Awesome Nightfall: The Life, Times, and Poetry of Saigyo

ISBN: 0861713222
ISBN 13: 9780861713226
By: William R. LaFleur Saigyao

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About this book

Awesome Nightfall captures the power of Saigyo's poetry and this previously overlooked poet's keen insight into the social and political world of medieval Japan. It also offers a fascinating look into the world of Japanese Buddhism prior to the wholesale influence of Zen. LaFleur's much-heralded translation and commentary make this book ideal both for the poetry lover, and for the professor and student of Asian arts and languages.

Reader's Thoughts


Great bio on Saigyo with quite a number of his wonderful waka.

Jim Elkins

I bought this because Saigyo is traditionally considered the principal model for Basho. But sadly, the book has crippling flaws. There is a long biographical introduction, which does not solve problems of interpretation. For example there is this lovely poem:[return][return]My body will somewhere fall[return]by the wayside into a state of[return]sleep and more sleep --[return]like the dew that each night appears,[return]then falls from roadside grasses.[return][return]This stands out among dozens of others because of the specificity of its simile. But that specificity may be an illusion, brought to the poem by my Western reading habits: I see it as more particular than tropes in other poems, because I picture the leaves of grass bending slightly, and the drops drooping, and I think of those as figures for exhaustion, made poignant by the lightness of drops of water. But perhaps I'm only supposed to be thinking of the raindrops' ephemerality and anonymity.[return][return]Another example, said to be Saigyo's most famous poem:[return][return]I thought I was free[return]of passions, so this melancholy[return]comes as a surprise:[return]a woodcock shoots up from marsh[return]where autumn's twilight falls.[return][return]The translation permits two readings: in one, the melancholy is what's figured by the image of the woodcock and the marsh, and together they comprise the writer's mood; in the other, surprise is what is figured, and melancholy is previous and unexplained. The gloss doesn't discuss this, and introduces a completely different idea:[return][return]"What happens in the scene of the darkening marsh is is reflected in the person of the poet, someone in whom, fortunately, long and arduous practice had not taken away the capacity to respond emotionally to a sudden manifestation of beauty." (p. 68)[return][return]I can't understand this, or how the author, William LaFleur, could think it is an adequate interpretation. If it is right, then the woodcock in the autumn marsh means only beauty, and neither surprise nor melancholy play any determinate part.[return][return]Perhaps I'm thinking too much like William Empson, but unless I can understand the basic ground rules of interpretation, it doesn't help to be told Saiygo sounds "medieval" in comparison to Basho, and it certainly doesn't help to be given a long biography of the poet. For all I know, I'm reading into translations that themselves read into, or even past, the poet.[return][return]And "Awesome Nightfall," as a title, does not do anything for my confidence in these translations. It's such a stupid title that my wife made fun of me every time she saw the cover. It sounds like a teenager's reaction to a sunset.

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