Posts Tagged ‘Japanese poetry form’


January 19, 2021

The fire of life

Is love. No exact measure.

A whirling dervish

Hands in opposite display

Gathers in the miracle.


The human psyche

Waits like a garden spider

A delicate web

Weaving a catechism–

A mystical orb of life!


Thin, silken breezes

Float upon a green-fabric

Of spring—pale season.

Scent of lilies, myrtle, plum

Arouse bees from slumber


Autumn wind startles–
Lowered to an ominous
Key—Ah! Mournful sounds!
The fat mountain deer listen-
Add their bellowing sorrow.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2021

“Random Tanka”

September 7, 2018




The fire of life

Is love. No exact measure

A whirling dervish

Hands in opposite display

Gathers in the miracle



Sound of frog-cries heard
A pale moon floats above pond
Fresh life is stirring
An early owl goes hunting
Wise mice scatter for cover




Cranes wheeled in the sky

Their chiding cries fell to hard earth

Warm mid winter day

A pale half moon calls the birds

To stroke her face with soft wings




Human frailties

wounds that bleed such heated blood

leave a dry vessel

Without the moisture of love

the clay reverts to the ground




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.




Overhead! Look! cranes,

Sandhills– swirl in broad circles.

Broken GPS?

No matter, their cries fall like

Celestial chiding rain.




The futility

Of love should queer the seeking-

But it never does.

Hopeful, yearning, we are fools

Ignoring our history.




Presence of Autumn

Burst of color radiates

From Earth-bound anchors

Sun grabs prismatic beauty

And tosses the spectrum wide!


Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2008-2017


Sesshu painting

“Summer Haibun”

September 12, 2016

Great Horned Owl with Moon

Great Horned Owl with Horned Moon


If you are reading this from JP at Olive Garden, please don’t.  Jingle is nothing but a common thief and an Intellectual Terrorist.  Support legitimate poetry sites, blogs and poets.  Don’t support thieves and posturers.  Help run them  off the internet so decent sites can thrive.

Lady Nyo


The summer was beautiful, despite the heat.  Last night the moon looked like a beggar’s cup, soft brilliance glowing.  The days in the Deep South are sultry, but the wind picks up in late afternoon when a storm is coming and then these huge oaks and pecans are whirligigs high in the sky. Barley tea, iced tea and lemonade are the drinks of choice, harkening back to an earlier time.  Closed drapes, blinds at noon work to regulate temperature, though one doubts this will.

The heat brings to life the cicadas, or whatever is making a constant buzz outside.  It comes in waves, where one group, or species, competes in sound with another. A call and answer of tent meeting insects. The dogs of summer are wise: flattening themselves on the cool tiles of the laundry room, they remain motionless until the cooling of the night when they chase rats in the kudzu.  They have developed a taste for watermelon, and we sit on the back porch and share with them, while a wood owl barks from a huge oak above. We never see him, but his hoots add to the symphony of summer nights.

Sultry air disturbs

The sleep of husband and wife.

They pant without lust.


Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2016 all Copyright Laws Apply.




Tanka for Spring~

April 5, 2016


(Painting by Jane Kohut-Bartels, watercolor, book “Song of the Nightingale” published by Createspace, Amazon, 2015)


Maybe not only for Spring, but with all this pollen outside, it’s hard to breathe, so short forms of poetry fit.  Some of these tanka break the rules, also.  But they can reform.

I see that my computer isn’t forming the text properly, but it’s rather  interesting.  Breaks the mold.

Lady Nyo


–The moon floats on wisps Of clouds extending outward. Tendrils of white fire Blanketing the universe Gauzy ghosts of nothingness.

— Come into my arms. Bury under the warm quilt. Your scent makes me drunk Like the wine we gulped last night. Too much lust and drink to think.

—– Give me a moment! To catch my breath and settle. Give me some peace now. Stop kissing my hands, stop it! What if someone is watching?

—- Presence of Autumn Burst of color radiates From Earth-bound anchors Sun grabs prismatic beauty And tosses the spectrum wide!

— Bolts of lightening flash! The sky brightens like the day too soon it darkens. My eyes opened or closed see the futility of love.

— Had I not known life I would have thought it all dreams. Who is to tell truth? It comes at too sharp a price. Better to bear flattery.

– Cranes wheeled in the sky Their chiding cries fell to hard earth Warm mid winter day A pale half moon calls the birds To stroke her face with soft wings.

– 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.

How could I forget The beauty of the pale moon! A face of sorrow Growing thin upon the tide Creates a desperation.

Thin, silken breezes Float upon a green-ribbon Of spring—pale season. Scent of lilies, myrtle, plum Arouse bees from slumber.


Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2012-2016

A Short Presentation of the History and Form of Tanka, Part 1

January 27, 2015


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 Shikiba 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, 2015

On Tanka…..Sometimes I despair of ever

November 30, 2008

really getting to the core of something. Of turning a thing inside out and really knowing it. I play with tanka, but I have not studied the classical form. Not really. I think it takes years and a certain amount of patience and maturity to grasp the essentials, and I am not there yet. Perhaps my generation (and I am not young) is so involved in our ‘self-expression’, in our communications by phone, in our writing if we are writers, and especially in our internet correspondence, we don’t take the time to sit and contemplate the power and shape of words. We ‘scat-sing’ in our communications, and perhaps it shows in our thought procedures, too.

Something to do with this ‘sound bite’ issue?

I never know how much or even “if” I am reaching others with my efforts in writing. When I receive affirmation that I am, even in small ways, it is a revelation to me.

This morning, I opened my email and found a number of very nice messages about what my tanka meant to these writers, and that my writing resonated in their experiences and touched them in some fundamental ways.

All this is to say that it gives me pause, and makes me reconsider the efforts I have put into them. Not enough, actually. And this is what is important to me.

Our poetry is very subjective, personal. But it can’t, in my estimation, only be our ‘personal insight’. It must have some sort of universality. It must touch, and deeply touch where possible, other experiences. Those unknown and known to us. It reflects our ‘internal landscape’ but has the potential to travel much farther.

After all, our languages, customs, habits, traditions might be very different, but the heart springs from the same place in all of us. That identification of being part of a common experience, that ‘thing’ that draws us up together and produces an easier identity.

More tanka coming, cause I got it.

Lady Nyo



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.

A modest woman
does not seek comfort with thieves
Emptiness is fate.
Better her eyes turn upwards
to Heaven, soul comforted.

Human frailties
wounds that bleed such heated blood
leave a dry vessel.
Without the moisture of love
the clay reverts to the ground.

Tears soften venom.
Knives bring satisfaction to
hands still covered with love.
Trembling, can’t find the mark
but the shame returns, pierces.

The heart is brittle.
Hands can not soothe its aching
only honest words
can make the sore mind attend
unless pain ever constant.

A woman in grief,
is force that races nature.
Better now anger
contempt will replace her love.
She will be stronger for it.

Minute to the hour
The heart races on the edge,
sharpened existence.
Feet trammel the rocky ground
While pain flies up to Heaven.

Birds fly in the blue.
All is gray upon the earth,
heart is stopped with bile.
White crane lifts off lake water,
my heart tries to follow it.

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.

The morning wren sings,
I stand in the moonlit dawn
kimono wrapped tight.
Last night I made my peace
now free from all attachments.

Bolts of lightening flash!
The sky brightens like the day
too soon it darkens.
My eyes opened or closed see
the futility of love.

Had I not known life
I would have thought it all dreams.
Who is to tell truth?
It comes at too sharp a price.
Better to bear flattery.

Jane kohut-bartels

copyrighted, 2008

Some Haiku for the end of October…

October 28, 2008

I love Haiku, and write a lot of it.  Next month I will be posting Tanka, my favorite form.  Hope you enjoy this abbreviated Japanese poetry form.

Lady Nyo

HAIKU for October, 2008

The clouds flee the sky
Bitter north winds push them far.
My heart follows them.

Fallen leaves crackle.
Sparrow’s add the treble notes.
Season’s musical.

The cold moon shines down
Upon hollow dried grasses.
Earth prepares to sleep.

The frost at morning
Makes the birds plump their feathers
Squirrels add chatter.

The air grow colder.
Soon wool will not be enough.
Come inside- stay warm!

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2008

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