Poetry in Meiji Japan 1870-1900


A review of The Poetry of Dialogue: Kanshi, Haiku and Media in Meiji Japan, 1870-1900, by Robert Tuck.

Robert Tuck’s dissertation provides us with a richly detailed examination of poetry in Meiji print media. Taking up a broad range of materials including anthologies, newspapers, and literary journals, Tuck devotes equal attention to Chinese and Japanese verse from late nineteenth-century Japan. The canonical poet Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), who was accomplished in both kanshi and haiku, functions as an organic link in Tuck’s consideration of these two realms of poetic expression, but the dissertation also provides the first extensive treatment in English of figures such as Mori Kainan (1863-1911), a poet who was pre-eminent in later Meiji kanshi circles, but who is all but unknown today (even to many scholars of modern Japanese literature).

Throughout the dissertation, Tuck’s readings consider the ways in which particular poems might serve an individual poet’s artistic, personal, and political expressive aims, but his work also sheds light on the dialogic context within which much Meiji poetic creation was embedded. Central to his study is the idea of “poetic sociality,” by which he has in mind “a set of key practices within poetic composition which depend on interaction with other individuals, most importantly the tendency to practice poetry as a group activity, pedagogical practices such as mutual critique and the master-disciple relationship, and the exchange among individual poets of textually linked forms of verse” (p. 2). While scholars such as Ogata Tsutomu have highlighted the importance of sociability to poetry’s compositional context in the early modern period, Tuck shows not only how such social dimensions endured into Meiji, but also how their significance and scope expanded as the evolving media landscape came to facilitate poets’ engagement with one another in new ways. Far from being a “closed, completed text,” a poem published in one of the periodicals that proliferated at the time could stand “as an invitation to other poets to respond and create a new chain of socio-poetic dialogue” (p. 8). The links between the discrete poems comprising such exchanges might be lexical, thematic, or topical, and they might also vary in their degree of overtness, but one effect of such dialogic discourse was to bind poets and readers alike together in a sense of collectivity. Tuck identifies here a print-media-inspired consciousness that bears some similarities to Benedict Anderson’s notion of “imagined communities,” but he also notes several ways in which poetic sociality might involve a smaller, exclusive subset of the national collective (narrowed along class or gender lines, for example), or might conversely exceed nation-state boundaries.

After an Introduction that summarizes the dissertation’s central arguments and situates Tuck’s work in the context of Japanese and Anglophone scholarship, Tuck takes up this intra-regional aspect in his first chapter. To emphasize the ways in which kanshi functioned as “transnational literary discourse” (p. 33), Tuck provides an extensive consideration of one particular practice that linked composers of Sinitic verse throughout East Asia: rhyme matching. This activity, where one poet uses the rhyme graphs of another’s poem to compose a “harmonizing” poetic response, is emblematic of the sort of dialogic interaction that is central to Tuck’s discussion of “poetic sociality.” Though the focus of his dissertation is on the poetry of Meiji Japan, Tuck begins his discussion by considering rhyme-matching as a literary link between Qing China and Edo Japan in the early nineteenth century, turning to the example of exchanges between Rai San’yō, Ema Saikō, and Jiang Yunge: a Qing merchant whom neither had met but with whom the two late Edo poets exchanged numerous rounds of matched-rhyme verses. Tuck notes how such exchanges with Qing literary figures were a prominent feature of early Meiji kanshi anthologies and literary journals as well, discussing the interactions between Japanese kanshi poets and Qing expatriates such as Wang Zhiben and Ye Songshi as well as Qing diplomats such as Huang Zunxian. Exploring the politically fraught moment of the 1874 Taiwan Expedition, Tuck argues that while the literary form of kanshi could function as a transnational medium that brought Meiji and Qing literati into dialogue, individual compositions could also be the site of assertions of national consciousness.

Rhyme-matching is a central concern of Tuck’s second chapter as well, which focuses on this and other forms of dialogic interaction among Japanese kanshi poets in the 1880s and 1890s. Tuck frames rhyme-matching as “one part of a larger set of practices, including linked verse, responding critiques and poetic gatherings, which taken together formed a specifically homosocial mode of literary discourse” (p. 105). When Masaoka Shiki circulated his multi-genre collection Nanakusashū among his dormitory mates and other friends and acquaintances in 1888-89, for example, he included almost fifty blank pages, showing his intent to solicit comments from his readers and thus engage them in dialogue. Among those who offered comments on Shiki’s collection was Natsume Sōseki, whose own Bokusetsuroku (1889) also includes several exchanges of rhyme-matched kanshi transacted by post with Shiki. Tuck shows how the performance of masculinity was an important focus of attention in the interaction between Sōseki and Shiki, observing “a tendency to emphasize the tension between mutually exclusive ideas of male-female love and male-male poetic relations” (p. 107). When widely disseminated print media became vehicles for such poetic exchanges, the performance took on a more public character; Tuck argues that “by means of such exchanges and interactions with others, kanshi poets were able to construct their own public persona” (p. 112). This public performative dimension of kanshi discourse is at the heart of Tuck’s discussion of an extensive series of rhyme-matching poems exchanged in 1890 in the pages of the daily newspaper Nippon. The exchange took place mainly between kanshi poets Mori Kainan and Kokubu Seigai, but also elicited multiple matched-rhyme contributions and other forms of engagement from established poets and general readers alike. The exchange provided competing poets Kainan and Seigai, whose styles contrasted sharply with one another, an opportunity to vie with each other publicly. Tuck’s discussion shows how “kanshi poetry, especially its sub-variant of ‘rhyme-following’, played a major role in male-male socio-literary relations… and how kanshi could be used as a way of expressing rivalry and socio-literary prestige” (p. 171).

Tuck’s focus shifts to Japanese verse forms in the second half of his dissertation, stressing again the dialogic dimensions of poetic production. In Chapter 3, Tuck explores jiji haiku (topical haiku), a type of verse that became especially prominent in 1890s newspapers and that featured commentary on contemporary affairs. Newspapers would stage regular competitions inviting readers to submit their own haiku on assigned topics and thereby fostering multifarious forms of exchange, leading Tuck to observe that “a given poetic work rarely if ever stood in isolation; within the framework of poetic sociality, a poem was both personal expression and an invitation to other poets to participate in a larger chain of discourse” (pp. 177-78). Tuck argues that the often overtly political content of such topical haiku was in part the effect of the medium in which they appeared and also a strategy by the newspapers to attract the interest of readers. Though he regarded the composition of such topical verse with some ambivalence, Masaoka Shiki made strategic use of the form, taking advantage of his prominent position at Nippon to expose his readers to more purely “literary” types of haiku and also to cultivate a national audience: essential groundwork for his later success publishing the literary journal Hototogisu.

The efforts of Shiki and other proponents of shinpa haiku (new haiku) to reform haiku in the late 1890s are the subject of Tuck’s final chapter. These reformers “saw their task as being the re-shaping of haiku in line with European ideas of literature, especially lyric poetry” (p. 240), and the specific ways in which they articulated their agenda all touch on the question of the social dimensions of poetic expression. Attempting to elevate haiku, Shiki and others drew a distinction between “literary haiku” and “commoner haiku,” arguing that whereas the former was an individual poet’s autonomous and personal expression, the latter included works inseparable from particular compositional contexts or produced by multiple poets, such as “verse-capping” or linked verse sequences; that while the first was an elite artistic form, the other suffered from its plebeian appeal; and that in contrast to the “serious” aims of the former, the latter could become mired in mere lexical diversion. Yet in spite of the ways in which these theorists emphasized individual expression as the defining feature of “new haiku,” Tuck’s discussion of the various schools that propounded such views, the organizations of local groups that sought affiliation with central journals, and the economic negotiations that underlay such alliances shows how social dimensions remained significant even for the new form: “no major ‘new haiku’ group ever completely discarded the notion that haiku was at base a group activity, and that the haiku society should be the basic unit of organization in the haiku world” (p. 285).

Tuck writes with precision and grace, developing his arguments clearly. Many of the materials he draws upon have seen little attention in scholarship thus far. Tuck’s engagement with Meiji kanshibun joins a growing body of Anglophone scholarship that explores the place of Sinitic texts in Japanese literary history, but he also identifies several factors that broadly characterized the Meiji poetry scene as a whole, informing the work of both kanshi and haiku practitioners. By centering his analysis on poetry, Tuck also offers a welcome addition to conventional treatments that recount modern Japanese literature’s development mainly from the vantage point of prose narrative fiction. His dissertation will be edifying not only to specialists in Japanese literature but to those interested in the political discourse, publishing scene, gender representations, intra-regional relations, and cultural history of nineteenth-century Japan.

Matthew Fraleigh
Associate Professor of East Asian Literature and Culture
Department of German, Russian, and Asian Languages and Literature
Brandeis University

Primary Sources

Various anthologies of Chinese verse published in Edo and Meiji Japan
Meiji literary journals, including Shinbunshi, Kagetsu shinshi, and Hototogisu
Literary sections of periodicals such as Nippon and Shō Nippon that featured poetry

Dissertation Information

Columbia University. 2012. 322 pp. Primary Advisor: Haruo Shirane.

Image: From the newspaper Nippon, January 1st, 1890.

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