Saturday, May 13, 2006


Waka is the most important genre of Japanese poetry. Nowadays it is called 'tanka,' a change in nomenclature that will be explained later. Yes, waka/tanka is even more important than haiku! It's certainly been around longer... more than a thousand years longer. It is also the bulk of the official imperial anthologies compiled over the centuries. In order to understand waka/tanka's longevity is is necessary to explore what it was the early waka poets and editors thought it was and why it mattered.

In the early 10th century two things happened. One, the Emperor Daigo gave orders in 905 that a collection of Japanese poetry (waka -- 'Japanese songs') be compiled and that it be written with the new kana syllabary. Kana had been evolving over time, but it was given its final form at this time. Prior to this time everything Chinese was the fashion and considered superior to everything Japanese. Nonetheless, there was a strong indigenous poetry tradition already, and Daigo, wanting to elevate the Japanese language and Japanese literature in stature, commanded the compilation of the Collection of Old and New Poetry, the Kokinwakashu, or as it is more usually known, the Kokinshu. The principle editor was Ki no Tsurayuki, a fine poet himself and the author of the first work of poetics in the Japanese language.

In the Japanese preface to the Kokinshu (there was a Chinese preface too, which is ignored because it has little interest), Lord Ki described the origins of poetry and critiqued several of the most famous poets of the Man'yoshu -- a heresy, given the great prestige of the early work and its principle authors. Ki's full article can be read in English translation at:

It is worth quoting Ki at length as he defines the nature and purpose of Japanese poetry at this time. Given the immense influence of the Kokinshu right up to the present day, his definition forms an important basis for understanding Japanese poetry. Even those who reject his premises and work differently do so fully cognizant that they are rebels against orthodoxy and thus he continues to influence them even as they reject him.

"Our native poetry springs from the heart of man as its seed, producing the countless leaves of language. Multitudinous are the affairs of men in this world--what their minds think, what their eyes see, what their ears hear they must find words to express. Listening to the nightingale singing amid the blossoms of spring, or to the murmur of frogs among the marshes in autumn, we know that every living thing plays its part in the mingled music of Nature.

"Our poetry, with effortless ease, moves heaven and earth, draws sympathy from invisible demons and deities, softens the relations between men and women, and refreshes the heart of the warrior. Its origin goes back to the origins of heaven and earth, but its transmission to our time with regards to sunbright heaven began with the work of Shitateruhime and with regards to the earth, mother of metals, with the work of Susanowo no Mikoto. [The deity Susano-o is credited with being the author of the earliest Japanese poem to be recorded.--Kei]

"Thus, the heart of man came to find expression in the various modes of speech for its joy in the beauty of flowers, its wonder at the song of birds, its tender welcome of the spring mists, its mournful sympathy with the evanescence of the morning dew. As step by step, from the first movement of the foot, distant journeys are achieved in the course of time, as grain by grain high mountains are piled up from the mere dust at their base until their peaks are lost in the drifting clouds of heaven, so has the verse of our land, little by little, become rich and abundant."

If you're reading this, you must like poetry, and if you like poetry, how can you fail to be moved by Lord Ki's vision? The appeal is obvious and the 1111 poems of the Kokinshu -- all of them waka -- embody his editorial influence. Ki's admirers regard the Kokinshu as the greatest work of literature Japan has ever produced.

Unfortunately, the Kokinshu has its flaws as well. By Ki's time only the educated upper classes were able to participate in the literary life of the nation and their poetry reflects their culture, limits, taste, and biases. One of the things that made the Man'yoshu such a remarkable work is that it included poetry by common folk as well as Emperors; the songs of lonely frontier guards posted far from home are just as moving if not more so than the imperial elegies. No such lowly soldiers show up in the Kokinshu. The entire thing is in exquisitely good taste.

As an anthology it is extremely readable, Lord Ki and his team of editors (he didn't do it alone), arranged the poems by subject matter and with each topic, certain strands of logic and mood weave the poems together. A highly successful anthology, it became the mold for all other imperial anthologies to follow. Alas, the model became a straightjacket.

While the poems of the Kokinshu are the colloquial speech of the people who wrote them, they are not the colloquial speech of ordinary Japanese, and as time went by and the Japanese language evolved, the Kokinshu became more and more obscure, which required people with specialized education to be able to understand and appreciate, which in turn meant that the audience for Japanese poetry became increasingly rarified, elitist, conservative, and moribund. By the 19th century, it was petrified. A handful of waka families were engaged in making imitation Kokinshu poems that nobody but other waka families (...all six of them...) could understand. This would be the equivalent of scholars of Middle English writing imitation Chaucer stories and having that officially declared 'the one true literature of the United States.'

Nonetheless, the original works of the Kokinshu were not straightjacketed and obscure, they were lively and tasteful expressions of the people who wrote them, and many of them were extremely good. Translated into modern Japanese, they are still admired, and since poetry is so important to the Japanese people and the Kokinshu is a major work of world literature, a fair number of Japanese people make the effort to grapple with the poems in their original language.

Waka was my introduction to Japanese literature. I admired their lyricism and suppleness and still do, though I admit that they are, when looked at from a certain angle, rather 'mannered' poems. While this causes many modern readers to reject them, I ask myself, 'what is the purpose of the mannerism?'

Japan, like all nations, was afflicted with various disasters ranging from floods and hurricanes, earthquakes and fires, to epidemics and wars. The poets and editors of the Kokinshu, fed up with bad news, deliberately turned their back on such unpleasantness and excluded it from their poetry. Nowadays we often hear people lament, "Why is there only bad news on tv? Why don't they ever report the good things?" The mannerism of the Kokinshu is part idealism and part escapism, it is a deliberate rejection of the ugliness and misery of the real world and an attempt to create, at least in literature, a genteel utopia.

Impressed with the poems of the Kokinshu, I started off writing imitations of the courtly waka.

How many nights spent
lamenting with the fireflies
of Cloud Mountain,
hoping one will prove to be
an approaching lantern light?
~ M. Kei
Previously published in the 'Tanka Forum,' Simply Haiku Journal, Summer, 2006.

'Cloud Mountain' typifies the genre; the natural world is blended with human emotion. Love and nature were two major topics for the genre and continue to be major topics for modern poetry in every country, not just Japan. The poem is divided into the 'upper verse', composed of the first three lines, and a 'lower verse,' composed of the last two, with a pause at the end of the third line. This was an extremely common structure for waka, although others were used.

Full well do I know
that this transient pleasure
is like foam on the sea;
Yet even so I want it
to last a thousand years.
~ M. Kei
Previously published in the 'Tanka Forum,' Simply Haiku Journal , Summer, 2006.

This is also a typical waka, and demonstrates another technique that would become extremely common in the genre: Reference to older, more famous works of literature. In this case, Mansei's boat.

yo no naka o
nani ni tatoemu
kogiinishi fune no
ato naki ga goto
~ Sami Mansei

Our life in this world--
to what shall I compare it?
It is like a boat
rowing out at break of day,
leaving not a trace behind.
~trans. Steven D. Carter, from Traditional Japanese Poetry , 1991.

This is one of the most famous poems in all of Japanese literature and justifiably so. It shows how the human and natural worlds can be melded for great subtlety and depth. My verse was directly inspired by it and shows several features typical of such verses. First, it demonstrates that the poet is an educated person: he knows the classics. Second, it is a pretty good poem in and of itself. Third, it is a member of a growing class of derivative works. In this we can see individual excellence sowing the seeds of destruction for the genre. Over the course of 1300 years, how many original reworkings of Mansei's poem can be made? Eventually the subject is exhausted, and if only traditional subjects are permitted, the genre decays. By the late 19th century, waka had nearly aphixiated itself.

To a Western audience that has not overdosed on Kokinshu imitations, this poem has a certain appeal. I doubt it would go over nearly as well with a Japanese audience sick to death of yet another Mansei rerun.

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