Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241) was, by most accounts, a horrible bully. The Japanese nobleman lived through the country's violent transition from the Heian aristocratic era to the martial Kamakura shogunate, and was surly, severe and infamously ugly, as if malformed by the turbulence of his times. But as a poet and editor, Teika has transcended the ages. He compiled Japan's most influential and long-lasting anthology of poems: the Hyakunin Isshu (one hundred people, one poem each), also known as the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. For more than seven centuries, these poems have resonated with countless readers. They have also acted as a dynamo of cultural creation driving later poets to reach for the poetic gold standard they established and propelling generations of visual artists to set down in myriad mediums the arresting images they contain. The poems have penetrated the culture so deeply that some Japanese still play a centuries-old card game (karuta) based on them.
An excellent new translation of these poems makes clear why they have mattered so much for so long. One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each: A Translation of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu by Peter McMillan reveals the vivid emotions that have kept the heart of the collection beating all this time. The poems of the Hyakunin Isshu are waka: 31-syllable verses of five lines. Like the better known haiku, which they spawned, waka have a brevity and a strictness of topic and word-choice that demand economy of expression. They exemplify the idea that art is born of constraints and dies in freedom. But imposing restrictions that are unnatural in English has doomed many translations. McMillan succeeds by following a more sensible rule: abandoning the stipulated meter, but making the poems as lyrical in translation as they are in classical Japanese.
Nearly half of the Hyakunin Isshu poems are about love. Teika drew from poets as far back as the 8th century, and one of the pleasures of reading the collection is to realize that nothing has changed. A millennium later, in our drastically different culture, we immediately relate to the 9th century provincial governor Taira no Kanemori ("Though I try to keep it secret,/ my deep love/ shows in the blush on my face./ Others keep asking me/ Who are you thinking of?"). We recall the first rush of our own romances upon reading the 10th century aristocrat Fujiwara no Yoshitaka ("I always thought/ I would give my life/ to meet you only once,/ but now, having spent a night/ with you, I wish that I may/ go on living forever"). And we sympathize with the 9th century court poet Ki no Tsurayuki, who takes refuge in happier memories when his lover turns cold ("Have you changed?/ I cannot read your heart./ But at least I know/ that here in my old home/ as always the plum blossom/ blooms with fragrance/ of the past").
The American poet Frank O'Hara once wrote that "the light in Japan respects poets." It's easy to see his point with the Hyakunin Isshu. Moonlight, dawn light and fog-filtered daylight suffuse this anthology, illuminating scenes of delicate natural beauty. As McMillan notes in his introduction, the great Tokugawa-era painters Hon'ami Koetsu and Ogata Korin were but a few of the visual artists drawn to the poems. The latter illustrated one of the earliest and most famous karuta sets, as the major ukiyo-e (Floating World) artists famed for their depictions of metropolitan life in Edo Japan would later do.
These verses have long served as texts for cultural education a staple of calligraphers and students, who memorize them in order to learn classical Japanese grammar. When I was a college student studying in Kyoto, where almost all of the hundred poets lived and wrote, I tried to memorize a few of the poems myself. I had got as far as the third (in fact, I never got further) when I went to dinner at a teacher's house one night and discovered that the teacher's mother a city social worker was a Hyakunin Isshu fan. She humored me by asking me to recite the beginning of one of the poems to see if she could finish it. I proudly trotted out the third poem, in which the 7th century Kakinomoto no Hitomaro uses the metaphor of a mountain pheasant's dragging tail ("The long tail/ of the copper pheasant") to evoke the wistfulness of a long, lonely night. The elderly Mrs. Ueda picked up without hesitation on the third line "drags on and on" and ended the poem with a smile. In the moment that followed, we both felt the echo of words that nimbly and delightfully spanned generations, cultures and centuries, and understood exactly why the Hyakunin Isshu is so enduring. Fujiwara no Teika may have shown the world a gruff, ill-natured and unlovely face, but no ogre had a heart more sentimental or more delicate.