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  • Figures poétiques japonaises: La genèse de la poésie en chaιne
  • Aileen Gatten
Figures poétiques japonaises: La genèse de la poésie en chaιne. By Sumie Terada. Paris: Collège de France, Institut des Hautes Études Japonaises, 2004. 411 pages. Softcover €23.00.

Renga, linked verse, generally calls to mind such fifteenth-century poets as Sōgi and Shōhaku and their magisterial hundred-link sequences. Before them came the poetry and renga rules of Nijō Yoshimoto, and before him the first serious renga gatherings and the pioneering rules of the thirteenth century. And before these, was there linked verse, and if so, how did it come to be? These are the questions addressed by Sumie Terada in her stimulating monograph, the title of which might be translated as "Japanese Poetic Expressions: The Genesis of Linked Verse."

The emergence of renga as a genre is usually seen as a thirteenth-century event, and the preceding century or so is considered its formative period. This latter phase is characterized by a more structured, intentional approach to the composition of tanrenga, the thirty-one-syllable, two-link "short renga" that is the earliest form of linked verse, and by the development of kusari, or "chain," renga, the linking of three or more stanzas that gradually developed into the long sequences of later centuries.

Terada, however, believes that the roots of renga go far deeper than the late eleventh century: roughly one-third of her study concerns eighth-century prosody with particular relation to Man'yōshū, while the remainder explores the characteristics and rhetorical devices employed in tanrenga throughout the Heian period. In Figures poétiques, Terada analyzes tanka and tanrenga written over this five-hundred-year period in order to reveal the rhetorical "structures" that precede and facilitate the development of linking in mature renga.

Figures poétiques thus is concerned less with literary evaluation than poetic structure, rhetoric, and theory. It inquires clearly and in detail into a subject that most scholars of premodern Japanese poetry accept as a given: the grounding of the extraordinary genre of renga on the conventions of tanka, despite substantial formal differences between the two. Terada demonstrates, for example, precisely how and why the practice of sari-kirai (the required switching of subject after a certain number of links) could become a basic feature of renga, and she describes the origins of fushimono, or set topics. Unapologetically scholarly, Figures poétiques assumes its readers have a basic knowledge of tanka and renga and generously illustrates its points with diagrams. Those who meet its challenges will be rewarded by an assured, thorough exploration of the prehistory of renga and of the neglected tanrenga, and will gain added appreciation for the ingenious nature of premodern Japanese poetry.

Terada's discussion of eighth-century poetic conventions appears at first glance to cover familiar ground, including explanations of the origin and function of the makurakotoba (our "pillow word," felicitously rendered "mot initiateur" in Figures poétiques) and the jokotoba ("preface," or "motif initiateur"). What is striking about this section, however, is Terada's demonstration of the role played by these well-known devices in preparing the way for linked verse. Among the properties of the jokotoba, for example, is the capacity to link two homophonic but semantically different units. Terada perceives this as an essential device both for tanrenga as practiced from the tenth century on and for linking in general (p. 92). [End Page 536]

The analysis of rhetorical devices continues in the final two sections, which are devoted to Heian tanrenga. Terada shows that, like the makurakotoba and other Man'yō conventions, the new rhetorical techniques of early and mid-Heian were vital factors in developing mature linked verse. The kakekotoba ("pivot word," or "motpivot") is seen as the basis of the linking system, creating a unified discourse by placing in correspondence elements belonging to different semantic domains (pp. 198-200); engo ("word association," or "mots associés") are the agents that form a semantic network ensuring cohesion between stanzas; and mitate ("elegant confusion," or "jeu de transfert") is described as a device exploited to introduce thematic change, an...


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