Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature Analysis

Makoto Ueda

Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Until recently, there was little information available in any Western language on the development of modern Japanese poetry. A few translations were available, in varying degrees of accuracy and elegance, in specialized journals and magazines, but nothing that could provide either an overview of this important and rewarding field in modern Japanese letters or a suitable index to the accomplishments of any particular poet. In recent years, however, thanks to the efforts of a number of scholars and translators, in particular Hiroaki Sato, who has published a major anthology, From the Country of Eight Islands (1981) and a half-dozen other volumes of translations, selections from the work of a number of important Japanese poets have become available to English-speaking readers, and it is now widely acknowledged that modern Japanese poetry in translation can be as provocative and stimulating as the modern Japanese novels that began to appear in translation in the 1950’s.

Now that more of these translations are in print, Makoto Ueda, a distinguished writer of Japanese literature and aesthetics who teaches at Stanford University, has decided to take the necessary next step—that of providing a context in which the talents and accomplishments of the major modern Japanese poets can be examined and evaluated. A fluent writer of English and a master of his often elusive source material, Ueda is perhaps the only scholar in the United States who could have put together a study of this sort, and the results will serve to bring the study and appreciation of modern Japanese poetry to an entirely new and effective level.

Following the same approach which he employed successfully in his study of eight modern Japanese novelists, Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature (1976), Ueda intends that the present study should serve not only as a sourcebook on the eight poets on whom he focuses his attention but also as a running commentary on the development of modern Japanese aesthetics. As poetry has always been central to Japanese artistic and literary traditions, dramatic and narrative alike, Ueda’s study provides insights and observations that range far beyond consideration of poetic conventions and expectations. That information is discussed in gratifying detail, but in addition, Ueda provides crucial evidence for a close proximity between the poetic and religious ways of life. In one way or another, he finds in the life and work of the poets he has chosen to explicate the assumption that poetry came to serve as a way toward some sort of transcendental truth. Given the century and its restless preoccupations, these poets cannot always be identified as Buddhist, but their attitudes about poetry and its place in life call to mind the views of such great figures in the Japanese literary tradition as the waka poet Saigy (1118-1190); the court poet Shunzei (1114-1204), who used the composition of verse as a means of meditation; the great haiku poet Matsuo Bash (1644-1694); and the religious recluse, poet, and calligrapher Rykan (1758-1831). All of the poets in Ueda’s survey touch on the great themes of Japanese traditional poetry: the tension between engagement and religious withdrawal, the search for salvation, the place of man in nature, and the means by which the pain of ego and self-attachment can be transcended.

In underscoring the links between the past and the present, Ueda is careful not to oversimplify the story. Each of the eight figures he treats is anchored in a specific period, and each saw himself or herself as an artist of the time, as often as not engaged in the turmoils of the moment. Because by 1900 Japanese society had become modernized and urbanized, the tensions these poets felt are not unlike those characteristic of Western societies in the same period, so that the attitudes and stances of their verse seem instantly familiar, at least in outline. The differences, however, are even more revealing.

Some of the poets considered by Ueda wrote in the older forms of waka (thirty-one-syllable verse) and haiku, some chose free-verse forms based on European models, and a certain number attempted both. In each case, however, Ueda finds congruences, even if unarticulated in certain cases, with the great traditions of the past. These congruences are more often philosophical and psychological than strictly literary, given the impact of Western literature as a force in modern Japanese culture. Ueda provides fascinating and necessary information on...

(The entire section is 1857 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Library Journal. CVIII, August, 1983, p. 1484.