(my spring garden of a few years ago.)
“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 compiler 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?”
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.
“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.”
I’ll prime the pot with one of my own:
“Glimpse of a white wrist
Feel the pulse of blood beneath-
This is seduction!
But catch a wry, cunning smile
One learns all is artifice.”
Or something a bit different. Many of the poems were built one upon the other, answers brushed upon a fan, or something suitable, even a large leaf. In the ‘spirit’ of this method that is found in the Man’yoshu, I offer this modest poem:
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.”
Come to me
If 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.”
Jane Kohut-Bartels (aka Lady Nyo)