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MAD IN TRANSLATION – a thousand years of kyōka, comic japanese poetry in the classic waka mode. (Over 2000 poems compiled, translated, explained & essayed  by robin d. gill.  740 pp. $37. With an annotated bibliography, general index, poet index & poem index. Isbn #  9780974261874).

Nominal summary

Alternative titles for this book include,  In Search of the Wild Waka, The Unbearable Lightness of Kyōka,  Fun Poems from the Land of the Surprising Sun, Welcome to the Crazy Verse, Wacky Waka, Mad-cap Poems for the Man Who Wore a Carapace on His Head, Kyōka & other Kooky Japanese Poems, The Paraverse of Japanese Mad Poetry, and (my favorite) Please, No Songs to Move Heaven and Earth!


Short summary

This is the first book to translate a broad spectrum of the informal, improper and generally comic side of 31-syllable Japanese poetry called ‘kyoka,’ or ‘kyouka,’ literally, “mad-poems” or “madcap verse,” representing “absolute freedom both in respect of language and choice of subject.” (Aston: 1899)  Literary anthologies have published only a handful of translations and the lion’s share of kyoka Englished to date are the rather tame variety found on early-19c color prints called ‘surimono,’ published as catalogues.  Because of the narrow focus of most kyoka-related publishing in Japan, even specialists in Japanese literature may be surprised to discover in this book a brave old world of humor, far larger and more entertaining than anything they might have imagined. The 2000 poems in Robin D. Gill’s 740-page book include hundreds of  “wild waka” (‘waka’ being the formal side of 31-syllable poetry) to help define the field and demonstrate how the presence or absence of humor depends upon our expectations and, in the case of an exotic tongue, our translation.  “Mad In Translation” re-creates the wit of the originals in English on the one hand, while explaining what is specific to Japanese on the other.  Many poems will delight those who appreciate the best epigrams of the metaphysical poets, the grooks of Piet Hein and all that might be called ‘light verse for egg-heads.’


(kyoka has a long “o,” shown with a diacritical mark when the medium so permits. I skip it here, but use it in the book)


Longer summary

About a thousand years ago, Japanese 31-mora (short-syllable) poems split between what might be called an art-poetry with limited themes and language which became the officially sanctioned face of literature, the revered “waka,” and what came to be called kyōka, the “mad/wild/free” likewise 31-mora poem about anything in language limited only by one unwritten rule, that it be witty.  The latter that originally went by many names which might be Englished as “kidding verse,” “comic-verse,” “savage/barbarian song,” “light poetry” “my humble effort” “bawdy verse,” “parody” “take-off,” “squib,” “death-poem,” “gift-accompanying-poem,” “thank you poem,” “ditty,” “doggerel,” and so forth, had to be the larger body of poetry; but, until the 17c, when kyōka came into its own, it was seldom collected and published, and modern critics, competing to climb the peaks of haute culture to pluck Edelweiss, have literally overlooked it.  Until a large selection of the old books of kyōka were published in the three-volume Kyōka Taikan, or Mad-poem Broadview in 1983, such ignorance might be excused. Now, a quarter century later, it is not. Unfortunately, that watershed publication coincided with the rediscovery of late-18c  mad-poems as part of the “Edo-boom” that arose as a result of  Japan’s great economic success and this mega-genre – perhaps better called a family, class or even a phylum – was largely ignored in the celebration of the marvelous but more limited species of mad poem called Tenmei kyōka identified with the metropolis we now know as Tokyo.  In translation, the situation was worse. With the exception of the 1% of kyōka published with color prints in the early-19c, which thanks to art-publishers became 99% of the kyōka Englished to date, these comic poems have been treated as if they never existed.   This book should help correct that imbalance.  It shows Japanese, like the English, have a major tradition of poetry unashamed to play with words and  logic.  It is far older, diverse and important than the better known but more limited 18-19c genre of 17-mora poetry called senryū.  Readers who enjoy language and ideas should find kyōka exhilarating.

Of the 2000-odd poems in the book, perhaps 1500 are kyōka, 350 are waka, 100 are haiku, 15 are senryū, 15 are kyōshi (Chinese-style mad-poems), 10 folk-song and 10 others. Almost all are translated for the first time.  The original Japanese, a Romanization and an ugly, but hopefully useful, word-for-word gloss accompany most poems.  The waka include poems predating the split between serious and comic and those that content or stylewise seem to share something with kyōka.   The author did his best to keep or when necessary re-invent the wit in translation using rhyme, rhythm, pun, etc..  As to whether he succeeded and the readings are themselves poetry, Paraverse Press cannot say, for that is a matter of judgment and your publicist is the translator-author-publisher-editor-designer robin d. gill and I am as curious to know the answers to those questions ( 1) Is it witty?  2) Is it poetry?) as anyone! I can only hope readers who find my horn worth blowing will kindly do so and save me my breath and my pride.     

To mention but a baker’s dozen of the hundreds of memorable poems, we have Ikkyū the prankster monk worried lest people who do neither good nor evil make life tough for Hade’s conscientious judge Enma; Yūchōrō, the outrageous early kyōka-master comparing the accretions on a dirty unwashed face to the moss that grows in the boulder grown of a pebble in the celebratory poem that is now Japan’s anthem; a (fake) Shikibu pun-equating gods and trash to justify menstruating women visiting shrines, the natural kyōka-master Getsudōkan claiming the “poles” of tears running down his face would help him lug off his blues, the much-maligned, good haikai-master Teitoku arguing that there are no ‘have-nots’ as the poor do have things such as sickness and suffering, physician-poet and philologist Bokuyo turning foam into prosperity (both fuku) to make epilepsy something lucky, popular kyōka teacher Teiryū reasoning that the conventionally high value of seeing Fuji in a New Year’s dream was that it beat actually having to travel to and climb it, Haikai’s charming gentleman, Yayū, pointing out that we have no grounds to criticize cats as humans are always in heat, Edo kyōka’s first-man, Shokusanjin, tying the Milky Way to the Amazon river with the help of an odd etymology and noodles, his friend and national studies student, Innkeeper Meshimori questioning the wisdom of wanting poetry that can move heaven and earth, Issa the humble haiku-master punning silverfish into an adverb (a dark Tom Swifty) – to embody his rage at his countrymen for destroying his papers, a monk of no great fame warning people not to pray too much lest they go right past Paradise, and a maverick of much fame and many fans, Ryōkan, rejoicing that tōfu, lacking wings, will not fly away!


The Table of Contents

Please note that all chapters in this book are two pages long, starting on an even-numbered page so they may be side-by-side and that extended chapters are indicated by Japanese signs/letters and not by the boring method (I,II,III) used here. As the contents of the notes are not given here, you are advised to use the search at Googlebooks for more info..


A nominal stab at the poems called “mad”   18.     By any other name – or a one-page history   21  
On the Nature of Kyōka & Nurture of Mad Translation    23

ONE OUTRAGEOUS, UNHERALDED POEM                                                                                  

People as spiteful as silverfish. – What haiku-master Issa’s furiously mad Tom-swifty means    27

This poem is the background on this page, can you see it? It is a fine example of what has been overlooked by scholars of kyoka.


Why good poems are dangerous  –  If Meshimori’s much-Englished kyōka were read by Belloc.   32
Meshimori's masterpiece is one of a handful of kyoka Englished by the literatae to date.
Loony-solar calendar conundrum  –  Defending this much-maligned waka is defending wit itself.   34
New years for better or worse  –  Monk Ikkyū turns the celebration of new life into a death march.   36 
A round bow for time’s arrow  –  Taoist beginnings in a round bow, or Teitoku’s puzzling kyōka.    38
Can a pebble grow into rock-of-ages?  –  The supernatural turns surreal in kyōka by Yūchōrō, et al.   40
Flying ships of stone – An idea which should have launched 10,000 kyōka but apparently has not.   42
Cow slobber and milked icicles – A mad-cap look at an infamous, supposedly worthless haiku.   44
Why Dreams of Fuji beat the real thing – A well-known kyōka & unknown treasure-ship kyōku.   46
Princess Sao’s country matters – Teitoku’s unsung erotic masterpiece, or a kyōka landscape.   48
Mountains dressed & undressed – Haikai-style elegant vulgarity by kyōka star Kisshū.   50
Old Issa cuts farts into plum scent –  A peek into a subject dear to mad poems and perhaps. . .    52


 Manyōshū’s mean little poems – Cruel if not mad: picking on long underarm hair & red noses.   54
Two More, picking on bean poles – Kidding is mad: these are cited as examples of bullying.   56
These, too, are Englished.


The burning passion of waka – hearts burning robes, a kyōka-class metaphor by Tsurayuki.   58
Yam lovers become eel and split – The sleight of tongue of kyōka’s first man.   60
Mad love Manyō style: shot deer – allegory that astounds and has an odd pedigree.   62
The king of Siam & hairy zōri? – An old and yet unsolved kyōka and sex-as-sandals!   64
The former puzzled Japanese annotators and Cranston as well as me!
The furious loves of cats & man – Yayū’s question. Mad poets take on a haikai subject.   66
Cats too lazy to make love – More kyōka from Issa the haikai master with a cat.   68
Leveling Hills for quality time – The desire for more hours of light at night.   70
Will one-wing lovers fly in translation? – and other sexual kyōka, including a fake Ikkyū   72
Love approached by fire, rain, roads – mediocre kyōka  but representative.   74
& by ashtrays, lightning, etc. –  ditto.   76
Love w/ all twelve animals – vs. the Braddock+Braddock song I lobster but never flounder.    78
If you, like me, love country music, you know this one!
Pursued by the love-sick blues – Fighting that miscreant from ancient times.   80
My love is an otter & other dreams – Love and dreaming in old waka.   82
To pluck a sleeping zither – And march back into the bog of love again. Shokusanjin.  84


Thank goodness tōfu lacks wings! – & how a bean pole gets to heaven according to Ryōkan.   86
The bare-faced moon.  Or, anthropomorphism & mixed feelings about a cloudless moon.   88
Why the moon was envious of Japan – Cultural nationalism, even among mad poets.    90
My notes to this chapter are a chapter. The "peaceful isolated us" is a major, ignored theme.
Shy Bald Mountains & Nostril Hairs by Moonlight – And the moon feeding world peace.    92
Should on-the-rag enter the temple? – A god’s kyōka reply to Shikibu & Yūchōrō’s vile parody!   94
Trading blood for a drink beats being a monkey – 8c kyōka in praise of wine.   96
More drink, wine as dew & octopus – Yūchōrō’s sweet Ise parody & Shokusanjin’s fleas.   98
In Praise of Getting Plastered and Puking – or, the heavy-drinking first men of kyōka.    100
Poop as omen and in a dream – The good luck of getting beshitted, not a kyōka invention, but.   102
More good shit, snowy outhouses –  Half Ozarks and half the Dean.  104
In my library in Japan, I have a book of Ozark folktales titled after peeing in the snow! It is a small world!
Why bad poems are good, too –  A lesson for editors from the worst poem in the Manyōshū.   106


The pen the sword & the mosquito – The anonymous rakushu, or, kyōka as dead-head lampoon.  108
Steam-boat tea & stone dumplings – Famous rakushu that are kyōka, or the best comic squibs.  110


The good ole days of bamboo ponies – Reminiscence, or infantile old age as somewhat mad.   112
The monk who cried rivers – Did you know Saigyō the esteemed poet had a maudlin wit?   114
The man with a baby in his heart –  Or, Saigyō, master of  spanking new mad metaphor?   116
Kyōka-masters on Saigyō’s maudlinity – Should moonshine make a strong man cry?  118
Silly as Saigyō: more waka weepers for perspective – from the 1205 Shinkokinshū  120
Silly as Saigyō: more waka weepers for perspective – from the 1310 Fuboku wakashō  I   122
Silly as Saigyō: more waka weepers for perspective – from the 1310 Fuboku wakashō II   124
Silly as Saigyō: more waka weepers for perspective – from the 1310 Fuboku wakashō III  126
Silly as Saigyō: wild waka with dust & smoke – a break from tears also from the 1310 . . .  128
Silly as Saigyō: more waka weepers for perspective – from the 1313 Gyokuyōshū    130
The man who troped transience – And wrote poems as hyperlogical as any?  132


 Testing snipe and riding clouds –  Meshimori takes melancholy & sticks it up a clam.  134
It may not get used up, but . . .  – The great wife-lending debate from waka to kyōka.   136
Sooty wives & sleeping w/ virgins – Mad as a matter of interpretation & Akara on first-sex.   138
An empress w/ a mountain of laundry –  & scabies: real matins moon misery by Takuan.   140
Things that cannot be – A list of impossibilities made  up over 1000 years ago   142
Segregated beaches, b&w stones – Saigyō’s go-playing islands, Hakushū’s lactating mother island   144
Perverse nursery verses: snails – Beware of cows, ponies and children as revised by Jakuren.   146
Country vs city vs country – Shokusanjin’s crude pelts of time  (wearing sun-mice?) 148


 Loving women & chinese poems – (double-length chapter) Ikkyū’s rhyming kyōshi in lively  150
Rectangular translation, including three more readings of the already translated female part   152
All-character blue camels & buoyant boobs – or 18-19c Chinese-style poems as broadsides   154
Almost mad 10c Chinese-style, kanshi – drunken moon rats & a cuckoo-hating woman   156


Playing with myths of beginning & end – When logic looks at detail and chuckles   158
One world at a time – Heaven or hell, one thing is true / You cannot take them with you!   160
Life after death, death after death – Mark Twain would have loved Ikkyū’s best kyōka   162
Nothing Sacred: Buddha, Gods, Heaven & Hell –  Religion in kyōka 1679 vs 1785.   164
Dew passed off as gems by a lotus? – Escalating Bishop Henjō play w/ the symbol of purity   166
If dewdrops were delicious – Issa’s kyōka and kyōku celebrating literal tastelessness   168
Witty wisdom, or weighing the ‘way songs’ – Dōka: Can paradox make morality palatable?   170
Less Witty Wisdom, or Weighing Way Poems II – some truly mediocre dōka and kyōkunka.   172


40-year-old chickadee & other caps – From 100 Frogs to recognizing wit in haikai link-verse.   174
Mad debates: kyōka vs kyōka – Chamber maid vs. captious man, grandpa vs. grandma . . .   176
The Piss-proud Drunk vs. The Sharp-tongued Teetotaler – a 10-point 17c dissing contest (I)   178
The Piss-proud Drunk vs. The Sharp-tongued Teetotaler – a 10-point 17c dissing contest (II)   180
A witness of salutations & warnings – Complimenting entertainers, giving watermelons, etc.    182  =
Ancient mad exchanges found by Cranston – A palace maid and traveling governor’s wit.   184


The naughty nightingale –  Or, bird watching us, a kyōka from an illustrated 18c book   186
A violent nightingale   – Pure kyōka in wordplay from the 10c Kokinshū   188
If Only There Were No Cherry Blossoms Women? – a waka only I think mad is made so.   190.
To me, Narihira's complain is obviously allegorical, and I think the mad parodies prove it!
How can blossoms be stopped from falling?  – More Saigyō kyōka and a Sōgi kyōku.  192
In defense of the blossom wind – More craziness from Saigyō, Sōgi and other haikai poets.  194


Cuckoo, headaches & tabby cats – A kyōka obvious after knowing the waka & Katō Ikuya’s kyōku.   196
A touché of mosquito makes all men kin –  The amorous stab and shellfish in the ‘squito net.   198
The dirty tails of fireflies – How haikai link-verse made the light of scholarship obscene, etc.   200
Unnatural love and buried souls – Burning from the wrong end and sparking up rivers.   202
Mostly Wacky Waka Fireflies – from the 1313 Gyōkuyōshū Collection.   204
Burning moths & burning people –  Why are we drawn to fire, and sequence in the Kokinshū.   206
Third-rate poet, first rate kyōka? – Lady Daibu, or more than one measure of good poetry.   208


 Loving Stars, Lady Daibu & Maiden Flowers –  Kooky cosmic voyeurism in waka and haikai.   210
Magpie bridges, Teitoku & more Lady – Rationalism brought to bear on heavenly bodies.   212
From ox slobber to the Amazon – Shokusanjin rises above contradiction to the surreal.   214
The maiden flower and the monk – from Henjō’s famous fall to my imagined one.   216
Maiden flowers & young blades – Two totally off-the-wall Kokinshū name-game poems.   218
Deer write & larvae dance sutra – Pop buddhism, ancient ‘now-style’ to 19c kyōka & kyōku.   220
Hairy crickets & old chestnuts – Natural monsters from haikai and kyokā.   222
Bug-songs, Morning Glory, Mum-wine & Star-babies – a fair sample of Fall senryū.   224
Maple & homo-wisteria rumps – Making an ass of the maudlin Manyō’s monkey-guy.   226
Blushing or drunk fall leaves – Shokusanjin gives the oddest reason ever for blushing leaves.   228 


The honest rain that came in with the cold – playing with proverbs in the absence of the gods.   230
Three takes on the snow: dick, swell-fish & fools –  Polymath Gennai’s bio of  limp ones.   232
Kicking the year in the rear –  Mixed feelings about sending off the old one.   234


Five seasons mad, or almost mad – Mostly  Shokusanjin.   236
Another round of five seasons, mixed Tenmei    I     238
Another round of five seasons, mixed Tenmei    II    240
A final round of  five mad seasons – Mostly  Yūchōrō.   242
Just geese coming in – Tenmei and post-Tenmei run-of-the-mill kyōka.   244
One for the Birds, or Saigyō Kyōka Master – geese and some other birds in season.   246


Composite characters and a charm – Combining lucky symbols, where mad & magic meet.   24
Playing w/ ‘Spring’ radicals & mom’s age –  Deconstructing & reconstructing .   250


Roly-poly old age – A sea slug mistaken for eighty-eight tries a tart, & Shokusanjin stays put.   252
Making light of your old age – Shikibu shows how to lose your looks but still bloom!    254
Old age minutely described is mad – Yokoi Yayū’s 7 poems of which 6 are tanka & 1 mad.   256
The third leg before viagra (canes) –  & one kyōka where Yūchōrō sells his soul to the devil.   258
Rewinding the Spool –  Akera Kankō on “always looking young” & Sōchō on stopping old age.   260


Displeasure in the Pleasure Q de arinsu –  Akera Kankō’s bolting beauty & foreign accents.   262 
Women of Pleasure in a Mad Poem Portrait Gallery – & his Unkempt Wife’s masterpiece.   264
Lice rosaries that could have been soroban – How a mistranslation can make mad madder.   266
Pleasing fleas, loving lice – A haikai about symbiosis with bugs & my ‘flea hell’ kyōku.   268


Nothing but things  –  Things to show off & other lists of things, or monowazukushi poems.    270
Things as riddles –  Lessons learned while revisiting Sōkan’s fart by father’s death-bed.   272


Spooky creatures 1 – Long tongues/necks: 100-demon night-madness + Hearn’s goblin poetry.   274
Spooky creatures 2 – Bad trees, charm-peelers: more of the best Tenmei spooks & Hearn, too.   276
Spooky creatures 3 – House-shakers, mermen, flesh-suckers: more Tenmei vs. revival kyōka.   278
Spooky creatures 4 – Changeling clams and toads: two unidentified kyōka and Hearn’s cutest.   280


What the have-nots have plenty of – The live-wires, Teitoku, Yūchōrō & Ikkyū on poverty.   282
On the prosperity of poverty – The paradoxes and pushiness of  poor wit.   284
The more poverty the merrier? –  Boasting hyperbole, the god Poverty as me, pity for the god.   286
Bor-row, row your boat! – Kyōka along the lines of John Heywood’s “Be Merry Friends.”   288


Shokusanjin’s Hundred Poet take-off 1 –  Linking content and card-game reality. From #1~8.     290
Shokusanjin’s Hundred Poet take-off 2 –  Kidding the poet as parody that is no take-off.  #9~19.     292
Shokusanjin’s Hundred Poet take-off 3 –  A roach for a carp & scenery as an offering. From #9~19.   294
Shokusanjin’s Hundred Poet take-off 4 –  It’s lonely with no one but us, mountain cherries.  #20~65.  296
Shokusanjin’s Hundred Poet take-off 5 –  Bleeding heart meets bleating hart.  #66~82.     298
Shokusanjin’s Hundred Poet take-off 6 –  Kindness for Go Toba & 100 hidden in #100.  #83~100.   300
In Praise of Kyōka, or Why Blyth Beats Keene – On seeking the best, regardless.   302


Puffing pictures: white heron & Saigyō smoking – With three of ten reflections of a smoker.  304
Play Pictures and Play Words, or Illuminated Kyōka –  mad poems and asobi-e.   306
Wacky Waka Twisting Tongues & Crossing Sashes –  with good stereo Manyōshū, too.  308
Wishing for Nothing? Or, Nothing to Wish for? –  (S)OV Monk Sōchō vs. SVO Krishnamurti.  310
One Almost Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Sanekata! (I) –  10c, but definitely mad.   312
One Almost Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Sanekata! (II) –  And a Casanova, to boot.   314


Ye Olde & Now Savage Songs, or Mad in 1666   I

 – A tobacco, parrot & cloudy-cake New Year.   316.

II – Time like musket shot & dandy lion teeth  318.  Dandelion break: Shokusanjin, Issa, Nenten – milk problems & mimesis  320.  III – Lice don’t fawn, poets do boast, milky morals. 322. IV – Clicking tongues, washing hearts, soul sushi. 324.  V – Lice dawn & dying dancer.  326.   Supplement: Gay & corny   328


Getsudōkan  1 – a kyōka master in the era of Bashō–  Tears like poles and lunatic hyperbole.     330
Getsudōkan  2 – Some tanka, or soft-boiled kyōka –  The moon as a hare and wagging ducks.    332
Getsudōkan  3 – Talk about hard-boiled kyōka! – Jacking-off birds and killing cicada.   334
Getsudōkan  4  – The spirit of casual kyōka! – Suitable words for gifts and correspondence.   336
Getsudōkan  5 –  Fuji, mountain of mad metaphor – a fan big as a moor and a volcanic airhead.   338
Getsudōkan W-extra – Buttering up the salt-butts – so many wakashu I marked the poems “W.”   340
Getsudōkan W(omen)-extra II –  Love & Libido – and back to women.  342

A 17-SYLLABET POET’S PROGRESS W/ 31-SYLLABET POEMS                       

Issa’s kyōka start to finish 1 – Dirty bird, raspy heart & cactus, or so-and-so early attempts.  344
Issa’s kyōka start to finish 2 – Conch spells, leeches for cuckoo & discovering Shokusanjin.   346
Issa’s kyōka start to finish 3 – Excellence at last: springs from rain-stones, hills w/ stylish coiffure.   348
Issa’s kyōka start to finish 4 – Dew becomes doo, hands & legs, pestles, & old age wastes fireflies.   350


Real & Fake: Why I Must Wait to Translate N/Ise  (part-I)  Subtle 10c wit vs. Easy 17c wit.  352
Real & Fake: Why I Must Wait to Translate N/Ise (part-II) Sexy 10c wit vs. Stinky 17c wit. 354
The Untranslatable Lightness of Nakarai Bokuyō – A 17c match for Shokusanjin?  I    356
The Untranslatable Lightness of Nakarai Bokuyō – A 17c match for Shokusanjin?  II  358
After Issa & Ryōkan, Wordway’s Wacky Waka – or the re-integration of kyōka by Kotomichi   360
Buddhist grapes & persecuted X’tians – The difficulty of translating religion.   362                       62     9b
Marine trope meets land-culture I –  Komachi’s shore, dirty reeds and algal trails in teary seas.  364
Marine trope meets land-culture II –  Duckweed turns to jellyfish & T of Ise’s translator gives up.   366
Literal/figuratively lousy translations – Imayo & kyōka on lice & a two favorites that failed.   368
Spiteful kyōka sans silverfish – Garden stolen, Monk Kyōgetsu insults an Empress’s privates!   370
Near-kyōka by Sosei, a late-10c chestnut who didn’t fall far from the tree (Archbishop Henjō)    372
Near-kyōka by Lady Ise,  or early-10c lovelorn waka in mad translation   374
Kyōka that is as bad as its detractors think it is, yet still valuable and why.  1740, Ōsaka.  376
Sorry woman & sorry man –  Turning a now-world song (imayo) & 9c waka into kyōka?  378
The straight ones die – Kyōka where men as trees play on Zhuang-ze & tears become silverfish.  380  


Poems for bowing out of life – Sōkan’s business, Kyōriku’s manure & more from Hoffman  382
Death takes an encore! – Strange, heroic and haikai argot puns.   384   Dying for more haikai –
a second encore.   386. Death haiku as kyōku – or a third encore  388. And where is thy sting? –
 Kyōka’s first man’s takes on death for a fourth   390.  The world’s most macho death poem: Wanzakure! for a fifth   392.   Sick of living  and ready to go for a sixth!   394.   & Death as a jellyfish with bones, or a celebration of death for the seventh and final encore!   396

FART! FART! & (in the notes, ARF! ARF!)

Hey, hey, hey for he-no-he – By Fool-Buddha, the most worthless poem of all time, or?  398


Laughs to Banish Sleep, 402.  More 16c wacky waka, 408.  Sanetaka: a waka master’s journal, 412. Kōfū horsing around w/ ‘my rain’ & the yu-girls in Arima  414.   Our Star the Shrimp, Our Sun the Crab – netted surimono 424.   McKee’s surimono  426.  M&C’s surimono 436.  Carpenter’s surimono  440.


The Silent Fart, or a meaningless postscript –  On expecting the unexpected, after Chesterton.  454
On Mad Translation – three more takes (there is one up front!).   457
NOTES:  Snake-legs, or Grass by the Road –  Over a hundred pages of elaboration and diversion.  464
By Any Other Name – Short & Inadequate yet Extraordinarily Broad History of ‘Mad Poems.’ 595
Biblios 648. Glossarios 664. Bios 674. Acknows 707. Gen. Index 715. Poet Ind. 718. Poem Ind. 726

Please see the page of best poems, in Japanese only, if you can read it. And, please note that the Japanese is given for almost all of the poems, so you need not accept my translations to find this book a valuable resource!

For mistakes and additions please see the Mad In Translation Errata.


It is not possible that the rest of the world
will ever realize the importance of Japanese poetry,
because of all poetries it is the most completely untranslatable.

                                      Arthur Waley:  The Originality of Japanese Civilization  1929.


The great translator Arthur Waley once lamented that the importance of Japanese poetry, of all poetries “the most completely untranslatable,” would never be realized by the rest of the world.  Since then, haiku has not only become known but practiced in much of the world. However, the slightly longer tanka, or short waka, the translation of which is more difficult (because the plot or flow is more important and that is broken-up by the contrary nature of our respectively exotic syntaxes)  has indeed not bloomed outside of Japan,  and the comic side of waka, the kyōka or mad-poem, has hardly budded.  That is important less for the loss of poetry than for the loss of wit and, with it, our awareness of the logical half of the mind of Japan.  Much has been written of Japanese culture as a superpower of the aesthetic, while the intellect has been ignored by literary critics in the West and belittled as artificial, logic-mongering, or Chinese by the same in Japan, because of understandable prejudice against rational argument on the part of the ruling class.  These selections of kyōka, in mad translation, sometimes stray in respect to some details becoming analogies of the original (which is always provided for comparison), but such is necessary to preserve the wit and prove Japanese had playful, creative – and, in a sense – universal intellects.  It is ridiculous that such things need to be proved, but if one is attentive to national stereotype, they do

The great variety of kyōka has not been fully appreciated by the major introductions to Japanese literature in translation and, worse, put down as largely nothing but word-play and parody.  Neither word-play nor parody are as “low” an art as they are often made out to be, for neither are as small as limited as those who do not know kyōka assume they are.  Generally, they work together with the conceptual games that are played by these mad poems and only rarely stand alone.  As conceptual games without the flavor word-play and allusion provide are less entertaining and therefore less effective as poems, the contrast of “real” wit to that of words is, for the most part, false.

The only substantial number of kyōka in translation published before Mad In Translation comes from the fine arts side of publishing and deals almost exclusively with early 19c poems accompanying prints, mostly by top ukiyoe artists and dealing with New Year themes.  The translations are not particularly comic (as can be said for the poems in most responsibly written anthologies of translated poetry) but the best* of these catalogues of surimono include many particulars of history not in Mad – there is little overlap, as the Mad poems are by and large older and published in anthologies –  and do a good job of explaining not only the poems but the prints, some stunning and most full of significance. That extraordinary effort (it is harder to translate a collection you have not selected) and the sheer beauty of these books partially offsets the wit lost in translation.

Most readers are advised to try Kyoka, the Comic Verse of Japan,  the 300 page Reader,  which gathers the best of the poems from Mad In Translation into chapters of a decent length on various themes. The 740 page Mad is a monster of a book that may be too much for most. As the books are 100% viewable at Google Books, read and compare before buying!


* & check out John Carpenter, Alfred Haft et al: Reading Surimono –  The interplay of  text and image in Japanese prints (2008), and Daniel McKee: Colored in the Year’s New Light – surumono from the Becker Collection (2008) and Japanese Poetry Prints – surimono from the Schroff Collection (2006).


This essay, minus some details, is also found on the Mad Reader's Description page