Posts Tagged ‘love poems’

“The Passion of Japanese Poetry”

November 19, 2017

Tanka Presentation Illustration, Feb, 11


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 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.rience.  I will attempt to give some of the beauty and passion of these poems.

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 house, 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 is 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 another of my favorite poems of the Man’yoshu.  I used it as a heading in an episode of the  published “Song of the Nightingale”, 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.  He describes himself as ‘an ugly, old warrior”.

These love poems churn the mind and enflame the passions, along with the  winds.  One would have to have a heart of stone not to be swayed by such passionate beauty in verse.


Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2017

“Song of the Nightingale” was published at, 2015.

Song Book cover





“Ten Thousand Leaves, Love Poems from the Man’yoshu”, From “Song of the Nightingale”

July 29, 2015


“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, where lovers speak with disarming frankness and clarity, speak to us across 1300 years as if they were us.

Actually, the poems express a decided lack of neurosis that we have come to view sex in the last few centuries.  There is nothing of barriers when it comes to the human heart, longing, emotions and sexuality in these poems.  Many of them are openly, expressly erotic.

The authors or contributors of these poems extended from Emperors, Empresses, courtesans, samurai, priests, beggars, fishermen, peasants: a cross section of remarkable variety.  A truly democratic endeavor.  This was never again to happen in Japan, not at least to this extent.

Otomo No Yakamochi (718-785) is considered to be the main compiler of the Man’yoshu.  These poems actually span a 130 year history, from around 630 AD to 759 AD.

There are three basic divisions of the poetry in the Man’yoshu.


Banka: elegy on the death of an Emperor or a loved one.

Somon:  mutual exchanges of love or longing poetry.

Zoka:  Poems of Nature, hunting, etc.

This short presentation will focus only on the Somon form.

Generally the Man’yoshu poetry is considered to be declarative rather than introspective, imagistic rather than abstract.  There is an incredible freshness to it all.

There are basically two forms of poetry in the Man’yoshu: choka (long poem, 5-7-5-7-5-7, etc. ending in 7-7) and tanka.  (5-7-5-7-7). The ‘long poem’, choka (which isn’t very long by our modern and Western standards) died out of fashion, and tanka became the predominant form of Japanese poetry for the next 1200 years.

Although one would think so, there isn’t a lot of Buddhist influence in the poems.  If any religion, there is more Shinto influence especially in the Zoka form, but even that isn’t large.  This may seem strange to us, with our notions of culture in Japan, but even centuries later, with the Priest-Poet Saigyo, there is little Buddhist thought within his poems.  Religion just doesn’t play such a dominant role in most Japanese poetry, especially at this time.

“Going over the fields of murasaki grass That shimmer crimson, Going over the fields marked as imperial domain, Will the guardian of the fields not see you As you wave your sleeves at me?”

— Princess Nukata

This poem is considered by many to be one of the greatest poems in the Man’yoshu.  It is presented near the beginning of the collection, giving it prominence.  The answer by her former husband (she is now married to the Emperor) Prince Oama, (his brother) is a beautiful poem in its own right.

“If I despised you, who are as beautiful

As the murasaki grass,

Would I be longing for you like this,

Though you are another man’s wife?”

— Prince Oama

“Do not let men find out

By smiling at me so apparently,

Like the clouds that clearly cross

Over the verdant mountains.”

— Lady Otomo Sakanoue

There are more poems by this poet than any other woman in the Man’yoshu.  What is remarkable are the amount of women poets included in the Man’yoshu.  This is only possible because the Confucian philosophy was not prominent yet in Japan.  When it became influential, women lost much status: before they were allowed to own property, title, name, divorce, to keep custody of their children.  After, they were relegated to indoors, stripped of much power and status.-

“Whose words are these,

Spoken to the wife of another?

Whose words are these,

That bade me untie

The sash of my robe?”

— Anonymous

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.

— Anonymous-

“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 ligh

t 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.”

— Anonymous

I’ll prime the pot with one of my own

“Glimpse of a white wrist

Feel the pulse of blood beneath-

This is seduction!

But catch a wry, cunning smile

One learns all is artifice.

Or something a bit different.  Many of the poems were built one upon the other, answers brushed upon a fan, or something suitable, even a large leaf. In the ‘spirit’ of this method that is found in the Man’yoshu, I offer this modest poem:

Thick and fast stream my thoughts of you

Like the layers

Of endlessly falling snow

Upon the cedars.

“Come to me at night, my man.”

Come to me

If  only in my dreams

Where my head rests upon my arm

And not yours–

Let this veiled moon

Above and these dark, brooding pines below

“Be witness to our love, my man.”

Jane Kohut-Bartels (aka Lady Nyo)

Copyrighted, 2015

Ono no Komachi…Sensual Poems of a Medieval Poet

September 8, 2013
Heian era Woman with Tengu

Heian era Woman with Tengu

It feels good to write about something besides Atlanta politics and politicians.  A little of that goes a long way. Besides, the beauty of these poems go far in uplifting the spirit and involving the heart.  And faced with the next few months, that can’t be bad.

Lady Nyo

Night deepens

with the sound

of a calling deer,

and I hear

my own one-sided love.

—-Ono no Komachi, from The Man’yoshu


I’ve written before on this blog about Ono no Komachi.  She continues to capture my interest as a woman and a poet. 

Briefly, she lived from 834?-??.  It’s not clear when she died.  She served in Japan’s Heian court and was one of the dominant poetic geniuses. She is also in the great Man’yoshu, a collection of 4500 poems. 

She lived when a woman was considered to be educated once she composed, memorized and could recite 1000 poems.  Her poetry is deeply subjective, passionate and complex.  She was a pivotal figure, legendary in Japanese literary history.

She was also considered a classical beauty.  Hair reaching to the floor, which was the style then, she was the daughter of the daimyo in the Dewa mountains, up in Akito, Japan (Northwest territory)sent to Kyoto to serve at court at 14 years of age.  As a lady of the Heian court, she distinguished herself with her poetry and has quite of few in the great Man’yoshu, this 8th century document.  Her poetry was seen as having great philosophical and emotional depth.  That she was surrounded by other excellent poets, men and women of the court, certainly helped in developing her own.

The form:  these are written in tanka form…the usual form of poetry most popular.  Don’t be put off by the lack of syllables or more than for the lines.  These poems are translated into English and they don’t necessarily fit the form exactly.

There are parts of the world where her poetry is still studied and read.  These cultures are richer for the doing, as are their poets.

Lady Nyo

Seeing the moonlight

spilling down

through these trees,

my heart fills to the brim

with autumn.

How sad,

to think I will end

as only

a pale green mist

drifting the far fields.

Did he appear

Because I fell asleep

Thinking of him?

If only I’d known I was dreaming

I’d never have awakened.

When my desire

Grows too fierce

I wear my bed clothes

Inside out,

Dark as the night’s rough husk.

My longing for you—

Too strong to keep within bounds.

At least no one can blame me

When I go to you at night

Along the road of 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.

Night deepens

With the sound of calling deer,

And I hear

My own one-sided love.

The cicadas sing

In the twilight

Of my mountain village—

Tonight, no one

Will visit save the wind.

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?

Is this love reality

Or a dream?

I cannot know,

When both reality and dreams

Exist without truly existing.

My personal favorite:

The autumn night

Is long only in name—

We’ve done no more

Than gaze at each other

And it’s already dawn.

This morning

Even my morning glories

Are hiding,

Not wanting to show

Their sleep-mussed hair.

I thought to pick

The flower of forgetting

For myself,

But I found it

Already growing in his heart.

Since this body

Was forgotten

By the one who promised to come,

My only thought is wondering

Whether it even exists.

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

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2013

Building upon, inspired by the great Man’yoshu

July 11, 2013
Heian era Woman with Tengu

Heian era Woman with Tengu

Building upon, inspired by, the great Man’yoshu

It is right and proper to draw inspiration from other poetry. It pulls your own poetic voice into the mystery of love and passion. Therefore, I have taken the words from poems from the great 8th century Man’yoshu and either fashioned an answer…or a continuation of the top poem. What I believe to be termed “call and answer”.

The Man’yoshu’s poems are in bold type. All else are my own poetry. These poems are a small part of poems I am working in this fashion. Most of these poems, both from the Man’yoshu and my own are used to head up the 14 sections of “The Nightingale’s Song”.

The last section is poetry written for the plot of “The Nightingale’s Song”.

Lady Nyo

“My heart, like my clothing
Is saturated with your fragrance.
Your vows of fidelity
Were made to our pillow and not to me.”

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.

Does he know?
Does he know?
Does he know about the letters?

“I stay here waiting for him
In the autumn wind, my sash untied,
Wondering, is he coming now,
Is he coming now?
And the moon is low in the sky.

The only company I have tonight,
Now near dawn, is the paling Milky Way,
And Oh, my husband!
There are not stars enough in the heavens
To equal my sorrowful tears.”

Strong man as I am,
Who force my way even through the rocks,
In love I rue in misery.

Perhaps a strong man
Should not offer love without
Having love returned
But this grieving ugly warrior
Still finds his love is growing


“The cicada cries
Everyday at the same hour
But I’m a woman much in love and very weak
And can cry anytime”


My thoughts these days
Come thick like the summer grass
Which soon cut and raked
Grows wild again.

Oh, I wish these
Obsessive love-thoughts
Would disappear!
As they fill my head
They empty my sleep!

I who have counted me
For a strong man
Only a little less than heaven and earth,
How short of manliness that I love!

On this earth and even heaven
This weakness in love
Turns my sword
Into a blade of grass.

Come to me
If even only in my dreams
Where my head rests upon my arm-
not yours.
Let this veiled moon
Above and these dark, brooding pines 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.

“ A BAD QUARREL” To be worked into “The Nightingale’s Song”

My soul was blossoming,
Secure in your protective shadow.
I stumbled upon this road we walked
And all was suddenly lost.
Perhaps the fault was I did not
Tightly grip your hand?

Like a ghost under water
Only the moon gives illumination.
Throw a pebble there
And see how fragmented I am.

I can’t look in the mirror
when I awake.
(My eyes swollen with last night’s sobs–
my pillow filled like a lake.)
If I could turn back the hands of the clock,
I would give up those moments of life
To restore lost harmony….
But I dare not look this morning.

It is raining outside,
It is raining within.
Do you think I care about that?
What happened
Has disrupted
all the essentials of life.

Who opened the window?
Who let the bees in?
They are the life
I am avoiding.
Their legs have honey on them!
Too sweet for my present mind.

Outside is a tender spring.
Inside it might as well be winter.
There is no warmth
Generated by memory.

I am told this is a little death
I will have to bear.
Perhaps I don’t want it to end?
Then the thought of living without you,
Or the threat of living With you…..
Would upset my self- pity.

There is nothing from you today,
But then, it was I who moved afar.
I did this from self-hatred,
But found there was enough to spread around.

When I get to the anger
you will know I am recovering.
Not nicely, there will always be scars
and jagged edges,
tokens of our time together.
Do you feel any of this pain?
No, perhaps not.

My laughter is as hollow
as that stricken tree by the pond.
I have not laughed for a long time.
It strangles in my throat.

This morning I awoke,
the first time in days,
Everything sharp-edged–
Eyes were hardened steel,
Mouth a grim line of dead cinders….
But my hands are now steady.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2013

Jane Kohut-Bartels
(aka Lady Nyo)

The Temptations of Lady Nyo…..

November 12, 2008

Not THIS Lady Nyo…..THAT Lady Nyo….though I did go to a munch, which is rare for me….and had a lot of fun. Saw old friends….. Willow, John Taurus, who has written for this blog on Dominance, bratty kitten and Mr. Big, and it was packed. Joy Spreader was there and a host of other people. It was crowded. Some times it does a girl good to wear a mini and new thigh high boots and sashay around the room, flaunting her ‘stuff’. Although I don’t do the BDSM scene, the munches are always fun. Since Bill Penrose from ERWA has taken over publishing “Seasoning of Lust” (THANK YOU, Bill…) I can make more of the book now with confidence. That was one reason to go to the munch because there are other writers there interested in erotica and who write it, too.

Teela yesterday, Lady Nyo today.

(Note on Temptation: Lady Nyo is a 16th century court woman, (from “The Kimono” a book I am writing) who is happily married.  However, she has attracted the attentions of an unknown lover who leaves poetry written on her fan, or placed where she would discover them.  Women in Japanese courts would be sitting together behind carved wooden screens, hence the poetry she finds on her cushion.  This intrigue was a welcome distraction from the formality of the court customs, and was indulged by most women attendants.  Poetry was the main written form of communication between men and women, and one was judged on the ability to write poetry as much as other manners, perhaps more. At different times, different forms of poetry came into fashion, but tanka (waka) was the universal form.  These are not tanka, which adheres to the form of 5/7/5/7/7 syllables)

Lady Nyo is Samurai by rights of marriage.

The Temptation of Lady Nyo

Yesterday I found a fan with a poem
stuck in my screen.
Today I found another one placed
on my cushion at court.
Do you have a death wish?
Or do you desire the death of me?
You know my husband would kill me.
Would I end my life dishonored?

I see you are as persistent
as the rain in Spring.
Have you no fear?
What is your interest?
Surely I am just another painted face.

I read your poem.
I could do nothing else.
This time it was inked upon
MY fan.

“The wind blows from the north
Chilling my heart.
Only the thought of a touch of your sleeve
Warms me.”
Very nice, but my sleeves are not interested.

“I throw acorns
To the darting carp.
With each nut I say a
Prayer for your health.”
Lovely sentiment, and I
always grateful for prayers.
But do you think of my reputation
and what you risk?

I see no poetry this morning
though I looked for your usual offering.
I knew your interest was as capricious
as a flight of moths.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2008

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