Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Guide for English Language Tanka Poets

I have a great fondness for the Kokin Wakashu, particularly the translation by Helen McCullough.  My feeling is that it has not received the attention it deserves from those interested in composing Tanka in English.  The skill with which McCullough translates the Japanese tanka into English is amazing.  And the fact that she maps the Japanese syllabics of 5-7-5-7-7 onto English is impressive.

More importantly, the translation is itself a demonstration of the efficacy of adopting the syllabic shape of the Japanese onto English.  I feel the work can serve as a kind of textbook for those wishing to follow the traditional syllabic shape of the Japanese.

Hoping, in a minor way, to encourage more interest in this translation, I wrote the following review for Amazon and posted it today:

The Kokin Wakashu, compiled about 905, was the first Imperial Anthology of Tanka poetry.  It has had a huge influence on Japanese poetry in general, and particularly on the Japanese form of Tanka.  What we now call ‘Tanka’ today was, at the time of this anthology, known as ‘Waka’.  Tanka is the most important poetic form in Japanese culture.  It has had a continuous history of about 1400 years, and is still practiced by numerous Japanese poets at this time.

Japanese poetry is syllabic and the contours of Tanka have remained the same for its entire history: a five phrase (ku), or line, poem with the syllables distributed as follows: 5-7-5-7-7.  This gives the Tanka a total of 31 syllables.

One of the remarkable things about this translation by Helen McCullough is that she chose to map the syllabic count of the Japanese onto the English language in her translations.  What this does for the reader is to replicate the formal relationships that the poems have in the anthology.  I mean that in the original anthology all the poems have the same formal characteristics, the same syllabic count.  As you move from one poem to another a rhythm, or pulse, is felt.  This pulse is shared by all the poems no matter how different they may be in topic, image, and style.  McCullough’s translation replicates this relationship among the poems which is a great achievement.  And her translations are themselves superb; they are poems themselves.  I am in awe of how she was able to transform a Japanese poetic masterpiece into an English poetic masterpiece and retain the structural elements as she moved from one language to another.

The Waka Kokinshi consists of 1111 poems, grouped into topical chapters that include the four seasons, felicitations, parting, travel, wordplay, love, grief, and miscellaneous.  Because some topics have more than one chapter, the total number of chapters is twenty.  There are about 130 named poets, as well as numerous anonymous tanka.  The editors skillfully arranged the tanka so that they link to each other and there is a natural flow as one reads the tanka in sequence.  The skill with which the tanka are linked is amazing, considering the large number of poets.  The result is that each chapter is more than the sum of its parts.  In a way, each chapter resembles a beautifully crafted collage where all the parts contribute to an overall effect. 

If you are interested in Japanese poetry, this is an essential read.  The Waka Kokinshu became a textbook for how to craft Tanka.  Its poems are referenced allusively in countless poets down through the centuries.  The careful linking of the poems led to the emergence of renga, and out of renga emerged haiku.  So this collection of Tanka is in many ways the wellspring of Japanese poetry.

If you are an English language poet who has taken an interest in the tanka form, this work serves as an elegant teacher of how to craft a 31-syllable poem into a 5-7-5-7-7 structure in the English language.  Because McCullough’s translations are so elegant and so natively English, this translation serves as a guide for all those interested in English language tanka.

The book also contains two short, additional, works by the primary editor, Ki no Tsurayuki: the Tosa Nikki and the Shinsen Waka.  These two works give us a broader view of the main editor.  There are also excellent appendices that help in locating a specific poem you may be searching for.

This book was published in 1985.  Unfortunately, it has not received, in my opinion, the attention it deserves from English language poets writing in Japanese forms.  Part of the reason, I think, is the price.  My hope is that Stanford will issue this translation in paperback at some point in the near future so that the treasures found in this work can be accessible to a wider audience.

This is a grand work of poetry and one of the finest translations I have ever come across.  Lyrical, poignant, striking in its imagery, and universal in its humanity, it is a work that can nourish a lifetime.

Kokin Wakashu
The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry
Translated and Annotated by Helen Craig McCullough
Stanford University Press
ISBN: 9780804712583

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