An independent small press poetry review

NHI independent review
Cheng & Tsui Company
25 West St
MA 02111-1213
ISBN 0 88727 364 5

Yosano Akiko and the Birth of the Female Voice in Modern Japanese Poetry
University of Hawai'i Press
2840 Kolowalu Street
HI 96822
ISBN 0 8248 2347 8

visit the website of University of Hawai'i Press

NHI review home page
FAQ page
Notes for Publishers

book reviews
other media

Web design by Gerald England
This page last updated: 11th December 2007.

Masaoka Shiki is known by Japanese critics as the father of the modern haiku. This book trys to put that image into the context of his life and his total writings.

Shiki was only five when his alcoholic father died. His mother taught sewing to provide an income. Shiki came under the influence of his grandfather Kanzan who taught him literature, Confucian philosophy and samurai morality. As a pre-adolescent he was a devotee of poetry but later became politically-minded.

In 1883 he left home to study in Tokyo. Two years later, he abandoned politics for philosophy. After failing his exams he turned to aesthetics and subsequently to literature. At first he aimed at becoming a novelist as that was a respected pursuit, whilst haiku was regarded with disdain. However, he soon decided that his aim in life would be to reform contemporary haiku and make it respectable. Shiki encouraged his students to compose haiku on topics derived from their own observation of nature, rather than on assigned topics.

The author critically examines many of Shiki's haiku and his writing about haiku and about Basho and Buson in particular. She concludes

it is certain that through his unique combination of intimacy and objectivity, artlessness and intensity, Shiki imbued the haiku with a new psychological complexity, and made it a poetic form that would survive into the modern period.
In 1893 Shiki concerned himself with the tanka. In response to this own rhetorical question as to the kind of people who wrote contemporary tanka, he gave this list:

  • Scholars of Japanese literature
  • Shinto priests
  • Court nobles
  • Ladies of leisure
  • Girl students
  • Clever men with a bit of learning
  • Gentlemen newly promoted to high rank or positions
  • Young men who want to see their tanka printed in books and magazines
These people, in Shiki's view, wrote either as an act of self-indulgence or to make money. Tanka needed to be taken out of their hands and put into those of true poets.

Haiku was considered vulgar and tanka refined, but Shiki saw it as natural that Japanese writers would work in both genres, just as many Europeans wrote not only poetry, but drama and novels as well.

The author examines Shiki's tanka with the same attention to detail as she gave his haiku. Later chapters likewise discuss his prose writings and his diaries, especially their poetic content.

The book concludes with extensive notes and a selected bibliography. For anyone with a thirst for but little knowledge of Shiki or the history of modern haiku and tanka, this book is an excellent place to start.

reviewer: Gerald England

My poems are my diary, Yosano Akiko once said. Previous English translations of Akiko's work have presented her tanka with little or no commentary on her life. In EMBRACING THE FIREBIRD, scholar Janine Beichman weaves together memoirs, letters, and eyewitness accounts to offer a fuller and deeper portrait of Japan's most famous modern woman poet. This first book-length study details Akiko's artistic and emotional development from childhood to her early twenties when she was catapulted to fame with the publication of MIDAREGAMI (TANGLED HAIR).

Akiko's bold and erotic poems shocked the Meiji world. Before the publication of TANGLED HAIR, poets did not mention-never mind praise-parts of the body, other than a woman's hair. Akiko revolted against this taboo by celebrating the ecstasy of sexual love.

	Pressing my breasts
	I softly kick aside
	the curtain of mystery
	   How deep the crimson
	   of the flower here.

	Spring is short
	what is there has eternal life
	I said and
	   made his hands seek out
	   my powerful breasts
The love poems in TANGLED HAIR were addressed to Tekkan, Akiko's lover and later husband. Tekkan was the leader of Japan's new poetry movement and published Akiko's tanka in his journal Myojo (Bright Star). Akiko broke all the rules of traditional tanka. Not only did she refuse to write on prescribed topics, but she rejected the strict 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic count. Her contemporaries had difficulty in understanding her grammatical peculiarities, fragmented syntax, and conception. We can appreciate, then, the daunting task of a translator who sets out to render Akiko's tanka into English. Ms. Beichman has offered us 270 poems, including 194 by Akiko, of which 122 are from TANGLED HAIR.

In the final section of EMBRACING THE FIREBIRD, Ms. Beichman focuses on the variety, shape and originality of the poems in TANGLED HAIR. She shows us how Akiko infused her tanka with other genres and arts, such as Greek myth, Western painting (particularly the nudes of Titian), and Heian fiction. Gods and goddesses, cupids, nymphs, virgins and young priests enter her poems. This uncharacteristically playful one is written in the voice of a dove.

	Listen, poet!
	It's spring and what are these
	ragged letters
	you've scribbled on the underside
	of my pure white wings
Here Akiko is poking fun at Tekkan, who liked to inscribe his tanka on unusual surfaces.

As in her definitive biography of haiku poet Masaoka Shiki, Ms. Beichman has included photographs with the text. It is fascinating to see the volatile, handsome Tekkan and the posed photo of Akiko with her friend/rival Tomiko. These photographs also serve as a visual reminder that Japan was at the cusp of a new era of Westernization: women still dressed in kimonos but men were beginning to sport mustaches and wear Western suits.

The firebird (hi no tori) in the title refers to the mythological phoenix that is consumed by fire, then reborn from its own ashes. Like the firebird, Yosano Akiko emerged time and time again from poverty, rejection, betrayal, the travails of giving birth, motherhood and illness to embrace and renew her art. In this superb book, Ms. Beichman has indeed embraced the firebird.

reviewer: Margaret Chula