Posts Tagged ‘The Japanese Priest Poet: Saigyo’

Mirror for the Moon: More Saigyo’s poetry.

June 18, 2010

I have written a very little here on Saigyo, the Heian-era priest and poet.  Reading, studying Saigyo is like falling into the rim of the Universe: you have no idea where you will land nor what you will learn.  But the ‘trip’ will probably profoundly change you.

In “Mirror For the Moon”, a collection of translations by William LaFleur of Saigyo, one gets the idea that Saigyo transcended the usual route, the accepted and comfortable route of poet/priests of that era.

There were tons of poetry written by many poets, officials, etc. about the moon, nature, flowers, etc.  But Saigyo had an ‘edge’:  his view of blossoms, moon, nature was not just a taken symbol of evanescence and youthful beauty:  his view of blossoms, nature, were more a path into the inner depth of this relationship between humanity and nature.   He spent 50 years walking the mountains, road, forests, fields all over Japan and his poetry (waka) reflected his deep understanding of the physicality of nature:  all seasons were felt and experienced not from the safety and comfort of a court, surrounded by other silk-clad courtier/poets,  but out there in the trenches of nature.  His poetry is fomented in the cold and penetrating fall and spring rains, the slippery paths upon mountain trails, the ‘grass pillows’ and a thin cloak, the deep chill of winter snows upon a mountain, the rising  mists that befuddle orientation,  and especially, the loneliness of traveling without companionship.

I have just begun to acquaint myself with Saigyo and his poetry, but there is something so profound, different, something that calls down the centuries to the heart.  His poetry awakens my awe and wonder of not only nature-in-the-flesh, but in the commonality of the human experience.

Lady Nyo

Not a hint of shadow

On the moon’s face….but now

A silhouette passes–

Not the cloud I take it for,

But a flock of flying geese.

Thought I was free

Of passions, so  this melancholy

Comes as surprise:

A woodcock shoots up from marsh

Where autumn’s twilight falls.

Someone who has learned

How to manage life in loneliness:

Would there were one more!

He could winter here on this mountain

With his hut right next to mine.

Winter has withered

Everything in this mountain place:

Dignity is in

Its desolation now, and beauty

In the cold clarity of its moon.

When the fallen snow

Buried the twigs bent by me

To mark a return trail,

Unplanned, in strange mountains

I was holed up all winter.

Snow has fallen on

Field paths and mountain paths,

Burying them all

And I can’t tell here from there:

My journey in the midst of sky.

Here I huddle, alone,

In the mountain’s shadow, needing

Some companion somehow:

The cold, biting rains pass off

And give me the winter moon.

(I love this one especially: Saigyo makes the vow to be unattached to seasons, to expectations, but fails and knows his very human limitations)

It was bound to be!

My vow to be unattached

To seasons and such….

I, who by a frozen bamboo pipe

Now watch and wait for spring.

(Love like cut reeds:)

Not so confused

As to lean only one way:

My love-life!

A sheaf of field reeds also bends

Before each wind which moves it.

(And 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?

From “Mirror For the Moon”, A Selection of Poems by Saigyo (1118-1190)

More Saigyo!

February 10, 2010

Full Moon with Geese, Ernest Coleman, The Cincinnati Enquirer

Such wonderful poetry this wandering Japanese priest wrote!

I wonder, though.  How was all this collected?  I raise this question because Saigyo died within the period of total upheaval in the capital.  This is probably where chronicles  were kept, by scribes or monks.  There was much burning and turmoil throughout these years towards the end of Saigyo’s life and it is amazing that his poetry, which….he wrote many verses…well, that so much survived.

Part of the answer is this:  Towards the very end of his life  (he died in 1190) he composed some of his very best poetry (at age 79).  There was now in his verse a sense of both his coming death and the surprise of continued life ! a wonder and a composure.  He sent a number of his poems to other poets for their judgment and put together the collection he called “Sanka-shu” or “Mountain-Home-Collection”.

Although there is a sense of Weltschmerz (psychological pain…weariness, sadness)  and self-pity in the suffering in solitude that his poetry displays, it is different from what we would encounter with certain poets in the Romantic tradition of the West.  There is a difference, though,  because Saigyo is a Buddhist and the ego-elevated perspective distorts reality.  What Saigyo’s verse celebrates is not the self, but the phenomena which is before him.  The self is no more important than nature.  Nature marches arm in arm with humanity in this present reality.

Saigyo’s vision comes from the Japanese Shinto traditional reverence for nature:  but also  that largesse in Buddhism which says that nature, or the various natural phenomena is “tomo” or companion to him.  All these things, man, poet, and flowers, plants, trees…all these things are participants with man in the wide and all encompassing Buddhism.  The moon, too…looking down upon humankind….always a factor of mystery and comfort and continuation.

Lady Nyo


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 one expresses the lonliness and solitude of his journeys to me)

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 now can be one mind.


When, at this stage

Of world-loathing, something captures

The heart, then indeed

The same world is all the more

Worthy…..of total disdain.


Why, in this world where

One here yesterday is off today

To the world of death,

Are more and more years and still

More and more months given me?


The color of my

Body garments may have deepened

But my mind

Is still shallow, pale,

Unfit for such a step.


Deep in the mountains,

No call of any bird at all close

And familiar…

Just the spine-tingling hoot

Of that mountain owl!


In the portrait

Emerging on the moon I spied

Your face….so clearly,

The cause of tears which then

Quickly cast the moon in clouds again.


We’re both afflicted

By drafts and wind, and spend our days

Getting up and lying down:

Young bamboo with still-weak core

And I, ill and disheartened.

%d bloggers like this: