“Ten Thousand Leaves, Love Poems from the Man’yoshu”

Samurai Woman

Samurai Woman

I love Japanese poetry, especially the poetry of the Man’yoshu, a collection of remarkable and ‘democratic’ poetry, in other words, poetry that was included in this great document by priests, courtesans, samurai, peasant songs, fishermen, nobles and many other sections of Japanese society from the 7th and 8th centuries of Japan.  In fact, this great document is also an incredible collection of poetry by women:  this is the first time women’s voices were heard in such length. 

In late March, 2015, I will publish “The Nightingale’s Song” a book and story inspired by this great document.  One can not read the Man’yoshu without being inspired by the passionate and spirited poetry of this document.  I also include some of my own poetry at the end of this essay that will be in “The Nightingale’s Song”.

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?”

—-Anonymous

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.

—-Anonymous

“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.”

—-Anonymous

I end with some poems of my own inspired by the verse below:

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.”

….Man’yoshu, 8th century

– 

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.

Above poems of Lady Nyo to be included in “The Nightingale’s Song”

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2011-2015

Tags: , , , ,

5 Responses to ““Ten Thousand Leaves, Love Poems from the Man’yoshu””

  1. Heaven (@ScarletVerses) Says:

    I have forgotten how beautiful this Japanese form is ~ And I love your response of Come to Me, very romantic ~ Perhaps we can invite you again to host this form over at D’verse Jane ~

    Grace

    Like

  2. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Grace!~ I would LOVE to! I could repost this essay (with some new stuff) or I could write another one….Are you talking about the Man’yoshu itself (the document) ? or Tanka form?

    And thank you! The thing about these Man’yoshu poems…well, they are so beautiful and romantic in themselves that it is hard not to be inspired by them. They lend themselves to erotic capacities that are so beautiful. There is a book, “Love Songs from the Man’yoshu” (poems are also called songs) that I would love to glean and prepare for dverse readers.

    Just let me know…..and it’s GREAT being back amongst poets! I have missed my tribe!

    Hugs!

    Like

  3. TR Says:

    I love your answer. “Come to me
    If even only in my dreams
    Where my head rests upon my arm
    And not yours–” xx

    Like

  4. ladynyo Says:

    TR: WordPress is screwing with my replies…..

    That’s the beauty of the Man’yoshu;. You can be brain dead and still be so impacted by the original tanka. Whew! If only poets today seriously studied the Man’yoshu, we would be the better for it.

    xox

    Like

  5. ladynyo Says:

    Ok…now WordPress is behaving…

    That is part of the magic of the Man’yoshu. It’s full of subtle eroticism and beautiful poetry. It lets us see that from the 6th century Japan or so, human nature isn’t that different. Men and women suffer and find joy in the same things…without ipods.

    there is something satisfying in the fact that we find commonality in our lives. This is the basis of poetry I believe. At least a portion of it. And the Man’yoshu just pushes you into the realm.

    Love, Jane

    Like

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: