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  • The Pursuit of Harmony: Poetry and Power in Early Heian Japan by Gustav Heldt
  • Edith Sarra
The Pursuit of Harmony: Poetry and Power in Early Heian Japan by Gustav Heldt. Ithaca: Cornell University East Asia Program, 2008. Pp. xvi + 433. $66.00 cloth, $33.00 paper.

In 1988, the late Richard Okada advised scholarly audiences for pre-modern Japanese poetry in North America: “What the study of Heian waka [和歌] needs is not an approach based on influence and evaluation but rather a sustained examination of what it meant, in literary, historical, and political terms, to compile poetry collections . . . and how that act related to the question of individual/social waka composition.” The occasion for this advice was his polemical review of Helen Craig McCullough’s two-volume translation of and commentary on the Kokin wakashū, the first of Japan’s imperially commissioned collections of the thirty-one-syllable poem known variously as waka, song (uta 歌), songs of Yamato (Yamato uta 大和歌), or short verse (tanka 短歌). Exactly twenty years later there appeared, with no great fanfare and no controversy at all to my knowledge, just such an examination of compilations of Heian poetry, one that primarily aims to present what Okada may have meant by “the poems in their situational complexity.”1 As Gustav Heldt phrases it, The Pursuit of Harmony attempts “to reconstruct what was at stake and for whom in [the Kokin wakashū’s] composition” (p. 6). He further investigates what was at stake in the practice of court poetry in the decades before and after the commissioning of the anthology.2 His book thus enacts a shift in focus from the poem or anthology as text to a history of poetic [End Page 429] praxis—a shift that aims to enable a revision of “our notion of the public purposes of court poetry” by highlighting relations between poetic discourse and other sociopolitical practices usually understood in isolation from poetry (pp. 2, 8).

Heldt succeeds admirably in doing what he sets out to do. The Pursuit of Harmony is indeed a strongly revisionary book, capable of altering the way we understand Heian waka and the versatile roles that Japanese-language poetry occupied in early Heian elite culture. Because this study insists upon relating poetic praxis to larger developments in Heian court society, it illuminates underexamined issues whose significance extends beyond the early Heian period: the meaning of the ubiquity of proxy compositions in Heian poetic practice, the multiple ways in which poetry worked to produce social identities within Japanese court society, and the history of authorship as a concept in Japan before the early modern advent of print culture.

Heldt’s historical narrative of poetic praxis is intensively detailed. Engaging a substantial body of primary as well as secondary materials, his research into the poetics of the period and his analyses of the reconstruction of those poetics in medieval and contemporary scholarship are both judicious and meticulous. His writing, moreover, is also refreshingly free of the kind of jargon that often encumbers cultural studies; for that reason The Pursuit of Harmony speaks to broader audiences as well as specialists. Most important for students of Heian poetry and court society, Heldt develops his analysis of Heian poetry within a complex theoretical framework that remains grounded by concepts traceable to the early Heian period itself.

At the heart of Heldt’s study is the effort to excavate “connections between the poems produced in this period and the practice of ‘harmonization’ (wa [和]) with a superior’s words through their citation and affirmation in banquets and other ritual observances at the early Heian court” (p. 2). Hence the book’s title concept is “harmony,” and hence Heldt makes careful distinctions between generic and modal terms, which are frequently conflated in writings on early Japanese verse—a slippage whose beginning, Heldt implies, dates from at least the twelfth century if not the early Heian itself. Due in part to this slippage, the term waka has come to be understood as “Japanese [End Page 430] Court poetry,” or even just “Japanese verse,” since it was the dominant medium of poetic production in Japanese among literate elites down to the mid-fifteenth century and continues...


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