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Saturday, January 17, 2015

Ancient Japanese tanka into English

In the anthology, One Hundred Leaves, Frank Watson translated 100 ancient tanka from 100 Japanese poets in a stunning collection that makes new connections with contemporary poets and poetry readers who especially enjoy micropoetry.

When I received my review copy, I initially noticed the appealing cover with its restful scene and eye-appealing composition, which nicely illustrated the contents I went on to discover, beginning with “A Brief Guide to Appreciating Japanese Poetry.”

As traditional haiku lovers know, there’s more to that ancient form than meets the modern eye, and the same can be said for the tanka. A slightly longer pattern of syllabic verse, the 5 lines of a tanka break into units based on 5/ 7/ 5/ 7/ 7 syllables in their respective lines.

Besides that basic information, Watson explains the importance of characteristics typical of traditional Japanese poems:

Visual Images – where “emotions and abstract ideas are commonly symbolized through tangible images”

Pivot Words and Pillow Words – which might be stock phrases or the playful use of “homonyms, words with different meanings but the same pronunciation” that “introduce extensive wordplay and layers of meaning,” causing readers “to guess among many possibilities”

Nature - where “Almost every poem refers to nature in some way, and these references carry additional emotional, allusive, or historical connotations that add meaning to an otherwise short poem.”

Season and Time of Day – which also “have emotional connotations that add a layer of meaning to the poem.” For example, Autumn might signify sadness or loneliness while “spring symbolizes youth, love and vitality.”

Overall Experience – which traditionally relied on the poems being slowly chanted, giving the reader time to “layer in the feelings of the poet and try to imagine the scene, letting it come alive into a moving picture with sounds, scents, and colors”

With that information to enhance our reading, the layout further assists our appreciation of the poems in a consistent format that includes the title, byline and dates for the poet, Watson’s English version of the poem, the original lines in Japanese, a pronunciation guide, and a literal rendering.

In addition, Watson provides annotations on many of the poems in his “Literal Notes,” which I found most interesting. Not only do those notes give insights into the poems at hand but also the mindset of traditional tanka writers, whose works we do well to emulate.

For example, the poem “Scattered blossoms” by Ki no Tomonori (845-907) might have used those beautiful but short-lived cherry blossoms to express “unease over whether the peacefulness of the Japanese imperial court would last.”

More often, though, the poems had to do with secret love or love and a rendezvous. Of these, one of my favorites has an unusual twist that shows the fresh perspective ancient micro-poems often had.

To give you a better idea of that perennial freshness and this highly recommended book in general, I’ll present the translation and literal notes below.

#38 Lady Ukon, “How I pity your fate”

Being forgotten,
I do not worry for myself –
You made a vow
On your mortal life
and how I pity your fate.

As the “Literal Notes” explain:

“In this poem, the narrator speaks of her lover who vowed on his life to be faithful, but has now abandoned her. Instead of being upset for herself, she fears for his life.”


© 2015, Mary Harwell Sayler has 3 books of poetry, Outside Eden and Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, published by Kelsay Books in 2014 and, in 2012, Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press.

One Hundred Leaves, paperback

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