+ Bibliography
+ About the Speakers


Man'yôshû and Kokinshû Poetry Collections

Robert Oxnam :: The two great poetry collections from the classical period show the evolution of waka as the dominant form of expression. The Man'yôshû, or "Collection of a Myriad Leaves," was compiled in the Nara period. It contains a mixture of long poems and waka. The Kokinshû, or "Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems," was compiled by imperial edict in the Heian period and consists solely of waka poems.

Donald Keene :: It was a great generation of poets. We don't know why these poets suddenly arose. I think it was the maturity of the civilization itself. The Man'yôshû, the first great Japanese collection, has a great variety of poems by a variety of authors, not only noblemen, but also priests, members of soldiers, and even some poems by unknown commoners in distant parts of the country. Probably the people who compiled it, we think of one man particularly, Yakamochi [Otomo no Yakamochi, c. 718-785], thought at the time that this would show the people what we in Japan have done, what our cultural life is like.


[Reading from the Man'yôshû]

Since in Karu lived my wife,
I wished to be with her to my heart's content;
But I could not visit her constantly
Because of so many watching eyes —
Men would know of our troth,
Had I sought her too often.
So our love remained secret like a rock-pent pool;
I cherished her in my heart,

Looking to after-time when we should be together,
And lived secure in my trust
As one riding a great ship.
Suddenly there came a messenger
Who told me she was dead —
Was gone like a yellow leaf of autumn.
Dead as the day dies with the setting sun,
Lost as the bright moon is lost behind the cloud
Alas, she is no more, whose soul
Was bent to mine like the bending seaweed.


Donald Keene :: By the time the Kokinshû was written at the beginning, compiled at the beginning of the tenth century, the court became the center of Japanese life, and the poems in the Kokinshû are almost entirely by members of the court. It was considered essential for a courtier to be able to compose a poem.


[Reading from the Kokinshû]

Autumn leaves which fall in distant mountains
Are damasks worn in the darkness of the night.


Donald Keene :: And so from the Man'yôshû, which is a collection known best of all to us today for long poems written on dignified, sometimes extremely tragic themes — the death of someone — the scale was reduced in the Kokinshû to writing about moments of happiness, moments of unhappiness, appreciations of nature, understanding of another person's heart. These moments of understanding were the subject of the poems, but not tragic poems. They were not poems with jagged emotions. They were beautifully refined, exquisitely phrased, beautiful, much admired, much copied, but not of the intensity of the Man'yôshû.

Haruo Shirane :: It's all about minute sensibilities. When are the cherry blossoms going to appear? The spring mist is here. It must mean that spring has come earlier than usual. We should be hearing the cuckoo. Isn't it summer? So that everything, and then talking about love in those terms: "I haven't heard the cuckoo, " means, "I haven't gotten a letter from you. "

And in fact they spoke to each other in a highly allusive, highly suggestive fashion. I mean one of the characteristics of Japanese aesthetics is that it is highly suggestive. You never say anything directly. That's being a brute basically.


[Reading from the Kokinshû]

These mountain cherries with no one to look upon them:
Might they not bloom when all others have fallen?


First poem from Donald Keene, Pleasures of Japanese Literature (Columbia University Press, 1988), pp.29-30; second poem, Ki no Tsurayuki, Kokinshû 297; third poem, Ise, Kokinshû 68.