short summary This is the first book to translate a broad spectrum of the informal, improper and generally comic side of 31-syllable Japanese poetry called ‘kyoka,’ or ‘kyouka,’ literally, “mad-poems” or “madcap verse,” representing “absolute freedom both in respect of language and choice of subject.” (Aston: 1899) Literary anthologies have published only a handful of translations and the lion’s share of kyoka Englished to date are the rather tame variety found on early-19c color prints called ‘surimono,’ published as catalogues. Because of the narrow focus of most kyoka-related publishing in Japan, even specialists in Japanese literature may be surprised to discover in this book a brave old world of humor, far larger and more entertaining than anything they might have imagined. The 2000 poems in Robin D. Gill’s 740-page book include hundreds of “wild waka” (‘waka’ being the formal side of 31-syllable poetry) to help define the field and demonstrate how the presence or absence of humor depends upon our expectations and, in the case of an exotic tongue, our translation. “Mad In Translation” re-creates the wit of the originals in English on the one hand, while explaining what is specific to Japanese on the other. Many poems will delight those who appreciate the best epigrams of the metaphysical poets, the grooks of Piet Hein and all that might be called ‘light verse for egg-heads.’ Longer summary
About a thousand years ago, Japanese 31-mora (short-syllable) poems split between what might be called an art-poetry with limited themes and language which became the officially sanctioned face of literature, the revered “waka,” and what came to be called kyôka, the “mad/wild/free” likewise 31-mora poem about anything in language limited only by one unwritten rule, that it be witty. The latter that originally went by many names which might be Englished as “kidding verse,” “comic-verse,” “savage/barbarian song,” “light poetry” “my humble effort” “bawdy verse,” “parody” “take-off,” “squib,” “death-poem,” “gift-accompanying-poem,” “thank you poem,” “ditty,” “doggerel,” and so forth, had to be the larger body of poetry; but, until the 17c, when kyôka came into its own, it was seldom collected and published, and modern critics, competing to climb the peaks of haute culture to pluck Edelweiss, have literally overlooked it. Until a large selection of the old books of kyôka were published in the three-volume Kyôka Taikan, or Mad-poem Broadview in 1983, such ignorance might be excused. Now, a quarter century later, it is not. Unfortunately, that watershed publication coincided with the rediscovery of late-18c mad-poems as part of the “Edo-boom” that arose as a result of Japan’s great economic success and this mega-genre – perhaps better called a family, class or even a phylum – was largely ignored in the celebration of the marvelous but more limited species of mad poem called Tenmei kyôka identified with the metropolis we now know as Tokyo. In translation, the situation was worse. With the exception of the 1% of kyôka published with color prints in the early-19c, which thanks to art-publishers became 99% of the kyôka Englished to date, these comic poems have been treated as if they never existed. This book should help correct that imbalance. It shows Japanese, like the English, have a major tradition of poetry unashamed to play with words and logic. It is far older, diverse and important than the better known but more limited 18-19c genre of 17-mora poetry called senryû. Readers who enjoy language and ideas should find kyôka exhilarating.
Of the 2000-odd poems in the book, perhaps 1500 are kyôka, 350 are waka, 100 are haiku, 15 are senryû, 15 are kyôshi (Chinese-style mad-poems), 10 folk-song and 10 others. Almost all are translated for the first time. The original Japanese, a Romanization and an ugly, but hopefully useful, word-for-word gloss accompany most poems. The waka include poems predating the split between serious and comic and those that content or stylewize seem to share something with kyôka. The author did his best to keep or when necessary re-invent the wit in translation using rhyme, rhythm, pun, etc.. As to whether he succeeded and the readings are themselves poetry, Paraverse Press cannot say, for that is a matter of judgment and your publicist is the translator-author-publisher-editor-designer robin d. gill and I am as curious to know the answers to those questions ( 1) Is it witty? 2) Is it poetry?) as anyone! I can only hope readers who find my horn worth blowing will kindly do so and save me my breath and my pride.
To mention but a baker’s dozen of the hundreds of memorable poems, we have Ikkyû the prankster monk worried lest people who do neither good nor evil make life tough for Hade’s conscientious judge Enma; Yûchôrô, the outrageous early kyôka-master comparing the accretions on a dirty unwashed face to the moss that grows in the boulder grown of a pebble in the celebratory poem that is now Japan’s anthem; a (fake) Shikibu pun-equating gods and trash to justify menstruating women visiting shrines, the natural kyôka-master Getsudôkan claiming the “poles” of tears running down his face would help him lug off his blues, the much-maligned, good haikai-master Teitoku arguing that there are no ‘have-nots’ as the poor do have things such as sickness and suffering, physician-poet and philologist Bokuyo turning foam into prosperity (both fuku) to make epilepsy something lucky, popular kyôka teacher Teiryû reasoning that the conventionally high value of seeing Fuji in a New Year’s dream was that it beat actually having to travel to and climb it, Haikai’s charming gentleman, Yayû, pointing out that we have no grounds to criticize cats as humans are always in heat, Edo kyôka’s first-man, Shokusanjin, tying the Milky Way to the Amazon river with the help of an odd etymology and noodles, his friend and national studies student, Innkeeper Meshimori questioning the wisdom of wanting poetry that can move heaven and earth, Issa the humble haiku-master punning silverfish into an adverb (a dark Tom Swifty) – to embody his rage at his countrymen for destroying his papers, a monk of no great fame warning people not to pray too much lest they go right past Paradise, and a maverick of much fame and many fans, Ryôkan, rejoicing that tôfu, lacking wings, will not fly away!