The Kokinshu is the first Imperial collection of waka poetry from Japan. It was edited about 905 and contains 1111 poems, almost all of them in the waka form; what today we refer to as tanka. This form has a long history in Japan. The form is remarkably stable consisting of five lines, or 'ku', in the following pattern: 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. The stability of the form has lasted for about 1400 years and continues to be a central mode of poetic expression in Japan.
I have set aside a day to pay homage to the Kokinshu, also known as the Waka Kokinshu, primarily because there are two translations into English that replicate the syllabic structure of the original. The two translations are:
Kokin Wakashu, transalted by Helen McCullough, and
Kokinshu, translated by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius.
Both of them are excellent. And both of them, remarkably, retain the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure in their translations into English. What this means for those of us interested in English syllabic verse is that we have two anthologies of syllabic verse, written by competent scholars, excellent translators, who were sensitive to the significance that all of these poems share a common form. In an era when many free verse poets are form deaf, this is a significant accomplishment.
My feeling is that both of these translations can serve as manuals for how to construct effective syllabic verse, and tanka in particular, in English. And that is the primary reason I have set aside a day to celebrate this anthology.
I slightly prefer the McCullough translation. But price is an obstacle. At almost $100 the McCullough version is beyond the reach of many. In contrast, the Rodd translation is priced reasonably; so if price matters (and it almost always does), go with the Rodd translation.
Just to give an idea of the difference between the two, here is tanka 210 from both translations:
Now they call again
above the mists of autumn --
those flocks of wild geese
who took their leave of us
merging into springtime haze.
(McCullough, page 54)
the voices of the
wild geese that were swallowed up
by the mists of spring
have returned to penetrate
the autumn haze and sound again
(Rodd, page 108)
My feeling is that McCullough has a surer grasp of lineation. Notice how in the Rodd translation line 1 to line 2 is a runon; ending line 1 with 'the' undermines the basic syllabic shape. Rodd tends to use this kind of enjambment and it is the main reason why I consider her translation not quite as efficacious as the McCullough translation. I don't want to exaggerate; the Rodd translation is really fine and well worth reading. On the other hand, the syllabic shape is more clearly delineated in the McCullough translation. It's too bad about the price of the McCullough version. My hope is that Stanford University Press will issue this translation in paperback and make it more accessible to a wider audience.
So take a moment today to look at the Kokinshu in English and, if you feel inspired, you might want to compose a syllabic tanka of your own.