Only Companion: Japanese Poems of Love and Longingby Sam Hamill
Written by court princesses, exiled officials, Zen priests, and recluses, the 150 poems translated here represent the rich diversity of Japan’s poetic tradition. Varying in tone from the sensuous and erotic to the profoundly spiritual, each poem captures a sense of the poignant beauty and longing known only in the fleeting experience of the moment. The translator has selected these five-line tanka—one of the great traditional verse forms of Japanese literature—from sources ranging from the classical imperial anthologies of the eighth and tenth centuries to works of the early twentieth century.
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Anthologies of a hundred poems have been commonplace in Japan for centuries. Indeed, one such anthology, Hyakunin Isshū, one poem each from one hundred poets, is studied and memorized by every young student in the country, and even provides the foundation for a popular card game. My own interest in Japanese poetry dates from publication of another great anthology, Kenneth Rexroth's One Hundred Poems from the Japanese, published by New Directions in 1957.
My translation of the poems in Only Companion were begun while on a Japan-U.S. Fellowship in 1988. I spent several months taking advantage of the splendid library at International House in Tokyo, research that opened many corridors. Beginning with the first imperial anthology, Man'yōshū, compiled in the eighth century, I retraced the development of Japanese poetry and its critical vocabulary into the twentieth century, copying poems into my notebooks that seemed particularly available to translation. The poetry was in many ways familiar terrain, but at almost every step I discovered a new poem or poet I had overlooked during previous excursions.
Later, while roughly tracing Bashō's famous travel route through northern Honshu, I began translating the poems, often with the aid and inspiration of friends. There began to emerge two basic interlocking themes: the poem of romantic love and the poem of spiritual longing. Poems of changing seasons and passing years underscore a profound sense of temporality, while erotic poems and Zen poems, each in their own way, seek a state of transcendent grace.
These poems, made simply for the pleasure and epiphany of the process a poet identifies as poesis, become something else once they are gathered into a single volume. They represent a kind of collaborative gesture like that of Bashō's famous haiku:
Now I see her face,
the old woman, abandoned,
the moon her only companion.
oba hitori naku
tsuki no tomo
The seer, the seen, the moon—these are not three things, but one: a moment's epiphany, a flash of kenshō or sudden illumination. But the meaning, the authentic experience of the poem, lies only within ourselves. And begins with the quality of our listening.
It is a pleasure to acknowledge my debt of gratitude to my Japanese translator, Keida Yusuke, to our mutual friend Kawamura Yoichi, and to my friends Aoki Shimpei and Ohmura Marie in Karuizawa. Thanks also to my old friends John and Sachi Solt. All have given me encouragement and inspiration even when my interpretations have run rather far afield. Gasshō.
Port Townsend, 1990
Meet the Author
Sam Hamill has translated more than two dozen books from ancient Chinese, Japanese, Greek, Latin, and Estonian. He has published fourteen volumes of original poetry. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and the Mellon Fund. He was awarded the Decoración de la Universidad de Carabobo in Venezuela, the Lifetime Achievement Award in Poetry from Washington Poets Association, and the PEN American Freedom to Write Award. He cofounded and served as Editor at Copper Canyon Press for thirty-two years and is the Director of Poets Against War.
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