e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

Archive for the tag “Japanese poetry”

Surrounded by darkness

Recently I bought a copy of One Hundred Poems from the Japanese: poems selected and translated by Onehundredpoemsfromthejapanese_300_504Kenneth Rexroth. Years ago I borrowed this book from the library and loved it, but at the time I didn’t have spare money to spend on books.

Reading these clear and heartfelt short poems is to wander in a different world: a world of underground passion, verbal precision and appreciation of small things, many with wide implications.

My favourite so far is:

I go out of darkness
Onto a road of darkness
Lit only by the far off
Moon on the edge of the mountains.

This has the human condition so right in so few words: where do we come from? where do we go?

The original was written by Izumi, who I suppose is the same person as Lady Izumi Shikibu. She was a lady in waiting at the Imperial court in the tenth to eleventh century. Apparently writing poetry was a popular activity for courtiers at the time.

Would that the fashion had spread and endured. If our political scene contained more poets who knows what it might achieve.

 

Cover art from New Directions publisher.

Seasons of Sacred Celebration: Flowers and Poetry from an Imperial Convent

Cover artWhile attempting to organise some of my books, I came across this one. I’ve owned it for some time and have read it before, but now, re-reading it I was thrilled all over again.

It presents a set of poetry cards from the Diashoji Imperial Convent in Kyoto. Each card is reproduced on its own page and opposite are a Japanese and English version of the poem. The publishers are the Institute for Medieval Japanese Studies, part of Columbia University, New York.

The poems are waka (also called tanka), a style of short poem with a long history in Japan. Like most Japanese poems they are direct and seemingly simple but say so much:

Could it be that the maple leaf

fathoms the heart of one who feeds the fire …

The book is beautiful – the illustrations are magical; the poems show new ways of looking at flowers and trees; the scholarly introduction and essay are fascinating – I learned an amazing amount; the index to the calligraphers is well organised and useful.

And there is a mystery – who initiated the production of the set of cards and why?

And they are part of women’s Buddhist history and were published to celebrate a great woman, Zen Abbess Mugai Nyodai (1223 – 1298).

What more could one want?

The cover art is from Floating World Editions.

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