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Remembering Shōtetsu

Seigan Shōtetsu is a forgotten Japanese poet from late fourteenth-fifteenth century. Even after losing more than 30,000 of his poems in a tragedy, he still managed to make a name for himself after releasing the single largest body of work in the Japanese canon comprised of more than 11,000 poems.

credits: Sakai Hōitsu

Seigan Shōtetsu (1381-1459), the last poet of the courtly waka tradition, was a Japanese poet during the Muromachi period. His poetry, and his disciples, are known to have a vital role in the development of the renga art form, which eventually led to the haiku. The archives of Japanese literary history are filled with stories of suffering poets and authors. Shōtetsu was a Zen monk and he lived to suffer countless numbers of misfortunes in his life. He faced numerous obstacles in his life: losing more than 30,000 of his poems in a fire; rivals refusing to allow his works to appear in the only imperially commissioned poetry anthology of his time; angry shoguns confiscating his estate revenues, etc. Even after all these hurdles, he managed to make a living and even went on to be considered as a true master and the last great poet of the classical waka (or uta) tradition.

“The work of Shōtetsu is the great undiscovered country of medieval waka. Rich in fantasy, by turns earthly and pitilessly stark, it takes its inspiration from the romantic and experimental aspects of Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241), Shōtetsu’s most admired master.”

Shōtetsu’s single largest body of work, Sōkonshū, gives ample evidence of Shōtetsu’s creativity. Shōtetsu believed that rather than spending time to gain knowledge and learn things, a poet should concentrate on gaining a clear understanding of the nature of poetry. Shōtetsu’s Monogatari, i.e., the personal anthology of Shōtetsu which was put together by his disciple Shōkō after Shōtetsu’s death.

In modern times, the only surviving work of Shōtetsu is in the work of Steven D. Carter who is a Professor of Japanese Literature at University of California, Irvine. Carter studied more than 200 hundred of Shōtetsu’s poems and wove them together in his work Unforgotten Dreams. This collection of poems fills a major gap in the translations of medieval Japanese literature and contributes greatly to our understanding of Shōtetsu.

Let us look at some of Shōtetsu’s poetry to pay our respects to such a great poet and to remember him through his work.

As we continue to move ahead in time, we continue to forget those who existed before us. A lot of great pupils and great scholars have existed before our time, and they are just as important to us and our cultures as the ones currently existing. Shōtetsu was one such pupil who existed centuries ago but his fight against fate and destiny should not be forgotten. Along with him, his works should be remembered and should be cherished by one and all.

Yusuf Aziz is a student pursuing Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Nuzhat Khan

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.

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Written by Yusuf Aziz

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