Primer

887 Rengetsu poems are listed in this database. They include 310 poems published in her lifetime and another 575 poems taken from her works of art (558 presented in the Collected Works of Otagaki Rengetsu (1927) by the the scholar Sodou Murakami and 19 others collected in recent years by the Rengetsu Foundation Project).

All are in the classic waka form, 31 syllables arranged over five lines in a 5–7–5–7–7 sequence, excepting a single poem in the longer chouka (長歌) form.

Rengetsu hews to the technical rules (修辞) of waka such as line length (句数) syllable count (字数) and often observes the prescribed use of specialized words (雅語). She also employs a range of traditional stylistic devices, such as kakekotoba (掛詞) (puns and hidden meanings), engo (縁語) (traditional pairs of words, such as plovers and waves), honkadori (本歌取り) (references to classic poems), koji (故事) (references to historical events) and gyouji (行事) (references to traditional events and customs).

Yet her poetic voice is fresh and unique. She attenuates ornamental conventions in favor of keen, plain-spoken observation. This places her work closer in approach to haiku, the poems of masters such as Basho and Buson. Though many of her poems are meditative, she is also, at times, a master of the reveal, a surprise at the end of a poem. Her perspective as a Buddhist and a survivor of tragedy, though not always explicit, pervades her verses. Her poems often reflect her personal struggles with what she lost: as a daughter, wife and mother, as an elderly person and as a nun who renounced the world. Even her playful and celebratory poems hint at a deep gentleness, an ineffable reverence, an acute understanding of the human situation.

Until now, delving into Rengetsu’s poetry has been a monumental task for Japanese and English speakers alike. Her published works are not indexed and presented in classical Japanese form, without diacritical marks indicating their proper pronunciation. Further, though her Complete Works provides a reference form for each poem, Rengetsu inscribed her artworks with myriad versions, deciding at whim whether to express a word in kanji (Chinese characters adopted in the 7th century) or phonetically (in native hiragana). There are many variations in content as well, changes in key words for time of day, season, place, mood or scope. The use of arcane punctuation, obselete forms of kanji, obscure poetic devices, references to classic poems or historical events and various styles of calligraphy (from casual to formal and early to late) complicates things even further. Simply locating the reference version of single poem found on one of her works of art can take quite a while, even for a skilled researcher.

This archive provides a searchable database of Rengetsu poems in five forms:

1. English: The copyright for these translations is held by the principals of the Rengetsu Foundation Project.

2. Standard Japanese: the first 310 poems are taken from the first edition of Ama no Karumo (1870), the next 558 from the Complete Works of Otagaki Rengetsu (1927) and the final 19 from art objects found and documented by the foundation.

3. Romanized Japanese: To reflect the proper pronounciation among English speakers, the database uses a modified Hepburn system. Macrons are omitted in favor of spelling out long vowels.

4. Phonetic Japanese (in Edo Period style, without diacritical marks): This feature aids the search function and allows users see the classical written syllable(s) for a given kanji within a poem.

5. Phonetic Japanese (in modern style with diacritical marks): This feature aids the search function and allows users see the modern phonetic form (hiragana) for a given kanji within a poem.

Some general principles we use in translation:

We generally use the same number of lines in English as a traditional waka does in Japanese (5). Please note that the poems in the art section afford more fexibility in presentation, so there are several there that step outside this guideline.

On a scale from literal translation to belle infidèle (in which the original is a starting point for an adaptive work of art), we try to hew to the middle path: we change the word order when it makes a more natural experience in English and does not alter the meaning much, and embroider or simplify only slightly when the bare words do not express Rengetsu’s obvious intention.

Voicing of the poems is in progess, and will soon be available by clicking the audio icon in each entry. The romanized version allows those who do not read Japanese to follow along with the voicings.

To search the database, choose the language of the key word or words you are seeking (from the radio buttons below the search bar), then enter the key word or words in the search bar and click the search icon.

Remember that Rengetsu often shifted the orthography of a poem at whim, sometimes using one kanji to express a word, other times an alternate kanji or spelling it phonetically with hiragana. You may have to try several variations before you find the poem.

English searches are most effective using complete keywords, individually or in strings. Searching for the term “plum” will yield all poems with that key word, while “plum blossoms” will narrow the number of results.

Rengetsu, though playful and sometimes capricious or aloof, was a person of great compassion. Her suffering gave her reason to turn her attention to the Buddha, to kindness, to the creation of beautiful things for the benefit of others. Having spent years researching her life and work, we can say with confidence that she would wish these poems to be of service to you the reader. May they heal pain where possible, impart wisdom when needed, quiet the mind when restless, remind us of our place in nature and provide good company in celebration.