also think that there are some important things that the waka tradition has to teach usóabout traditional conceptions of beauty and order, about the place of individuals within a larger literary community, about conceptions of nature and its relationship to human beings, and so on. I am currently teaching a course on renga, for instance, in which our project is to reconsider a literary genre as a kind of socialityósomething from which western students trained up on romantic ideals of individualism and originality can learn a great deal.


RW: As a follow-up question, is there any real distinction between waka and tanka? I have seen earlier works from the Kokinshu and the Manyoshu referred to as tanka and as waka; hence the designations seem interchangeable. Are they? And if there is a difference, what would that be and at what point in time did it occur? To whom was it attributable?

SC: I'm afraid one looks in vain for consistency in usage of terms in pre-modern texts. I am certain that in the medieval period, at least, the word most often used to refer to the 5-7-5-7-7 form is uta. Tanka does come up occasionally, and waka too—the latter sometimes meaning "Japanese poetry" and not just the uta. And since sometime in the major period, tanka has been the preferred term of modern jige (commoner) practitioners of the form. So, I'm afraid the situation is a bit messy.


RW: You state in the Preface of Conversations With Shōtetsu, pg. vii, that Shōtetsu is "one of the finest of all classical Japanese poets." And in your introduction to Unforgotten Dreams: Poems by the Zen Monk Shōtetsu, pg xxvii, you say, "My hope is that the translations offered here will serve to encourage more interest in him among English readers, who will find in his work a mastery that goes beyond the mastery of convention. . . . Indeed, to borrow the words of Donald Justice and Robert Mezey describing the neglected poet Henri Coulette, 'a sense of utter freedom demonstrated within the severest limits.'"

Some examples of Shōtetsu's waka:

      The wind from the sea
Blows the sand against the shore
      And upon the rocks---
Its voice sighing among the pines
Twisted sand bent down with age

Above the waves
of life
             in the floating
the moon hesitates
                           or going
on the rough shore
                                    of the mountain rim.

Out of
            the stillness
of my own breast
the rising moon;
and when I turn to look at it---
the moon
                    in clumps of cloud.

What is it about Shōtetsu's poetry that makes it exemplary above so many others?

SC: First, a true confession. I believe that one reason I have tried to make the case for Shōtetsu is because, in a way, I was involved in "discovering" him. This happened quite by accident, during the time when I was doing research on the renga poet Sōgi many years ago. I kept running into Shōtetsuís name, usually noted as the teacher of one of Sōgiís teachers. So, I did what I had been trained to do: I went to the library, got the relevant volume of Shikashū taisei and found a huge collection of poems that, as I read them, seemed sometimes incredibly difficult but always rhetorically brilliant and full of energy. I knew the standard narrative about late medieval uta—that poems were entirely conventional, lacking in verve and imagination, and so on. Immediately I knew that Shōtetsu didnít quite fit the pattern.

Since then, I have to say that my admiration for some other poets of the late medieval period has grown—Sanjōnishi Sanetaka and Reizei Tamehiro being two; but my admiration for Shōtetsu is undiminished. When asked what sets him apart, however, I come up with a reply that is probably not what anyone would anticipate. Because what I think sets him apart from most poets is simply that he left so many poems behind, including some that more discrete court poets would doubtless not have preserved. In that sense, Shōtetsu was a kind of free spirit, someone with whom Teika would have been able to chat, although no doubt they would have ended up arguing. (Some of Teikaís heirs, by the way, complained he left too many poems behind, rather than getting rid of those that didnít quite measure up to standards of decorum.) And Shōtetsu was—dare I say it—an individualist, at least when compared to his contemporaries in the noble families. I rush to add that he was also a consummate craftsman, completely in control of traditional convention but also able to transgress convention—usually only slightly—in order to make his point.


RW: How much of an influence did Zen Buddhism exert on Shōtetsu and his poetry, and did it set him apart from other practitioners of waka poetry?

SC: In the introduction to Unforgotten Dreams I have addressed this issue. My opinion is that Shōtetsu was greatly influenced by Zen, but I should also say that since Japanese poetry of the late medieval age is so profoundly influenced by Buddhist thought in general, separating out one doctrine as more influential than another is difficult. However, I do see Zen influence in at least these ways: First, in his willingness to be mildly iconoclastic; second, in his penchant for scenes from everyday life, including even some that involve images of the common man and reveal a commonerís (rather than a courtierís) sensibility; three, in his frequent expression of the themes of temporality, transmutability, and ephemerality; and finally, in the persona he sometimes presents—that of the eccentric recluse. One can find evidence of the same things here and there in other poets not influenced by Zen, of course, but not in so intense and concentrated a fashion.


RW: Likewise, as a follow-up question, did the Taoist text, the Zhuangzi, influence Shōtetsu, both in his perception of the world around him and in the way he expressed himself poetically?

SC: Since he was trained in a Zen monastery, Shōtetsu must have read the major Chinese philosophical texts. It is tempting, therefore, to see Taoist influence in his work. The problem is that finding explicit references to Zhuangzi in his uta is nearly impossible, primarily because poetic conventions simply did not lend themselves to that kind of allusion. Also, I think it is important to remember that by Shōtetsuís day Taoism had been thoroughly naturalized in Japan—become part of literary culture, in a way, rather than just a field of academic or religious discourse.


RW: Yugen is a word that continues to pop up in writings about Shōtetsu. His highest praise, as you mention, went to poems that had this quality. And, of course, this trait was clearly evident in his own poetry. Here is Shōtetsu's own definition of yugen:

"Mystery and depth (yugen) is something that is in the heart but is not expressed in words. The moon veiled in thick clouds, or the bright foliage on the mountains concealed by autumn mists--such poetic conceptions are regarded as having the effect of mystery and depth. But if one asks in which particular feature the mystery and depth are to be found, it is difficult to specify exactly. A person who failed to comprehend this fact would argue that the moon is at its most enchanting when it is glittering brightly in a clear sky with not a cloud in sight. But with mystery and depth it is impossible to say just what it is that is enchanting or lovely." (Pp. 55-56, Steven D. Carter, Forward to Conversations with Shotetsu.)

Others describing the Japanese aesthetic yugen, fill out the picture far better:

"It is just as when we look at the sky of an autumn dusk. It has no sound or color, and yet, though we do not understand why, we somehow find ourselves moved to tears." (Mumyo Hisho, Sources of Japanese Tradition, Donald Keene, Ryusaku Tsunoda, Wm. Theodore De Bary, p. 285.)

"There is a yugen in the sight of a tea-master dipping water into a kettle with simple movements that have about them the lines of eternity." (ibid.)

Said Shōtetsu, "The best poems are those that leave something unsaid."

Professor Donald Keene posits in chapter 18 of In Seeds in The Heart, "To achieve this effect, words were sometimes omitted from poems, even words necessary for comprehension, and the difficulty of the poem that resulted justified in terms of the elusive depths hinted at by the ambiguity."

This was not a popular notion. You state in your introduction to Conversations with Shōtetsu, "As the record of Shōtetsu's life reveals, most poets of the day, including even many liberals, did not agree with his high evaluation of yugen." Why was this an unpopular notion?

SC: Japanese scholars who write about yūgen in Shōtetsuís poetics invariably say that he used the term in reference to a rich and dreamy atmosphere associated with his nostalgic yearning for the era of The Tale of Genji, drawing a distinction between Shōtetsuís use of the term and, say, Teikaís. No doubt there is something to what they say. I would add only that the term yūgen appears not only in Shōtetsu but in many treatises on poetry—including those written by more conservative poets—from the 1300-1400s. The frustrating thing is that it is seldom given any concrete definition, beyond what one can derive from looking at lists of poems that supposedly illustrate the ideal.

The only thing I can really add to this discussion is a cautionary note, namely, that terms like yūgen and ushin were seldom used as neutral descriptive terms but rather as words of praise attached to specific poems. (That is the way the terms always come up in poem contests, for example.) I would argue that almost never, for instance, would a poet sit down to create a poem in the yūgen style, so to speak—unless that was the assignment involved in a particular commission. These terms were usually applied after the fact, to poems that were considered excellent, and usually as part of an attempt by the critic (who was also a poet, of course) to account for that excellence.

As to the question of why Shōtetsuís enthusiasm for yūgen was not shared by many of his contemporaries, I would say that it was because they recognized yūgen as the province of genius—something that probably could not be taught. For beginning poets, therefore—and of course treatises were written for beginners and not for masters—it was not considered an appropriate goal. Again, my guess is that many of Shōtetsuís contemporaries secretly admired his poems in that style but felt that the ideal of ushin (or "deep feeling") was more appropriate for most poets.


RW: Your lineation in Unforgotten Dreams is innovative, unlike the waka translated by other scholars, the end of each line, seemingly a place to pause. For example:

On Taki River
waves shatter
                          into pieces;
                  the rocks,
       seems to come bursting forth ---

Please elucidate on your method of translation.

SC: I have two primary purposes in using "non-traditional" ways to represent uta on the page. The first is to drive home a point that is of some importance to anyone interested in Japanese poetic culture, in which one in fact finds poems recorded in many different formats—sometimes in one line, more often in two, not rarely in three lines plus three characters in a final line, and sometimes in chirashi style, with words scattered all over the page. (And there are probably other variations that don't come to mind at the moment.) In other words, I want to stress that there was a great deal of variety in the way poems were recorded, and that different artistic effects arise from those various modes of presentation. Unfortunately, there are uninformed translators who have claimed that poems were usually recorded in one line, which is patently false. (That they can be recorded in one line does not mean that they always were.) I want to draw attention to the truth of the matter, pure and simple. After all, lineation is one of the few tools of a translator, and giving it up for no good reason is silly.

The other reason behind my decisions is a desire to get readers to slow down, as I think I said in the introduction to Unforgotten Dreams. When uta were presented at gatherings, they were chanted aloud at a fairly slow pace, and usually not just once but two or three times. In the modern world, however, we are used to reading things silently, and used to reading fast. The unfortunate effect of this when it comes to uta approached in translation is that people tend to read through them very quickly. My lineation pattern, I hope, forces people to go a little slower, to notice pauses and hesitations, overlapping syntactical patterns, and so on. I am not claiming, by the way, that the pauses and hesitations I produce always directly reflect the syntax of the originals; rather I want to reflect the kinds of hesitations that are proper to the form. I do try to follow the image order of the originals whenever possible, even if that means producing a rather strange English sentence, and I also try to stick to the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic pattern whenever I can. No doubt some people find this strange, but I believe that a close look at the originals shows that most uta "unfold" toward a final punch-line or revelation or conclusion of some sort which maintaining the original image order helps to approximate. As for the decision to stick to the syllable count—let's just say I find it useful to have a form to work against. I might add that I am also not above including a few "empty" prepositions and articles either, because the originals are full of them—as for instance in the line from Hitomaro, shimogakure yuku / fune o shi zo omou, in which the o shi zo are all semantically empty. Interpretive padding, on the other hand, I try to avoid, although I'm sure that now that I have said that I will receive comments from readers who see it all over the place. Translation does involve some interpretation, inevitably.

Which brings me to the last thing I have to say about my translations, that I think of all of them as failures, more or less. But every once in a while I produce a failure that is interesting in a literary sense, which I do find satisfying. But enough: if I go on thinking about this, I will surely be seized with "translator's block" tomorrow and be unable to get anything done.


Steven D. Carter is a Professor in the Department of Asian Languages at Stanford University in California. His recent publications include:

Just Living: Poems by the Medieval Monk Tonna. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

Medieval Japanese Writers, Editor. (Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 203. Detroit: Bruccoli, Clark, Layman, Inc., 1999).

Unforgotten Dreams: Poems by the Zen Monk ShŰtetsu (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).

Regent Redux: A Life of the Statesman-Scholar IchijŰ Kaneyoshi. (Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 1997).

"Remodeling the Reizei House: The State of the Poetic Field in Eighteenth Century Japan," Early Modern Japan: An Interdisciplinary Journal 9.2 (Fall 2001): 30-39.

"Chats with the Master: Selections from Kenzai Zōdan," Monumenta Nipponica 56.3 (Autumn 2001): 295-347.

"The Persistence of the Personal in Late Medieval Uta," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 59.1 (June 1999): 163-185.

"Seeking What the Masters Sought: Masters, Disciples, and Poetic Enlightenment in Medieval Japan," in The Distant Isle: Studies and Translations of Japanese Literature in Honor of Robert H. Brower. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 1997, pp. 35-38.

"On a Bare Branch: BashŰ and the Haikai Profession," Journal of the American Oriental Society 117.1 (1997): 57-69.

Professor Carter is widely renowned for his translations of medieval Japanese court poetry into English.