Theses Doctoral

Waka After the Kokinshu: Anatomy of a Cultural Phenomenon

Persiani, Gian Piero

The dissertation is a study of the boom of waka poetry in the tenth century. Waka is approached here as a cultural phenomenon, that is, a complex system of people, practices, and ideas centering around the production, distribution, and consumption of cultural artifacts. Four main aspects of this system are examined: first, the network of people who, at various stages and in different ways, were involved in it. I identify three primary groups of agents (the poets, the patrons, and the public) and provide an analysis of each. Second, the body of ideas and beliefs that motivated and sustained involvement with waka as either poets, or patrons, or recipients. Third, the shared body of ingredients and skills that poets used to craft their works. Fourth and final, the criteria that contemporary audiences used to evaluate poems.

Each chapter deals with a specific aspect. Chapter 1 and 2 provide a sort of bird's eye view of the social world behind the waka phenomenon. Chapter 1 uses criteria such as social position and gender to present a typology of poets in tenth century court society. I distinguish between low-ranking poets who viewed waka as a potential pathway to career advancement, and high-ranking poets who used it mainly as a tool for conducting dalliances and as a marker of status. I also examine the case of women poets, and discuss whether it is legitimate to see them as a distinct type.

Chapter 2 focuses on the contribution of the patrons and the public. I start with a short history of patronage from the origins to the mid-tenth century, and then discuss various specific aspects of patronage, including its relation to the monjo keikoku theory (the idea that literature was useful for government), the appearance of the "poetry specialists" (senmon kajin), and the role of women as patrons of waka. This chapter also sketches a first, tentative profile of the waka public, and identifies some of the areas that a more thorough study should or could cover.

Chapter 3 deals with the ideas and beliefs that motivated and sustained the waka phenomenon of the tenth century. As Bourdieu notes, "the sociology of art and literature has to take as its object not only the material production but also the symbolic production of the work, i.e. the production of the value of the work, or, which amounts to the same thing, of belief in the value of the work." Some of the developments that the chapter examines are the emergence of a new view of poetry-making as a pathway to immortality, a new image of the poet as a literary giant worthy of the respect and admiration of society, the emergence of a proto-celebrity culture around poets and their work via poem-stories (utagatari), and the sedimentation of the connection between poetry and courtly elegance (miyabi).

Chapter 4 focuses on the body of ingredients and skills that poets used to make poems. I discuss how poetic know-how was acquired through study, what it consisted of, and several methods to apply it in actual composition. A discussion of the Kokin waka rokujo (Six Tomes of waka, c. 974), a giant poetry collection probably intended to serve as a reference book for poets, completes the chapter.

Chapter 5 deals with contemporary criteria to evaluate poetry. Two main texts are examined: the Tentoku yo'nen dairi uta-awase (Poetry contest at the Palace of the Fourth Year of Tentoku, 960), and the Waka kuhon (Nine Grades of waka, c. 1009) by Fujiwara no Kinto; (966-1044). The final section of the chapter discusses Tokieda Motoki's argument that since poetry was used in everyday life as a medium of communication, the aesthetic value of a poem was often less important than its performative value.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for Persiani_columbia_0054D_11491.pdf Persiani_columbia_0054D_11491.pdf application/pdf 3.73 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Shirane, Haruo
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 7, 2013