Introducing the Kokinshu

A copy of the Kokinshu I purchased recently.
A copy of the Kokinshu I purchased recently.

Hi Everyone,

Some readers might remember that I am a fan of Japanese waka (和歌) poetry. Waka poetry, is an older form of poetry that came before haikus. When people think of Japanese poetry, they often think of haikus, but haikus are relatively new, so there’s lots and lots of poetry written as waka, not haiku, that Westerns don’t know about. The main difference is that haikus are 5-7-5 syllables, while waka are 5-7-5-7-7, so there’s two extra lines of 7 syllables.

Waka poetry was very popular in the “golden age” of Japanese culture, the Heian Period. Noble men and woman, and their attendants, wrote poetry to one another all the time as a way of communicating their thoughts. Poetry could be a path to success too.

But also, poetry was so popular, that there were official anthologies too. There were 21 anthologies total, and some were better than others. I wrote about the 21 anthologies in greater detail on my other blog. The most famous of these anthologies is probably the Kokin Wakashū (古今和歌集) or just Kokinshū for short. It’s name literally means “A Collection of Poems, Old and New”.

The Kokinshu anthology was completed in 914, but start 15-20 years earlier. It took the committee, led by one Ki no Tsurayuki (紀貫之) a long time to compile all the poems and then organize into an anthology. It is not as famous to Westerners as the Hyakunin Isshu, which I made an entire blog for, but the Isshu is a private collection. Althought it is very famous and influential, it was not an official, Imperial anthology.

The Kokinshu is far larger than the Hyakunin Isshu too. It has hundreds of poems. Instead of reading specific poems, Ki no Tsurayuki and the committee organized the anthology by “books”. There are 20 books, with different topics like “Autumn”, “Love” and “Miscellaneous”. What’s clever about the anthology is that the poems within each book are carefully organized too.

For example, in the “Autumn” book, the first poems talk about early fall, and tend to sound similar to each other. However, as you progress through the book, the poetry topics subtly move into other subjects, and then into late autumn. So as the reader progress, the season of Autumn progresses too. The trick is to not focus on one poem, but the progression of poems together. It creates a seamless progression through different subjects within the same book.

There are very few translations of the Kokinshu, but thankfully I found a good one by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius. This book does a nice job translating the poems, and providing useful footnotes, but also translates Ki no Tsurayuki’s originally forward. Ki no Tsurayuki walks the reader through a brief history of Japanese poetry (relative to his time) and critiques famous poets of the past, namely the Six Immortals of Poetry. His criticism is pretty harsh, but I think this was typical of the era.

I haven’t through the entire book, but I tend to jump around and find a section worth reading.

There’s a lot of good poems in there, and I hope to share some soon. I don’t know if I could make a blog devoted to the Kokinshu, like I did with the Hyakunin Isshu, but instead I hope to post here and maybe the other blog from time to time. I hope to also read the Shinkokin Wakashū someday. This was a later anthology, and was intended as a kind of “sequel” to the Kokinshu.

But if you do like Japanese poetry, especially Waka poetry, the Kokinshu is among the best of the 21 Imperial Anthologies.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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