Ono no Komachi…Sensual Poems of a Medieval Poet

Heian era Woman with Tengu

Heian era Woman with Tengu

It feels good to write about something besides Atlanta politics and politicians.  A little of that goes a long way. Besides, the beauty of these poems go far in uplifting the spirit and involving the heart.  And faced with the next few months, that can’t be bad.

Lady Nyo

Night deepens

with the sound

of a calling deer,

and I hear

my own one-sided love.

—-Ono no Komachi, from The Man’yoshu


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 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.

She was also considered a classical beauty.  Hair reaching to the floor, which was the style then, she was the daughter of the daimyo in the Dewa mountains, up in Akito, Japan (Northwest territory)sent to Kyoto to serve at court at 14 years of age.  As a lady of the Heian court, she distinguished herself with her poetry and has quite of few in the great Man’yoshu, this 8th century document.  Her poetry was seen as having great philosophical and emotional depth.  That she was surrounded by other excellent poets, men and women of the court, certainly helped in developing her own.

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

Seeing the moonlight

spilling down

through these trees,

my heart fills to the brim

with autumn.

How sad,

to think I will end

as only

a pale green mist

drifting the far fields.

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

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

  1. camilla Says:

    This post truly peaked my interest.


  2. TR Says:

    It flows nicely in English; the translation is very good. Very sensual indeed. xxoo


  3. ladynyo Says:

    Hi TR! Ono no Komachi is one of my favorite poets hands down…along with Izumi Shibuku and Saigyo. With their writings, I feel I can pull out the deepest sentiments of my own heart and find companionship.

    Thank you for reading and your lovely comments.

    Lady Nyo


  4. Derric Says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. My current English project is of Ono no Komachi’s “No Way to See Him.” If possible, do you think that you could post the original Japanese up as well; I enjoyed reading “No Way to See Him” in the original language as much as in English.


  5. ladynyo Says:

    Dear Derric, first, I am so glad you enjoyed my blog entry, “Ono no Komachi, Sensual Poems of a Medieval Poet”. I encourage you to read “Ink Black Moon” where you will find more of her marvelous poetry. I also have on my blog an essay, “Short History and Introduction to Tanka” where I cite her poetry and do a little analysis of it. I believe some is in Japanese, but not of my translation. My Japanese isn’t that good. Plus, this “Short Introduction” will be published in my 5th book later this year or early next year, “The Nightingale’s Song” as one of three essays. And it will also be published this July, 2014 in PoetCrit Journal in Mumbai.

    Thank you for reading and for your lovely comment. My very best to you in your continued studies. Do read also Izumi Shikibu and Saigyo. They also are marvelous, but I am especially fond of Ono no Komachi.

    Lady Nyo


  6. Derric Says:

    I plan on it, sooner or later. Shikibu Murasaki is on my list, too. I’ll be sure to read your blog.


  7. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you, Derric. Tonight I am reading from my published books….and reading a bit of the new (unpublished but soon) “The Nightingale’s Song” to a varied poetry group. Hope they sit still for this Japanese inspired long verse. LOL!

    I love Izumi Shikibu as much as Ono no Komachi…both empassioned poets, both also in the great document Man’yoshu. Are you familiar with this 8th century document? It is well worth your time and effort to read some of the poems (actually there are 4,500 poems in this!). It still stands to be the greatest collection of early medieval poetry ever produced in Japan. Of course, the general form used is tanka.

    May I suggest another edition of “Ten Thousand Leaves, Love Songs from the Man’yoshu?” This is excellent, beautiful and unforgettable. The binding and color is superb, but the chosen poetry in this small volume is some of the very best. The cut outs which are the illustrations are absolutely amazing. I buy this book (Amazon.com) just to give as presents to friends who would appreciate this poetry, but I also keep a few copies for myself. It is a book that anyone who loves Japanese tanka and culture would be poorer without.

    Lady Nyo…and thank you for reading the blog…over 5 years now, and their is a lot of writing on it!


  8. Derric Says:

    I’ll look into them. And have you ever thought about filming your poetry reading for youtube? I’d love to see them.


  9. ladynyo Says:

    No, not filming but I have been recorded before reading poetry…and some tanka. Tanka is usually done in 2 breaths…and in a monotone for some reason…not the usual Japanese style of speech.

    However, I am going to try to record some of my poems for my blog this fall. You might want to check out my third book “White Cranes of Heaven” …has a section of Moon Tankas….I am now listed in the bibliography of Tanka Writers in English, which came as a surprise…for the tanka in “A Seasoning of Lust” and “White Cranes of Heaven”…both on Lulu.com.

    I have loads of tanka on the blog, you just have to scroll through and you might be interested in the “A Short History of Tanka and Classical Exmaples” in archives there.

    “The Nightingale’s Song” is about a 17th samurai family couple in their early and late middle ages. Somewhat a comedy of errors, but Japanese style. There are 12 episodes, and many are on the blog about a year ago I think. A Tengu figures large in this saga. I love Tengus!

    Lady Nyo


  10. Derric Says:

    I’ll take a look. Thanks.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

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

%d bloggers like this: