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  • How to Read a Japanese Poem by Steven D. Carter
  • Roselee Bundy (bio)
How to Read a Japanese Poem. By Steven D. Carter. Columbia University Press, New York, 2019. xii, 317 pages. $90.00, cloth; $30.00, paper; $29.99, E-book.

Across the years Steven D. Carter has given us a number of rigorously researched studies of Japanese poetry as well as translations of Japanese poetry.1 We owe much to him for our understanding of how political, economic, and social contexts shaped poetic practice and poetry, especially of the late medieval period. Now with How to Read a Japanese Poem, Carter presents us with a text that brings together the various strengths and interests of his scholarship—elucidation of context, exegesis, and translation— [End Page 531] to invite readers, both specialists and generalists, into readings of Japanese poetry from its beginnings into the twentieth century.

Carter divides his seven chapters into various subgenres of Japanese poetry, usually presenting poems chronologically within each chapter: "Ancient Song and Poetry," "Long Poems and Short Poems, "Popular Songs," "Linked Verse," "Unorthodox Poems," "Comic Poems," and "Poems in Chinese." Further, the author does not concentrate on canonical figures nor, when he does include them, on their best-known compositions. Thus, even to a specialist, Carter offers a fresh encounter with Japanese poetry and for all readers a sense of its variety and its continuities across time. The inclusion of the kana/kanji and the romanized versions is welcome. Each poem in the main body of Carter's text is accompanied by an explanation of "context"—biographical information about the poet, the occasion that produced the poem, and so on—and then "commentary," in which Carter fluidly integrates his knowledge of Japanese poetic history, of aesthetic principles, and of the philosophies that shaped Japanese poetry, enriching layer by layer readers' understanding of a poem.

The translations are engaging, lucid, and often moving. A cursory comparison of the waka Carter includes in the present text and his earlier Traditional Japanese Poetry shows relatively little duplication of translated poems. As would be expected with the passage of nearly 30 years between the two texts, Carter's translations of the same composition also have subtly changed. For instance, in this poem by Fujiwara no Teika, on the left from Traditional Japanese Poetry, on the right from How to Read a Japanese Poem:

kaerusa no/mono to ya hito no/nagamuran/matsu yo nagara no/ariake no tsuki

After his tryst,he too may be looking up    on his way back home—while for me a night of waiting    ends with the dawn moon.

(poem 402, pp. 198–99)

After his tryst,he may think it lights the wayas he returns home.But I gaze at it, still waiting—there in the dawn sky, the moon …

(p. 57)

The older and newer translations unfold in much the same manner, following closely the order of the lines in the original. Both translations give an excellent sense of the composition, though I find the How to Read version more evocative. "[H]e may think it lights the way" is less matter of fact than "he too may be looking"; the version in Traditional Japanese Poetry draws attention to the shared act of gazing, the version in How to Read, to the dissonance in the emotions of the man and woman. "[L]ight the way" further suggests something of the man's satisfaction with his tryst, his privileged movement through space, and the waiting woman's immobility. Finally, in [End Page 532] comparison to Traditional Japanese Poetry's "night of waiting/ends with the dawn moon," "still waiting" in How to Read more deeply suggests the pathos of the woman's hopeless waiting, which, with the coming of dawn, is bound to enter yet another cycle.

Carter's two appendices, "Technical Terms" and "Aesthetic Ideals and Devices," are invaluable for a generalist reader who wishes to delve more deeply into the terms that Carter uses in his comments on poems. For specialists, the appendices are a most welcome expansion, with copious examples, to the section of "Literary Terms" in The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature (Princeton University...


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