Saigyo, Poet Priest

This is a photo of a long dead Peach tree in my backyard.  I used it for an illustration to an older post and it turned up on the google search for Saigyo.


One of my favorite poets, if not my favorite, is the 12 century poet, Saigyo.  He was part of a military guard when he was young, and at 23 left this life to become a priest. He worried that his past, violent life would affect his religious duties, and this concern followed him.

Saigyo went on the road, travelled all over Japan for many years.  This isn’t unusual, this was the way priests supported their temples and themselves.  Some priests were spies for the court, for various daimyos, and wore a large woven basket over their heads.  There is some significance with this this but I don’t remember more than what I write here.  Nuns also travelled but many were prostitutes.  Another way to support themselves. 

Saigyo’s poetry amazes me.  Though most of his poetry is in the tanka form, it is hard for English readers to understand the form through the translation. Regardless, what is so unusual with Saigyo’s poetry is the humanism:  much of poetry were praises for the various emperors, and other nobles, etc.  Saigyo’s is observations, praise, etc. for nature, for common people.  My favorite is his about the flock of monkeys.

Now there are a number of collections of Saigyo published. People have found the beauty and the human characteristics of Saigyo.  When I stumbled upon Saigyo, there was only one book published in English, back in 1990.  Now, finding more of Saigyo’s  poetry is easier.

When I do the short presentation on Tanka for the new Metropolitan Library on April 18th, I am going to use his poetry (among others)  because I find it the most appealing to people who have never read Japanese poetry.

Lady Nyo


Not a hint of shadow

On the moon’s face….but now

A silhouette passes–

Not the cloud I take it for,

But a flock of flying geese.

Thought I was free

Of passions, so  this melancholy

Comes as surprise:

A woodcock shoots up from marsh

Where autumn’s twilight falls.

Someone who has learned

How to manage life in loneliness:

Would there were one more!

He could winter here on this mountain

With his hut right next to mine.

Winter has withered

Everything in this mountain place:

Dignity is in

Its desolation now, and beauty

In the cold clarity of its moon.

When the fallen snow

Buried the twigs bent by me

To mark a return trail,

Unplanned, in strange mountains

I was holed up all winter.

Snow has fallen on

Field paths and mountain paths,

Burying them all

And I can’t tell here from there:

My journey in the midst of sky.

Here I huddle, alone,

In the mountain’s shadow, needing

Some companion somehow:

The cold, biting rains pass off

And give me the winter moon.

(I love this one especially: Saigyo makes the vow to be unattached to seasons, to expectations, but fails and embraces his very human limitations)

It was bound to be!

My vow to be unattached

To seasons and such….

I, who by a frozen bamboo pipe

Now watch and wait for spring.

(Love like cut reeds:)

Not so confused

As to lean only one way:

My love-life!

A sheaf of field reeds also bends

Before each wind which moves it.

(And Love like fallen leaves….)

Each morning the wind

Dies down and the rustling leaves

Go silent: Was this

The passion of all-night lovers

Now talked out and parting?

From “Mirror For the Moon”, A Selection of Poems by Saigyo (1118-1190)

Tags: , , , ,

3 Responses to “Saigyo, Poet Priest”

  1. Sherry Marr Says:

    How very beautiful. I especially love “my journey in the midst of sky.” Sigh. Lovely to read these lines.


  2. ladynyo Says:

    Isn’t Saigyo’s poetry amazing? Written in the 12 century, they speak to us like just yesterday. They evoke so much in people who read Saigyo. I am hoping, in using his work on April 18th here, at this Metropolitan Library presentation, that his immortal words will evoke the same in folks who attend. We will see.
    Thank you, Sherry, for reading and for your delightful comment. There is so much in Saigyo, that I feel when I read him, I just sink down in companionship.

    I reread the one you liked best, and it was almost like I had found it anew!


  3. Pokervip88 Says:


    Saigyo, Poet Priest | Lady Nyo's Weblog


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your 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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: