Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
Contents Archives About Simply Haiku Submissions Search
Summer 2006, vol 4 no 2

A Waka Anthology
Volume Two: Grasses of Remembrance

Translated with a commentary and notes by
Edwin A. Cranston
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


The majority of Japanese court poetry has not been translated into English, leaving a void for those, like myself, who love uta and want to become better poets. And how can a tanka (waka) poet improve his craft without studying the poetry of those who gave us the genre?

Professor Edwin A. Cranston has undertaken a monumental project. He is translating and commenting on an important body of Japanese poetry that covers the most important and historically relevant poems written between 550 and 1502.

Divided into two books, Volume Two of Cranston's epic anthology continues from where Volume One left off, drawing from two centuries of poetry (880s to the 1080s)--a period of time called the Early Classical Period. Previous to this period in history, the majority of Japanese poetry was written in the Chinese language, the preferred language of the Japanese aristocracy. This changed as the Japanese court and, therefore, the common people under their rule, sought their own identity apart from Chinese influence. The three centuries covered in Volume Two were a time of prolific poetic expression: "The first full flowering of court literature."

Deciding what to translate and incorporate into the anthology was a monumental task in itself. The decision was made to present the five books of Kokinshu's love poems in their entirety plus translations of various sections of the Gosenshu, Shuishu, and Goshuishu, private anthologies; Shinsen Man'yoshu; and all 795 of the poems contained in Genji Monogatari. All in all, 2600 poems were translated and commented on, making this anthology the most comprehensive anthology of its kind in the English speaking world.

Volume Two is the product of several years of hard work, sacrifice, and research by Professor Cranston and those working with him. Cranston, Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature at Harvard University, previously translated and compiled Waka Anthology, Volume I: The Gem Glistening Cup, published by Stanford University Press in 1993.

Cranston is an excellent writer who writes in a style that's easy to understand and pleasurable to read. Grasses of Remembrance is accessible to academics and non-academics alike. It is a body of work that will inform and enrich those who wish to become better poets. Lately, a lot of the tanka written by English language poets has become predictable, formula ridden, and less than memorable. Perhaps this is due in part to the lack of translated Japanese waka (tanka) accessible in English. Tanka poetry is more than five line poems based roughly on a 5-7-5-7-7- syllable pattern. In the United States there are several schools of thought pertaining to what a tanka is and is not. Some think the genre is separate albeit related to the Japanese genre; that any five line poem is a tanka. One small group claims to be the progenitors of modern waka, complete with a strict set of rules insisting on the inclusion of "a grammatical 'pivot' similar to that of classical poetry," capitalization, and colloquial speech indigenous to the West, influenced as much by Emily Dickenson, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Allen Ginsberg as they are by Saigyo, Teika, and other influential Japanese waka pioneers. Others mimic the Japanese, borrowing the colloquial speech of those who wrote tanka hundreds of years ago. Still others make up fictional events and incorporate them into a five line poem insisting that these are tanka as well and that in today's world, anything goes. And, of course, there are those who squabble over whether a tanka is a five, three, or one line poem, should include or not include a pivot, etc. To the Japanese, however, tanka is a mindset, a way of viewing life in a way far removed from the way Westerners see and understand life. In Japan, tanka is well received and practiced in most households. One book of tanka, Salad Anniversary by Tawara Machi, sold several million copies in Japan alone. According to one well known American publisher, a book of tanka poetry in the United States is considered a best seller if it sells 300 or more copies. What does this disparity tell you?

Professor Cranston's newest volume introduces readers to poetry (he calls them tanka) they have not read before, re-introduces poems they may have read, and provides valuable commentary giving readers insight into the Japanese mindset and places the social context of that era into a comprehensible perspective. His commentary is insightful, lucid, and well researched. It is also obvious that he enjoyed writing the commentary in addition to translating and compiling the poetry. His translations are equally accessible yet remain true to the mindset that created them.

Says Professor Cranston regarding his method of translation:

"I employ current, not reconstructed, Japanese, largely in the interest of familiarity and ease of pronunciation, although I am aware of the arguments favoring fidelity to historical phonetic values. I match the number of ku (prosodic units of five or seven syllables) with an equal number of lines in translation. To me, these units are lines, and I treat and discuss them as such. Their short-long rhythm is the pulse beat of waka prosody, and so I echo it in my translations. I do not, however, adhere rigorously to a set syllabic pattern in my English versions. . . . I am unwilling to forgo the advantages of shorter and longer impulse, breaks in rhythm, for the sake of classical uniformity. Variation within pattern is my compromise. The waka pattern is by now firmly ingrained in that portion of me that makes poems, but the emergent poem itself seems to know when to go and when to stop."

If I fall in love
With a face I cannot say
I saw or did not see,
Shall I pass the day in gazing,
Lost in a strange bafflement

Ariwara no Narihira no Ason

Though I long for her,
I am wary of others' eyes:
That high levee
Keeps me from crossing the river
To that "there" where I know she is.


The far mountain ridge
Has indeed an empty name,
For it is the heart
Of the watcher that the moon
Enters on a winter night

Daini no Sammi

Professor's Cranston's notes and commentary are priceless. They give us insight into the poems we are introduced to; an insight we would otherwise not be privy to and, therefore, be unable to understand the true intent and meaning of the poetry.

Take, for instance:

Were there in this world
No Bullock Cart to bring us out,
How should we escape
From the House on Fire, our dwelling,
Our realm of burning desire?


Writes Cranston regarding this waka:

It is "based on a specific text, the famous 'Parable of the Burning House' in the Lotus Sutra. Briefly, a wealthy householder with small children lived in an enormous but ramshackle and filthy mansion. One day it spontaneously caught fire, but the children were too absorbed in play to realize their danger and flee. Their father had to lure them out with promises of wonderful toys waiting outside . . . a goat cart, a deer cart, and a bullock cart. Afterward, he rewarded them by giving them all the Great Vehicle, the bullock cart. Thus the Buddha saves us from the vile world of our blind passions with convenient inducements, finally to put us aboard the Mahayana faith."

It's exciting reading Cranston's commentary. He not only translates the text but explains the text as it should be explained, having thoroughly researched the era, social context, and religious beliefs of the era covered in Volume 2. Translation is a tricky and demanding art. To do it properly takes more than a knowledge of the language being translated. Those who think it is a piece of cake to translate early court waka are sadly deluded. The language, slang, and colloquialisms used during the time the poetry was written are different than the Japanese spoken and written in Japan today. And in many ways, so is the mindset. People and cultures evolve and, in time, are influenced by other cultures albeit it a positive or negative influence.

Professor Edwin A. Cranston's Waka Anthology is by far the most important contribution to the understanding of Japanese Court poetry available in the English language. Volumes I and II having been finished, there are other volumes currently being written or in the planning stages. The volumes aren't cheap. Volume II is priced at $175. Were the two volume set a mass market item selling millions of copies like a murder mystery novel, the price, of course, would be affordable. As it is, the funding for this book set was supported by substantial grants from the Reischauer Institute and the Japan Foundation. Without the generosity of these foundations the volume would never have been published and we would be the poorer for it. Professor Cranston sacrificed much to bring the volumes into fruition himself, even at one time working at half salary and collecting Social Security benefits, it being a labor of love versus a means of making a name for himself. Important and vital to the understanding and history of Japanese poetry, I urge you to purchase a copy. It will most likely be the most important investment you make if the topic is important to you. I cannot put my copy down. I find myself referring to it time and time again. And I am the better for it.

Some excerpts:

From the time I heard
That the mists of Autumn rose
on one bereaved,
I have wondered how he fares
Beneath these skies of chill rain.

Asagao to Genji

A mountain that knows
No season is Fuji's peak:
What time of year
Does it think it is, to snow
In patterns mottled as a fawn?

Ariwara no Narihira

I would send my heart
Over the sad, inky sea,
Yet though it should cross,
Unable to walk on water,
It must sink, unread, unknown.


In yearning for you
I lay downcast, brooding low,
And the Autumn wind
In this hour of dejection
Blew the moon to the edge of the sky.


The night crow crying
Proclaims dawn is in the sky,
But on this mountain
Over the treetops still abides
A silence where stirs no breath.


When the swallows come,
That is when the time arrives
For the wild geese,
Yearning for their former homes,
To cry hidden in the clouds.

Otomo no Yakamochi

A Waka Anthology Volume Two: Grasses of Remembrance
Translated with a commentary and notes by
Edwin A. Cranston
ISBN 0-8047-4825-x
Stanford University Press, 2006