robin d. gill
old japanese page
|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).|
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!
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)
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
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.
THE ODDLY ENCHANTED WORLD OF JAPANESE MAD POETRY
Why good poems are dangerous – If Meshimori’s much-Englished kyōka were
read by Belloc. 32
WITH SOME RUDENESS FOR GOOD MEASURE?
Manyōshū’s mean little poems – Cruel if not mad: picking on long underarm
hair & red noses. 54
LOVE POEMS – WHERE MAD METAPHOR IS TOO COMMON TO BE MAD
The burning passion of waka – hearts burning robes, a kyōka-class metaphor
by Tsurayuki. 58
SOME FAVORITE KYŌKA THAT ARE SWEET, EDO/EGOISTIC, AWFUL, . . .
Thank goodness tōfu lacks wings! – & how a bean pole gets to heaven
according to Ryōkan. 86
LAMPOONS, OR RAKUSHU, THAT ARE KYŌKA, EDO TO MEIJI.
The pen the sword & the mosquito – The anonymous rakushu, or, kyōka as
dead-head lampoon. 108
12C WAKA MASTER SAIGYŌ AS A METAPHYSICAL, OR MAD, POET
The good ole days of bamboo ponies – Reminiscence, or infantile old age as
somewhat mad. 112
A SUNDRY SAMPLE OF WILD OLD WAKA & NEW KYŌKA, MOSTLY
Testing snipe and riding clouds – Meshimori takes melancholy & sticks it
up a clam. 134
CHINESE-STYLE MAD VERSE, SOME BETTER SOME WORSE
Loving women & chinese poems – (double-length chapter) Ikkyū’s rhyming
kyōshi in lively 150
THE POETRY OF FREE THINKING & ONE UNIT OF MORALITY
Playing with myths of beginning & end – When logic looks at detail and
CAPPING, DUELING & GREETING POEMS
40-year-old chickadee & other caps – From 100 Frogs to recognizing wit in
haikai link-verse. 174
The naughty nightingale – Or, bird watching us, a kyōka from an
illustrated 18c book 186
SUMMER IS ICUMEN . . .
Cuckoo, headaches & tabby cats – A kyōka obvious after knowing the waka &
Katō Ikuya’s kyōku. 196
Loving Stars, Lady Daibu & Maiden Flowers – Kooky cosmic voyeurism in
waka and haikai. 210
The honest rain that came in with the cold – playing with proverbs in the
absence of the gods. 230
AROUND THE CALENDAR, TWO PAGES AT A TIME
Five seasons mad, or almost mad – Mostly Shokusanjin. 236
WHERE CELEBRATORY WILD WAKA & KYŌKA RESEMBLES LETTER-PICTURES
Composite characters and a charm – Combining lucky symbols, where mad &
magic meet. 24
DO THE ELDERLY LIKE MAD POEMS OR VICE-VERSA?
Roly-poly old age – A sea slug mistaken for eighty-eight tries a tart, &
Shokusanjin stays put. 252
A FEW ODDITIES
Displeasure in the Pleasure Q de arinsu – Akera Kankō’s bolting beauty &
foreign accents. 262
THINGS AS LISTS, THINGS AS RIDDLES
Nothing but things – Things to show off & other lists of things, or
monowazukushi poems. 270
GOBLIN POETRY OR NIGHT-MADNESS
Spooky creatures 1 – Long tongues/necks: 100-demon night-madness + Hearn’s
goblin poetry. 274
SWEET LAND OF POVERTY
What the have-nots have plenty of – The live-wires, Teitoku, Yūchōrō &
Ikkyū on poverty. 282
BEYOND PARODY, OR MAD TAKE-OFFS ON 100 POEMS 1 POET
Shokusanjin’s Hundred Poet take-off 1 – Linking content and card-game
reality. From #1~8. 290
AND TIME FOR A SMOKE
Puffing pictures: white heron & Saigyō smoking – With three of ten
reflections of a smoker. 304
SAVAGE SONGS, THE GREAT 1666 KYŌKA COMPILATION, & 1672 KYŌKA TOURISM.
Ye Olde & Now Savage Songs, or Mad in 1666 I
A tobacco, parrot & cloudy-cake New Year. 316.
THE BIG FAN: VARIOUS KYŌKA FROM 2000+ BY ONE MAN, ca.1700
Getsudōkan 1 – a kyōka master in the era of Bashō– Tears like poles and
lunatic hyperbole. 330
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
ADDITIONS, LEFT-OVERS, UNTRANSLATEABLES, & LEAD-INS TO NEXT SECTION
Real & Fake: Why I Must Wait to Translate N/Ise (part-I) Subtle 10c wit
vs. Easy 17c wit. 352
DEATH POEMS WITH LIFE TO SPARE
Poems for bowing out of life – Sōkan’s business, Kyōriku’s manure & more
from Hoffman 382
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
OVERLOOKED 16 -17C SOURCES & SURIMONO KYŌKA FROM ART PUBLISHERS
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
|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
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