Japanese literature (poetry)

The earliest extant collection of native Japanese poetry is the eighth-century Manyōshū ('Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves'). Manyōshū includes many longer poems called chōka, but more importantly, it established the tanka or waka as the commonest form for Japanese poetry, with thirty-one syllables arranged 5-7-5-7-7. It comprises twenty books of 4,516 numbered poems, works by emperors and empresses, nobles, soldiers, and priests writing about love, joy and sorrow often with seasonal settings. Dating the poems written before the seventh century is difficult, but there are four poems which may be by the fourth-century Empress Iwanohime. The latest poem is dated New Year's Day AD 759.

Between AD 905 and 1439, twenty-one imperial anthologies were compiled, starting with Kokin wakashū edited by Ki no Tsurayuki (859?-945) which contains over 1000 poems. Again, seasonal and love verses in tanka form dominate; illustrating well the Japanese preference for the lyrical in poetry. The Shin Kokinshū (1205) contains poems by Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241) and the priest Saigyō (1118-90) which introduce the Zen concept of wabi (refined rusticity).

During the medieval period (twelfth-sixteenth centuries) poetry parties became popular. A group of poets would in turn contribute a waka related to the preceding verse, producing one long renga (‘linked verse'). Later, the poet Matsuo Bashō (1644-94) developed the hokku (haiku), a form derived from the opening 5-7-5 lines of the tanka form. Strict rules gradually evolved governing the choice of 'season words' and other aspects of composition.

Poetry, calligraphy and painting were closely related arts, and poems in fine calligraphy often adorn paintings.

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