The beauty and challenge of Japanese poetry, for those of us who do not read Japanese, is that we are reliant on the translator to accurately portray those beautiful words and sounds in a way which makes sense in our own language. Sometimes this can be incredibly challenging. The exact same poem can be translated fifty or more different ways depending on which translator sets about the task.
I was quite fortunate to have a good friend of mine send me Only Companion: Japanese Poems of Love and Longing when it was released in 1997. I have treasured it ever since.
I’m quite enchanted with the way Sam Hamill has gone about working on these poems. There are 150 in all, from a wide swath of Japanese history and culture. Where other collections of Japanese poetry often focus on the haiku, or shorter 17-syllable works, Hamill has gone primarily for the tanka. These pieces generally fall in a 5-7-5-7-7 format.
Both the English version and the original Japanese version are given, so even if you don’t understand the Japanese words you can still read that Japanese version to get a sense of the rhythm and sound of the words.
Like a bird’s sky-road
which leaves no trail in the air,
my life, too, shall go
unnoticed, and if I cry,
will anyone know or care?
Tori no michi no
ato naki mono o
hitori shi nakedo
hito shirameya mo
Here’s another one of my favorites.
Call it loneliness,
that deep, beautiful color
no one can describe:
over these dark mountains,
the gathering autumn dusk.
I do wish the format of the book were different. I realize they were trying to save money, but they are using small-sized pages (about 5″ x 7″) and even so they have two poems on a page. I have other poetry books where even shorter poems are just one on a page. I prefer that, so I can really focus on the poem at hand. Also, we don’t get any information on the poets with the poems. I’d at least like to know the time frame they lived in. Instead you have to go flipping back and forth to the end.
Still, a great book to have on your shelf!