- Teika: The Life and Works of a Medieval Japanese Poet by Paul S. Atkins
In an essay on the American writer David Foster Wallace, the essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote, "Everything we know about the way literature gets made suggests there's some connection between the individual talent and the society that produces it, the social organism. Cultures extrude geniuses the way a beehive will make a new queen when its old one dies."1 My purpose in quoting this is to suggest a homology of types: the appearance of literary genius in our social world. Whether or not you agree with Sullivan about Wallace, there is little doubt that Wallace made (and will probably continue to make) a significant impact on literature. The same can be said of Fujiwara no Teika (1162–1241), the most important waka poet of his generation. Teika's influence (though Paul Atkins eschews the word), both during his lifetime and for centuries after, may only have reached a relatively small circle of writers in a single country, but the innovations he introduced into the writing of waka, the most important literary genre of pre-Edo Japan, revealed an unprecedented poetic genius who, as Atkins shows in the final chapter of Teika: The Life and Works of a Medieval Japanese Poet, lived in the minds of writers for hundreds of years.
In some respects, Teika is much more than a literary biography since the work does not end with Teika's death. Chapter 1, "A Documentary Biography," is devoted to "selected" biographical details of Teika's life taken primarily, though not exclusively, from Teika's (mostly) kanbun diary, Meigetsuki. As Atkins makes clear, however, biography is not the focus of his work. It is, instead, "Teika's literary writings and his ideas about poetry" (p. 9). To that end, Atkins devotes chapters 2, 3, and 4 to Teika's Darumauta style, his poetics as revealed in his writings on waka composition, and his literary interactions with China. The final chapter, "Teika after Teika: A History of Reception," explores how some writers of literature have conceived [End Page 422] of and responded to this "brilliant poet"—his poetry, his diary, and his calligraphy—in the centuries following his death (p. 211).
Students of classical Japanese literature in general and waka in particular have not suffered from a lack of material about Teika and his poetry over the years. Scholars such as Robert H. Brower and Earl Miner, Roselee Bundy, Edward Kamens, Michel Vieillard-Baron, Edwin Cranston, Ivo Smits, Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen, David Bialock, Haruo Shirane, Steven D. Carter, and Robert N. Huey have given substantial insight into Teika's life, poetry, and poetics. However, prior to Atkins's work there has not been a single source that has offered a comprehensive overview of Teika's life and poetics.2 Atkins's work provides that and is based upon sound research that breaks new ground, giving perceptive close readings of both individual poems and rounds of poetry from utaawase. Moreover, the book is written in a graceful, elegant style without literary critical jargon. While this reviewer, and probably every other Japanese scholar who translates waka as part of their scholarship, might prefer different translation techniques or strategies, the translations are precise and accurate, and support the arguments that Atkins offers.
In chapter 2, "The Bodhidharma Style and the Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds," Atkins tackles the issue of the Daruma-uta (Bodhidharma, or "nonsense," poems) epithet introduced to Western readers in 1961 in Robert H. Brower and Earl Miner's Japanese Court Poetry. In the intervening years, scholars have often repeated or modified Brower and Miner's statement that such poetry "frequently made use of unusual rhetoric and syntax as well as unprecedented approaches to the topic" (p. 264). But never before has anyone in English provided such a wide-ranging discussion of what exactly the epithet signifies (it often implied gibberish), in which texts it was discussed and by whom, and exactly how...