THE PASSION OF JAPANESE POETRY
Life gives us such beauty and pain, sometimes in almost equal measures. I find solace in reading selections from the great Man’yoshu, this document from 8th century Japan. I have written here before about this great collection of over 4500 poems, but of course, not all of them appeal to our modern senses and tastes. In particular the love poems from the Man’yoshu, written over a span of 130 years, are poems that liberate us, throw us into a free-floating dreamscape, where our sentiments connect within those lovers who lived 1500 years before us.
The passion of these poems cannot be denied. They speak over the centuries to our own hearts, and in some lucky cases, to our own experience. I will attempt to give some explanation to each poem, but this not fully my own interpretation. I am relying on commentary by Ooka Makoto and translations of Ian Hideo Levy, from “Love Songs from the Man’yoshu”. This small, beautifully bound and illustrated book (by the late Miyata Masayuki) is published by Kodansha International in Tokyo.
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?
This is one of the most famous poems in the Man’yoshu, given prominence as it appears towards the beginning of the document.
It is answered by Prince Oama:
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?
Those the poem seems to be of a love triangle, it is not actually so. Princess Nukata is now married to the emperor Tenchi, and her heart is torn between Prince Oama, her former husband. These poems have a gracious melody and a way to stir the emotions of modern readers.
In a single sprig of
Of these blossoms
Are concealed a hundred words;
Do not treat me lightly.
This is a courting poem. The poet plucked off a branch of cherry blossoms, tied his poem to it, and sent it to a young girl. This was a well-used method of presenting a poem. A twig of blooming tree flowers, a blade of sawgrass, a branch of plum, wild plum or maple leaves in the fall. The answering poem from the girl was touching, too. It says that the reason the sprig is bent is that it couldn’t support all the words it contains.
The heart longs to say yes. But language still hesitates.
Whose words are these
Spoken to the wife of another?
Whose words are these;
That bade me untie
The sash of my robe?
This is most likely a folk song, and these kind of poems figure in great amount in the Man’yoshu. “the wife of another” was an object of male sexual desire; the poets of the Man’yoshu showed a special attachment to this theme of secret love.
The silk-treeflower that blooms in the day
Closes as it sleeps,
Yearning through the night.
Should only its lord look upon it?
You too, my vassal, enjoy the sight.
Lady Ki was the wife of Prince Aki, but he was sent into exile and she became familiar with the great poet, Otomo Yakamochi. There is a reversal of sexes here as Lady Ki writes as a man. This is not unusual for the period. Actually, Otomo, the scion of the great Otomo huse, was above her. This is poetic license for the time.
Fearful as it would be
To speak it out in words,
So I endure a love
Like the morning glory
That never blooms conspicuously.
It is thought that a curse would be brought upon the speaker to speak the other’s name. Hence, we read many poems like this one above in the Man’yoshu, not naming the two lovers.
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.
One of my favorites and written when Otomo was only 16! There is an expression that comes from the Chinese meaning ‘eyebrow moon”, i.e., the new moon, the crescent moon. This poem refers to the painted trailing eyebrows of women in this ancient period. But how precocious of Otomo at just 16!
Though I sleep
With but a single thin rush mat
For my bedding,
I am not cold at all
When I sleep with you, my lord.
A lovely, poignant poem, though it seems the woman, with her single thin rush mat of the lower class. However, beautiful enough to be included in the Man’yoshu. And about that: The Man’yoshu was the first and probably the last collection of poems that included such a range of people in ancient Japanese society: fishermen’s songs, weaver’s songs, priest’s poems, prostitute’s laments besides the imperial court and upper classes. It would never be seen again.
O for a heavenly fire!
I would reel in
The distant road you travel,
Fold it up,
And burn it to ashes.
—–The Daughter of Sano Otogami
One of the most famous love poems in the Man’yoshu. She was a female official who served in the Bureau of Rites, whose precincts were forbidden to men. She had a secret affair with a minister named Nakatomi Yakamori. Their affair was discovered and he was sent into exile as punishment. They exchanged around sixty-five poems expressing their concern for each other’s safety and pledging that their love would not be changed by exile. The distant road is the long road he must travel to exile.
Brave man like the catalpa bow
That, once drawn,
Does not slacken-
Can it be that he is unable to bear
The vicissitudes of love?
This is one of my favorite poems of the Man’yoshu. I used it as a heading in an episode of the yet to be published “The Nightingale’s Song”, where Lord Nyo frets as to his resolve and manhood. He finds himself, as the figure in the original poem, bewildered that he, ‘a strong man’ could find himself powerless to resist the invisible passion of love. He is more used to war and weapons, something tangible, not the chimera of love.
It is spring here in Atlanta. These love poems churn the mind and enflame the passions, along with the pollen and winds. One would have to have a heart of stone not to be swayed by such passionate beauty in verse.