Book Reviews · Poetry

One Hundred Leaves

Ask someone what they think about poetry and you’re probably going to get a pretty strong reaction. When I was still teaching English full-time, my students were split into two factions when it came to poetry. They either loved it, or absolutely despised it. In more than ten years in the classroom, I don’t think I ever had a single student who was “on the fence” regarding their feelings about poetry. And to be honest, that’s not really surprising.

Apart from occasionally reading books like Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, poetry really wasn’t something that I enjoyed as a child. There was a lot about poetry that I just did not understand. I didn’t actually become interested in poetry until I was in college. One of the classes I took as part of my English degree was “Introduction to Poetry,” which taught me how to appreciate poetry in a way no other class had managed up until that point. It was while taking that class that I started to actively seek out poetry as something to read for pleasure.

After celebrating National Haiku Day last week, I decided to dive into some of my poetry books, beginning with a collection called One Hundred Leaves.

One Hundred Leaves is a translation of a book called the Hyakunin Isshu, which was a collection of one hundred tanka originally put together by Fujiwara no Teika in the 13th Century. Each tanka is written by a different poet, and their poems focus on a variety of topics, such as: nature, life events, and lost love (just to name a few).

Like haiku, tanka have a very specific structure, which includes a set number of syllables. Tanka are five lines in length, with the first and third lines containing five syllables, and lines two, four, and five containing seven syllables.

One thing I really liked about One Hundred Leaves is the way in which it is organized. The translator, Frank Watson, begins each page with the poet’s name and the title of the poem, and then provides a translation of the poem in English. Directly beneath the English version, he provides the original Japanese text along with its pronunciation (in case you would like to read the poem aloud in the original language). Finally, he includes a literal translation of the words used in the original text (some of which have multiple meanings), and occasionally provides historical notes about the poem’s subject and/or author.

For some poems, Watson also addresses the effects of word play on the poem’s meaning, which I found very helpful. My spoken Japanese is limited at best, and my ability to read the language is practically nonexistent, so I would have missed out on the more subtle interpretations of the poems without Watson’s commentary.

Watson also includes an illustration with each tanka, which is related to the poem’s subject. I found that I really liked the art that he chose to include. Some of the pieces were familiar, while others were brand new to me.

If you enjoy poetry, or are interested in Japanese literature, One Hundred Leaves is a great book to check out. The poems included in this book are beautiful, and their authors range from emperors and empresses, to ministers and counselors, to monks, to other members of the nobility. Both male and female poets are well represented in this collection, including writers such as Lady Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote The Tale of Genji (supposedly the world’s very first novel).

National Poetry Month will be continuing for another ten days, so if you have any poetry recommendations, I would love to hear from you! If you would like to share a recommendation, please leave a comment on this post with the name of your favorite book of poetry (or favorite poet).

6 thoughts on “One Hundred Leaves

  1. I have a much thumbed copy of a book called ‘One Hundred Poems from the Chinese’ by Kenneth Rexroth (New Directions Press, 1971). I always worry that I can only read such things in translation, but its better than not reading them at all.

    1. I will definitely have to check out ‘One Hundred Poems from the Chinese.’ Thank you so much for the recommendation! I’ve been trying to improve my proficiency in a couple of languages, but I seem to be on a very long journey towards fluency. I am so thankful to everyone who translates books into other languages. Without them, I would miss out on a lot of wonderful literature.

  2. Thank you for your article which I enjoyed very much. I recently discovered Haiku and have been studying the form as well as trying to write in this style. I like the discipline if the structure and the beautiful imagery that many Haiku capture. I may have passed Haiku by if not for the pandemic which has made every passing moment valuable. You have now stimulated an interest in this other form of Japanese poetry and have ordered the book. Unfortunately I don’t know Japanese but will enjoy the translation and the beautiful script.

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