Sunday, March 04, 2007

Review: A Chorus of Birds

Utamaro: A Chorus of Birds. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Akamatsu no Kinkei, ed. Kitagawa Utamaro, illus. James T. Kenny, trans. New York: Viking Press, 1981 [Tokyo, 1790]. Accordion fold art book, color interiors, unpaginated.

A Chorus of Birds is the only book of kyoka (humorous tanka) to be translated into English, which makes it of interest just because it is the only book of kyoka accessible to English speakers, but above and beyond that, the book features beautiful illustrations by Utamaro, one of Japan’s most famous woodblock artists. Most famous for his bijin (beautiful women) pictures, Utamaro shows himself to be a master of the natural world. The birds are highly accurate, enabling their species to be identified. Latin, Japanese, and English names for the birds are included in the caption descriptions.

The book is one of many special editions that were ordered by kyoka circles active in the 18th and 19th centuries. Kyoka, ‘mad verse’ or ‘comic tanka’ were present as early as the 8th century and appear in the Man’yoshu; the first kyoka collection, Hyakushu kyoka, (Kyoka on one hundred brands of drinks) was edited by a priest named Gyogetsubo who lived 1265-1328 AD. His book features kyoka parodies of famous literature as kinds of drinks.

By the early 18th century, kyoka was popular in the region around Kyoto and Osaka, then spread to Edo. It branched off and became its own independent genre during this period and was immensely popular; a key element of its appeal was that it did not conform to the restrictions on language and content that applied to waka. Thus any educated person could compose and appreciate kyoka whereas waka was confined to a rarified atmosphere of those families who were skilled in understanding the archaic language and intricate rules that dominated waka of the time.

Arguably, much of our modern English-language tanka with its emphasis on colloquial language and ordinary life is kyoka rather than tanka. It is no surprise that kyoka nearly died out in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when tanka poets threw off the restrictions of the old waka and began writing more direct and personal tanka in ordinary language. Surely the immensely popular kyoka must have shaped the thinking of Japanese poets who reformed tanka, but the influence of kyoka has never been explored in English.

Generally speaking, kyoka in English is understood to be ‘humorous tanka.’ It frequently parodies tanka and has therefore been conceived of as a kind of ‘anti-tanka,’ an erudite game that could be played only by people well versed in tanka itself. Yet the kyoka of A Chorus of Birds belie that. Humor is present, and parody, but many of the verses are so gently romantic that the English reader would be hard-pressed to explain how they differ from what he understands tanka to be.

Yamadori no
Horo horo namida
Iku yo kagami no
Kage mo miseneba

The copper-headed pheasant
Cries and cries
And sheds tear to no end;
For too many nights
Have you stayed away.
--Miyanaka no Tsukinaro

The poem above with its natural image and subjective response giving voice to a romantic plaint is a staple of the tanka genre. What makes this poem kyoka instead of tanka is that it was written in the colloquial language of the day by a person who was most likely a commoner or low ranking samurai, and not in the rarified literary language by a courtier or government official.

Other poems in evince the humorous parody which is the hallmark of kyoka. Consider the following verse:

Na ni tachite
Koi ni ya kuchin
Kitsutsuki no
Hito no kuchibashi

True to his name,
The woodpecker
Pecks and pecks away,
Never stopping to listen
to what people are saying.
--Shino no Tamaoke

This parody works on two levels. First, there is the commentary on human nature -- which of us hasn’t encountered a person who resembles the woodpecker of the poem? Ostensibly a bird poem, it is really a commentary on a human foible of the sort well-loved in senryu, the other genre that was immensely popular at the same time as kyoka. The other level of parody is a literary one. The natural image sets up an expectation of the usual romanticized and idealized emotional response, but instead delivers a frank criticism of an unattractive human trait. The expectations of the tanka form have been simultaneously adhered to yet violated, making this poem delightfully fresh.

Kyoka also ventured into territory that was a little risque compared to the restraints of waka. The poem below has a titillating quality that would have been considered vulgar and unacceptable in courtly waka.

Noki chikaku
Fufu to tsuguru
Hitokoe wa
Waga koinaka o
Mita ka uguisu

Near the eaves
I hear the warbler
Sing a song of envy:
He must be watching us
My lover and me.
--Nori no Suiyu

Malice, too, animates some of these verses, again, on a romantic theme.

Taka naraba
Ukina no hoka ni
Hatto tatsu
Kotori mo ono ga
E ni shinarubeki

If I were
A hawk,
I would make a meal
Of the little birds
Spreading rumors.
--Akamatsu no Kinkei

All in all, the poems are enjoyable, the illustrations beautiful, and the prefaces and notes useful. A Chorus of Birds can be found through various secondhand book dealers at reasonable prices. It is an excellent addition to your tanka library.


M. Kei

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