Poetry has been a major Japanese influence on the literature of many countries. In the early waka and later haiku forms, poets strove for the utmost conciseness and vividness; always linking emotions or ideas to natural objects. The gem-like brilliance of these extremely restricted forms has attracted many modern Western poets. The following poems are from two classic collections of Japanese verse, the Manyoshu and the Kokinoshu.
Anonymous: In the autumn fields
From the early section of the love poems of the Kokinoshu.
In the autumn fields
mingled with the pampas grass
flowers are blooming
should my love too, spring forth
or shall we never meet?
Mibu no Tadamine: On Kasuga plain
Having seen a young lady at the Kasuga festival, Tadamine asked where she lived and sent this poem.
On Kasuga plain
between those patches of snow
just beginning to sprout,
glimpsed, the blades of grass,
like those glimpses of you.
Ono no Komachi: The hue of the cherry (9th C. CE)
Ono no Komachi was a fine poet, but she was also a great court beauty whose love affairs became the plots of more than one Noh drama. Many of her poems used multiple puns (called “pivot words”) to create complex layers of meaning.
In what way does the poet compare herself to the cherry blossoms in the spring rain?
The hue of the cherry
fades too quickly from sight
all for nothing
this body of mine grows old —
spring rain ceaselessly falling.
Sugawara Michizane (845-903): The autumn breeze rises
Japanese poets often delight in exploring ambiguities. One of their favorite themes is the difficulty of discerning one white object from another: a white spider on a white flower, or here, white flowers and the foam of waves beating against the shore. Nature in the Heian period (794-1186) was never an untamed wilderness but most typically represented by the carefully tended garden or a painting on a folding screen. This poem was attached to a chrysanthemum during a courtly competition where the flower was placed in a miniature representation of the beach at Fukiage done in a tray. The author is best known as a scholar and poet of Chinese verse.
The autumn breeze rises
on the shore at Fukiage–
and those white chrysanthemums
are they flowers? or not?
or only breakers on the beach?
Ki no Tsurayuki (c. 872-945): The night approaches
Ki no Tsurayuki was the foremost poet of his age. He was one of the editors of the Kokinshu and wrote one of the prefaces to the anthology. He was also the author of a travel diary, the Tosa diary.
In what way is the approach of night like autumn?
The night approaches,
darkness on Mt. Ogura
where the deer cry out
and in their voices calling
is it autumn on the wane?
Prince Otsu (663-86): Poem sent by Prince Otsu to Lady Ishikawa
In the classical age much of the verse was occasional poetry, and poetic exchanges were a necessary part of courtship. In this exchange the Lady Ishikawa has taken Prince Otsu’s poem and cleverly rearranged it. She repeats in the forth line what Prince Otsu has repeated in lines two and five of his poem.
How does Lady Ishakawa turn Prince Otsu’s complaint at having been stood up into a compliment which reassures him of her continuing love?
Gentle foothills, and
in the dew drops of the mountains,
soaked, I waited for you–
grew wet from standing there
in the dew drops of the mountains.
Lady Ishikawa (7th C. CE): Poem by Lady Ishikawa in response
Waiting for me,
you grew wet there
in gentle foothills,
in the dew drops of the mountains–
I wish I’d been such drops of dew.
All poems translated by Jon LaCure
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Publishing.
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