The month of April marks National Poetry Month in the United States. Organized by the Academy of American Poets in 1996 with the hope of fostering an appreciation for the art of poetry. Each year, this sentiment is celebrated through poetry readings, book donations, and writing workshops nationwide. Ronin Gallery celebrates National Poetry Month this year with a collection of prints from Shunsho’s The Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets Brocaded in the Eastern Weave (1775).
Combining the art of poetry with the art of the woodblock print, Shunsho’s designs bring together a canonical text of poetry, One Hundred Poems, One Poem Each (Hyakunin Isshu), with the spirit of Edo’s floating world. Each composition unites elegant script with a sensitive portrait of each poet. Originally bound as a complete anthology, these designs invited 18th century readers to lose themselves in page after page of poems near and dear to Japanese culture - both then and now.
The One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each anthology is the most famous collection of poems in Japanese literary history. The influence of this text stretches from classical literature to Japanese classrooms today. The poems date from between the 7th and 13th century, each written in the 31-syllable tanka style. The poems are said to have been compiled into the anthology we know today by the 14th century poet and literary critic Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241) in Kyoto. The earliest iterations of the anthology did not feature illustrations, but expressed the poems in calligraphy. In 1695, early ukiyo-e artist Moronobu introduced the monochrome pairings of poem and woodblock print illustration. The anthology became an enduring theme in ukiyo-e, evolving with pictorial styles, interpretations, and, at times, the incorporation of Eddoko humor. Shunsho’s 18th rendition, The 100 Poems by the 100 Poets Brocaded in the Eastern Weave, does just this. The phrase “brocaded in the Eastern weave” found in the title refers to full color woodblock prints, known as nishiki-e, or “brocade prints,” emerging in Edo at the time. The use of “Eastern weave” refers to the ukiyo-e style characteristic to Edo, the “Eastern capital.”
The life of the anthology went beyond written world – these poems were incorporated into the world of play. In the card game uta-karuta, the deck holds two sets. The first contains one hundred cards bearing the poems of the hundred poets (yomifuda). The second set bears the last lines of the famous poems (torifuda). To play, the second set of cards are spread out face up while one player recites a poem from the first set. The other players vie to find the card bearing the corresponding final line as quickly as possible. Success in the game depends on memorization of the poems. Traditionally, the uta-karuta is played on New Year’s, but the game has a more competitive side as well. Since 1955, the national championship for competitive karuta is held at Omi Shrine in Otsu, Shiga each January.
The One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each was translated to English as early as 1866. Since then, it has received at least a dozen official translations. Like all great poetry, the sentiments of each poem traverse centuries and cultures as they speak to love and longing, grief and hope. As National Poetry Month comes to a close, explore a few translations of the poems from this cornerstone of classical literature alongside Shunsho’s designs below.
To explore more of these famous poems in translation, be sure to visit our exhibition: Shunsho: The Hundred Poets Brocaded in the Eastern Weave.