“Ten Thousand Leaves, Love Poems From The Man’youshu”…and a recommendation of books.

Manyoshu image

Man'yoshu image II

A while ago, I was asked by a poetry group to do a short presentation on the Man’yoshu. This is a collection of poems from the 8th century. They are gorgeous poems, some startling erotic.

I have at least five different editions of the Man’yoshu, each giving a different translation and perspective on these poems. One of my favorite versions is “Love Songs from the Man’yoshu, Selections from a Japanese Classic”, with illustrations by Miyata Masayuki, Commentary by Ooka Makoto, Translations by Ian Hideo Levy and with an essay by Donald Keene. Published in Japan by Lodansha International.

This is an incredibly beautiful book. The cut-out illustrations by the great Miyata Masayuki, powerfully and exquisitely erotic, give a visual insight into the sexuality of these poems. I did not expect this when I held this beautiful book in my hand. The paper, the colors, the commentary, everything about this book is a delight.

There are many books about the Man’yoshu. However, an older one that (1965) is plainly called “The Manyoshu’ One Thousand Poems, published by Columbia University Press. The Foreword is by Donald Keene, the much decorated translator and interpreter of Japanese literature. This book is worth obtaining just for the writing of Keene.

Lady Nyo

“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 complier 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?”

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.

“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.”

For 1200 years, the Man’yoshu has inspired poets to write their own poetry based on these poems. Below are a few of mine inspired with readings of this classical document. The Man’yoshu poetry can be startling frank and seem to avoid modern day sexual neurosis.

Come to me
If even 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.”

Come to me,
When the rocks have disappeared
Under sheets of snow,
The moon appears through tattered clouds.
I will be
Listening for the sound of
Your footfall in the dark.

Come to me, my man,
Part the blinds and come into my arms,
Snuggle against my warm breast
And let my belly
Warm your soul.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
(aka Lady Nyo)


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12 Responses to ““Ten Thousand Leaves, Love Poems From The Man’youshu”…and a recommendation of books.”

  1. Laura Hegfield Says:

    Jane this is beautiful. You never fail to inspire me.


  2. ladynyo Says:

    Hello Laura!

    WEll, you never fail to inspire me….I came over to Poets United and actually did post a short poem, and then went back to a manuscript I was preparing to publish….and lost the whole thing. Gone. Haven’t a clue what happened. Two days of work, gone. But! I rewrote the jazz for the front of the book and shortened it mightily.

    I was so upset at what happened, I deleted my PU submission on my blog. What was I doing there in the first place? I had enough in front of my nose to attend to. LOL!

    Well, thank you, Laura for reading this “Ten Thousand Leaves” piece. I would imagine that the PU people would have deleted it because it’s a whole lot of poetry…and only three pieces of mine at the end. That is why I didn’t post this work…because of their ‘rules’ of engagement. LOL! You know that when I write tanka, or haiku…or a mixture of both…they have usually a couple of sections…and that wouldn’t fly at PU.

    Plus, you are probably the only one there that would have the patience to read this long piece…it was a presentation to OneShot I think…Gay Cannon was so wonderful in helping me there.

    I’ll be over to your blog tomorrow morning, Laura. My left eye is throbbing all day and I can barely see tonight. Too much cumputer jazz.




  3. Sherry Marr Says:

    This was a very beautiful and intriguing read, Lady Nyo. I actually prefer your poems, written in response, to the ancient ones that are obviously much lauded. Thanks for your visit to my blog – and for posting at PU!


  4. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Sherry,

    Well, I did post a short poem at PU, considering their rules …..but then I deleted that blog entry…a bad day here…lost a ms to a computer glitch….

    I don’t think my work goes down too well at PU…I’ve only been posting two times, but what I want to submit there isn’t following their rules.. …This Man’yoshu piece of course has much poetry in it…and at first glance…my responses are more than one poem..at the end.

    I do write free verse, but also a lot of tanka…and linked tanka. Call and answer stuff. So, if you only can post ONE poem…that would leave a lot of my original work out of the running there. So….There would be a call….but no answer! LOL!

    I think I should retreat and just enjoy people who come to this blog to read the various works. And of course, visit other blogs like yours and Laura

    I am so glad you did venture here…though it wasn’t what I posted for PU.

    I am glad you liked my own poetry at the end. I am putting together a short book…called “The Nightingale’s Song” 12 long poems about a Japanese couple in the 17th century. The incredible Man’yoshu was the generator for “Nightingale” and it has much ‘call and answer” poetry in it. Between Lord and Lady Nyo.

    Thank you, again, Sherry for reading and your lovely comment. The Man’yoshu and Japanese literaure has captured my heart for the last 5 years. I am glad you enjoyed this mostly unknown document in the west.

    Lady Nyo


  5. aprille Says:

    If you were to ask us to construct some lines in this vein, what would the requirements be for us who sadly can’t ‘taste’ the real thing in its original Japanese guise?

    Similar to the instructions you gave out at one-stop poetry [?] some years back for writn a tanka?
    Your critique of my poor effort [I had not written any poetry at the time] was so kind and uplifting that it set me on the path of poetry. I’d love for you to take a look at that effort again and smile.


  6. aprille Says:

    Forgot to tell you how much your comment this morning (contemplation) meant to me.To be able to write such a thorough critique is a gift, and I received it as such. Especially now when I feel very shaky about my writing.Thank you.


  7. ladynyo Says:

    You’re Welcome, Aprille!

    You have a distinctive voice….and have written a very lovely poem. And don’t feel shaky about your work. I think the only way to develop it further is time and attention to the imagery that flings you into the words! Sawe process for any serious poet….but also isolate yourself with as many authors/poets as you can.

    Modern life makes us so fractured, and the things that we love the best? Like writing poetry?? sometimes get shoved on the back of the stove. But I couldn’t tell it from what I have read of your work.

    We agree on the necessary issue of poetry criticism. Since the vast majority of poetry groups on the internet aren’t interested or even capable to do this, I would suggest that you take up the study for yourself. That is what i have and am doing…and I will share sites with you gladly. There are books but the sites are a good start. I buy most of my books used from Amazon.com

    Let me know further how you are proceeding with your work. I really like yours!




  8. ladynyo Says:

    Send it to me! I would be honored!

    And I remember that time for you….but you certainly have not let any moss grow on you! LOL!

    As for writing in this Japanese vein? Oh, you don’t need to read the original in Japanese…I can a bit, and write some very short poetry in the Japanese, but! It’s really not necessary.

    There are a great group of books that I would suggest if you were really wanting to write a la Man’yoshu or tanka. I violate my own attempts at tanka and call it freeverse. LOL! I know better now than to call it tanka because I have some very good Japanese poets who write tanka looking over my shoulder.

    Just start with something like…oh, hell…anything by Donald Keene, Arthur Waley, (a very old approach to the translation, post Victorian, which ain’t that good…but he does do line by line in Japanese/English and you can pick up a lot of descriptive words, (mostly nouns) and write your own verse in Japanese after a study of a few months…but that’s not necessary.

    Having a grasp of some terms….mono no aware/ yugen/ etc….can take you farther…getting a sense of the approach of the Japanese for their verse, reading good stuff like anything about SAigyo (my personal favorite) Ono no Komanchi, Izumi Shikibu, Basho, and a personal favorite because he’s very humrous…Issa.

    I didn’t start academically…I started reading the English translations of Wm. La Fleur, Jane Hirshfield, etc. just to get this literature in my mind and heart. AFter a while, I developed a taste for this marvelous poetry, but further, I developed an instinct for it. Or so I am told. I am still learning and it’s only been 5 years or so of study.

    If you want, write me and I’ll send you a list of books I sent out to people when they show some interest….most probably ignore it all, but some I think are bitten by the tanka bug.

    Oh…buy the book from Amazon (always used!@!!) …on the recent blog on Man’yoshu…It’s a visual delight for the eye, and the explanations of the poems are earthy and marvelous. This poetry, this Man’yoshu…isn’t dull, academic stuff…it’s the stuff of fisherman, nuns, geishas, samurai, etc…and princes, and princesses and emperors and empresses…LOL!

    One of my very favorite books is a small one: Japanese Poetry The ‘Uta’ by Arthur Waley. Also, Awesome Nightfall, Wm. R. LaFleur, about Saigyo. and…Ink Dark Moon, by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani. I carry two copies ..different versions of the Man’yoshu in my purse at all times. Ruth Benedict’s The Sword and the Chrythanan (can’t spell it!) is also a good way to get into the mind of the Japanese….they have changed a lot since this book was written in the 1940, but some things never change. They are embedded in the character, or psyche of the Japanese people.

    If my critique of your poem put your feet on the path of poetry…..I am deeply honored! But you are doing just fine!

    Just read everything about tanka/haiku/Man’yoshu you can. And HAVE FUN!!!


    Lady Nyo


  9. aprille Says:

    I had no idea that there were specific poetry critique websites.
    Thanks for that. I’ll rummage around a few.
    Still, it would be easy to fall into a groove of ‘accepted writing’, which is something I want to avoid. One could have the technique pat and all the ‘tools’ at one’s disposal, and end up producing poetry fit for advertising 🙂

    If you click on my name you’ll find the old haiku, below in the present post, although I have lost the commentary.

    I’ve been thinking about a way to post poem and critique side by side, but haven’t quite worked it out yet.

    Hope your eyes are more rested now.


  10. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Aprille,

    I understand your concern about ‘accepted writing’ which is always…or sometimes, an issue. However, what I generally see are poets writing tanka, haiku without any study or concern about why these pieces were written in such forms and ways.

    For instance….in a tanka…there is only 31 syllables (or more appropriately, morae) and you have to have a good idea what and where you are going. So much tanka I read (and have written) is just free verse…nothing about tanka in the least.

    that’s OK, but don’t call it tanka. Because it isn’t.

    I think rather differently: and believe me, I avoided studying these forms in depth for years. I think that once you familiarize yourself with some of the concepts of say, yugen….mono no aware, the kigo words, you have some definite guidelines to proceed. It gives structure, form and intention to the poem.

    Athur Waley said this: the 31 syllables are but an inner core surrounded by unspoken yet powerful circles of images. These peripheral rings we ignore at the peril of reducing the poem to a dead thud.

    Over on dversepoets last night was a similar argument: pros and cons about Poetry Criticism…or even learning such….or investigating this issue..So people pile up many arguments to doing this, and does their poetry develop? I don’t think so….they shoot in the dark. And it’s just a mentality of laziness and fear.

    Well, to each his/her own. But for me? I have found over the past 5 years that my Japanese writings (poems, etc) have increased in power, and ability to state these difficult inner things in the manner I want. And this discipline certainly has refined my free verse. There is a spill over and it doesn’t hinge on a ‘classical voice’ form 1200 years ago…but the influence is there. Hard to explain. I think this poem is an example of that:


    I dip into the pond
    And gather a pitcher of moon.
    Above it glimmers,
    Smiles at my efforts
    This late- winter moon.

    It is just a bowl of cool water
    I am holding
    But the magic of the cosmos settles
    In this plain clay vessel.

    Such a simple poem…some thought it was outright boring and couldn’t find the interest to either read or crit. LOL! But there is a world inside this poem…it’s elusive if you don’t know what to look for. I felt some of the same feeling about your Contemplation.

    > I’ve been thinking about a way to post poem and critique side by side, but haven’t quite worked it out yet.< Difficult but very admirable to do so. I wish you well on that.

    People, poets are individuals. I really don’t worry about this 'accepted writing' and have rarely seen it. For me? Studying the forms in tanka, etc…and sonnets, free verse, etc…has allowed me freedom. Once I get a sense of what is suggested, I can modulate these things to my own voice.


    Lady Nyo


  11. Fred Bartels Says:

    Is there going to be a test afterwards?


  12. ladynyo Says:

    For you, always….

    It’s called marriage.



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