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Home > Books & Journals > Book Review Last Updated: 11:50 02/25/2008
Book Review #88: February 25, 2008

"One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each" by Peter McMillan

Reviewed by Takahiro Miyao (Head, Japanese Institute of Global Communications, International University of Japan)

Title: One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each
Authors: Peter McMillan
Language: English
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Date/Time: January, 2008
Pages: 194 pages
ISBN: 978-0-231-14398-1


This is a fascinating book about Japan's traditional "waka" poems, written by an Irish poet who is currently teaching at a Japanese university. The subtitle of this book is "a Translation of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu," where the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu is a set of one hundred "waka" poems written by various poets from the seventh century through the early thirteen century and compiled around 1237 by the famous poet and scholar Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241). "Waka" is a poetic form expressed in lines of 5, 7, 5, 7 and 7 syllables, which is called "tanka" in modern Japan.

Mr. McMillan has successfully made it an artistic work, in which the hundred poems are displayed in the author's English translations, accompanied by calligraphic versions in Japanese and symbolic drawings of the individual poets. Furthermore, Japanese typed and romanized versions of the poems are included in an appendix for the reader's convenience. The design of the book itself is quite attractive, as a caricaturized but still artistic figure of Fujiwara no Teika is shown in the book cover, reflecting the aesthetic sense of the author who has a gallery specializing in contemporary Japanese art.

As Mr. McMillan clearly states in his introductory chapter, the purpose of his translation is "to provide a readable and poetic translation that will open to a wider readership who will find in these versions something of the depth and beauty of this magical collection." In other words, his translation is neither a detailed explanation nor a purely artistic remake of the original Japanese poems, but rather a poetic English expression of the original waka with correct interpretation "faithful to the heart of the original." This approach has turned out to be fruitful in producing an excellent translation of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, as pointed out by Donald Keene, who contributes a foreword to this book, in which he praises McMillan's translation and states that "[it] has restored the importance and beauty of a collection of poetry too often dismissed as merely 'pretty.'"

When I interviewed Mr. McMillan in person a couple of months ago, he told me that "waka" is probably one of the most natural ways of expressing Japanese minds and feelings, and certainly more so than "haiku," which may be a little too rigorous by the Japanese standard, due to the strong influence of Zen Buddhism from mainland China. That might be one of the reasons why the Imperial family is keeping the tradition of the New Year Poetry Reading Ceremony (utakai hajime) with strong support and active participation by the Japanese public, and "waka," now known as "tanka," is quite popular and widely accepted, especially by Japanese women, as part of the contemporary literature, according to Mr. McMillan.

No one would fail to notice Mr. McMillan's love for waka and respect for Fujiwara no Teika, and to be impressed with his deep understanding of the Japanese waka tradition and his excellent artistic skills to represent it in English. In a sense this book is already a classic to be treasured in this field. Ms. Eileen Kato, who accompanied Mr. McMillan to visit the grave of Teika in Kyoto near the completion of this book, concludes in her afterword of this volume that "this translation for the general reader has been a labor of love" and she is "happy at last to see [the Hyakunin Isshu] available in this unpretentious, reliable and satisfyingly poetic translation."

Peter McMillan "One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each":

"Hyakunin Isshu" (Wikipedia):
"Waka" (Wikipedia):

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