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  • Awesome Nightfall: The Life, Times, and Poetry of Saigyō
  • Laurel Rasplica Rodd (bio)
Awesome Nightfall: The Life, Times, and Poetry of Saigyō. By William R. LaFleur. Wisdom Publications, Somerville, Mass., 2003. xiv, 173 pages. $14.95, paper.

On anyone's list, Saigyō (1119-90) ranks among Japan's best poets. With Hitomaro and Bashō, he has long been one of the poets most loved by the Japanese. Within a few years of his death he had been honored by having 94 of his waka, more than any other poet, included in the great court poetry collection, the Shinkokinshū. His life was soon the subject of hagiographic picture scrolls and tales, plays, and setsuwa, as he came to be viewed as the model of the eremitic poet grappling with the seeming contradictions between the religious life and artistic endeavor. Bashō, whose Oku no hosomichi traced the route Saigyō had walked five centuries earlier, viewed Saigyō as the representative poet of the waka and a model for his life as a recluse, a monk, and a poet traveler.

A master of many styles of poetry, Saigyō was a pioneer in a new style that later came to be viewed as characteristic of the Shinkokinshū era: it is a style that often seems to emphasize description over the subjectivity of earlier poetry, presenting a rich, darkly imagistic field with symbolic overtones. At the same time, Saigyō's poetry is representative of its era in displaying a new individuality, with an expression of personal opinions and responses to direct experience of the world.

Saigyō's oeuvre, consisting almost entirely of some 2,000 waka, many with extensive diary-like headnotes that encourage the practice of reading these verses as autobiographical, has previously been represented in English translation in two anthologies of selections from his verse—William R. LaFleur's Mirror for the Moon and Burton Watson's Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home—in addition to briefer selections included in Steven D. Carter's Traditional Japanese Poetry and other anthologies and studies of [End Page 520] court poetry.1 This new volume by LaFleur adds 43 new waka translations to the almost 200 previously published in Mirror for the Moon (some of those are slightly revised for this new publication) and provides a greatly expanded 70-page introduction to Saigyō's life and times that provides an invaluable framework for interpretation.

Born into a military family, Saigyō, or Satō Norikiyo as he was then, served in the North-Facing Warriors, the palace guards of Retired Emperor Toba and Toba's putative son Retired Emperor Sutoku. Recent scholarship by historians Mezaki Tokue and Gomi Fumihiko suggests that many of the North-Facing Warriors were also erotically involved with the men they served. Although Norikiyo is not specifically named among the individuals involved in these affairs, the mistrust and conflicts these relationships occasioned, coupled with, LaFleur suggests, the gap between reality and appearance manifest in the behind-the-scenes political machinations of the nominally retired but politically powerful sovereigns, can be added to the list of possible motivations for Saigyō's decision to take the tonsure when he was 23. The violent social and political upheavals of the times, seen by many as evidence that the world had entered the mappō, or "Final Days of the Law," and a possible love affair with the beautiful Taikenmon-in, Toba's consort, were other possible spurs to Saigyō's choice of the religious path. LaFleur offers this poem as evidence that Saigyō emulated "the manner in which the insei emperors themselves had gained by giving something away" in explaining his belief that rejection of secular society could lead to salvation:

Written when I was petitioning the insei Emperor Toba to grant me his permission to leave secular life:

oshimu tote oshimarenubeki kono yo kawa mi o sutete koso mi o mo tasukeme So loath to lose what maybe should be loathed: one's place in the world; we maybe rescue best the self by simply throwing it away.

(p. 12)

Rather than settle into a monastic life at one of the major temples, Saigyō embarked on a half-century as one of the first of...


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