Ono no Komachi…Sensual Poems of a Medieval Japanese Poet

My beautiful picture

I’ve written before on this blog about Ono no Komachi. She continues to capture my interest as a woman and a poet.

Briefly, she lived from 834?-??. It’s not clear when she died. She served in Japan’s Heian court (then in Kyoto) and was one of the dominant poetic geniuses. She is also in the great Man’yoshu, a collection of 4500 poems.

She lived when a woman was considered to be educated once she composed, memorized and could recite 1000 poems. Her poetry is deeply subjective, passionate and complex. She was a pivotal figure, legendary in Japanese literary history.

The form: these are written in tanka form…the usual form of poetry most popular.

Don’t be put off by the lack of syllables or more than for the lines. These poems are translated into English and they don’t necessarily fit the form exactly.

There are parts of the world where her poetry is still studied and read. These cultures are richer for the doing, as are their poets.

Lady Nyo

Did he appear
Because I fell asleep
Thinking of him?
If only I’d known I was dreaming
I’d never have awakened.

When my desire
Grows too fierce
I wear my bed clothes
Inside out,
Dark as the night’s rough husk.

My longing for you—
Too strong to keep within bounds.
At least no one can blame me
When I go to you at night
Along the road of dreams.

One of her most famous poems:

No way to see him
On this moonless night—
I lie awake longing, burning,
Breasts racing fire,
Heart in flames.

Night deepens
With the sound of calling deer,
And I hear
My own one-sided love.

The cicadas sing
In the twilight
Of my mountain village—
Tonight, no one
Will visit save the wind.

A diver does not abandon
A seaweed-filled bay.
Will you then turn away
From this floating, sea-foam body
That waits for your gathering hands?

Is this love reality
Or a dream?
I cannot know,
When both reality and dreams
Exist without truly existing.

My personal favorite:

The autumn night
Is long only in name—
We’ve done no more
Than gaze at each other
And it’s already dawn.

This morning
Even my morning glories
Are hiding,
Not wanting to show
Their sleep-mussed hair.

I thought to pick
The flower of forgetting
For myself,
But I found it
Already growing in his heart.

Since this body
Was forgotten
By the one who promised to come,
My only thought is wondering
Whether it even exists.

All these poems were compiled from the Man’yoshu and the book, “The Ink Dark Moon”, by Hirshfield and Aratani.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2013

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15 Responses to “Ono no Komachi…Sensual Poems of a Medieval Japanese Poet”

  1. Yousei Hime Says:

    I did end up getting that book you mentioned earlier, the Man’yoshu, I believe. No time to read right now, but soon. 🙂


  2. Yousei Hime Says:

    Your choices are all amazing. I really love the power of passion in her writing.


  3. ladynyo Says:

    so do I,. but! we also can exhibit the same passion. Her words and thoughts are universal. I wish other poets that write ‘romantic’ poetry would tap into her. It would improve their poetry.

    Thanks for reading.



  4. Laura Hegfield Says:

    beautiful Jane… loved this line from the beginning of the poem “If only I’d known I was dreaming
    I’d never have awakened.”


  5. ladynyo Says:

    don’t wait too long. It should spark and inspire your own lovely writing.

    Ah…I’ve compiled so many damn lists for people who say they ‘love’ tanka, haiku, etc…and I know damn well they don’t read or get these books. I don’t do that anymore. People are basically lazy. When one poet announced that everything she learned about haiku was from the internet…I collapsed. And her poetry could have been greatly improved IF she wasn’t so damn lazy and would at least research out the lists I gave her. But lazy is what many ‘poets’ are.

    Lady Nyo


  6. ladynyo Says:

    Laura, I am glad you read the piece on Ono no Komachi, but I wish you would have read the previous post on Issa. I think he would really brighten your day! I am surprised that more folk from dverse haven’t because he really is the cat’s meow! But who can account for taste? LOL!

    And glad I can now access your lovely blog. I couldn’t last week with the new and confusing computer, but for some unknown reason, it seems to have worked out. I love your blog so much….It’s a meditative vacation for me !



  7. Yousei Hime Says:

    It simply has to mean enough to the individual so that they are unwilling to let any chance to learn escape. If haiku doesn’t mean that much to them, then they’ll give it up after a while. 😉


  8. ladynyo Says:

    Yes, but it also means that they understand the importance of the study. You build on one step to another…one understanding to another. It isn’t easy, and especially in the beginning… and many people just give up…and are lazy. It’s not just haiku, it applies to all sorts of literature, and most things in life.

    I wish they would give up haiku! LOL! Some of the garbage that ‘passes’ for haiku is truly insulting. People think because of the shortness of the form…anything goes. Because it’s so short, it is full of pitfalls…etc.

    It’s a particular form of literary arrogance to think that anything goes…it’s a disregard and a disconnect with a powerful and old literary culture. Tanka has been around for over 1400 years?? and haiku for half that long…and of course there are other forms, like sedoka and renga, etc….well…it’s not something of interest for everyone. I would have thought, though, this issue of seeing haiku like a surreal movie would have sparked some interest at dverse. It certainly clarified something important to me. But we will see.

    Rant over.

    Lady Nyo


  9. wcg1670 Says:

    I truly admire your efforts in your presentations to us…we aren’t left to determine the passages from a bystanders view…your introduction sets us clearly in place for the sojourn…and I thank you

    the tank, ahhh, I beleive it is where we first met 🙂


    Since this body
    Was forgotten
    By the one who promised to come,
    My only thought is wondering
    Whether it even exists.

    beautifully compelling


  10. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you! That is so kind and encouraging of you to write. Sometimes I wonder if I am talking to the wind…it seems so at times.

    It’s a balance of what to present to ‘set the stage’ and what to leave to the imagination of the reader. I could do more on this stage setting…LOL! because I love to write about these wonderful Japanese poets. They are too unknown to the majority of us.

    Yes, that last tanka is beautifully compelling….do we exist or are we figments of something else? I think of “Banji was yume”…(life is all a dream…loosely translated…lol) when I read so much of these poems.

    Thank you, again. Readers make it ‘real’ for me. And to share this poetry? Divine!

    Lady Nyo


  11. wcg1670 Says:



  12. ladynyo Says:

    Yep…that too.



  13. ayala Says:

    Jane, a beautiful write.


  14. ladynyo Says:

    Hiya Ayala!

    She’s one of my favorite medieval poets…hell, one of my all time fav. poets!

    Thanks for reading and commenting.



  15. Hugh Stevens Says:

    What was your process on deciding the sequence of the poems for After ? How did that process compare with the work for you earlier books?


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