“Building Upon, Inspired by the Man’yoshu”, poetry from the 8th century Japan

Savannah Birds

Cover painting for “The Nightingale’s Song”, by Jane Kohut-Bartels, watercolor

In July, 2015, “Nightinggale” wi8ll be published  “The Nightingale’s Song” a saga in twelve episodes.  I present here on the blog a short section of poems that inspired my  writing of “Nightingale”.  The Man’yoshu is such a passionate work of 4,515 poems from the 8th century that one can not read and not be inspired in a ‘call and answer’ form.

Lady Nyo

“Building Upon, Inspired by the Man’yoshu”


(Some of these poems, both from the Man’yoshu, and those of my own, will appear in “The Nightingale’s Song”)


It is right and proper to draw inspiration from other poetry. It pulls your own poetic voice into the mystery of love and passion. Therefore I have taken the words from poems from the great 8th century Man’yoshu and either fashioned an answer…or a continuation of the top poem. What I believe to be termed “call and answer”.

The Man’yoshu poems are in bold type. All my poetry continuing are in italics.  These poems are a small part of poems I am working in this fashion. Some of these poems, both from the Man’yoshu and my own are used to head up the 12 sections of “The Nightingale’s Song”.

The last section was poetry written for the plot of “The Nightingale’s Song”.

Lady Nyo

“My heart,

like my clothing

Is saturated with your fragrance.

Your vows of fidelity

Were made to our pillow and not to me.”



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.

Does he know?

Does he know?

Does he know about the letters? –


“I stay here waiting

for him In the autumn wind,

my sash untied,


is he coming now, Is he coming now?

And the moon is low in the sky.

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.”


Strong man as I am,

Who force my way

even through the rocks,

In love I rue in misery.



Perhaps a strong man

Should not offer love without

Having love returned

But this grieving ugly warrior

Still finds his love is growing



“The cicada cries

Everyday at the same hour

But I’m a woman much in love

and very weak

And can cry anytime”



My thoughts these days

Come thick like the summer grass

Which soon cut and raked

Grows wild again.

Oh, I wish these

Obsessive love-thoughts

Would disappear!

As they fill my head

They empty my sleep!

I who have counted me

For a strong man

Only a little less than heaven and earth,

How short of manliness that I love!

On this earth and even heaven

This weakness in love

Turns my sword Into a blade of grass. —

Come to me

If even only in my dreams

Where my head rests upon my arm- 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.

And a few of a more random nature….

Otomo no Sakanoe no iratsume:

I swore not to love you,

But my heart is as changeable

As cloth of hanezu dye.

Have I ever stopped?

Have I ever begun?

My tears tell you

The truth of the matter.”

Lady Ukon:

I am forgotten now.

I do not care about myself,

But I pity him

For the oaths he swore,

And his forsworn life.

His words were fire

To my belly.

When he withdrew

His warmth

My heart withered.

Murasaki Shikibu:

This life of ours

would not cause you sorrow

If you thought of it as like

The mountain cherry blossoms

Which bloom and fade in a day.

But each year

The mountain cherry

Renews itself.

Am I to suffer forever?

Akazome Emon:

It would have been better that I slept

The whole night through

Without waiting for him

Than to have watched

Until the setting of the moon.

My heart raced

All night on the ghostly Clouds.

In the morning

My spirit was wan.

Sei Shonagon:

Since our relations

Are like the crumbling Of Mount Imo and Mount Se,

They, like the Yoshino River

In that ravine

Shall never flow smoothly again.

Too many boulders

To climb over

And the waters within

Run too cold.

Daini no Sanmi (daughter of Murasaki)

From Mt. Arima,

Over the bamboo plains of Ina,

The wind blows

Rustling the leaves.

How shall I ever forget him?

It would have been

Better for me never

To have met.

The wind blew a bad kami

That season.


Lady Suwo:

Pillowed on your arm

Only for the dream of a spring night,

I have become the subject of gossip,

Although nothing happened.

It was all in my mind!

Only a waking dream

Full of ecstasy and torment

Offered up by a ghost!



How can I complain

That you have shaved your hair?

Since I can never again

Pull your heartstrings

Like a catalpa wood bow,

I have become a nun

Following your Way.

Your interest dried up

Over the course of three seasons.

Winter came too soon.

I was left shivering in the cold.

Lady Horikawa:

How long will it last?

I do not know’

His heart.

This morning my thoughts are as tangled with

Anxiety As my black hair.

How long did it last?

Only until love became



The Daughter of Minamoto no Toshitaka

For the sake of a night of little sleep

By Naiwa bay,

Must I live on longing for him,

Exhausting my flesh?

In my dreams and waking dreams

Opening the bamboo blinds

I see his face over and over

For the first time.

Imazizumi Sogetsu-Ni

How beautiful the Buddhist statues At Saga.

Half hidden in falling leaves.

Fractured and split in two

I entered a Shinto Temple

Unsure I would be welcome

With round eyes and graceless ways

But the priests were wise

Thinking me a bit worthy,

And with kindness and humor

Helped knit back my parts

And taught me to pray.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2015


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5 Responses to ““Building Upon, Inspired by the Man’yoshu”, poetry from the 8th century Japan”

  1. TR Says:

    Hi Jane,
    I love the interactions in the poetry. It is great to see more of your call and answer and that it will be in the book. xxTR


  2. ladynyo Says:

    Hi TR!

    First, thank you for reading and your comments on the posts.

    The Man’yoshu makes it ‘easy’ because the poetry in there is so fetching. It’s emotional, oh-so-human and easy to connect with. I just wish more American and European poets would read and get inspired by this great document.

    Thanks, again, TR.

    Jane xx


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