Ono no Komachi, Sensual Poems of a Medieval Woman Poet

Tanka Presentation #2

Crabapple/Peach Tree in back yard, Spring

Crabapple/Peach Tree in back yard, Spring

Ono no Komachi….Sensual Poems of a Medieval Woman Poet

Ono no Komachi continues to capture my interest as a woman and a poet.  For me, she personifies this very Japanese concept called mono no aware.  This is translated as “the sorrow of human existence’ but perhaps can be better translated as ‘a sensitivity to things’ mostly meaning an understanding of the perishability of beauty and human happiness.  Ono no Komachi’s poetry certainly was deeply based in this concept.

Briefly, she lived from 834?-??.  It’s not clear when she died.  She served in Japan’s Heian court as a lady in waiting to the Emperor’s consort and was one of the dominant poetic geniuses. Komachi’s father was a lord in Dewa, in the northwest of Japan, probably in the region known as Akito. She, like so many young girls, was sent to the court when very young, perhaps as young as ten years old.  This was common practice and a good place for her to find a husband with position within the court.

There are stories about Komachi, that she was a great beauty, attracted many lovers, but was very cruel to them. A few of her poems express her deep sorrow where one or the other died before she could make her peace with them.  But these are just stories passed down from centuries.  And, there is a final story, where when she was very old, and had lost all her beauty and was poor, she lived in a hut and people came to stare at this once great and famous beauty.  But perhaps, as was the custom for women of a certain class, she shaved her head and became a nun. Perhaps she lived out her life in a monastery.

 She is also in the great Man’yoshu, a collection of 4515 poems.  This was ordered by the Emperor to be compiled around the 9th century.

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 is counted as one of the “100 Famous Japanese Poets”.

These poems 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 31 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.

The fun and excitement of studying the tanka form and studying the examples of Komachi’s gives way to the development of our own verse.  These below are of no comparison to Komachi’s but they help a poet to write inspired by her beautiful work.  There is nothing wrong with this, and in fact, is of the great precedent that was common during her time.  These below are mine.

Oh my wife!
My feet take me over mountains
In the service to our lord
But my heart stays tucked in the bosom
Of your robe.

The only company I have tonight,
Now near dawn, is the paling Milky Way,
And Oh, my husband!
There are not stars enough in the heavens
To equal my sorrowful tears.

Last night I thought of you–

My face still bears the blushes.

You thought it was good health?

No, just reflects the liberty

of dreams.

My laughter is as hollow

as that stricken tree by the pond.

I have not laughed for a long time.

It strangles in my throat.

Bolts of lightning flash!

The sky brightens like the day-

too soon it darkens.

My eyes opened or closed see

the futility of love.


Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2014

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8 Responses to “Ono no Komachi, Sensual Poems of a Medieval Woman Poet”

  1. TR Says:

    What passion!
    Love this line “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?”

    I can see how she inspires others. xxTR


  2. ladynyo Says:

    I know!!!! I feel sad for those people who don’t know of her writing. And I feel sadder for those people who AREN’T moved by her writing. They must not have an ounce of passion in their beings.

    But we do, and she (and Izumi Shikibu and Saigyo also) inspire me to contemplation and more poetry. It is such a gift, TR, that today we can find her on the internet…We can find her in the great Man’yoshu, and throughout Japanese literary history. There is such intelligence, such deep sensitivity, especially to these things of being a woman….and of course, this expressed mono no aware. As a woman, prized for not only her poetry, but her beauty, she sees this fading and knows that her end life will be very different.

    This is a lovely one:

    As certain as color
    Passes from the petal
    Irrovocable as flesh,
    The gazing eye falls through the world.

    Indeed, it does.

    Thanks TR, for reading and your own passion!
    Hugs, Jane xox


  3. TR Says:

    That is a lovely one. She could see so much inwardly, a rare gift.

    When I come to this blog I always feel like I learn new things or am introduced to new poets. That is so refreshing. 🙂



  4. ladynyo Says:

    Good Morning, TR! I had a dear, dear friend for 25 years, Marge Chester, who died in Nov. 2011. I knew her through my father’s family. She was married to my cousin. Marge also said that she felt like that when she came to the blog. Both of us were learning together, it was nothing original to me, we both spurred each other on. The night before she died (of diabetic complications…heart attack apparently, she went in ten minutes at home) we were talking about a episode in “The Nightingale’s Song” where Lord Nyo says: “This ugly old warrior….” and Marge said this made her cry. She had such ‘hopes’ for Lord Nyo and his ‘journey’ into developing tenderness…something an old samurai had put out of his psyche. I never forgot that, TR. She embraced these characters in “Nightingale” as if they were real: Lady Nyo, Lord Nyo, the Tengu, Tsuki, Lord Mori, her maids, etc. I realized for the first time that it was possible to make these characters ‘real’ to other readers. To me they were real, but to others? Especially fantasy figures like a Tengu? LOL!

    Marge was a very special woman and I miss her so much. She was a generator of great comments on this blog but more, she was a woman who had grasped so much of life and was so completed because of it.

    Yes, you are right. Ono no Komachi could see inwardly so much about human nature. She was rarely gifted. I think for me, and probably for many others around the world today, if I read the blog stats correctly, she and her writings are still very relevant. She writes in deep detail about human character and she nails it.

    Hugs, Jane


  5. TR Says:

    Characters become real to readers through an emotional connection, I think that is what you do so well. I am so sorry for the loss of your dear friend Marge. I can imagine how much you miss her.

    It is amazing and at the same time inspiring to have an unbelievable connection with another writer at another time in another country. I think that is what is so beautiful about writing.

    Hugs, TR


  6. ladynyo Says:

    You got it! This emotional connection. I think you nailed it. It’s really a simple thing, but we (writers and that includes you…) complicate it so much. We try to over explain it, I think. But what you said is the crux of the issue: the emotional connection.

    Ono no Komach, Izumi Shikubu and Saigyo all speak in such ways to me and to many others apparently. That was what Marge was finding out when she died. But she was exploring this poetry and making the deep connections.

    Yes, Komachi does this for me, but so do the others, on different levels….layers actually. 1500 years and her words are still so damn true, and straight to our hearts. Amazing.

    And yes, this is what is so beautiful about writing…the characters, the poets we meet from so many years ago.

    There is a beautiful book: “Love Songs from the Man’yoshu”…beautifully bound, colored, etc….frm Amazon.com. It is something I buy for gifts and it’s not expensive. I would recommend anyone to get that book and read it. It is a window into the development of these Man’yoshu poems like nothing I have ever read…and a window into our own humanity.

    Hugs, Jane


  7. Caliban's Sister Says:

    Hi Jane, TR, et al; I love this string of poems. Love the contained passion, tucked into robes, bedclothes turned inside out to remind of love’s mortifications. So gifted. The Man’yoshu, and your own call and response. love CS


  8. ladynyo Says:

    Hi CS! that’s exactly it: love’s mortifications! I hadn’t thought about that. But you nailed it. LOL!

    Yep, Komachi was one of the ‘immortal 100’. She deserves a wider reading, too. Hope to find more of her work and will post it later.

    Thank you, CS, always…for reading and your wonderful and insightful comments.

    Love, Jane


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