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Poet Laureate Visits Library’s Asian Division

(The following is a repost from ”From the Catbird Seat” written by Kelly Yuzawa, who works within the Congressional Research Service (CRS) of the Library of Congress and was previously a staff detail in the Poetry and Literature Center.)

During a visit to the Library at the end of October, Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera stopped by the Library of Congress Asian Reading Room. When asked what he’d like to see from the Japanese collection, he was quick to answer: “Do you have any Dōgen?” Reference librarian Eiichi Ito brought out a semi-rare edition of the 13th-century Buddhist priest and poet Dōgen’s Shōbō genzō as well as various rare editions of The Tale of Genji by 10th-century Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu.

While viewing the items, Herrera mentioned his admiration for the late Japanese poet Tada Chimako, whose work can also be found in the Asian Reading Room. After his visit, our Laureate was kind enough to answer some questions about the works he had seen.

Reference librarian Eiichi Ito shows Juan Felipe Herrera an 1885 edition of Shōbō genzō. (Dōgen, 1200-1253. Shōbō genzō. [18 i.e. 1885]. //lccn.loc.gov/74818377).

Reference librarian Eiichi Ito shows Juan Felipe Herrera an 1885 edition of Shōbō genzō. (Dōgen, 1200-1253. Shōbō genzō. [18 i.e. 1885].).

You wanted to see Shōbō genzō, the work of Dōgen. How did you become acquainted with Dōgen, and what is it that you find appealing about the words of this 13th-century Buddhist priest?

Dōgen, the great pioneer and founder of the Sōtō school of Zen buddhism, has been a major figure for so many and for me. His journey to China and its Buddhist masters to unlock the notions of “enlightenment” are most significant; his coming face to face with the question of Sitting Meditation and Enlightenment as an “ordinary” practice and finding it in our lives without ornament, ideology, and “things.” I came to Dōgen through Crooked Cucumber, the biography of Zen pioneer in the West, Suzuki Shunryū. Simplicity, Kindness, No-Obstruction, all at the same time—and a lot of laughter. Dōgen, poet and writer as well, gives us many keys to our lives, fully fulfilled, yet without any thing to desire or acquire. How beautiful. Soon I’d like to trek to Kyoto, Japan, to his gardens.

Lastly, Ito brings out an illustrated edition of The Tale of Genji from the Edo period. (Ryutei, Tanehiko, 1783-1842. Nise Murasaki inaka Genji. Inaka Genji / Ryutei Tanehiko saku ; Utagawa Kunisada ga. Edo : Senkakudo Tsuruya Kiemon inko, Bunsei kichu-Tenpo 13 [1829]-[1842] shincho. //lccn.loc.gov/2010428726)

Ito shows an illustrated edition of The Tale of Genji from the Edo period. (Ryutei, Tanehiko, 1783-1842.)

During your visit, you mentioned your fondness for the Japanese poet Tada Chimako. When and how did you discover her? Do you have a favorite poem of hers?

Tada Chimako was an incredible poet and translator of French literature, a deep thinker and also a key model for poets—that is, being inclusive of many literary cultural influences (Greek, Latin, Chinese) and taking part in the Japanese literary avant-garde of her time. This I find exceptional. Jeffrey Angles translated her work, Forest of Eyes, in 2010. As a member of the Academy of American Poets Chancellor Board, I met Jeffrey when he was awarded with our translation prize for this collection. Tada’s work is most intriguing and complex—personal, elegant, and direct, perhaps “abstract,” as she says in her poem “Putting on My Face,” which is one of my favorites. Here she speaks of putting on her make-up, gazing at the mirror, and seeing an adolescent boy figure. By the end of the poem, the poem presents the question of mutability, at will—becoming a “concrete woman,” or an “abstract man.” A poet ahead of her times. One of my dreams, when I read her work, was to meet her and listen to her—know her.

17th-century illustrated edition of The Tale of Genji. (Murasaki Shikibu, 978?-. [Genji monogatari]. Rakuyō [Kyoto]: Yao Kanbē kaihan, Jōō 3 [1654]. //lccn.loc.gov/2004551302 )

17th-century illustrated edition of The Tale of Genji. (Murasaki Shikibu, 978?-. [Genji monogatari]. Rakuyō [Kyoto]: Yao Kanbē kaihan, Jōō 3 [1654].)


What were your impressions on viewing the various editions of The Tale of Genji?

The Tale of Genji literally shocked me. What an incredible novel, what length, what dramatic genius—Murasaki Shibiku, what genius, this woman novelist pioneer. And the various texts, language, and scroll and picture modulations through time, that is, the treatments and evolution of writing and novelistic hybrid genres are, to this date, revolutionary and prophetic of contemporary styles and story structures. Here in the USA we need to witness this great literary work—the first novel, most likely, of the world.

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