“Ten Thousand Leaves”, Love Poems from the Man’yoshu”

Samurai Lovers, #2

I am honored to present this short piece on the Man’yoshu and I especially want to thank Mme. Canongate for her encouragement and friendship. Without Gay’s help and influence I don’t think this would have been written. Thank you, Gay for this opportunity to present a little bit of the Man’yoshu.

Today I would like to introduce to you the exquisite Lady Nyo, the alter ego and non de plume of the wonderful Jane Kohut-Bartels. I am so honored that she has consented to host an article on Man’yoshu Japanese Poetry. Basically it’s love poetry in the oldest traditions and she is so well versed in the subject. I know many of you are reveling in the beautiful stories she is weaving about Lord/Lady Nyo. So please enjoy.

“Ten Thousand Leaves, Love Poems from the Man’yoshu”

“Thick and fast stream my thoughts of you
Like the layers
Of endlessly falling snow
Upon the cedars.
“Come to me at night, my man.”

—– from the Man’yoshu

It was the first golden age of Japanese civilization. In the eighth century appeared the great metropolis of Nara, (the imperial capital) its broad avenues lined with magnificent temples. Culture rushed in from Korea, China and over the Silk Road, from as far away as Persia, and even from Venice.

We think of Japan in isolation, as it was to become centuries later, but in the 7th to the 10th centuries (approximately) the cultural influences were vast and wide and foreign.

In the 8th century, Japan found it’s first voice, a clear and powerful voice to become one of the most impressive, sophisticated and frank compilations of poetry the world has ever seen. (There are other earlier and then later collections of poetry, but the Man’yoshu is considered to be the best of the poetry collections. There are many reasons (cultural and court changes, etc) but this is a long study and can’t be done in this short presentation.

There are not 10,000 poems (leaves) but over 4,500. Most of these are love poems, where lovers speak with disarming frankness and clarity, speak to us across 1300 years as if they were us.

Actually, the poems express a decided lack of neurosis that we have come to view sex in the last few centuries. There is nothing of barriers when it comes to the human heart, longing, emotions and sexuality in these poems. Many of them are openly, expressly erotic.

The authors or contributors of these poems extended from Emperors, Empresses, courtesans, samurai, priests, beggars, fishermen, peasants: a cross section of remarkable variety. A truly democratic endeavor. This was never again to happen in Japan, not at least to this extent.

Otomo No Yakamochi (718-785) is considered to be the main compiler of the Man’yoshu. These poems actually span a 130 year history, from around 630 AD to 759 AD.

There are three basic divisions of the poetry in the Man’yoshu.

Banka: elegy on the death of an Emperor or a loved one.

Somon: mutual exchanges of love or longing poetry.

Zoka: Poems of Nature, hunting, etc.

This short presentation will focus only on the Somon form.

Generally the Man’yoshu poetry is considered to be declarative rather than introspective, imagistic rather than abstract. There is an incredible freshness to it all.

There are basically two forms of poetry in the Man’yoshu: choka (long poem, 5-7-5-7-5-7, etc. ending in 7-7) and tanka. (5-7-5-7-7). The ‘long poem’, choka (which isn’t very long by our modern and Western standards) died out of fashion, and tanka became the predominant form of Japanese poetry for the next 1200 years.

Although one would think so, there isn’t a lot of Buddhist influence in the poems. If any religion, there is more Shinto influence especially in the Zoka form, but even that isn’t large. This may seem strange to us, with our notions of culture in Japan, but even centuries later, with the Priest-Poet Saigyo, there is little Buddhist thought within his poems. Religion just doesn’t play such a dominant role in most Japanese poetry, especially at this time.

“Going over the fields of murasaki grass
That shimmer crimson,
Going over the fields marked as imperial domain,
Will the guardian of the fields not see you
As you wave your sleeves at me?”

— Princess Nukata

This poem is considered by many to be one of the greatest poems in the Man’yoshu. It is presented near the beginning of the collection, giving it prominence. The answer by her former husband (she is now married to the Emperor) Prince Oama, (his brother) is a beautiful poem in its own right.

“If I despised you, who are as beautiful
As the murasaki grass,
Would I be longing for you like this,
Though you are another man’s wife?”

— Prince Oama

“Do not let men find out
By smiling at me so apparently,
Like the clouds that clearly cross
Over the verdant mountains.”

— Lady Otomo Sakanoue

There are more poems by this poet than any other woman in the Man’yoshu. What is remarkable are the amount of women poets included in the Man’yoshu. This is only possible because the Confucian philosophy was not prominent yet in Japan. When it became influential, women lost much status: before they were allowed to own property, title, name, divorce, to keep custody of their children. After, they were relegated to indoors, stripped of much power and status.

“Whose words are these,
Spoken to the wife of another?
Whose words are these,
That bade me untie
The sash of my robe?”

— Anonymous

Many of the poems in the Man’yoshu were folk songs, or parts of folk songs. And this repeated interest in ‘the wife of another’ was an object of male desire; the Man’yoshu is full of this theme.

“As I turn my gaze upward
And see the crescent moon,
I am reminded
Of the trailing eyebrows
Of the woman I saw but once.”

— Otomo Yakamochi

This was written by Otomo at the age of 16!

“I have fallen into a yearning
With no requite,
For a girl who, when night comes
Sleeps pillowed in another’s arms.

— Anonymous

“If men can touch
Even the untouchable sacred tree,
Why can I not touch you
Simply because you are another’s wife?”

— Otomo Yasumaro

To finish with some anonymous poems:

“The flowers of the plum,
Were covered with fallen snow
Which I wrapped up
But when I tried to have you see
It was melting in my hands.”

“This body of mine
Has crossed the mountain barrier
And is here indeed!
But this heart of mine remains
Drawing closer to my wife.”

“The moon crossed the sky
And I saw him only once
In its pale light
Yet, the person whom I saw
Does appear to me in dreams.”

“I shall not take a brush
To this hair that lies
Disheveled in the morning,
For it retains the touch
Of my dear lord’s arms that pillowed me.”

— Anonymous

I call for readers to write your own modern contributions to the Man’yoshu! Send them to me by email, and I will post them for you. It should be fun because most of the pieces here are in tanka form…and we can do that! (it doesn’t have to be tanka, it could be choka, a longer form, or just freeverse). But the general theme should be love poems, longing, etc…in the category of “Somon”.

I’ll prime the pot with one of my own:

“Glimpse of a white wrist

Feel the pulse of blood beneath-

This is seduction!

But catch a wry, cunning smile

One learns all is artifice.”

Or something a bit different. Many of the poems were built one upon the other, answers brushed upon a fan, or something suitable, even a large leaf. In the ‘spirit’ of this method that is found in the Man’yoshu, I offer this modest poem as my own answer to the ‘top’ poem:

Thick and fast stream my thoughts of you
Like the layers
Of endlessly falling snow
Upon the cedars.
“Come to me at night, my man.”

Come to me

If only in my dreams

Where my head rests upon my arm

And not yours–

Let this veiled moon

Above and these dark, brooding pines below

“Be witness to our love, my man.”

Jane Kohut-Bartels
(aka Lady Nyo)

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8 Responses to ““Ten Thousand Leaves”, Love Poems from the Man’yoshu””

  1. Caliban's Sister Says:

    Another fantastic post, Jane, filled with beauty of different kinds. I learn something new each time you write about the Japanese poetic tradition. The trope of ‘another man’s wife’ is a fascinating one, because it’s shared across many poetry traditions (the English sonnet as well); but the exfoliations of each tradition are different, with moral, spiritual, or women-as-property inflections too. Your own poems at the bottom are wonderful. xo CS

  2. ladynyo Says:

    Hello CS! Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment on this post. I love Japanese literature, especially the oldest forms….chokas (not written much anymore) and of course tanka (written daily in the Japanese newspapers! by tanka club memebers and posted there…) and haiku and other forms…but I must admit that this study is a life-time effort. It is hard to get the basics down because there is so much to the basics! LOL!

    This trope of another man’s wife you mention seems to be kicking and alive today across cultures…LOL! some things never die!

    I was going to gather more of my own poems,…off shoots from some of the original Man’yoshu….a call and answer theme….but got waylaid by life.

    I posted Chapter 40 on the dare of a friend who is a marvelous poet. She is interested in Celtic Mythology, but I did tell her that I take great liberties with that particular mythology. LOL!

    But! I am going to try and gather some of this call and answer based on the top poems of the Man’yoshu. I went through a lot of thinking about this but decided…’why not’? The Man’yoshu speaks to the human heart through the ages, and it is right and proper for us to continue the poetry that is so wondeful from this historic document. At least, that is my excuse, and I am sticking by it. LOL!

    Thank you so much, CS, for reading and your lovely and inspiring comment. Any edition of the great Man’yoshu is good and I post these introductions and tutorials of it and tanka and a few other things because I want to spread the word and beauty of these documents that most of us will never come across.

    Hugs!

    Jane

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  4. Caliban's Sister Says:

    “spreading the word and beauty” of this poetic tradition is a wonderful project. I think that our contemp. American culture is FULL of sloppy word-blather; the complex BASICS of Man’yoshu, haiku, tanka, call for the opposite–each word must be carefully chosen–no fat, no waste, or it falls apart. This is a fabulous exercise in creativity, and a lesson for all of us who write, fiction or non-fiction. Every word should count. love CS

  5. ladynyo Says:

    Hi CS! I agree. And the more I read/hear of contemporary American poetry, the more confused I get. I think most of us would be well advised to do some flashers: 200 or even 100 word stories..not just scenes. That will burn off the fat into the fire fast. LOL! Every word HAS to count because you have a limitation of words. That was what I did about 6 years ago, a whole year of flashers, and I learned a lot. I learned NOT to be in love with every word I put down….it’s ego…and we need to put our work through a refining fire.

    The problem with studying what is put out by many online ‘experts’ on haiku, tanka, etc…is that they adhere for a time to a set group of rules (and then they break them) but without a deeper and more extensive study of the culture BEHIND these poems/rules, etc….you don’t really get a sense of WHY they were written and why they are more complex than what we today understand. Take the pivot word in Japanese poetry: it’s not just something that a poem or thought turns on: there is a whole history of its intent and usage behind this.

    Finally, we rob ourselves of the beauty and deeper meaning of this poetry without a deeper study into the culture. If you want to write tanka? There are some marvelous books out there about early (especially women) and Saigyo (a personal favorite) tanka writers that explain the basis for usage of this form. The same with Basho. You have to buy the books and read. Extensively. I have fallen off this wagon with writing novels, and have just loaded up the floor next to the couch where I read. I have about 10 books to reorient myself into the history and culture of Japanese poetry. It is so extensive! And only a deeper reading will begin to give dissection to this complex poetry. And reveal it’s beauty in the raw.

    Thank you, CS, for reading and your comment.

    love, jane

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  7. findmrbeanie Says:

    Hi,

    Sorry to bother you, but i was really interested in this post as I have an exhibition in September on the Ama, and I know that they were mentioned in the poetry of the Man’yoshu”.
    I wondered whether you might be able to help me as I am looking to find where they are mentioned and what was written about them, would you be able to help me? I would of course credit you in the art exhibition along side my work?

    Many thanks in advance
    Lisa

  8. ladynyo Says:

    The only thing I can tell you is to get a copy of The Man’yoshu’ and read. It is well worth the effort. There are different editions, versions of the Man’yoshu, so look carefully. If you are serious about this, and you sound a bit….go to Amazon.com and look up the different versions, editions.

    Good Luck.

    Lady Nyo

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