Theses Doctoral

Envisioning Lady Ise: Poetic Persona, Performance, and Multiple Authorship in Classical Japanese Poetry

Ngo-Vu, Nhat-Phuong

In classical Japanese poetry (waka), one often equates the poetic persona with the historical poet, perhaps in part due to the fact that waka was very often used for communicative purposes as elevated dialogue. This dissertation deconstructs such a notion of the poetic persona to reveal the various factors that work in tandem to create a textual persona that is in fact rarely a straightforward representation of the poetic author. I show that the poetic persona is the contested ground upon which different actors lay their claims, that waka is a highly performative genre, and that the poet was almost always performing a specific role in front of an audience. As such, the expectations of that audience become a major factor in the “self-portrayal” of the poet, where expressions of emotions, sensations, and ideas are manifested through a complex layering of tropes and conventions that depend on audience expectations (as well as the poet’s own assumption of what these expectations may be). To further complicate matters, the transmission of waka poetry to a wider audience frequently involves the work of compilers of poetry collections, scribes, as well as commentators.

To unpack these various factors, I focus on the private poetry collection of the female poet Ise (c. 875 – c. 938), who was well-respected among her early Heian contemporaries. Very little information is known about Ise, so traditionally, her private poetry collection, the Ise shū (Ise Collection), has been used as the primary source of information on this elusive poet. However, as I demonstrate, Ise did not have full control over the construction of her poetic persona; on the one hand, she was often responding to what her audience expected of her, and on the other hand, the Ise shū as we have it today is most likely the work of a compiler who had other motives. Thus, this repository of Ise’s poetry serves not only as an important representation of how Ise’s persona was constructed by both Ise herself and the compiler of her poetry collection, but also as a case study in waka textuality and manuscript culture. In doing so, I highlight the performative and participatory nature of waka—two important characteristics that exemplify the unique qualities of the poetic genre that is waka.

This dissertation is organized along two major axes: synchronous and diachronous. Along the synchronous axis, I show how the poet was constantly responding to the expectations of her contemporary audience, both in poetic exchanges, which has a clearly designated audience and specific conventions, and solo compositions, which is often regarded as a freer venue of expression with fewer restrictions. As I argue, the act of composing poetry is inherently performative and more often than not, the poetic persona is an amalgamation of well-established roles within the tradition of waka, catering to what the audience desired of her. Along the diachronous axis, I look at the role of compilers, scribes, and commentators in further constructing the poetic persona through the use of paratexts, including the headnotes to poems explaining their circumstances of composition, the arrangement of poems in a specific sequence, and the framing of a poem. A comparison with other works of various genres shows that there was a great deal of experimentation with the process in which prose headnotes were combined with poetry to create narratives and construct characters. Finally, this dissertation compares various iterations of the same Ise poems in different collections to demonstrate the degree to which the interpretation of a poem and, by extension, the perception of the poetic persona depends on the intermediary roles of the compilers, scribes, and commentators of poetry collections. In short, I show that the poetic persona is the joint product of the multiple authors who work within the performative and participatory milieu of waka.

The appendix contains the first full translation in English of the Ise shū, with close to five hundred poems.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Shirane, Haruo
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 19, 2021