What is Poetry to the Japanese?

Sesshu painting

This is  part of a study  I have been involved in for a number of years.   I first came across Japanese forms of poetry a  few years ago  (forms of tanka, haiku, waka (think tanka) , choka, etc..and my favorite, renga.  (I can’t get my ‘head’ around sedoka yet, the classical ‘head repeating’ poems…)

I have  published  tanka/haiku in my first book, “A Seasoning of Lust”, and have the four part “Lady Nyo Poems” making the rounds.  (Lady Nyo is a character I developed in an unfinished novel “The Kimono”.  I like her mouthiness so I have adopted her for the blog.) Recently, I was contacted (because of the book) by a Japanese Tanka anthology and asked to submit some tanka.  I did, very flattered.

In 2015 I published “Song of the Nightingale” and I relied heavily on the study of the Man’yoshu.

I have read that in ancient Japan, a woman was not considered educated (we are talking about a particular class of women here, noble families and court women) until she had composed, memorized and published (or could recite) 1000 verses.

It’s this:  In order to ‘know’ the literature or to write in these classical forms, you have to know something about the whole of Japanese literature.  That’s a lifetime of particular study in of itself.  But all this can be broken down into 5 main factors:  the role and pattern of literature in Japanese culture as a whole; the Japanese (and its changing system) writing system; the social background to literature and finally, the underlying world-view  to life/death/religion and philosophy.

(Over the years I have made a stab at these things above, but the stab has to be more than a pinprick.)

By tracing these factors and seeing how they interrelate, you can get a more orderly view of  the development of Japanese literature.  It’s not just a question of ‘forms’ of poetry, but  of  much deeper philosophical material.

And there’s the rub.  Most Western poets have little knowledge or patience with this research and crank off what they believe to be the ‘classical’ forms.  I have done that myself.  However, there are very strict ‘rules’ for the forms, all these forms, and there are reasons for this to be so.

The Japanese sentence order reflects the Japanese sense of cultural order, and it is quite natural that what is true of culture as a whole is true of literature also.  I also believe perhaps this is reflected in a rather small land mass (4 islands actually) with a high population.  In those physical/social cases, you need rules and they spill over into the discipline and ‘restrictions’ of literature.  The Japanese, to our way of thinking, aren’t  disorderly.  They have a particular sense of discipline in many spheres of social and political life.  This is bound to show up in literature and the arts.

Recently I bought Shuici Kato’s “A History of Japanese Literature, The First Thousand Years”.  Just a casual persual of it shows me how much, after a few years of study of form and writing verse, how much I really don’t know.  But this will make a dent in my ignorance.

It better.  Westeners are freewheeling pirates, some believing that the dribbles from their pens are worthy of broad notice, bending or distorting classical forms because they think this is modern, and basically sneering at the forms that lay the basis of a 100o years of  some particular poetry.  This is just arrogance and narcissism.

It does nothing of merit except to show the childish temper tantrums of ignorance and bites them in the ass in the end.  And the middle.

Learn the classical forms first…become a better poet…and then do your personal riffs.  It’s not that these forms are in concrete, immutable for the ages, but understand first why they developed and why they developed from a better understanding of that particular culture.

There is another book I recently bought:  “Love Songs frm the Man’yoshu” (Selections From a Japanese Classic”  The illustrations are incredible, and vie with the poetry.

And about these Japanese books.  They are like Jewel Boxes.  To hold one in your hand is a delight.   They are beautifully bound and printed, the colors are brilliant, they glissen like jewels in the sun. One was tied with twine when I received it, and I thought about shibari:  an earlier translation of the word was “to tie the heart”.

This certainly did it for me.  It tied up my heart and mind with the pages of this book.

I am going to post some of my own ‘tanka’ here.  They are hardly classical tanka, only in the 5/7/5/7/7 form.  They violate rules about metaphor, simile, seasons, etc…but they are the best I have right now.  Someday I will throw them away and write ‘real’ tanka, but that will take years.

I ask your indulgence and patience until I learn more.

Lady Nyo


This grim November,
The month of my father’s death.
Always bittersweet.
My memories float, weak ghosts,
Hauntings in the fog of life.


A mind that obeys
And becomes one with nature
Sees through four seasons
Embellished with life forces,
And completes a discipline.


When nature is known
Reason for awe can be found
In familiar sights.
Intimacy at the core—
Astounding revelation!


The full moon above
Floats on blackened velvet seas,
Poet’s perfection!
But who does not yearn for a
Crescent in lavender sky?


Birds fly in the blue.
All is gray upon the earth,
Heart stopped with sorrow.
White cranes lifts off calm waters,
My heart tries to follow.


In this single branch
Of a wintry holly,
A hundred word hide.
A thousand blushes appear.
Do not overlook the thorns.


Lithe-bodied, she climbs-
She has now mounted my soul!
Clinging with strong legs
Her breasts pressed against me,
Shaping an intangible thing.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2008-2019

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