Rikumo Book Club: One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each

Translator: Peter McMillan
Pages: 102, not counting notes
Reading Time: One relaxed evening
Best For: Those who enjoy spending time in nature, reading Shakespeare or exploring art galleries

Poetry has experienced an immense loss over the past 2000 years.  Though it once was the dominant form of expression—as shown in English by Caedmon's hymn and the anonymous Beowulf—poetry has since been eclipsed by prose in most of the world.  In Japan, however, the influence of one 13th-century compilation still sustains poetry as the pinnacle of literature.  The Hyakunin Isshu [literally "One Hundred People, One Poem"] is not only the most popular book of Japanese poetry but also the inspiration for innumerable works of visual art, including a popular poetry identification card game.  The collection is so emblematic of Japanese poetic expression that its poems are traditionally memorized by each member of the imperial family.

The editor of the Hyakunin Isshu was Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241), one of the most prominent poetry scholars in a time when verse was the ultimate mark of education and refinement.  For his collection he chose 100 poems from as many authors, covering a timeline of 450 years and selecting pieces that were unified not by theme but by form.  All the poems are waka, sharing a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic pattern (the better-known haiku are simply the first 3 lines of waka).

Peter McMillan is not the first to translate this famous collection, but he is the first to do so without limiting the poems to their original 5-line formatting or forcing them into English rhyme that isn't present in the original.  These inspired choices demonstrate his personal poetic talents while allowing the poems to unfurl more of their beauty without adding any distracting embellishments.


I would be sorry
to lose my good name
for laying my head
upon your arm
offered as a pillow
for a moment fleeting
as a spring night's dream.



Sailing out on the white crests
of the Bay of Tago, I look up.
There before me
even more dazzling—
snow still falling
on Fuji crowned in white



Have you changed?
I cannot read your heart.
But at least I know
that here in my old home
as always the plum blossom
blooms with fragrance
of the past.

Reading through the entire collection feels like observing the flow of a creek through a park: here swift and loud, there slow and quiet enough to call attention to the surrounding plants.  Many of the poems deal with love, occasionally in anticipation but more often in doubt or frustration, and the poetic form barely contains the overflow of their passions.  Other poems dwell on nature, either in a moment of wonder or as a metaphor for the poet's own feelings.  

The personality or circumstances of each poet occasionally comes to the fore--as McMillan's "Notes on the Poems" appendix helpfully details--but the collection as a whole lays more emphasis on a shared emotional sensitivity to people and natural objects.  This outlook, which literary scholar Motoori Norinaga later called mono no aware or "the pathos of things," gives these poems an experiential vibrancy that spans across centuries.

These structured sketches of romance and observation are a welcome antidote to an increasingly prose-fueled lifestyle.  As the days become noticeably longer and the stress of preparing taxes subsides, we recommend setting aside time to savor Teika's editorial masterpiece.