If I happen to encounter poetry imbedded within prose, I tend to either skip over it, scan it, or otherwise read it as quickly as possible if it seems uninteresting. I am almost shamed to admit that my reading habits hold no exception for traditional Japanese literature, although I guess I am forced to go back and actually read them thoroughly now, since that happens to be the topic of this paper. First of all, I can grasp the meaning of the poem if it is obvious enough in context. For someone unfamiliar with Japanese literature, history, language, etc., it is difficult to understand, let alone recognize the allusions present. Luckily, Royall Tyler was kind enough to footnote a good majority of the poems for the inexperienced readers such as myself, and I am much obliged to him. Even then, I sometimes find that the meaning is beyond me, too dependent on cultural references, or simply too sappy.
Speaking of overbearing romance, that becomes the main role of poetry in narrative prose, as can be seen in The Tale of Genji and The Tales of Ise. As poetry-writing promiscuous scoundrels, Genji and Narihira are definitely two of a kind. The poetry itself, or at least the translations, are not terrible and at times quite compelling. On the other hand, there are times when the words and their insinuations come across as crude or lewd or some combination of the two. On occasion, both circumstances can be met:
Is not that the moon?
And is not the spring the same
Spring of the old days?
My body is the same body--
Yet everything seems different.
The Tales of Ise, Section IV
The poem and its imagery is rather nice; Narihira is pining for his lover, reminiscing about the wonderful past they had together. We have repetition the typical ”elegant confusion” with the questioning of the existence of the moon and springtime, composed in the throes of emotion. A deep-seated sorrow is felt at the loss of her companionship. Yes, yes, it is all very moving and pretty, until one realizes that this is Narihira we are reading about. In the short time I have spent with him and Genji, I have come to develop a distinct dislike for these two characters,...