Mirror for the Moon: More Saigyo’s poetry.

I have written a very little here on Saigyo, the Heian-era priest and poet.  Reading, studying Saigyo is like falling into the rim of the Universe: you have no idea where you will land nor what you will learn.  But the ‘trip’ will probably profoundly change you.

In “Mirror For the Moon”, a collection of translations by William LaFleur of Saigyo, one gets the idea that Saigyo transcended the usual route, the accepted and comfortable route of poet/priests of that era.

There were tons of poetry written by many poets, officials, etc. about the moon, nature, flowers, etc.  But Saigyo had an ‘edge’:  his view of blossoms, moon, nature was not just a taken symbol of evanescence and youthful beauty:  his view of blossoms, nature, were more a path into the inner depth of this relationship between humanity and nature.   He spent 50 years walking the mountains, road, forests, fields all over Japan and his poetry (waka) reflected his deep understanding of the physicality of nature:  all seasons were felt and experienced not from the safety and comfort of a court, surrounded by other silk-clad courtier/poets,  but out there in the trenches of nature.  His poetry is fomented in the cold and penetrating fall and spring rains, the slippery paths upon mountain trails, the ‘grass pillows’ and a thin cloak, the deep chill of winter snows upon a mountain, the rising  mists that befuddle orientation,  and especially, the loneliness of traveling without companionship.

I have just begun to acquaint myself with Saigyo and his poetry, but there is something so profound, different, something that calls down the centuries to the heart.  His poetry awakens my awe and wonder of not only nature-in-the-flesh, but in the commonality of the human experience.

Lady Nyo

Not a hint of shadow

On the moon’s face….but now

A silhouette passes–

Not the cloud I take it for,

But a flock of flying geese.

Thought I was free

Of passions, so  this melancholy

Comes as surprise:

A woodcock shoots up from marsh

Where autumn’s twilight falls.

Someone who has learned

How to manage life in loneliness:

Would there were one more!

He could winter here on this mountain

With his hut right next to mine.

Winter has withered

Everything in this mountain place:

Dignity is in

Its desolation now, and beauty

In the cold clarity of its moon.

When the fallen snow

Buried the twigs bent by me

To mark a return trail,

Unplanned, in strange mountains

I was holed up all winter.

Snow has fallen on

Field paths and mountain paths,

Burying them all

And I can’t tell here from there:

My journey in the midst of sky.

Here I huddle, alone,

In the mountain’s shadow, needing

Some companion somehow:

The cold, biting rains pass off

And give me the winter moon.

(I love this one especially: Saigyo makes the vow to be unattached to seasons, to expectations, but fails and knows his very human limitations)

It was bound to be!

My vow to be unattached

To seasons and such….

I, who by a frozen bamboo pipe

Now watch and wait for spring.

(Love like cut reeds:)

Not so confused

As to lean only one way:

My love-life!

A sheaf of field reeds also bends

Before each wind which moves it.

(And Love like fallen leaves….)

Each morning the wind

Dies down and the rustling leaves

Go silent: Was this

The passion of all-night lovers

Now talked out and parting?

From “Mirror For the Moon”, A Selection of Poems by Saigyo (1118-1190)

Tags: , , , , , ,

6 Responses to “Mirror for the Moon: More Saigyo’s poetry.”

  1. Malcolm Says:

    These are beautiful and so philosophic! I especially like the one about love-life! Oh, to be able to say so much in so few words!


  2. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Malcolm.

    I think it takes a special sensitivity to understand the beauty of these poems. To me, they aren’t ‘just’ poems of so few words, but the depth, the layering of these expressed thoughts are what is so remarkable.

    But, as you note… they are of few words, and perhaps it’s the tanka form….like our ‘flasher’ form…that allows these things to become?

    In any case, they are so….immediate…humane…and go far beyond anything of this form I have ever read. Ono no Komachi is probably the closest in effect to Saigyo, but different also.

    These poems make me, a poor poet indeed, want to study them and try to distill their magic!

    There is a grittiness, without any vulgarity within Saigyo’s poetry. In part, perhaps, it is the sense of loneliness as theme that comes through over and over and hits us where we live:

    “Somehow stretched
    From then to now is my love
    For you, held on this
    Bridge of tension between tonight’s
    Moon and the one I saw here with you.”

    Having no (or little) ability to read these waka in the original, we must rely on LaFleur’s translations. But this is no lessening of the power of the poems: his translation is a work of art in of itself.

    Thank you for reading and enjoying these poems with me, Malcolm. They speak to the depths of the human heart and experience. They make lovely bridges between cultures and humanity.


  3. bren Says:

    Hi Jane … I really like this poetry. I have emailed you but your email is bouncing back again.


  4. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Bren!

    I do too….sorry about the bouncing email…who knows?? sun spots? I got your email of yesterday, but I haven’t had the time to answer, but it’s on my mind.

    I have been reading more Saigyo and Matsuo Basho lately…and I guess Saigyo writing in waka where Basho wrote in haiku…well, perhaps it’s like comparing apples to oranges?

    But I like the waka form better. There is more ‘meat’ to it….and of course, purists would say that haiku is ‘better’. More succinct…or something like that.

    But overall, the sentiment of Saigyo is something I can ‘relate’ to more. I think many people can, because there is something so….humane…about him and his waka. It comes down to us from centuries….1000 years ago…and loses nothing in it’s journey.

    Probably Basho is the same in this issue of resonance, but I am still trying to get my head (and heart) around his verse.

    Thank you, Bren….for reading and commenting. The temps here are 95 + and it’s miserable. About the only thing to do is find a cool spot and read. I know that where you are it’s much better weather. Or so I hope.



  5. bren Says:

    I can see why you are more drawn to Saigyo. Basho very succinct. And they all lose so much in translation.

    It is muggy here today but not like you. We have just had bouts of rain followed by sun so it feels heavy. Tomorrow to be a sunny day and perhaps up to 80 so we will be at the beach.



  6. ladynyo Says:

    Oh Bren….I’ll gladly trade you our 95 for your 80…that would be an ice age here.

    I have NEVER seen a spring nor a beginning summer here like this…and no rain…yet.

    The haiku form is considered ‘finer’….because it’s so much shorter…and you have to pick and choose very carefully, not only words, but all those things that are so much bound up in Japanese composition.

    I am not sure that LaFleur’s translation of Saigyo loses very much. I have read some of Saigyo in the Japanese, and it is standing on your head because of the placement of words in a sentence structure in Japanese. It makes little sense to our understanding of structure.

    But! There is just so much ‘more’ with waka (tanka) than haiku to me. And of course, others would say that it’s too ‘wordy’ in comparison to haiku.

    Basho is a strain for me to comprehend. I have to re-arrange my thinking when I read his haiku.

    With Saigyo, it flows effortlessly, and I’m right there.

    But perhaps it’s just exposure. I started out writing haiku, then found tanka, and never looked back.


    Hugs, Jane


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: