University of Wisconsin–Madison


Professor charo D’etcheverry

department of asian languages and cultures


It’s tough to get everyone excited about classical Japanese literature: too many descriptions of clothing and gradations of ink. This is a problem, because court poetry–which connects many genres in my field–references both texts and textiles frequently. Poets use patterns as metaphors for feelings, compare the depth of their passion to that of dyes, and show off by describing luxurious fabrics and colors. Help!

Enter the fabulous team at UW-Madison’s School of Human Ecology (SoHE) —Sherry Harlacher, Natasha Thoreson, & their helpers—who spin stories about textiles, with real visuals, Q & A, and things to touch. I can’t say enough about class visits to the lab and standing opportunities to write poems about objects in drawers has improved sensitivity to print descriptions. The SoHE team’s presentations on specific techniques as well as themes in collecting have really opened my students’ eyes to how material culture shapes ideas and their literary expression.

To build on these mandatory field-trips, by relating them more closely to Japanese texts, I’ve created paired extra-credit assignments. While I don’t require students to complete them, many do—and not just for the points, as the high response-rate for this option attests. Instead, these assignments take advantage of both gorgeous objects and the chance to play by adapting court poetry to our own time and place.

As shown below, the first assignment asks students to write a short poem in English, demonstrating knowledge of a course text (Tales of Ise, about an amorous hero’s varied relationships) as well as the rules of Japanese court verse. The second assignment responds to a classmate’s poem, revisiting those rules and a point stressed in lecture: Japanese court poetry is a social art. We then discuss examples in class. That helps to build community early in the semester, a nice bonus. I have also found that these exercises allay anxiety about my mandatory writing assignments: close readings of actual court poems. Once you’ve written a couple yourself, deciphering them is not so intimidating. Students also realize that classical Japanese writers had fun, too. That makes for MUCH better close readings, and lots of laughs.

Assignment #1:

– Choose one item in the drawers in the Lynn Mecklenburg Reading Room in SoHE that you think Narihira could put to good poetic use.

– Describe its location (left, middle, or right side; number of drawers down from top).

– Speaking as Narihira, compose an English-language waka (5 lines, 31 syllables) that expresses your feelings for Takaiko, your sister (episode 49), or the old woman (episode 63). Use the item from step 2 to make your point. Please make sure to specific who the poem is for somewhere in the assignment.

– Remember, the distribution of syllables in waka is 5-7-5-7-7 (beats per line, first through fifth). I can’t wait to read what you come up with!

– Another reminder: the Reading Room’s hours this semester are M-F 8:30am-4:30pm. You could even pop in (briefly) to look through the drawers before class!

Assignment #2:

– Choose someone else’s poem from the first extra-credit exercise (see Canvas). Go to the Mecklenburg Reading Room in SoHE, look at the textile that your classmate used, and write a response to Narihira highlighting at least one new feature of the object to make your point.

– Remember to write as if you are the intended recipient (either Takaiko, Narihira’s sister, or the old lady) of the first poem. How would she answer him? What feature(s) of the object can you use to make that point?