Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Summer 2006, vol 4 no 2

Just Living: Poems and Prose by
The Japanese Monk Tonna

Edited and Translated by Steven D. Carter
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


Stanford University Professor Steven D. Carter is one of the foremost translators of Japanese poetry in the world. Furthermore, he has played an important role in introducing the English speaking poetic community to Japanese poets previously inaccessible to those unable to read Japanese. He has played a major role in introducing readers to Shotetsu and other important poets indigenous to Japan's late medieval age; poets whose works have been overshadowed by earlier works such as the Man'yoshu and Kokinshu.

One such poet is Tonna (1289-1372), a monk considered by many to be one of the four top poets of the Shinkokin Age. Yet remarkably, much of his poetry and teaching has been neglected by Japanese scholars past and present, as has that of many of the poets who composed waka (tanka) after the Shinkokin age (1180-1225).

It didn't help that Tonna was a commoner. Says Carter, "No one of commoner status could hope to attain the social prominence of the Nijo masters, on whose political and ideological support Tonna was more or less dependent. Thus when imperial anthologies of the genre were issued . . . and seven of them were compiled during his long career . . . he could never hope for more than a few poems to be included; and on formal occasions he could never truly take center stage, instead always deferring to his superiors in birth, however inferior some of them may have been in terms of talent."

Born into a high ranking military family, Tonna opted to become a Buddhist monk associated with the Ji sect. He lived and breathed poetry, thinking the act of poetic composition to be a pathway leading to enlightenment. He became a disciple of the poet Tameyo. Under his tutelage Tonna paid his poetic dues, studying long hours, writing and rewriting poetry, and submitting his poems for scrutiny by Tameyo. Poets today can learn from Tonna's example. The path to becoming a good poet is not a short one. It takes hard work, practice, and most of all, time.

Hard work paid off. Tonna in time became one of the most respected poet/teachers of his time; writing commentaries, composing poetry, organizing and chairing poetry competitions and gatherings, collecting manuscripts, and disciplining students. Adds Carter, "In his own day, those who knew Tonna's work knew it only through word of mouth or handwritten records of the many poetic events such as hundred poem sequences, poem contests, and votive offerings to shrines in which he participated."

Like Saigyo, whom he considered to be a mentor of sorts, Tonna was not a recluse, nor financially independent. Being a successful poet required him to be socially and politically adept. Says Carter, "Tonna seems to have been able to remain above the politics of the time, mixing safely with members of warring factions, political or otherwise." Had he failed in this area, none of his poetry would have been published and the modern world most likely would never have been exposed to his poetry and prose.

Says Carter, "Tonna was a master of the literary arts of his time. Through a lifetime of dedication to the art of composition, he achieved a level of artistry that made him the envy of all until the advent of new critical models, most of them adopted from the study of Western Romantic poetry, pushed his work to the margins. No student of Japanese poetry, however, can claim a full understanding of the native canon without some attention to this quintessential medieval master of the Way."

Leaving unclosed
my door
            of black pine,
                                i go
to bed for the night,
pillowed on an arm 
in plum scent . . . and light
                                       from the moon

If only words
had the power
                     to describe
the cherry blossoms . . .
then one would need
                               no broken branch
to tell people
                    of their color

Making known
the boundlessness
                           of the sky . . . 
the peak of Fuji,
where above the smoke
the bright rays
                       of the moon

In my old home town,
no one comes
                    to visit.
. . . the leaves
                     on the reeds
left alone
              to make replies
to the tidings
                   of the wind

Note: Regarding the format he uses in his translations of Tonna's poetry, Carter says: "I have adopted an approach that . . . reflects the syntax and image-order of the originals. Each of the five lines that make up a complete uta are thus anchored on the left margin, with syntactic patterns of the originals then represented by jogging of lines to the right, suggesting the way the Japanese poems seem to unfold."

At the end of the book, Professor Carter has translated for us portions of "From A Frog At The Bottom Of A Well," notes Tonna wrote reflecting his view of poetry. These notes are as relevant now as they were when they were written. The wisdom and advice Tonna shares give readers a rare glimpse into the poet's mindset as well as the socio/political contexts of that era.

In recent times, poetry has been divided into many currents, with cronies at poetic gatherings always ready with their various opinions, throwing my old heart into confusion and leaving me looking for the one path I first heard of long ago. Being somewhat at a loss about how to proceed from now on, I put these notes together, beginning with the nine grades and the ten styles, and continuing on to poems favored by particular authors. I have put them all in one box and given them the name, "From A Frog At The Bottom Of A Well."

Just Living: Poems and Prose by the Japanese Monk Tonna
Edited and Translated by Steven D. Carter
Columbia University Press 2003
ISBN o-231-12552-6