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Reviewed by:
  • Murmured Conversations: A Treatise on Poetry and Buddhism by the Poet-Monk Shinkei
  • Paul S. Atkins (bio)
Murmured Conversations: A Treatise on Poetry and Buddhism by the Poet-Monk Shinkei. Translation, commentary, and annotation by Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2008. xiv, 416 pages. $70.00.

Renga, the art of linked Japanese verse, was the most vigorous poetic form in late medieval Japan. Although ancient origins were asserted for it, renga really began in the twelfth century as an elegant pastime for aristocratic waka poets, who broke the 31-syllable form into two constituent parts (of 5/7/5 and 7/7 syllables) and took turns capping one another’s verses. Early examples often displayed wit by techniques such as turning a risqué statement into an innocent one, or deflating noble sentiments with images of the [End Page 373] mundane. In time, renga was adopted by commoners as a medium for social contact; a venue for live, spontaneous performance; and a point of access to court culture and its symbolic capital.

By the fifteenth century, renga poets were reconverting this popular form into high art. They did so first by reemphasizing renga’s origins in waka and the restrained courtier’s aesthetic that governed it and second by explicating the principles of renga in terms of Buddhist philosophy. One of the foremost practitioners and theoreticians of renga poetry was the Tendai monk Shinkei (1406–75), whose catechistic treatise Sasamegoto (or “Murmured Conversations”) is translated and interpreted in the volume under review.

Shinkei’s biography and poetic oeuvre are already familiar to readers of English through Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen’s fine study, Heart’s Flower: The Life and Poetry of Shinkei (Stanford University Press, 1994). That volume, the present work, and a third book by Ramirez-Christensen, a critique of Sasamegoto and other writings titled Emptiness and Temporality: Buddhism and Medieval Japanese Poetics (Stanford University Press, 2008), all stem from the author’s 1983 Harvard dissertation, “Shinkei: Poet-Priest of Medieval Japan.” That is to say, the latter two works have been a quarter-century in the making.

Written in 1463–64, Sasamegoto is composed of over 60 sections, typically brief, presented in question-and-answer form. The questions address topics such as vulgarity in verse, whether it is proper to criticize the poetry of others, the appropriate length of a renga session, and the various styles of renga composition. The questioner appears in the persona of a somewhat anxious provincial who is fortunately aware of his provinciality; the respondent replies with complete confidence. By this we can surmise that the originally intended readership was renga practitioners outside the capital of Kyoto, a supposition that is confirmed by documentary evidence (p. 6).

What justly occupies the greater part of Ramirez-Christensen’s critical attention is the close links that Shinkei makes between the secular art of renga and Tendai Buddhist practice. This tendency climaxes as the treatise comes to a close, in which the questioner mentions a quest for “the form of the true Buddha” and “the configuration of the ultimate waka or renga” in the same breath (p. 197). By this point, the text’s positioning of renga composition as a kind of Buddhist practice (not only with the obvious goal of enhancing the prestige of the art but also to elevate the level of poetic discourse among its adherents and inspire them to compose with greater diligence) has been reinforced so many times that it seems quite natural.

Anyone who has read Ramirez-Christensen’s earlier book on Shinkei will not be surprised to find that the verse translations, of which there are many, included in this volume are superb, nimbly balancing the dual loyalties of semantics and aesthetics. An example, picked more or less at random: [End Page 374]

honobono to ariake no tsuki no tsukikage ni momiji fukiorosu yamaoroshi no kaze

Dimly, dimly, in the faint pool of moonlight shadowing the dawn, red leaves come fluttering down in a gust of wind from the hills.

(p. 140)

For purposes of comparison, a literal translation might read something like: “Dimly, / in the light of the moon / in the morning sky, / the winds of a...