Posts Tagged ‘Part 1’

A Short Presentation of the History and Form of Tanka, Part 1

January 27, 2015


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 must go back into the Japanese literary history of the 8th and 9th century. Poets of this time, male poets, the only ones who counted in court anthologies, 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- kanji-something definitely Japanese, to write their poetry. And they, for the next two centuries, excelled in it. We’ll go over some of these poets who made such a mark on the literature of Japan, especially in the development and formation of tanka verse.

Tanka, whose earlier name was 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.”

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

There are so many social aspects of Japanese society to consider: married couples for a certain class (usually court people) didn’t live together. Perhaps a wife had her own quarters in a compound, or perhaps she lived 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.

In the court, especially during the Heian court of the 12th century, tanka became one of the greatest literary influences. It developed great adherents to the form and large and prestigious competitions were developed by nobles and priests alike. Usually the striving was for the most ‘refined’ tanka composed. This lead to some very restricted poems because there were limited themes thought to be ‘proper’ amongst these competitions. Praise of nature, the Emperor, and more praise of the Emperor were pretty much the court poems.

However, it was still the written form of communication between interested parties and lovers. Poetry from that time, outside the court issue, still exalts the passions—makes connection between hearts —it fertilizes the soil of humanity.

Before I go into the ‘form’ of tanka, its development stylistically, I want to reveal the poets that drew me to tanka form. There were many early Japanese tanka writers, and some excellent verse written by Emperors, but these poets below have found their way into my heart and have become great influences in my own work. Ono no Komachi, Izumi Shikiba and Saigyo .

The first two were 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 as his base for poetry.

Saigyo came from the Heian Court in the 12 century. He was of a samurai/warrior family and at the age of 23 he became a priest. He was always worried that his warrior background (he did serve as samurai) would ‘taint’ his Buddhist convictions and practice.   His solution was to wander the mountains and roads of Japan for decades. He left the court when the whole Japanese world was turning upside down with politics and the beginnings of civil war. He was dissatisfied with the poetry coming out of the court, and since he had developed a taste for tanka, he took this on the road with him, as he went across Japan and wrote his observations of the landscape, the moon and the people in tanka form.

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. There were many groups of priests who went out to beg and some to write poetry and their observations. Saigyo travelled with other priests and welcomed their company on the lonely treks through mountains and remote terrain. Some were spies for the Court. One couldn’t really tell, because 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.

What was so different about Saigyo was his interest in the common man. He wrote tanka about fishermen, laborers, prostitutes, nuns (who sometimes were prostitutes); more than the general poems of lovers, court, emperors, landscape. Of course the terrain he passed through figured as a background in his tanka, but he wrote so much more. Tanka is a vehicle for very expressive, emotional verse. Saigyo’s tanka spoke of his loneliness, his conflict as to his samurai background and how it would effect his Buddhist beliefs, and so much more over the decades of his roaming.

Generally Saigyo adheres to the 5-7-5-7-7 structure of tanka, but he is not shy about throwing in a ‘mora’ or two extra. 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.”


The mind for truth

Begins, like a stream, shallow

At first, but then

Adds more and more depth

While gaining greater clarity.


(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!


(On love like fallen leaves)

Each morning the wind

Dies down and the rustling leaves

Go silent: was this

The passion of all-night lovers

Now talked out and parting?

I find Saigyo to be such a wonderful, human and humane poet that I can fill my head and eyes with his poetry and be satisfied. This is only a teaser of his superb verse, but in a definite way shows the brilliance, power and inventiveness of the short burst of tanka. Of course, in the hands of Saigyo, the common becomes memorable and he is just one, but perhaps the best of tanka writers. There is so much more to and of Saigyo, and of his tanka, but there are others I want to mention in this segment.

Quoting from “Ink Dark Moon”, Hirshfield and Aratani:

“Ono no Komachi (834?-?) served at the imperial court in the capital city of Heian-kyo (present day Kyoto) during the first half century of its existence; her poetry, deeply subjective, passionate, and complex, helped to usher in a poetic age of personal expressiveness, technical excellence and philosophical and emotional depth. Izumi Shikibu (974?-1034?) wrote during the times of the court culture’s greatest flowering; a woman committed to a life of both religious consciousness and erotic intensity, Shikibu explored her experience in language that is precise in observation, intimate, and deeply moving. These two women , the first a pivotal figure who became legendary in Japanese literary history, the second Japan’s major woman poet, illuminated certain areas of human experience with a beauty, truthfulness and compression unsurpassed in the literature of any other age.”

There is so much more to be learned about these two women poets, but perhaps it is enough to give examples of their poetry here without further delay.

(These are not my translations: I am continuing to study the Japanese language, but my abilities are sorely short here. I can recognize many words, but Japanese is particularly difficult in the arrangement. These translations are from “Ink Dark Moon”, mentioned above.)

As with Saigyo, Ono no Komachi mostly writes in the 5-7-5-7-7 form of tanka.


Hito ni awan

Tsuki no naki yow a


Mune bashiribi ni

Kokoro yake ori

No way to see him

On this moonless night—

I lie awake longing, burning,

Breasts racing fire,

Heart in flames.

What is so striking about this poem is the imagery. 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.

We have all been there: this feeling of unreality, surreal, even, in our relationship to another. Do we exist independently of the one we deeply love? Would we exist without them?


This next one is something so universal it needs no explanation.


I thought to pick

The flower of forgetting

For myself,

But I found it

Already growing in his heart.


These are only a few examples of her unmatched poetry. She is so much fuller as a poet and woman then what I have quoted here.

Izumi Shikibu is a poet that can make one uncomfortable in the reading. Her poems are so personal, so erotic , you feel at times like a voyageur.   There is an emotional depth, a vibrancy that sings through her verse and goes deep into the heart of human experience.


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.


When a lover was sent a purple robe he left behind:


Don’t blush!

People will guess

That we slept

Beneath the folds

Of this purple-root rubbed cloth.


If only his horse

Had been tamed

By my hand—I’d have taught it

Not to follow anyone else!

There is no wilting flower in the poem above!

This last poem quoted here is hard to read. Shikibu’s daughter Naishi has died, snow fell and melted. The reference to ‘vanish into the empty sky’, is referring to the smoke of cremation. The grief felt in this poem is overwhelming and speaks across the centuries.

Why did you vanish

Into empty sky?

Even the fragile snow,

When it falls,

Falls into this world.

These are just a few examples of the rich literary tradition of Japanese Tanka. To me, they speak cross cultures and time. They speak directly to the human heart.

The next section will be about the formation of tanka, the classical measures within tanka, the pivotal words, and other issues. I will end with some examples of my own tanka.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2015

“Devil’s Revenge” Chapter 40, Part 1

March 31, 2009

I am having more fun with this book.  I’ve really been struggling to figure out what happens, and it’s been a tough slog.  Part of the problem is expectation.  I am waiting it out and seeing if it all falls together.  I’m as clueless as any stray reader.

What I am posting of Chapter 40 today isn’t the mythological stuff….but it sets the stage for what happens next.  Lord Dilwen communicates with some demonic spirits and there is (I hope) some exciting outcomes to this…but that is for Part 2.  Later this week.

Welsh mythology is a bugger, and I am just getting my head around the essentials.  Again there are some pov issues, but I’ll take care of that in the rewrite.

Lady Nyo


Chapter 40,  Part 1

The sun was barely above the horizon when they rode down the causeway and onto the shore.  Circling the water, they came to the main road and traveled though the forest and up into the hills. They rode for Gwynedd, days in the distance, and Lord Evan looked with narrowed eyes at the far hills, soon to turn into mountains.  He was leading these men, but one amongst them was the true authority.  He prayed this man would help protect them.  He was getting too old for these forays.  Soon the soil would warm and the spring planting would call for his presence.  The comfort of his own bed and wife beside him was alluring enough.

Lord Dilwen was that man of authority.  He sat his horse with suprising grace for one so  elderly and though the pace was not fast, they traveled over landscape that rolled with a constant rhythm.  The journey would challenge his bones, but he savored the chance to get away from the women. When he was given to the Goddess more than sixty years ago, he was trained to endure hardship.   He was a very old Druid and the priests of the Christ did not challenge him.  If they thought of him at all, they dismissed him as senile.  His Lady Dilwen and he now lived in the comfort of the castle and both needed the warmth of the hall fire in winter.  Spring was appearing, the weather had changed.  He was glad to be out from the castle.  It did a man good to be with men, out of earshot of women.

Lord Evan sat his horse, lost in deep thought.  He knew the three men from his homeland to the west.  They would follow his orders. The new one, this Lord Gwrtheyrn , he was a puzzle to him.  He would dismiss him as a cipher, but he saw the behavior of those about him.  He hadn’t a clue why the younger lord had such value, and he smelled like a damn foreigner, but he knew enough to withhold his contempt.  He was commanded by his council of his lordships  to deliver this Lord Gwrtheyrn to the Isle of Skye.  He hoped they would meet little resistance as they passed through the kingdoms.  All except Lord Dilwen were competent swordsmen, and if the young Lord Gwrtheyrn was killed by a raider, they could turn their horses homeward that much sooner.  It was all the same to him.  He smiled to himself in thought.  Lord Dilwen may not be a swordman, but he had other powers to compensate that.  Lord Evan’s horse was leading them through the forest and he looked back at the Lords Dilwen and Gwrtheyrn.  He could vaguely hear Lord Dilwen’s voice behind him.

“It’s a twisted history this land has been given.”

Lord Dilwen’s voice was low for they passed through a forest not of their own.  Better they pass quietly, without drawing the notice of locals.  They were too small a group to take on another force.  Lord Evan would know where they were, but to the other’s eyes, one forest was the same as another.

Lord Dilwen rode next to Gwrtheyrn. .  “The Battle of Camlan, now that’s where Arthur carried the image of Saint Mary on his shield. That showed the Old Ones how much Arthur betrayed them.  He had been King Stag at the Beltaine, yet look what he fell to!”  Lord Dilwen spat over his horse. “It was his love of peace that set this betrayal.  With the priests of Christ welcome at his council, there was no turning back.”

They rode in silence for a while, while Lord Dilwen collected his thoughts, remembering the past, or perhaps considering the present, the future.

“Arthur and his forces were up against Medraut, the son of Llews.  That was your foster-father.”  Lord Dilwen paused a bit, and thought back over his history.  “Medraut joined forces with the Picts and Saxons and blazed through the north.”

Lord Dilwen’s memories heated his words.  “Ah, things were again to change, though news traveled slowly.  The great five princes of the land, Constantine from Cornwall, Virtipore, who had Dyfed and the regions south, let me think now.  Ah! It was Cuneglase of Powys and Maelgun of Gwyddyl, and I believe Conan of Gwent., they held the land in the name of the Goddess back then.”   He fell silent again and his eyes darkened a bit.

“It was the wavering of Maelgwn who was won by the Christ’s priests. He was the snake in the grass!  When he was young, he served the Goddess well, taking many heads of tyrants.  But age can sometimes do strange things, my young lord.”  Lord Dilwen spit over the side of his horse again.   “Maelgwn  repented of his past and swore before the priest’s Christ that he would be a monk amongst them.  He was powerful, but turned too much to the council of those priests.  They gelded him.”

Lord Dilwen took a water skin from his saddle mount and drank deeply.  He offered it to Lord Gwrtheyrn, who shook his head.

“So, what we have, my young lord, is chaos and confusion.  Princes raiding princes, Kings breaking pacts.  The land is in turmoil, and the Christians no longer wait as wolves at the door.  They have made good egress into the minds and hearts all over the island. Their brand of ignorance is particularly galling.   Now, the Goddess hides Her face, and plague has descended in the east.  This pox lasted 6 years last time. . It took off your family along with King Llews.  With no one to plow and crops to be set, famine takes what plague didn’t get.”

Lord Dilwen looked sideways at Gwrtheyrn.  “Did anything of your childhood come back to you when you entered the land of your ancestors? Did you remember your foster father, King Llews?”

Lord Gwrtheyrn shook his head silently.  “I remember nothing, of people or place. One mountain could be as another.”

Lord Dilwen’s eyes glittered for an instant, and he smiled to himself.  “Our priests were wise in preserving your life. You might pay with it now, but there was a greater wisdom in removing you.”  He was silent for a moment.  “Do you feel any stirrings of your magic?”

Lord Gwytheyrn looked at him in surprise.  “It is that apparent?  No, it seems all magic and power have left me.  I wondered what had happened.”

Lord Dilwen chuckled to himself.  “It will return, my young lord.  You are standing in many magic fields, what they call dragon lines, though that is the name used by the people.  The old Druids knew another name, one that is not mentioned aloud, and it’s hard to tell where one stops and one starts.  They crisscross the earth, and are especially potent underground.  Your lady will have some knowledge of its workings before she is finished.”

Lord Gwytheyrn looked hard at the old Druid, his mind forming questions.  “I know, my Lord, of some of the plans for my being here.  The council has made clear what they want from me.  But as to Betsy…I mean my Lady Bethan, is it wise to give her such knowledge?”

“Do you not trust her, my son?”  Lord Dilwen’s voice was soft, his eyes looking at the back of Lord Evan’s jacket.

Gwytheyrn was silent in thought.  “It’s not that I don’t trust her, my Lord.  It’s that she is so distanced in mind from all this.”   He made a rude choking gesture with his hand.  “She will be trouble for the one who is doing the teaching.”

Lord Dilwen laughed.  “All women are hard to teach, especially when they resist the lessons.  But none of these plans were made without care.  We all have a reason for being here, though the Goddess doesn’t tell that to men.  Perhaps in the matter of women, She is more gracious.”

Gwytheyrn  lapsed into silence.  Whatever they were planning for Bess back in the castle, she would give them a good run for their money.  He knew her to have a sharp mind, but she was a modern woman, removed from the turmoil and customs of this present land and time.  It would take a major adjustment to not be overwhelmed and he did not think that could be avoided.  Well, there was nothing he could do at this distance.  Those around her would have to adjust to her own behavior.  He smiled to himself.  It would be quite a contest of wills and he was glad he would be miles away.

They were following a rough road that wound through the hills and through more forests.  The hills mounted upward, and soon Gwytheyrn could tell that they had left the lowlands. They  crossed over a long valley and began to climb into the mountains.  Lord Dilwen sat his horse easily, and at times appeared to doze on his mount.  When they began to climb, and the altitude changed he became awake and looked about him carefully.  He explained to Gwytheyrn that he was looking for a particular place, sacred to the Old Druids and he wanted to pay his respects to this place.  Lord Evan knew his plans and dropped back to speak to the old Druid.  Gwytheyrn slowed his horse and fell away from them, allowing the two men privacy.  They talked together for a while, though Gwytheyrn would not hear their low voices, but Lord Dilwen eyes were keen in observing all about him.  It was a further hour and then they pulled their five mounts together and stopped for the night.

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