Posts Tagged ‘Mono-no-aware’

Ono no Komachi, Sensual Poems of a Medieval Woman Poet

March 13, 2014

Tanka Presentation #2

Crabapple/Peach Tree in back yard, Spring

Crabapple/Peach Tree in back yard, Spring

Ono no Komachi….Sensual Poems of a Medieval Woman Poet

Ono no Komachi continues to capture my interest as a woman and a poet.  For me, she personifies this very Japanese concept called mono no aware.  This is translated as “the sorrow of human existence’ but perhaps can be better translated as ‘a sensitivity to things’ mostly meaning an understanding of the perishability of beauty and human happiness.  Ono no Komachi’s poetry certainly was deeply based in this concept.

Briefly, she lived from 834?-??.  It’s not clear when she died.  She served in Japan’s Heian court as a lady in waiting to the Emperor’s consort and was one of the dominant poetic geniuses. Komachi’s father was a lord in Dewa, in the northwest of Japan, probably in the region known as Akito. She, like so many young girls, was sent to the court when very young, perhaps as young as ten years old.  This was common practice and a good place for her to find a husband with position within the court.

There are stories about Komachi, that she was a great beauty, attracted many lovers, but was very cruel to them. A few of her poems express her deep sorrow where one or the other died before she could make her peace with them.  But these are just stories passed down from centuries.  And, there is a final story, where when she was very old, and had lost all her beauty and was poor, she lived in a hut and people came to stare at this once great and famous beauty.  But perhaps, as was the custom for women of a certain class, she shaved her head and became a nun. Perhaps she lived out her life in a monastery.

 She is also in the great Man’yoshu, a collection of 4515 poems.  This was ordered by the Emperor to be compiled around the 9th century.

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 is counted as one of the “100 Famous Japanese Poets”.

These poems 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 31 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

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.

The fun and excitement of studying the tanka form and studying the examples of Komachi’s gives way to the development of our own verse.  These below are of no comparison to Komachi’s but they help a poet to write inspired by her beautiful work.  There is nothing wrong with this, and in fact, is of the great precedent that was common during her time.  These below are mine.

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.

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.

Last night I thought of you–

My face still bears the blushes.

You thought it was good health?

No, just reflects the liberty

of dreams.

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.

Bolts of lightning flash!

The sky brightens like the day-

too soon it darkens.

My eyes opened or closed see

the futility of love.


Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2014

More Spring Haiku, Tanka, and Troubling Issues of Yugen and Mono-no-Aware

March 31, 2012


Watercolor:  Springtime Daffs, janekohut-bartels, 2006

(“Spring Daffs”, watercolor, janekohutbartels, 2006)

The plums, peach blossoms are done: the cherries and apple to come.  The pears are blooming and so are the roses. There is only what is outside, to see with eyes, as there is little energy right now with allergies.

I have struggled with terms in Japanese poetry such as yugen, mono-no-aware and other Zen and Zen-sounding concepts.  A poet strives for the quality of mono-no-aware; that the sense of a poem must reach beyond the words themselves, even to an ‘elegant sadness’.

As for yugen, an aesthetic feeling not explicitly expressed, rather a ‘ghostly’ presense.

These are noble and heady concepts, rich with cultural experience and a deeper study.  I believe you grow into this understanding only with time. For me, I am too new a poet to understand these things or to apply them with any honesty.

Saigyo says we start with direct observation and see where this takes us.  This spring, putting in my garden, suffering from a vertigo of unknown cause, being mostly on my back with plenty of time to stare out the window, to observe the passing of hours, well, these poems below are nothing more than that: they are a modest product of an attempt to get closer to an aesthetic I don’t really understand.

Lady Nyo


A pale crescent moon

The sky colored lavender

Nothing more to wish.


Acid green pollen

Stains the landscape of spring

Life-force of Nature.


Morning glories bloom

Entangling wrought-iron fence

Warms the cold metal.


Dawn east-sky moon glows

A thin half-cup spills on soil

Seeds stretch out their arms.


Under a crescent moon

The black soil of the garden

Anticipates life.


Tibetan earthworms

Bring a halt to all labor

Here? Feed lazy koi.




Smell of rose blossoms

Draws me around a corner.

A black cat sits there

The finest brocade can not

Equal this petal softness.




In the Garden at Dawn


Dawn east-sky moon gleam

A golden half-cup greets the garden,

Hands deep in soil

Planting tender shoots of life

With a reverence feeding the soul

As seedlings feed flesh later to come.


There is God in this black soil,

Earthworms and tiny bits of life

Independent of will or wishes.

Golden moonbeams spill on this tilled earth

Like a benediction or blessing,

And bathes plants and planter with promise.


Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2012

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