Given the abundance of haiku I’ve read in the last few months, I thought it would be illuminating to read a broader selection of Japanese poetry. When I found The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse at Dawn Treader, my favorite used bookstore in Ann Arbor, I had the perfect opportunity to do just that. The copy I found, priced at $4.50, is from the 60s, but I figured since this is mostly a selection of historical poetry an old book would do just fine.
The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse opens with several short essays which edify the reader on a few key points that, I’m learning, must be well understood to grasp Japanese poetry. This includes understanding the way poetry functions in Japanese from a linguistic and grammatical perspective, and the challenge of translating certain poetic language constructs into English. It also includes understanding Shinto and Buddhist doctrine, as much of Japanese poetry is connected to the basic tenants of these religions, and how trends in Chinese poetry influenced what was being written in Japan. Finally, it’s important to understand the way poetry functioned in society throughout Japanese history, whether that was court poets emulating the voice of peasants during historical periods that promoted the idea of equality, or later when writing linked verse in social settings was in vogue.
The book’s opening essays did a good job of laying a foundation that helped me to better understand the poetry contained in the rest of the book. After the essays, the meat of this book is, as you would expect, poetry. It is divided by political eras, as those had a huge influence on just who was writing poetry and how they went about writing it.
What I learned rather quickly as I read was that, though I may love haiku, I’m not overly fond of other forms of Japanese poetry. Perhaps a few things were lost in translation, but in general I found the earliest Japanese poetry to be a bit boring–perhaps similar to how I might feel about medieval court poetry in Europe. As the poetry in Japan evolved, I found myself enjoying it more and more, but it wasn’t until the Edo Period (1603-1868), when haiku evolved, that I truly found myself sucked into the imagery and preciseness of the verse. I think it’s safe to say that I am decidedly more of a fan of haiku than I am of Japanese poetry at large.
The worst poetry, by far, was the modern poetry included toward the end of the book. I know that modern poetry in general doesn’t suit my taste, but I found the selection in this book particularly rough. It was interesting to see the creative work produced during World War II and post World War II from an historical context, but that was about it. Mostly I just found it profoundly melancholy, vague, and cliche.
I’m not sad I worked my way through this anthology. It was interesting to see how haiku evolved. As I read through the ages, I could see glimmers of the ideas and writing styles that would eventually bloom into haiku growing over time. Having said that, though, I think I’ll keep my forays into Japanese poetry well within the bounds of haiku going forward.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite haiku from the collection:
Girls planting paddy:
Only their song
Free of mud.
This book review is part of a series I’ve done on haiku and Japanese poetry, which includes reviews of A Net of Fireflies by Harold Stewart and Haiku Master Buson as well as my own collection of general, late summer, and early fall haiku.