Posts Tagged ‘“Love Songs from the Man’yoshu”’

What is Poetry to the Japanese?

April 25, 2019

Sesshu painting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I ask your indulgence and patience until I learn more.

Lady Nyo

#1

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

#2

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

#3

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

#4

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

#5.

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

#6.

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

#7.

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

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2008-2019

The Passion of Japanese Poetry

March 31, 2014

 

To the new readers from the Ukraine.  My heart and thoughts are with you as you face such troubles.  May your future be one of peace.

Lady Nyo

Cover for White Cranes of Heaven, 2011, Lulu.com Watercolor, janekohut-bartels

Cover for White Cranes of Heaven, 2011, Lulu.com
Watercolor, janekohut-bartels

 

THE PASSION OF JAPANESE POETRY

 

Life gives  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, throw us into a free-floating dreamscape, where our sentiments connect with 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.

 

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?

 

Though 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?

               —-Anonymous

 

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.

                   —–Anonymous

 

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.

                 —-Anonymous

 

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?

           —-Anonymous

 

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, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

Some Tanka and a poem “Plum Blossom Snow”

March 15, 2014

 

Image from "Love Songs from the Man'yoshu"

Image from “Love Songs from the Man’yoshu”

We cut down the plum trees last fall and I miss their blossoms, usually the first blooms of spring here. And though the poem “Plum Blossom Snow” isn’t a new one, it makes me remember my trees.

I am comforted by the wild purple plum which blooms on the roadside in startling displays.

Lady Nyo

Let me not squander
The few good years I have left.
Each day the beauty,
The raw poignancy of life
Creates a desperation.

How could I forget
The beauty of the pale moon!
A face of sorrow
Growing thin upon the tide
Pulls my heart within its light.

Rain and moon tonight
Created confusion
Moon hides behind clouds
Fleeting clouds filter the rain
Moon appears– shoots silver
darts.

When I saw your head
Upon the pillow we shared
Was this forever?
I am left with a pillow-
Cold feathers holding a ghost.

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

Answering echo-
One heart calls to another
A plucked string vibrates
The poetry of lovers
Kisses the roof of heaven!

Plum Blossom Snow

The present snowstorm of
White plum blossom

Blinds me to sorrow.

They cascade over cheeks
Like perfumed, satin tears
Too warm with the promise
of life to chill flesh.

Jane Kohut- Bartels
Copyrighted, 2014

Some of these tanka will go into the new book planned for later this fall, “The Nightingale’s Song”, to be published by Createspace , Amazon.com

“Ten Thousand Leaves, Love Poems From The Man’youshu”…and a recommendation of books.

February 24, 2013

Manyoshu image

Man'yoshu image II

A while ago, I was asked by a poetry group to do a short presentation on the Man’yoshu. This is a collection of poems from the 8th century. They are gorgeous poems, some startling erotic.

I have at least five different editions of the Man’yoshu, each giving a different translation and perspective on these poems. One of my favorite versions is “Love Songs from the Man’yoshu, Selections from a Japanese Classic”, with illustrations by Miyata Masayuki, Commentary by Ooka Makoto, Translations by Ian Hideo Levy and with an essay by Donald Keene. Published in Japan by Lodansha International.

This is an incredibly beautiful book. The cut-out illustrations by the great Miyata Masayuki, powerfully and exquisitely erotic, give a visual insight into the sexuality of these poems. I did not expect this when I held this beautiful book in my hand. The paper, the colors, the commentary, everything about this book is a delight.

There are many books about the Man’yoshu. However, an older one that (1965) is plainly called “The Manyoshu’ One Thousand Poems, published by Columbia University Press. The Foreword is by Donald Keene, the much decorated translator and interpreter of Japanese literature. This book is worth obtaining just for the writing of Keene.

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, 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?”
—-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 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.”
—-Anonymous

For 1200 years, the Man’yoshu has inspired poets to write their own poetry based on these poems. Below are a few of mine inspired with readings of this classical document. The Man’yoshu poetry can be startling frank and seem to avoid modern day sexual neurosis.

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, 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.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
(aka Lady Nyo)

11_17_7


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