Posts Tagged ‘Japanese poetry’

Lafcadio Hearn on “Bits of Poetry”

August 10, 2019

Japanese Lovers II

Utamaro Kitagawa

The wonderful thing about having a blog is being able to share what excites you.  Lafcadio Hearn’s writing is remarkable and illuminating, written at a time (somewhere in the 1890′s) when cultural Japan, and Japan itself was barely become ‘known’.  His writing is fresh, startling and provocative.

Hearn was born in Greece, moved to Ireland, the US and then to Japan during the last 14 years of his life.  He was a man of depth, insight, poetic imagination and  and embraced Asian culture with remarkably sympathy.  He acquired the difficult language and married a Japanese woman.  He was respected in Japan and was one of the first great interpreters of Japanese culture for Western readers.  He taught and wrote extensively in Japan until his death in 1904.

I have the greatest sympathy for Hearn and anyone else trying to learn the Japanese language.  For six months I have plowed into this difficult language, set up a daily study, and still I am very poor student.  It will take a long time for me to get my head and mouth around the sounds and the word order.  I do have the bemused sympathy of a Japanese sushi maker at Whole Foods who tolerates and gently corrects my sentences, though my progress is very slow.  “Sumimasen” were the opening words (“Excuse me”) and though that is so elemental, it is hard to mess it up.  Further sentences bring a broad smile to his face, and he is maintaining his gracious humor at my distortion of his beautiful language.

Perhaps being immersed in the daily culture like Hearn makes it faster and easier, but still, Hearn’s sensitivity to the poetic forms make his writing sing and soar for me.  He has made clear in a few pages what the last two years of hunt and peck study hasn’t.

Although he is writing about Japanese culture in the 1890′s my friends in Japan assure me that much of what he says is still true.  At least about poetry, which is the only point of this short entry.  I will quote some of his words from “In Ghostly Japan” because they are so illuminating.

“Poetry in Japan is universal as the air. It is felt by everybody.  It is read by everybody.  It is composed by almost everybody,–irrespective of class and condition.  Nor is it thus ubiquitous in the mental atmosphere only:  it is everywhere to be heard by the ear, and seen by the eye!

As for audible poetry, wherever there is working there is singing.  The toil of the fields and the labor of the streets are performed to the rhythm of chanted verse: and song would seem to be an expression of the life of the people in about the same sense that it is an expression of the life of the cicadae.  As for visible poetry, it appears everywhere, written or graven, as a form of decoration.  In thousands and thousands of dwellings, you might observe that the sliding-screens, separating rooms  have decorative texts upon them and these texts are poems.  In the houses of the upper classes there are usually a number of gaku, or suspended tablets to be seen, each bearing a beautifully written verse.  Poems can be found on almost any kind of domestic utensil; for example upon braziers, iron kettles, vases, wooden trays, lacquer ware, porcelains, chopsticks of the finer sort, even toothpicks!  Poems are painted on shop-signs, panels, screens, and fans.  Poems are printed on towels, draperies, curtains, kerchiefs, silk-linings, and women’s  silk underwearLetterheads, envelopes, purces, traveling bags, cut into bronzes, enameled ware.  Even suspended in blossoming trees during festivals and at more ordinary times.”

(Hearn goes on to something that hits at the kernel of Japanese aesthetic theory.)

“The common art-principle of the class of poems under present consideration is identical with the common principle of Japanese pictorial illustration.  By the use of a few chosen words the composer of a short poem endeavors to do exactly what the painter endeavors to do with a few strokes of the brush–to evoke an image or a mood, to revive a sensation or an emotion.  And the purpose of this- depends altogether upon capacity to suggest and only to suggest.  A Japanese artist would be condemned for attempting elaboration of detail in a sketch intended to recreate the memory of some landscape seen through the blue haze of a spring morning, or under the great blond light of an autumn afternoon.  Not only would he be false to the traditions of his art: he would necessarily defeat his own end.  In the same way a poet would be condemned for attempting any completeness of utterance in a very short poem: his object should be only to stir imagination without satisfy if.  Praise is reserved for compositions that leave in the mind the thrilling of a something unsaid.  Like the single stroke of a temple bell, the perfect short poem should set murmuring and undulating, in the mind of the hearer, many a ghostly aftertone of long duration.”

—–from “In Ghostly Japan”

Ah. What a wonderful explanation that goes in my estimation to the heart of poetry! Not only Japanese, but to our attempts in the West.  I have to confess a intolerance for a lot of what passes for poetry that I have read recently: overly long, convoluted word play that confuses me and does not haunt.  This last is most important.  Poetry can be best when there is a very light and glancing touch.  Of course, there are wonderful exceptions to this ‘rule’…and I have read some.  But sometimes poetry is just an excuse for rage, for self-display, for reaching beyond something and it becomes a jumble to readers.  I have written lots of such poetry and  am trying to reform.  It will take a long time I think.

Of course, as Hearn says, for the same reason that Japanese short poems may be said to resemble Japanese pictures, a fuller comprehension of them requires an intimate knowledge of the life which they reflect.  In many cases, these would signify almost nothing to the Western mind.  But a little familiarity of Japanese culture, just a bit, will bring the pathos and beauty of these poems to life.  One example is below.

“Oh, body-piercing wind!

That work of little fingers

in the shoji!”

It didn’t mean much to me on first reading until Hearn explained.  It means the sorrowing of a mother for her dead child.  Shoji is the name given to those light white-paper screens which give privacy and stop the wind, but emits light.  Children delight to poke their little fingers through the soft paper: then the wind blows through the holes.  Even though I have read this poem numerous times, it still drives me to tears.

Lady Nyo

“O vapory Spring moon,

rising in a pale, silken sky

shedding upon earth

reclaiming  innocence.”

Jane Kohut-Bartels

copyrighted, 2011



Kobayashi Issa, A Haiku Poet with an Enormous Heart

August 5, 2019

Kobayashi Issa, (1763-1827)

Savannah Birds


“Song of the Nightingale”.  Watercolor by the author.

I have had “The Essential haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa” for a few years and have only really gotten to Basho. But recently reading Issa, (Issa means Cup-of-Tea), the world of haiku opened up in ways I didn’t expect. I have spent my Easter weekend delighting in Issa’s poetry, and it has begun to restore my battered humanity.

What is remarkable about Issa’s poetry is the compassion for the lowest of creatures (insects, etc.), the deep interest in the commonalities of life, compassion for humanity, and the celebration of the joyful celebration of the ordinary.

Haiku can be a perplexing poetry form. Recently I have read a lot of bad haiku. I’ve written about this before. (I’ve also written bad haiku myself) It seems people throw together observations and call it haiku. It generally isn’t. There are ‘rules’ and structures for this poetry form, and it seems that many people who attempt haiku have no regard for even reading or researching some of these fundamentals. If they started with a reading and research of renga, they would get some background of haiku, or hokku, which is what haiku was first called.

Renga, or linked verse, is marvelous to read. One poet starts with a three line poem, another picks it up, and so on. They can go on for a hundred linked poems or more. Usually accompanied by sake.

What was remarkable of renga, and later of haiku…is the shifts and dissolves that remind one of early surrealist films. And there are some modernist poets, like Ezra Pound’s XXX Cantos, or even better, Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” that comes near to the renga spirit, this shifting and resolve.

But the Buddhist tradition embraced this shifting and resolve. Renga, and then haiku, have a way of embracing this life, this transitory nature of all things.

I came across a part of a 14th century treatise on poetry: “Contemplate deeply the vicissitudes of the life of man and body, always keep in your heart the image of mujo (ephemerality) and when you go to the mountains or the sea, feel the pathos (aware) of the karma of sentient beings and non-sentient things. Give feeling to those things without a heart (mushintai no mono) and through your own heart express their beauty (yugen) in a delicate form.”(from “Basho and the Way of Poetry in the Japanese Religious Tradition”)

Again, haiku isn’t as simple as it seems. But it’s direct, forceful and of a keenness that satisfies.

People complain of the ‘oddness’ of haiku. Perhaps it is this ‘shifts and resolve’ embedded in the form. To me, Issa has less of this than Basho or Buson. There is a directness and compassion of Issa that deeply involves the heart and eyes.

My words will not convince anyone. But perhaps examples of Issa will.

Lady Nyo

Haiku of Issa: from The Essential Haiku, edited by Robert Hass


New Year’s Day—

Everything is in blossom!

I feel about average.

The snow is melting

And the village is flooded

With children.

Don’t worry, spiders,

I keep house


Goes out,

Comes back—

The loves of a cat.

Children imitating cormorants

Are even more wonderful

Than cormorants.

O flea! Whatever you do,

Don’t jump.

That way is the river.

In this world

We walk on the roof of hell,

Gazing at flowers.

Don’t kill that fly!

Look—it’s wringing its hands

Wringing its feet.

I’m going out,

Flies, so relax,

Make love.

(approaching his village)

Don’t know about the people,

But all the scarecrows

Are crooked.

A huge frog and I,

Staring at each other,

Neither of us moves.

All the time I pray to Buddha

I keep on

Killing mosquitoes.

What good luck!

Bitten by

This year’s mosquitoes too.

The bedbug

Scatter as I clean,

Parents and children.

And my personal favorite…

Zealous flea,

You’re about to be a Buddha

By my hand.

A few of my own, struggling with the form.

Dogwoods are blooming.

The crucifixion appears

White moths in the night.

Tibetan earthworms

Bring a halt to all labor.

Here? Fat koi eat well.

Radishes are Up!

From such tiny seeds they grow

My stomach rumbles.

The morning glories

Twisting up the iron fence

paint random colors.

Sorrow floats like air

Strong winds blow throughout the night

Plague of death descends.

Pale lavender sky

Balances the moon and sun

The scale shifts to night.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2013-2015






On the subject of Death…..

July 26, 2019




One of the most beautiful and poignant tanka I have ever read:

Around the time of Izumi Shikibu’s daughter Naishi’s death, snow fell and melted away:

    Why did you vanish

     into empty sky?

     Even the fragile snow

     when it falls

     falls in this world.

                                                         ……Izumi Shikibu


It took me a moment to realize that Naishi was cremated.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2019

“Haikai” What is it?

July 24, 2019

Sesshu painting

(Painting by Sesshu)

Pale lavender sky

Balances the moon and sun

The scale shifts to night.

Under the dark moon

I awaited your return

Only shadows came.

A swirl of blossoms

Caught in the water’s current

Begins the season.

Fallen leaves crackle.

Sparrows add the treble notes.

Season’s musical.


 Dogwoods blooming
The crucifixion appears
White moths in the night.


Fall’s crispness compels

Apples to tumble from trees.

Worms make the journey.


The frost at morning

Makes the birds plump their feathers

Squirrels add chatter.

These haiku are mine alone.

Lady Nyo….aka Jane

From Basho on Poetry:

There are three elements in haikai: Its feeling can be called loneliness (sabi). This plays with refined dishes but contents itself with humble fare. Its total effect can be called elegance. This lives in figured silks and embroidered brocades but does not forget a person clad in woven straw. Its language can be called aesthetic madness. Language resides in untruth and ought to comport with truth. It is difficult to reside in truth and sport with untruth. These three elements do not exalt a humble person to heights. They put an exalted person in a low place.

The profit of haikai lies in making common speech right.

Haikai needs more homely images, such as a crow picking mud snails in a rice paddy.

In humanity, there can be something called a windswept spirit. A thin drapery torn and swept away by the stirring of the wind. Indeed, since beginning to write poetry, it (this windswept spirit…this dissatisfaction (my word) knows no other art than the art of writing poetry and therefore it hangs on to it more or less blindly.

Poetry is a fireplace in summer or a fan in winter.

How invincible is the power of poetry to reduce me (Basho) to a tattered beggar!

It is the poetic spirit called furabo that leads one to follow nature and become a friend with things of the seasons. Flowers, moon, insects, etc. For those who do not see the flower are no different from barbarians, and those who do not imagine the moon are akin to beasts. Leave barbarians and beasts behind and follow nature and return to nature.

The bones of haiku are plainness and oddness.

From: Basho on Poetry.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2019





“Ten Thousand Leaves, Love Poems from the Man’yoshu”

July 9, 2018

Samurai Woman

I love Japanese poetry, especially the poetry of the Man’yoshu, a collection of remarkable and ‘democratic’ poetry, in other words, poetry that was included in this great document by priests, courtesans, samurai, peasant songs, fishermen, nobles and many other sections of Japanese society from the 7th and 8th centuries of Japan.  In fact, this great document is also an incredible collection of poetry by women:  this is the first time women’s voices were heard in such length. 

Lady Nyo

“Ten Thousand Leaves, Love Poems from the Man’yoshu”


“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, (somon)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 complier 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 end with some poems of my own inspired by the verse below:

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.”

….Man’yoshu, 8th century

Come to me

If even only in my dreams

Where my head rests upon my arm

And not yours–

Let this veiled moon

Above and these dark, broodingpines below

“Be witness to our love, my man.”

Come to me,

When the rocks have disappeared

Under sheets of snow,

The moon appears through tattered clouds.

I will be

Listening for the sound of

Your footfall in the dark.


Come to me, my man,

Part the blinds and come into my arms,

Snuggle against my warm breast

And let my belly

Warm your soul.

Above poems of mine were included in “Song of the Nightingale”, published by Amazon. 2015

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2011-2015



(“Nightingales”, Jane Kohut-Bartels, watercolor, 2015)

More new haiku and an old painting.

July 2, 2018

Old Bird Paintings 5

(Snowy Owl and chick, Jane Kohut-Bartels, 2003)

Some have said that haiku are never subjective. I don’t believe it.

Sipping morning tea

I stare out the window

Nothing has changed


The wind chimes frenzy

A green sickly moon above

Fearful season


Lightning in the dark

The howl of feral dogs

Sleep not possible


Radishes are Up!

From such tiny seed they grow

Make stomach rumble


The morning glories

Twisting up the iron gate

Paint random colors


The hoar frost has left

A brown denuded field

Crows eat emptiness


Stars in possession

Of an upturned bowl of night

Mountain valley sleeps.


Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2018





“Haiku Mind”….

May 7, 2018


(“Daffodils”, watercolor, Jane Kohut-Bartels, 2003)

Well, attempting it.  These haiku are some of my very first and are hit and miss.  My study of haiku was slight when I began to write them, so I have a lot to catch up on.  The study of haiku no michi (following the way of haiku in daily life) is a way to open the heart and mind to the present moment.  Attempting now a more formal study of this ‘michi’.

Lady Nyo

Pale lavender sky
Balances the moon and sun
The scale shifts to night.


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


Dogwoods blooming
The crucifixion appears
White moths in the night.


Fall’s crispness compels
Apples to tumble from trees.
Worms make the journey.


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


A swirl of blossoms
Caught in the water’s current
Begins the season.


Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2018






“Call and Answer to Ono no Komachi”

November 21, 2017

Japanese Lovers II

“Call and Answer” is one of the earliest in Japanese poetry.  Continuing the theme, a conversation, a communication with different inferences.  I decided to try my hand at this, and it was instructive and mostly….fun.

Hers appear first, mine (as answering) appear in italics.

 Lady Nyo

Did he appear

Because I fell asleep

Thinking of him?

If only I’d known I was dreaming

I’d never have awakened.


How long will it last?

I know not his hidden heart.

This morning my thoughts

Are as tangled as my hair.

My blushes turn my face dark.”


When my desire

Grows too fierce

I wear my bed clothes

Inside out,

Dark as the night’s rough husk.

No moon tonight

Only a cold wind visits

Murasaki robe

Stained the color of grass

Invisible on this earth.


(Murasaki is a grass, lavender/purple, and also a name, etc.)


At least no one can blame me

When I go to you at night

Along the road of dreams.

Come to me, my man,

Part the blinds and come into my arms,

Snuggle against my warm breast

And let my belly

Warm your dreams.


One of her most famous poems:


No way to see him

On this moonless night—

I lie awake longing, burning,

Breasts racing fire,

Heart in flames.


When my needing you

Burns my breasts-torments me

I tear open robes

To lie naked in moonlight

 The wind your hands, caressing



Night deepens

With the sound of calling deer,

And I hear

My own one-sided love.’


Autumn wind startles–

Lowered to an ominous

      Key—Ah! Mournful sounds!

     The fat mountain deer listen-

   Add their bellowing sorrow.


The cicadas sing

In the twilight

Of my mountain village—

Tonight, no one

Will visit save the wind.


Tonight, foxes scream

Cued by a howling wind.

Maple leaves quilting

A lonely time of season

No one to share the moonlight.




A diver does not abandon

A seaweed-filled bay.

Will you then turn away

From this floating, sea-foam body

That waits for your gathering hands?


So lonely am I

My soul like a floating weed

Severed at the roots

Drifting upon cold waters

No pillow for further dreams.



Is this love reality

Or a dream?

I cannot know,

When both reality and dreams

Exist without truly existing.


Dreams, reality

How can one  know?

I stumble through dreams

I stagger through  days

Where reality and dreams are one.


All Komachi poems were compiled from the Man’yoshu and the book, “The Ink Dark Moon”, by Hirshfield and Aratani.

Poems in Italics were mine.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2017



The Passion of Japanese Poetry

June 10, 2016

Samurai Lovers, #2




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.

Lady Nyo


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 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.

—–Fujiwara Hirotsugu


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


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.

—-Otomo Yakamochi


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.


Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2016







More on the Bones of Haiku….some new haiku and attempting Kigo

November 8, 2015

waterlily in our pond.

As I study these bones, I keep being drawn back to Robert Haas’s “The Essential Haiku” (versions of Basho/Buson/Issa.   Haas puts forth these three as ‘types’ of poet: Basho as the ascetic and seeker, Buson the artist, Issa the humanist.   Perhaps their differences grow clearer as we read them, but right now it’s not too clear to me.

The insistence on time and place was crucial for writers of haiku. Seasonal reference was called kigo and a haiku was thought to be incomplete without it. Kigo could be many things, and changed with the seasons. A few examples: Mosquitoes were summer, cherry blossoms, rice seedlings spring, maple leaves stood in for fall and winter had numerous kigos like ‘north wind’, hoarfrost, smog (smoke over a village from hearth fires) fallen leaves, etc. The kigo was of a natural observation of seasons. Although this was codified, it also could be very individual in the work.

Quoting from Haas: “These references were conventional and widely available. They were the first way readers of the poems had of locating themselves in the haiku. Its traditional themes—deep autumn, a sudden summer shower, the images of rice seedlings and plum blossoms, of spring and summer migrants like the mountain cuckoo and the bush warbler, of the cormorant-fishermen in summer and the apprentices holiday in the spring—gave a powerful sense of the human place in the ritual and cyclical movements of the earth.”


“The first level of a haiku was in its location of nature, its second was always some implicit Buddhist reflection on nature. One of the striking differences between Christian and Buddhist thought is that in the Christian sense of things, nature is fallen, and in the Buddhist sense it isn’t. At the core of Buddhist metaphysics are three ideas about natural things: that they are transient; that they are contingent; that they suffer.”

Better to sink down through the level of these poems to the particular level of human consciousness the poems reflect. Or, in my case, attempt.

Lady Nyo

Under the eaves, chimes

Weave celestial music.

My man yawns then farts.

(Implied is strong winds, which could be spring or fall, or perhaps any season. That the kigo isn’t determined or spelled out could also signal the death of this particular haiku.)

A dog comes snooping

Mother and father cardinals—

Intruder- Leave Now!

(this just happened last weekend where two baby cardinals were tipped from their nest and killed by my pointer pup. The parents made quite a fuss. So did I when I found the babies on the steps, dead. Cardinals breed in the spring, so the kigo is inferred here.)

Radishes are up!

From such tiny seed they grow.

Stomach rumbles.

Snow falls on meadows

Crows pick at last harvest seeds

Spring still far away

Cherry red toenails

Peek out from the warm blanket.

Deep snow cools ardor.

White makeup drips

The hard heat and mosquitos

Make maiko languid.

A swirl of blossoms

Caught in the water’s current

Begins the season.

Falls crispness compels

Apples to tumble from trees.

Worms make the journey.

I chase one red leaf

Across dry and brittle grass

Juice of summer gone.

The garden spiders

Fold their black spindly legs,

Die, all work now done.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2015

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