“How to Read a Japanese Poem” by Steven D Carter


Anyone who has ever studied literature has probably come across the now rather hackneyed line by the American poet Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), “A poem should not mean, but be.” Steven Carter, the Yamato Ichihashi Emeritus Professor of Japanese History and Civilization at Stanford University, notes that the Japanese poet Shōtetsu (1381-1459) expressed similar sentiments long before MacLeish. “A truly excellent poem is beyond logic,” he wrote, “One cannot explain it in words; it can only be experienced of itself.”

Carter doesn’t forget this as he progresses with his book; he does not set down rules and regulations for reading Japanese poetry, but gives “a few signposts as readers walk the road.” Signposts help one get to where one is going, but they do not tell us what we are supposed to find when we get there.

The poetry, as Carter reveals it, is allowed to “be”.

How to Read a Japanese Poem, Steven D Carter (Columbia University Press, May 2019)
How to Read a Japanese Poem,
Steven D Carter (Columbia University Press, May 2019)

Japanese literature goes back thousands of years, over which poets developed different forms, and along with these forms the poets themselves, aided by critics and scholars, came up with multiple methods of analysis with which to better understand what the various forms and genres of poetry wished to achieve. After all, one does not choose to write, say, a haiku, without being aware of what its form is and what can be appropriately conveyed by using that form; Horace in his Ars poetica might have understood this as decorum.

Carter’s book, no esoteric over-academic tome, is a lively exploration of Japanese poetic discourse, a guide to the formal delicacy and subtlety of Japanese verse, opening it up for the reader and showing, not telling, what’s inside. His book is accessible to all who enjoy Japanese poetry; he writes intelligently, sensitively and passionately about it, and the result is an indispensable book which will make Japanese poetry come alive and reveal its depth at the same time. Thus the poetry, as Carter reveals it, is allowed to “be”.

His methodology is simple. He divides the book into seven chapters, each of which highlights a different genre of poetry. His chosen poets, many of whom appear in translation for the first time, are then presented through two sections, the “context”, which contains biographical information as well as background, and the “comment”, where Carter’s consummate skills for explication come into play as he directs us to the heart of the poems.

The poems, which range from ancient times to our own century, are given in both English and romaji, the transliteration of Japanese script into “Latin” or western letters. Given the purpose of the book, simply providing a Japanese-language text would not have been helpful to people who don’t read Japanese; the romaji gives us all a sense of what the poems might sound like. In the comments, Carter takes us carefully through the various layers of the poems, noting the rules that the poets apply to each genre; to put it more lyrically, the poems slowly open like a flower seen through a time-lapse lens. He keeps the language understandable, too, and technical terms are clearly explained.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the above is to briefly discuss one of the poems as Carter unravels it for us. In the chapter “Long Poems and Short Poems” we find one of the latter, written by Princess Shikishi (d. 1201), one of Japan’s most eminent medieval poets. We are told that she “served as a Kama Virgin in her youth”, but resigned when she became ill and proceeded to live “a somewhat reclusive life”, becoming a nun in 1197. In 1200 Emperor Go-Toba asked her to “present a hundred-poem sequence”, but she died before it was finished. This brief biography is contextually important, because the poem included here is actually about love, and we know that Shikishi was a virtual recluse. What could she know about that subject? The comment section explains; she creates a persona, “a rhetorical extension of herself based on literary precedents” and, of course, drawn on her own life in the formality of the imperial court. This is a dai (prescribed topic) poem, in which an idea is expressed through a particular experience.” She contrasts dreams and reality:


Oh, I am aware
that I may appear in his dreams—
but what of my sleeves?”


She wonders whether the lover will see her sleeves as she gets ready for bed at night. Carter explains that the night-setting is often used by women yearning for their lovers; she is alone, and she suggests that he could be either a real presence or someone dreaming of her.


Will he see those wet sleeves tonight,
as in sadness I lie down?


What the man will see, we are told, might just be “an extension of his own romantic fantasies”. and won’t see the reality—what’s actually happening is a sad and lonely woman going to bed on her own with tear-drenched sleeves, “a synecdoche for an entire body wracked with heartache.”

Carter draws us into the poem first through the background of the writer, which perhaps matters a great deal more in earlier Japanese poetry, and then into the formal structure of the poem. We cannot say whether Princess Shikishi experienced this feeling herself, but that doesn’t matter: she draws on traditional poems of love and loss as well as using the trope of a dream and its contrast with reality. The persona in the poem, however, assumes a kind of reality for the reader in which the emotion is skilfully conveyed. The reader is left with a rhetorical question, reflecting the persona’s own uncertainty. And this is a five-line poem. As Carter states, we are just given signposts; Shikishi is a member of the imperial family and a nun, two aspects of her biography which inform the poem, and she is using a particular poetic tradition within a formal setting, the dai or prescribed poem. If we want a western equivalent, think of an English poet laureate being asked to write (or being expected to write) about a particular occasion, and using a particular poetic form to do so, such as an elegy or a Pindaric ode, depending upon the situation.


Carter gives us the poetic and more general cultural concepts of Japanese poetry throughout the centuries, as well as explaining how the formal principles underlying so much of the material contribute to the effect of the poetry. Readers do not have to be scholars to use this book, although I suspect the latter will find it equally enlightening.

Those new to Japanese poetry or who think it’s mostly inconsequential wittering about frogs in lily ponds need to have this book as an erudite but friendly companion as they read, as do those who simply want to get a better grasp on what they already love and understand. Those frogs may take on a new dimension, and no lily pond will ever look quite the same again:


For a while
I forget even my sins
so cool, the moon!


John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.