17-syllabet Japanese poems about human foibles, sans season (i.e., not haiku), were introduced a half-century ago by RH Blyth in two books, "Edo Satirical Verse Anthologies" and "Japanese Life and Character in Senryu." Blyth regretted having to introduce not the best senryu, but only the best that were clean enough to pass the censors. In this book, which is also being published as The Woman Without a Hole (as a naming experiment), we find 1,300 of the senryu (and zappai) that would once have been dangerous to publish. It is not just an anthology of dirty poems such as Legman's classic "Limericks" or Burford's full-bodied "Bawdy Verse," but probing essays of thirty themes representative of the eros – both real and imaginary – of Edo, at the time, the world's largest city. Japanese themselves use senryu for historical documentation of social attitudes and cultural practices; thousands of senryu (and the related zappai), including many poems we might consider obscene, serve as examples in the Japanese equivalent of the OED (nipponkokugodaijiten). The specialized argot, obscure allusions and ellipsis that make reading dirty senryu a riddle for one who knows just enough to be challenged yet not defeated, make them impenetrable to outsiders, so this educational yet entertaining resource has not been accessible to most students of Japanese (and the limited translations to date prove that even professors have difficulty with it). This book tries to accomplish the impossible: it includes all the information – original poems, pronunciation, explanation, glossary – needed to help specialists improve their senryu reading skills, while refraining from full citation to leave plenty of room for the curious monolingual to skip about and enjoy the plentiful eclectic goodies.
Robin gives an overview of the book:
THREE SHORT EGS, MINUS JAPANESE AND FROM DIFFERENT CHAPTERS:
READERS ARE INVITED TO SUGGEST OTHER EXCERPTS
oku naka no sure sure henoko ippon nari
Within the chambers
lots of friction: it is hard
with just one cock.
Rectitude sells dildos. Katai-oku in the first ku means a “morally upright inner-chambers.” Who knows what percent of the beauties were monopolized by the Shôgun and daimyos, but the friction between women vying for the ruler evoke Solomon, or, rather Mark Twain’s sympathy for his “copulation cabinet of seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines” kept starving for sex by “this creature with the decrepit candle,” as he described the sex that is weaker in bed.
o-tsukimi no mame ni te o dashi hajikareru
reaching out for
a moon-viewing bean his hand
is flicked away
Sweet potatoes and dumplings were common moon-viewing food, but beans? Long before its “re-discovery” in the modern West (it was known of old – “we” forgot a lot), the clitoris was recognized and called a “bean” in Japan. Moon-viewing was a serious religious rite, not a good time to horse around, even if the moon did not imply the wife was having her period. The final verb is witty for reversing the usual relationship between hand and bean. While the “moon= menses” metaphor continues strong today, in the heyday of senryu it was nosed out by a metaphor now obsolete: the horse, or, rather, riding one. Evidently, menstrual gear resembled riding, and failure to take care could result in a spill.
yoso de herimasu to naigi wa isha e ii 6-40
It gets used up
outside, says the wife
to the doctor
He is having sex with someone else. So she is not to blame. For what? The answer will come soon enough. Only decades ago, it sufficed for Blyth to explain a senryu that he translated "It's all right now, - / What do doctors / Know about anything!" (mô shite mo ii no sa isha ga nani shitte 51) as follows: "In this case, it is the man speaking, but in the following the woman is to blame: ‘A relapse; / His wife wishes / to disappear.' (uchikaesu byôki nyôbô wa kietagari 6-32)." Then, just four more words: "With shame and confusion." (Blyth:1961) Today, more explanation is required. When Ueda (1999) translates a Willow senryu "the beautiful wife / boiling his herb medicine / that doesn't work," and notes only that "very likely the medicine is an aphrodisiac," I feel a disconnect. A wealthy old man could have a beautiful young wife, but stereotypically - and senryu was mostly stereotype - such a man would have a mistress (mekake), not a wife, whose sole duty is helping her old sugar daddy get it up, boiling that medicine. As it stands, the problem is almost surely one that anyone up to the mid-20c would have immediately guessed: the husband is not husbanding his vital juices. If there is any medicine he does not need, it is an aphrodisiac!
If any big publisher with guts wants to do a best-of version with illustrations of the sort I would be afraid to publish, we might have a best seller here! Is any such place out there?
Seriously, while all the subject matter is off-color, the content is extremely diverse: a tale of humongeous genitalia, metaphor for menstruation, masturbation as a moral good, various types of good and bad genitalia, phimosis, . . . I would love to have people with more specialized interests than mine take individual chapters and expand them into small illustrated books. And, as is the case with all my books, I look forward to receiving criticism and marginalia for future editions!
Robin D. Gill (1951-). Well-known in Japan for seven erudite yet fun books deconstructing stereotypes about national character (environmental reductionism, linguistic determinism etc.) in the 1980s. All develop and demonstrate his hypothesis that difference properly...
PLEASE NOTE THAT THE ORIGINAL IS FIVE PAGES AND EASILY FOUND ONLINE Those who think of haiku as simple little poems should certainly get out and read “Rise, Ye Sea Slugs!,” with its title quoted from one of...
THE ORIGINAL IS FIVE PAGES AND EASILY FOUND ONLINE
Those who think of haiku as simple little poems should certainly get out and read “Rise, Ye Sea Slugs!,” with its title quoted from one of...