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Maintained by William J. Higginson

News from the Floating World

Makoto Ueda, editor and translator, Light Verse from the Floating World: An Anthology of Premodern Japanese Senryû, Columbia University Press, 288 pages, $49.50 cloth; $17.50 paper.

Reviewed by William J. Higginson

While Japanese haiku reached its peak with the writings of Bashô in the seventeenth century, by the middle of the eighteenth century the average Japanese poet was composing senryû, a humorous glance at human foibles rather than nature, written in the same form as haiku. Many of the so-called “haiku” written by non-Japanese around the world today are much more like senryû than anything Bashô wrote. For example:

her husband’s
becoming a little too kind
weighs on her mind

he asks the price
of things he doesn’t want
till the rain stops

no harsh words—
she just praises a neighbor’s

These poems from Makoto Ueda’s new book are fresh as today’s headlines—or gossip column. They need no explanation to bridge the cultural and temporal distance from the Japan of 200 or more years ago. And when a senryû does need some extra information for full enjoyment, Light Verse from the Floating World supplies it with brief, clear notes.

As we might expect, such poems do not issue from impoverished poets in lonely garrets, but from poetry clubs, many of which gathered at taverns or tea houses for their collective revelry. Most such clubs had middle-class members and mirth as their purpose. Hence some senryû have a bit of the air of limericks around them:

quarreling with him
all the time, she has become
big with their child

though the blossoms
said nothing, his wife somehow
has learned of it

As with limericks, senryû of the eighteenth century are usually anonymous; if a name is supplied at all it is a nom de plume. And this well fits the genre, which reflects a desire for fun, and for the modest prizes in cash or goods which were offered as encouragement. The authors of senryû were mainly after a good time, not literary fame.

Yet the genre grows naturally from the main trunk of Japanese poetry, as Professor Ueda’s succinct and accurate introduction makes clear. He has surveyed the field of several tens of thousands of extant poems in some depth, and gives us 400 of the pick of the crop. His anthology is handily arranged in broad topics, such as “The Mad, Mad World of Work”, “Love in Chains”, “The Battle of the Sexes”, “Dimpled Little Lunatics”, and so on. Some examples from the last named:

the pediatrician
first takes the pulse
of the stuffed tiger

now that he has a child
he knows all the local dogs
by name

Of course, child-rearing is not all fun and games, as these senryû testify:
with his lost child, he says thanks
in a hoarse voice

while he blames
the friend of his son, he doesn’t
blame his son

In a country where literature has historically been dominated by aristocratic and priestly literati, senryû provide refreshing insight into the lives and concerns of everyday people, people who might otherwise be utterly lost to us. Professor Ueda has done both scholars and general readers a kindness in bringing these works forward, and Columbia University Press has wisely designed the book so that one may read it with real pleasure.

During the same years that he was writing his now-famous and still in-print books about haiku, the British teacher and Zennist R. H. Blyth also wrote three volumes about senryû. His Senryû: Japanese Satirical Verses (1949), Japanese Life and Character in Senryû (1960), and Edo Satirical Verse Anthologies (1961) are now all out of print and relatively rare in used book stores. Many people who have cherished his books on haiku don’t even know of their existence.

Professor Ueda has given us a fresh look—for many a first look—at this material. Light Verse from the Floating World is a welcome addition to his many excellent books on Japanese poetry, including Bashô and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary, Modern Japanese Tanka: An Anthology, and The Path of Flowering Thorn: The Life and Poetry of Yosa Buson. All four of these have been published since 1992. Since his first monographs appeared some 35 years ago, he has continued to improve as a translator. Impeccable scholarship informs his books with the lightest of touches, making them a great pleasure to read for anyone with an interest in the humanity of world literature.

This review first appeared in The Santa Fe New Mexican, April 23, 2000, and was reprinted in Tundra #:# (),

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