Posts Tagged ‘Jane Kohut-Bartels’

“A Winter Poem Outside My Window”

March 20, 2018


Don’t know who is hosting tonight, (it’s Bjorn!) but it’s Open Link Night where you can post ONE poem of your choosing.  It’s my favorite time of the month.


(Watercolor, Untitled, Jane Kohut-Bartels, 2008)


The soil has lost its excellence.
The worms have gone deep into
The sullen earth and hide
I imagine curled up,
Embracing worm castings
And each other,
Desiccated former selves
Pale little ghosts
Awaiting the fertility of spring
The watering of a constant rain.

I squandered the bloom months,
Thinking paper and pen
Would bring its own blossoming
Scarcely noticing the vitality outside
My window,
Allowing cabbage moths and beetles
To dominate what I believed to be
My nod to farming,
To self-sufficiency,
My tithe to the earth.

Ah, the soil is hardened
By the sins of the season.
Sharp winds make
Their own furrows
The cold buries down,
Deep down
Torments any life
That would show its feckless head.
Especially those hopeful worms
Now bundled in worm-sleep.

The words, verse,
I chose to cultivate
Over cabbage, collards
Failed to bloom.
Better I had plied the hoe
And bucket to that
Than a fevered pen
To paper.

It is now winter
And the fallow earth
Plays a waiting game
Knows I have failed
In paper and soil
And mocks me with a barrenness
I feel inside and out.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2016

(This poem first published in “Pitcher of Moon”, 2014)



“Winter Into Spring”

March 16, 2018



(Watercolor, “Salisbury Downs”  Jane Kohut-Bartels, 2005)

(A detour from “Tin Hinan” because today feels like the poem)



Mysterious, unfathomable, muted season,
where life and reason are suspended
upon a cold metal wire.
The wind a razor of clipper glass
sailing through glassine air
slicing the pallid sun’s rays–
an attempt to warm a frigid earth
to a remembered fertility.

Solemn seasonal palette,
white, gray, black,
cut with a flash of blood-red–
Kamikaze cardinal!
like the demon wind bearing its name,
dares the thin and paling air
to brighten for a flashing moment–
A witness to recurring life.

Season of bountiful snow,
brings a thirst to the land
where hoar-frost leaches
moisture with a crystallized withering-
hands to crack, bark to shatter,
and all dries and curls about
in a perverse furnace of freeze.

One day, a pale day
a southern breeze
breaks through the bonds of Winter
brushes up, slides up
upon the ice
and a crack like a thump is felt in the gut
a slow drip-drip of water
signals the end of this harsh season,
as icicles emit a hesitant stream,
and then the ice dam down in the brook
cracks with a louder sound
and the rush to Spring
is heralded with these natural sounds.

A blind movement
felt deep in the soil-
a careful stirring,
barely a rumble in the gut of Earth
as birth beneath replaces death above
pushing through the Great Womb
to a pallid sun above.

The tyranny of Winter is broken.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2018


Some paintings….landscape and wildlife.

March 8, 2018

Some readers didn’t realize the paintings displayed on this blog were done by the blog owner.  Me.  I have been a landscape/wildlife painter for over 30 years and have  taught classes.  I do know those who are self-taught usually are passionately bound up in the process of painting.  Why else would you stumble around an easel for frustrating years?  And yes, a class can give some direction.  For many beginning painters.  But many of us, we are off milling our own wheat. Sitting our butts down and watching someone paint is agony.   I think many teachers are insensitive to the fact that people learn in different ways.  Some can read and look at pictures and come away as confused as before.  Some need a naked model before they can paint body parts…But most just need a pad of good watercolor paper and some paint.  Doodling large shapes, just having ‘fun’ with what develops can be as inspiring as sitting in a hard chair.  I’ve been asked to do a video for beginning watercolor painters, and am thinking about it. Just at the thinking stage.  I don’t know. My hat’s off to anyone who plays around with paint and then falls into it.  And what is this garbage of painting is ‘relaxing?”  Aggggghhhhh~  It should be but I’ve missed that stage.  Each piece of heavy white watercolor paper brings its demons with them into the room to frustrate and irritate.  That is what is behind the old story of “fear of that blank page”.  LOL!

The paintings below are mine.

Lady Nyo


(this last painting was done from a photo of an Italian Landscape, from a cook book!  One of the problems with photography is the flattening out of dimensions and so you have to ‘think in the round’ a bit and add color.  This turned out pretty good but I had to really think.

Some of these aren’t displayed well, but so is much of life.

These are obviously of some wildlife.


owls, baby 2

(This last painting I will have to iron or figure out some way to straighten out the creases.  This comes from removing it from a board before it was dry, or some other strange event.  Cats prowl around my easel, so they could be suspects….)

And my personal favorite.  I gave this to a relative who obviously didn’t like it, hung it on a closet louvered door, where it fell  and lay in the dust under a bed for a few years.  I found  and brought it home and hung it (fixed) in my bedroom.  I used it for the cover of “Song of the Nightingale”.  One less cover I had to paint.  Now, that’s relaxing. LOL!


(And Thanks to Nick Nicholson in Australia for the photographing of these paintings.)

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2018



“In The Hollow of Winter’s Twilight”

February 19, 2018


(“Off the Coast of Ireland”, watercolor, Jane Kohut-Bartels, 2004)

In the hollow of winter’s twilight
The ground of the soul is darkened,
Silent, waiting,
Winter’s winds now shallow breaths.
Muted tints
Flood earth and sky,
Black bare-armed trees,
Softened in this sullen light,
To clothe eyes with longing.
True winter has begun.
This season of scarcity,
Survival never assured,
The very thinness of air,
A sharp, searing bitter breath of air,
The inhaled pain alerts to life.
No excited cries of birds,
No rumble of young squirrels
Turning tree hollows into hide and seek,
Only faint tracks in the layered snow
Given evidence of others,
Small three-point, delicate prints
As if a creature pranced on tiptoe.
There is little left to do
In this darkened ground of soul-time
But rest before the fire
And fill the hollow of the season
With hope, patience and desire.
Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2018


“Lord Nyo’s Lament”, from “Song of the Nightingale”

February 8, 2018

images (9)

Lord Nyo’s Lament

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.

Lady Nyo, circa 2015


The song of the arrow
As it arced into the sea
Was as tuneless
As a badly strung samisen.

Gun- metal clouds
Stretched across a dull horizon
The sun still asleep
As he should be
His quiver empty
His heart, too.

When had the callousness of life and death
Become as comfortable as breath to him?
He had become too much the warrior
And too little the man.

His distance from his wife,
From most of life
Was as if some unseen object
Kept them ten paces apart.
Perhaps it was the cloud-barrier
Of earthly lusts which obscured
The Sun of Buddha?


Perhaps he should pray.
What God would listen?
Then it came to him
That joker of a Buddha, Fudo
With his rope to pull him from Hell
And his sword to cut through foolishness-
Fudo would listen.
Fudo knew the quaking hearts
The illusions embraced
To stomach the battlefield
The fog of drink,
To face life
In the service of Death.
Fudo would save him from
The yellow waters of Hell.

He remembered those years
When she could bring him to his knees
With the promise of dark mystery
Between silken thighs,
And the glimpse of her white wrist-
A river of passion
Just beneath the surface.
How he had steeled his heart
Believing himself unmanned
For the love she induced!

Three cranes flew low to the shore,
Legs streaming like black ribbons behind.
Three cranes, three prayers, three chances
To find his way back
Bound up in Fudo’s ropes,
Prodded in the ass by Fudo’s sword.

He would write a poem
On a bone-white fan
To leave on her cushion.
She would know his love
She would know his sorrow.

The sea took his arrows
Beyond the breakers,
The glint of sleek feathers
Catching thin rays of light.
An unexpected peace came over him
As they journeyed far from his hands.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2016-2018

Song Book cover


“Glissando of Silver”

January 25, 2018

Aurora Borealis is open tonight to OLN (One Link Night) where you can post any one poem.  Come read the wonderful verse over there.

Lady Nyo

I can still hear the music
Coming over the valley,
A glissando of silver sound
My father’s French horn
All phantoms now,
The adagio of Mahler’s Fifth-
Heartbreaking, haunting  dreams,
The allegro of a Mozart something,
What I never knew
But quickening  the heart.

The Aurora Borealis
Dipped her chariot too low
Over our hemisphere
And a glissading curtain
Of celestial green
Ribboned the ink black sky.

My father saluted it
With a cadenza of Wagner
And a Music of the Spheres,
Drawn out in lyrical passages
Floated up to those green ribbons,
A celestial duet
With the Cosmos on one side
And a determined humanity on the other.

I can still hear the music
Coming over that valley
A haunting horn fading away
The man, too,
Both the essence of phantoms now
Into the territory of dreams.


Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2018


“Kimono”, part of Chapter One.

January 21, 2018


Samurai Woman

Samurai Woman

Since I have finished this novel, I thought I would post part of Chapter One.

This book has taken ten years to be completed, but in those ten years I have learned of another culture, language and times.  The language part is iffy, as only the sushi workers at Whole Foods are tolerant of my attempts. 

In this time the world of tanka and haiku and so many other forms of Japanese literature has been opened to me.  The beauty of so much of this culture is shown in its poetry.  “Kimono” gave me an excuse to study it out of necessity.

Lady Nyo



It hung in the window of a shop as Mari walked around old Kyoto. The shop looked out on a very small, shaded garden. With the sun overhead piercing the fan-shaped leaves of a gingko, the ground beneath looked like a yukata’s repeat pattern.

Mari’s eyes were drawn to a slim beacon of light. It was enough to make her enter the small shop.

“Ohayo!” The shopkeeper came from behind his counter and bowed respectfully.

“Ohayo”. Mari bowed back.

Mari was Japanese-American, married to an ex-military man and this, their first trip to Japan. The only thing Japanese she knew was food. This culture was no more hers than being American. She felt she would forever be caught in the middle, a tug of war by two sides, and neither to claim her.

Behind the counter she saw what had caught her attention. A kimono, a black, formal tomesode. A kimono any married woman would wear, not dyed with the usual flowers worn by young, unmarried women. Winding around the hem in mountains and valleys and up in a serpentine path high on the left front was a wide silver band. Looking closer, she saw the intricate handwork of what looked like stitched, silver cloth.

“That is surihaku, embossed silver sewn foil.”

The voice of the shop owner startled her, and Mari jumped. She blushed, not hearing him approach.

“How old is this kimono? May I look at it closer?”

He took it down from the pole and carefully draped it over his arm. Mari traced the river of silver from the hem to where it appeared to stop. The shop keeper opened the left panel and Mari saw black, knotted embroidery around a ocher tan, encircling the hips. The silver was only the outside decoration. The embroidery inside was heavy and patterned.

Mari could not restrain from stroking the embroidery. She wanted to close her eyes and read it like a piece of Braille. She had never seen a kimono quite like this. It couldn’t be that old, perhaps no more than 60 years. It seemed in excellent condition. Even the small, white thread that was used when the kimono was washed was still fresh.

“Do you know anything about this tomesode? Where it came from, perhaps?”

The shopkeeper sighed. “No, one day it just appeared. I am a widower; my wife must have purchased it when I was away. I found it after she died, in a chest.”

Mari brought the kimono home.

Four years ago she had married Steven. They had never really settled down, for his company sent him for long stays in different countries. She went along because it was what was expected. It was never clear to her what he actually did, something to do with numbers and systems and strange codes. He was an expert in his field and the company happy to uproot them both and send them afield.

Mari was not unhappy in the marriage, just restless. Steven had his work but she had nothing to do except knock about the streets and look at people, read and think. Mari’s mother thought her malaise was over the issue of children, but Mari didn’t think this was such a big issue for her. Steven complained children would make their movements complicated, and Steven was all about making things simple. Mari put up little resistance to whatever her husband wanted. Perhaps because her own mother was a traditional Japanese wife, this was strong influence on her behavior. Her mother always submitted to what her husband wanted. They both did.

It was two days before she was able to try on the kimono. Carefully untying the string and opening the box, she took it out.

Holding it in front of her, the weight of the winter crepe felt heavy. Just a dull black kimono with five white stamped crests. Mari laid the kimono on the bed, kneeled, and again traced the silver river, this time with her face pressed on the cloth, her eyes following the winding course of silver. It was as cool as water on her skin. Laying it open on the bed, she looked carefully at the black embroidery, wondering if there was a pattern in the high knots that coursed around the silk. She couldn’t tell because the pattern was like hieroglyphics. Perhaps a secret language sewn into the silk; something indiscernible.

Mari stripped and pulled the kimono around her, binding it to her firmly. It was heavy on her body, clinging like a second skin. She sat on the floor feeling suddenly overwhelmed with a heaviness her legs could not support.

She held out her arms, the dull silk rippling like water. It fell into the form of her breasts and without reason, she felt her nipples harden. It must be the cold of the crepe, she thought.

Sitting on the floor, she hugged herself. She vaguely watched the river of silver course up her leg and disappear into the interior of the kimono. She wondered about the course of her own life. What would the years with Steven bring and could she endure this dullness inside? With a start she realized that was exactly what she was feeling, a leaden dullness that leached out all color around her. Perhaps that was the attraction of the kimono now girding her loins, the silver surihaku that led to her noticing it in the shop. The brightness of something to catch her eye and fire her imagination.

She didn’t know how long she sat on the floor, her thoughts spiraling inward like the design of a nautilus shell. She finally looked at the clock next to the bed and was amazed an hour had passed. She stood and dropped the kimono around her on the floor. It puddled into black mountains, a landscape of rivers and valleys.

Mari touched her left hip and found a series of flesh tattoos. In fact, all around her hips, stretching from one side to the other, there was a definite pattern pressed into her flesh.
She thought of the weaves of a basket, the marks of a rope, the binding of her flesh to something stronger than her own mind.

When Steven came home she showed him the kimono.

“Why a black one, Mari? You will look like an old crow in that.”

A less than flattering characterization, but Stephen was rather critical of how she dressed. Mari did not go for floral designs and bright colors. She picked colors that were neutral, earth tones; colors that made her disappear.

“Married women in Japan always wore black kimonos, Steven. It’s the unmarried woman who wear floral designs.”

“Well, get a red one and I’ll be interested in your choice of bathrobes.”

Stephen was not taken by Japanese culture. His whole purpose in life was to do his job and move on.

That night when they went to bed Mari was cold. The weather had changed and fall was becoming chilly. She got out of bed and padded to where she hung the kimono. Pulling it around her body its heaviness and drape comforted her. She returned to bed and fell asleep.


This must be a dream, Mari thought. I am kneeling on something cold, hard. I smell charcoal.. Where am I? It’s so dark my eyes can’t pick anything out. My arms! Why are my arms tied behind my back?

She was kneeling on a cold wooden floor. Her eyes were barely able to pick out details of a room that had little light. She was shivering, now naked except for the kimono over her shoulders. She heard a grunt and a low voice.

“So. What have we here? A young maiden lost on her journey through life?”

Mari lifted her head and saw a man, or what appeared to be a man for the room was still dim except for a low burning brazier. He certainly had a voice like a man. He rose, moved around in front of her, and stared down, a bemused look on his face.

He had long, black hair, tied in a topknot, and seemed tall for a Japanese man. His forehead was high, and Mari realized his hair was plucked from the front of his head. He was dressed unlike anything she had seen in modern Japanese styles, for he wore what looked to be numerous robes and had a dagger in the sash at his waist.

“Catbird got your tongue?” He leaned down and raised her chin up in a hard-skinned hand. Mari shivered from fear and cold.

“Where am I? Why are my arms tied? Who are you?” Mari was stuttering, forcing her questions out, shocked as much with fear as cold.

“Ah, I see I have summoned a young woman who has no manners. Perhaps I will teach you some. Perhaps you can learn to address your betters with respect.” The man took the draped kimono off her shoulders and folded it carefully, placing it on a wooden chest by a wall.

Mari started shivering harder, her naked body exposed to the cold room.

“As to your rude question, I am Lord Mori Higato, in the service of the Shogun. I am of the clan Motomori. That is all you need to know.”

“You sstill haven’t answered my question. Where am I? Is this a dream? Please, I beg of you, I am freezing, for the love of God; give me a blanket or sssomething to warm myself.”

Lord Mori looked down at her, his face a mask. Suddenly he threw back his head and laughed loudly.

“I see I have a challenge before me. Well, good, I am up for a challenge, even if it is in the insignificant package of a woman.”

Lord Mori lifted her by one secured arm and roughly dragged her to a low futon. He pushed her face down and threw a silk quilt over her. At first Mari lay still, until wiggling like a worm, her head cleared the quilt. She could not sit up, but at least she could see.

The man was kneeling before a low table. He was writing something on a paper scroll with a brush he dipped in ink. Mari watched silently, knowing he was watching her from the corner of his eye.


Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2018
















“Some Poems from “Kimono”, a novel.

January 19, 2018

Japanese Lovers II

Last night I finally finished writing “Kimono”.  This novel was started ten years ago and I went on to other books, but it has been nagging at me for quite a while.  Part of the delay was my needing so much research into 17th century Japan.

These few poems are just a sampling of the poetry (mostly tanka) in this novel.  I will try to explain a few to clarify their place in the novel.  All of them were meant to illustrate the growing friendship between Lord Mori and the Japanese-American woman, Mari.

Hopefully “Kimono” will be published this next fall, 2018.

Lady Nyo


Some Poems from “Kimono”

The days are long

Longer still the nights.

The nightingale sings

To herself.


The present snowstorm of

White plum blossoms

Blinds me to sorrow.


They cascade over cheeks

Like perfumed, satin tears,

Too warm with the promise of life

To chill flesh

This next poem is to illustrate what we would call a sceance today.  Mari is caught up in the supernatural events of time travel.-  The 21st century Japanese story teller’s face changes into the man she has met in the 17th century. The stories are properly called “kaidan”.  A ‘good’ story teller has at least 100 stories.  This one has only 4, but perhaps he has many more.

“The dead walk this night

Lost voiceless souls

Wind in the trees

Carry their moans

Carry their groans

Up to our doors.


Open and greet them

Bow to their sadness

Open and greet them

Soon we will be them.”

The next selection of poems are those the character Mari has written for the agent of Edo, Tokugawa.

“A modest woman

  Does not seek comfort with thieves

  Emptiness is fate.

  Better her eyes turn upwards

  To Heaven, soul comforted.” 

“This is the problem!

Do not give over your soul

It returns tattered.

What tailor can mend the rips?

The fabric too frayed by life.”

 “Human frailties

 Wounds that bleed such heated blood

  Leave a dry vessel.

 Without the moisture of love

  The clay reverts to the ground.”

“The morning wren sings

I stand in the moonlit dawn

Kimono wrapped tight

Last night I have made my peace

Now free from all attachments.”



“Shall an old gray wolf

  Subdue a woman like me?

  I shall be born soon.

  The wolf head I will cut off

  And nail the pelt to the cross.”


“Surrounded by gentle nature

A man rests in contentment

But keeps his sword nearby.

A heart does not convey

The warning of a mouth.”


This last verse is from Lord Mori, upon siting a fox (Kitsune) at the lake in the moonlight, turning over pebbles for crawfish-


Has a long and gilded tail

She comes at night

Down to the glistening lake—

The moon rises to light her way.”

And a few more from the novel


“How long will it last?

I do not know his heart.
This morning my thoughts
Are as tangled as my loose hair.”


“How can a woman
Know a warrior’s heart?
We have the sound of
War drums that drown
Out weaker sentiments

“Who attends to the wounded
But women.
Our hands are soft and strong
And the best medicine after war.”

“A woman only knows a man’s heart
By her silence.”

“Who knows the depth of my hidden heart?
Perhaps a ravine in the mountain?
No matter. A firefly of my love is flashing”

“What can dispel the
Blackness of a man’s heart?
Never mind, even the insignificant
light of a firefly
is a start.”

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2018








“A Few More Haiku”

January 19, 2018

waterlily in our pond.


Skeleton-trees wave

While the wind whips dead leaves

Wood smoke scents the air.

A half-moon drifts

Across wintry sky.

Trees become monsters.

Over us the stars

Glitter laughing witnesses-

Reach up and hang there!

Fall’s crispness compels

Apples to tumble from trees.

Worms make the journey.

Ice blocks the rivers.

Look! A duck frozen there.

Nature, no mercy.

The garden spiders

Fold their black spindly legs,

Die, all work now done.

Come kiss my warm lips

Cup my breast in your rough hand,

Growl into my mouth.

I chase one red leaf

Across dry and brittle grass

Juice of summer gone.

I come to the end

My life being no different.

It was as is now.

Pale lavender sky

Balances the moon and sun

The scale shifts to night.

Leaves, branches, litter

Torrential rains wash them gone-

Did they ever exist?



Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2018

Tanka Presentation for the Curious, Part One.

January 4, 2018


For Frank Tassone who loves Tanka.

This short presentation was done a few years ago for a now defunct online group, Oneshot Poetry.  This group contracted and expanded into another poetry group.

Lady Nyo


The morning wren sings

I stand in the moonlit dawn

Kimono wrapped close

Last night I made my peace

Now free from all attachments


Lady Nyo


To understand tanka one must go back into the Japanese literary history of the 8th and 9th century.  Poets of this time, male poets, the only ones who counted in court anthologies, were writing in a Chinese poetic technique.  They were still not able to use the language skillfully enough to present their own emotions.  This would take another century but by the 10th century, women were using a new written language- kanji-something definitely Japanese, to write their poetry.  And they, for the next two centuries, excelled in it.  We’ll go over some of these poets who made such a mark on the literature of Japan, especially in the development and formation of tanka verse.

Tanka, whose earlier name was waka, was described in this way: “ Japanese verse is something which takes root in the soil of the heart and blossoms forth in a forest of words.”

This is a hint how tanka developed and its usage.  Tanka, if nothing else, was the medium for lovers: written on a special paper, or a fan, or wrapped around a small branch of a flowering plum or cherry, it was the communication between a man and a woman.

There are so many social aspects of Japanese society to consider: married couples for a certain class (usually court people) didn’t live together.  Perhaps a wife had her own quarters in a compound, or perhaps she lived in another town.  A tanka was composed, a personal messenger delivered the poem, waited, was given a drink, flirted with the kitchen maids, and an answering poem was brought back.

People were judged as to how “good” their poetry was.

In the court, especially during the Heian court of the 12th century, tanka became one of the greatest literary influences.  It developed great adherents to the form and large and prestigious competitions were developed by nobles and priests alike.  Usually the striving was for the most ‘refined’ tanka composed.  This lead to some very restricted poems because there were limited themes thought to be ‘proper’ amongst these competitions.  Praise of nature, the Emperor, and more praise of the Emperor were pretty much the court poems.

However, it was still the written form of communication between interested parties and lovers.  Poetry from that time, outside the court issue, still exalts the passions—makes connection between hearts —it fertilizes the soil of humanity.


Before I go into the ‘form’ of tanka, its development stylistically, I want to reveal the poets that drew me to tanka form.  There were many early Japanese tanka writers, and some excellent verse written by Emperors, but these poets below have found their way into my heart and have become great influences in my own work.  Ono no Komachi, Izumi Shikibu and Saigyo .

The first two were court women, great poets, and the third was a Buddhist priest.  Saigyo is perhaps the most influential poet to come out of Japan. Even the famous  haikuist Basho (17th century) said he studied Saigyo as his base for poetry.

Saigyo came from the Heian Court in the 12 century.  He was of a samurai/warrior family and at the age of 23 he became a priest.  He was always worried that his warrior background (he did serve as samurai) would ‘taint’ his Buddhist convictions and practice.   His solution was to wander the mountains and roads of Japan for decades.  He left the court when the whole Japanese world was turning upside down with politics and the beginnings of civil war.  He was dissatisfied with the poetry coming out of the court, and since he had developed a taste for tanka, he took this on the road with him, as he went across Japan and wrote his observations of the landscape, the moon and the people in tanka form.

For those who want a deeper history of Saigyo, read William LaFleur’s “Awesome Nightfall” about the life and times of Saigyo.

Saigyo’s wandering all over Japan was not so unusual.  There were many groups of priests who went out to beg and some to write poetry and their observations. Saigyo travelled with other priests and welcomed their company on the lonely treks through mountains and remote terrain.  Some were spies for the Court.  One couldn’t really tell, because many priests wore a large woven basket over their heads, extending down past their shoulders.  Some were Shakhauchi flute players who would play their wooden flutes under the basket as they walked.

What was so different about Saigyo was his interest in the common man.  He wrote tanka about fishermen, laborers, prostitutes, nuns (who sometimes were prostitutes); more than the general poems of lovers, court, emperors, landscape.  Of course the terrain he passed through figured as a background in his tanka, but he wrote so much more.  Tanka is a vehicle for very expressive, emotional verse.  Saigyo’s tanka spoke of his loneliness, his conflict as to his samurai background and how it would effect his Buddhist beliefs, and so much more over the decades of his roaming.

Generally Saigyo adheres to the 5-7-5-7-7 structure of tanka, but he is not shy about throwing in a ‘mora’ or two extra.  I will give the original in Japanese of one poem, because the translation into English doesn’t necessarily follow the 5-7-5 etc. structure when translated.



Kototou hito  no

Naki yado ni

Ko no ma no tsuki no

Kage zo sashikuru


“This place of mine

Never is entered by humans

Come for conversation.

Only by the mute moon’s light shafts

Which slip in between the trees.



The mind for truth

Begins, like a stream, shallow

At first, but then

Adds more and more depth

While gaining greater clarity.



(Remembering a lover)

The moon, like you,

Is far away from me, but it’s

Our sole memento:

If you look and recall our past

Through it, we can be one mind.



Here I’ve a place

So remote, so mountain-closed,

None comes to call.

But those voices! A whole clan

Of monkeys on the way here!



(On 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?


I find Saigyo to be such a wonderful, human and humane poet that I can fill my head and eyes with his poetry and be satisfied.  This is only a teaser of his superb verse, but in a definite way shows the brilliance, power and inventiveness of the short burst of tanka.  Of course, in the hands of Saigyo, the common becomes memorable and he is just one, but perhaps the best of tanka writers.  There is so much more to and of Saigyo, and of his tanka, but there are others I want to mention in this segment.

Quoting from “Ink Dark Moon”, Hirshfield and Aratani:

“Ono no Komachi (834?-?) served at the imperial court in the capital city of Heian-kyo (present day Kyoto) during the first half century of its existence; her poetry, deeply subjective, passionate, and complex, helped to usher in a poetic age of personal expressiveness, technical excellence and philosophical and emotional depth.  Izumi Shikibu (974?-1034?) wrote during the times of the court culture’s greatest flowering; a woman committed to a life of both religious consciousness and erotic intensity, Shikibu explored her experience in language that is precise in observation, intimate, and deeply moving.  These two women , the first a pivotal figure who became legendary in Japanese literary history, the second Japan’s major woman poet, illuminated certain areas of human experience with a beauty, truthfulness and compression unsurpassed in the literature of any other age.”

There is so much more to be learned about these two women poets, but perhaps it is enough to give examples of their poetry here without further delay.

(These are not my translations: I am continuing to study the Japanese language, but my abilities are sorely short here.  I can recognize many words, but Japanese is particularly difficult in the arrangement. These translations are from “Ink Dark Moon”, mentioned above.)

As with Saigyo, Ono no Komachi mostly writes in the 5-7-5-7-7 form of tanka.



Hito ni awan

Tsuki no naki yow a


Mune bashiribi ni

Kokoro yake ori


No way to see him

On this moonless night—

I lie awake longing, burning,

Breasts racing fire,

Heart in flames.


What is so striking about this poem is the imagery.  No way to see her lover without the light of the moon, perhaps she dare not strike a light.  But the repeated imagery of light: flames, fire, burning clearly relays her desire.  “Heart in flames” is common, but “Breasts racing fire” pushing this poem up a notch.


Since this body

Was forgotten

By the one who promised to come,

My only thought is wondering

Whether it even exists.


We have all been there: this feeling of unreality, surreal, even, in our relationship to another.  Do we exist independently of the one we deeply love?  Would we exist without them?


This next one is something so universal it needs no explanation.


I thought to pick

The flower of forgetting

For myself,

But I found it

Already growing in his heart.


These are only a few examples of her unmatched poetry.  She is so much fuller as a poet and woman then what I have quoted here.


Izumi Shikibu is a poet that can make one uncomfortable in the reading.  Her poems are so personal, so erotic , you feel at times like a voyageur.   There is an emotional depth, a vibrancy that sings through her verse and goes deep into the heart of human experience.



Lying alone,

My black hair tangled,


I long for the one

Who touched it first.



In this world

Love has no color—

Yet how deeply

My body

Is stained by yours.



When a lover was sent a purple robe he left behind:


Don’t blush!

People will guess

That we slept

Beneath the folds

Of this purple-root rubbed cloth.



If only his horse

Had been tamed

By my hand—I’d have taught it

Not to follow anyone else!


There is no wilting flower in the poem above!


This last poem quoted here is hard to read.  Shikibu’s daughter Naishi has died, snow fell and melted.  The reference to ‘vanish into the empty sky’, is referring to the smoke of cremation.  The grief felt in this poem is overwhelming and speaks across the centuries.


Why did you vanish

Into empty sky?

Even the fragile snow,

When it falls,

Falls into this world.


These are just a few examples of the rich literary tradition of Japanese Tanka.  To me, they speak cross cultures and time.  They speak directly to the human heart.

The next section will be about the formation of tanka, the classical measures within tanka, the pivotal words, and other issues.  I will end with some examples of my own tanka.


Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2014-2018








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