Example poetry

Sing my son to sleep with classic Japanese poetry

While free time is precious after having a baby, there can be times to get to know the classics.

Wet drool

Lovers’ sleeves are wet with tears in classical poetry anthology Isshu Hyakunin, but my sleeves are wet with baby slime. Since becoming a new dad earlier this year, I have regularly been in charge of a sleepy or half-asleep baby, sometimes hugging him in a dark room, or pushing him, toasty in a warm room. stroller, around the local park.

With my hands full and plenty of time to let my mind wander, I decided to try again to memorize the Isshu Hyakunin, Japan’s most famous selection of poems, which presents 100 waka in roughly chronological order from the 7th to the 13th centuries. Assembled by aristocrat Fujiwara no Teika to include the works of 100 writers, including himself, it has established itself at the heart of Japanese canon.

Written in classical Japanese, waka are not easy to read straight away, even with a good command of the contemporary language. I thought memorizing was an extremely precise form of reading, which I could go back to to check again the meaning of the parts that escaped me. I might also internalize the vocabulary and grammar for future efforts to tackle classical Japanese. And I thought it would be fun to know famous Japanese poems by heart as well.

Poetic journeys

Kayou chidori no
Naku koe ni
Ikuyo nezamenu
Suma no sekimori

The cries of
plovers returning from
How many nights do they wake up
Suma’s gatekeeper?

The poems are quite removed from the world of child rearing. It is true that many are associated with the night, but they are usually centered, for example, on abandoned lovers staring at the moon as they desperately wait until morning. I feel a certain affinity with Suma’s gatekeeper, even though he has been woken up by plovers rather than baby cries – although I must note that my wife is the primary caretaker. night !

As a bedtime lullaby, I opted for the classic “Morningtown Ride,” a 1960s hit that imagines the morning trip as a train ride. With only four verses, it’s a very quick trip, and more often than not the lullaby ends long before it has had its calming effect. After a while, I realized that with six beats in each row, it was not difficult to adapt the 5-7-5-7-7 structure of the Isshu Hyakunin waka to create additional worms.

For the first time, I was singing the poems out loud, rather than saying them in my head. Back in his preverbal days, I don’t think what I sing really matters, especially since he’s at least partly on the Morningtown train when I change the lyrics. Perhaps, however, I will forever associate the poems with cradling my son to fall asleep in a room lit only by the slightly shiny belly of a soft bunny toy, which is a pretty thought. fun.

And years later, if he mentions the Isshu Hyakunin as part of his schoolwork, and I can remember it, he might wonder how exactly I learned. And then I can sound a little embarrassed.

Read the Hyakunin Isshu

To read the poems in English, I recommend One hundred poets, one poem each by Peter MacMillan.

My favorite Japanese book to understand the Isshu Hyakunin is: マ ン ガ + 解説 で 覚 え る! (A New Dictionary for the Hyakunin Isshu: Learn Poems Through Manga and Explanations), edited by Fukaya Keisuke, with contemporary Japanese translations, humorous manga, and other explanatory material.

I love the android app Isshu Hyakunin: Wasuramoti to have all the poems with readings and some basic translations for each.

(Originally written in English. Banner image © Pixta.)

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