Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Heian Japanese Poetry

A while ago, I picked up "Ten Thousand Leaves: Love Poems from the Manyoshu," translated from the Japanese by Harold Wright. The Manyoshu is an anthology of poems compiled in the 8th century during the Heian period in Japan. I totally fell in love with some of these:

Your favorite flowers
that are growing near the house
have bloomed and faded
Yet, the tears that fill my eyes
have not begun to dry

Ah, if she were here
we could listen together
on this ocean shore
To the sound of passing cranes
crying in the rising sun

How could I undo
the sash my wife had tied
as I departed?
Unless it tears itself apart
it will stay there till we meet

To love someone
who does not return that love
is like offering prayers
Back behind a starving god
within a Buddhist temple

The Heian period roughly from the 700s -1100s is generally considered
Japan's "classic" period when the imperial court was at the height of its power and when Chinese and Confucianist influence was greatest. The poems from the Manyoshu are a collection from more than 400 known writers who wrote about daily life. The book that I have, focuses specifically on the love poems, which were passed between lovers. Strange as it may be to think, Japan used to have a matriarchal culture, and during the Heian period, women kept their own name, titles, and residences. Yes residences; even if you were married, you would live in a separate building from your husband because housing was grouped according to sex. So if you were a married lady at the imperial court, you would live in the women's quarters with your maids and ladies-in-waiting.

I love short poems like these. I admire poetry like this because it can evoke so much, with such a spare use of words. It's a skill that I'm trying to learn (not poetry writing dog knows we have too many bad poets in the world), the use of as few words to convey as much as possible.


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