Posts Tagged ‘OneStopPoetry’

” A Short Presentation on Tanka”

February 15, 2013

Autumn in all its glory

National Haiku Month still:

The young plum has died
white blossoms never opened
Mockingbirds homeless

A daffodil moon
sails across a charcoal sky
Dawn-it comes too close!

Lady Nyo

A little more than a year ago, I was asked by a poetry group, “OneShotPoetry” to do a presentation on tanka. I have been studying this early Japanese form of poetry for the past five or more years. I love this form to distraction, and my own poetry has gone through many changes as I learned. I always feel that the study of tanka is a life long endeavour. It took me years to finally come to grips with the ‘hidden’ concepts, which aren’t really very hidden. The structure of tanka is rooted in the earliest poetry in Japan, before the 6th century, but blossoming into its fullest beauty before the 12 century. In my opinion, this has many reasons, in part because of the contributions of women poets in Japan. This is well before the advent of Confucianism, where the freedoms of women were corralled and their creativity also demeaned.

Lady Nyo


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 should go back into the Japanese literary history of the 8th and 9th century. Poets of this time, male poets, 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 to write their poetry. For the next two centuries, excelled in it.

Tanka, earlier name 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.”

Tanka, if nothing else, was the medium for lovers: written on special paper, a fan, wrapped around a small branch of a flowering plum or cherry, it was communication between a man and a woman.

Married couples in a certain class didn’t live together. Perhaps a wife had her own quarters in a compound, or 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.

During the Heian court of the 12th century, tanka became one of the greatest literary influences. Large and prestigious competitions were developed by nobles and priests alike, striving for the most ‘refined’ tanka. This led to restricted poems because of limited themes thought ‘proper’. Praise of nature, the Emperor, and loyalty were much the court poems.

However, it was still the written form of communication between lovers. Poetry from that time, outside the court issue, still exalted the passions—made connection between hearts — fertilized the soil of humanity.

Ono no Komachi, Izumi Shikiba and Saigyo are a few of the great tanka poets of the early Heian period (8-12th centuries).

The first two 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 .

Saigyo came from the Heian Court in the 12 century. He was of a samurai/warrior family and at the age of 23 became a priest. He was always worried his warrior background (he did serve as samurai) would ‘taint’ his Buddhist convictions. He left the court when the Japanese world was turning upside down with politics and civil war.
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. Saigyo travelled with other priests and welcomed their company on the lonely treks through mountains and remote terrain. Some were spies for the Court. 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.

Generally Saigyo adheres to the 5-7-5-7-7 structure of tanka . 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.

(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!

This is only a teaser of Saigyo’s superb verse, but shows the brilliance, power and inventiveness of the short burst of tanka.

Ono no Komachi (8th century) and Izumi Shikibu (974?-1034?) wrote during the times of the court culture’s greatest flowering. As with Saigyo, Ono no Komachi mostly writes in the 5-7-5-7-7 form of tanka.

No way to see him
On this moonless night—
I lie awake longing, burning,
Breasts racing fire,
Heart in flames.

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.

Do we exist independently of the one we deeply love? Would we exist without them?

I thought to pick
The flower of forgetting
For myself,
But I found it
Already growing in his heart.

Izumi Shikibu is a poet that can make one uncomfortable in the reading. Her poems are so personal, so erotic.

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.

If only his horse
Had been tamed
By my hand—I’d have taught it
Not to follow anyone else!

This last poem quoted is hard to read. Shikibu’s daughter Naishi has died, snow fell and melted. The reference to ‘vanish into the empty sky’, is the smoke of cremation.

Why did you vanish
Into empty sky?
Even the fragile snow,
When it falls,
Falls into this world.

The next section will be about the formation of tanka, with classical examples and a few of my own.

Lady Nyo ( who is also Jane Kohut-Bartels)

Copyrighted, 2012-2013

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