Japanese Literature: An Introduction for Western Readers

By Donald Keene | Go to book overview

II. JAPANESE POETRY

ONE of the earliest and most famous statements on Japanese poetry was made in 905 A.D. by Ki no Tsurayuki in his preface to the Collection of Ancient and Modern Poetry. This begins:

"Japanese poetry has for its seed the human heart, and grows into countless leaves of Words. In this life many things touch men: they seek then to express their feelings by images drawn from what they see or hear. Who among men does not compose poetry on hearing the song of the nightingale among the flowers, or the cries of the frog who lives in the water? Poetry it is which, without effort, moves heaven and earth, and stirs to pity the invisible demons and gods; which makes sweet the ties between men and women; and which can comfort the hearts of fierce warriors."

At first glance these words may seem little more than a conventional statement on the powers of poetry, and indeed there is in Tsurayuki's words more than one suggestion of earlier Chinese remarks. But beneath the smooth rhetorical finish there are some things said, and some unsaid, which are bound to interest the Western reader. First of all, we must note that Tsurayuki claims that poetry has the capacity of affecting supernatural beings, not, as in the West, that the supernatural beings speak through the poet, who is merely an inspired medium for their words. The Japanese may have believed that poetry, like everything else in their country, originated with the gods, but Japanese poets have never turned to a muse or any other divine being for help with their verses. The art, for all the wonderful powers that were attributed to it, was not considered to lie beyond the

-22-

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Japanese Literature: An Introduction for Western Readers
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • I. Introduction 1
  • Ii. Japanese Poetry 22
  • Iii. the Japanese Theatre 47
  • Iv. the Japanese Novel 67
  • V. Japanese Literature Under Western Influence 88
  • SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY 111
  • Index 113
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