A moving portrait of a wandering poet-monk in medieval Japan.
The Tale of Saigyo is a poetic biography of the late Heian poet Saigyo (1118-90), one of the most loved and respected poets in Japanese literary history. Its anonymous author followed the venerable "poem-tale" tradition by using 128 of Saigyo's finest and best-known poems and weaving around them facts and legends about the poet. The result is a biographical "journey" through his life. Saigyo moves from the life of a brilliant and favored young poet at the Heian imperial court, through a Buddhist "awakening" that leads him to cast off his worldly life and family ties and to transform himself into a wandering monk in search of salvation, through the vicissitudes of his long hard life on the road, to a final apotheosis as Buddhist saint in his famous death. While The Tale of Saigyo is on one level the story of the making of a Buddhist saint, it is also a biography of the trials and sorrows of an idealized poetic sensibility during a tempestuous time that saw the death of the Heian period, the Genpei Wars, and the beginning of the turbulent Kamakura period. The moving portrait of the wandering poet-monk that emerges through this tale crystallized the image of Saigyo and is felt in such later literary figures as Basho, who acknowledged Saigyo as his model and master.
Meredith McKinney is a translator of modern and classical Japanese and a long-time resident of Kyoto.