Tangled Hair – Some Tanka by Yosano Akiko

Yosano Akiko (1878-1942) was a Japanese poet, essayist, autobiographer, and novelist. She was born on 7 December 1878 in Sakai, a town south of Osaka, to a highly prosperous merchant family. From an early age, she demonstrated an avid interest in literature, which she pursued after her formal schooling ended. As a young woman, she attended meetings of the literary societies in Sakai. In 1901, Akiko moved to Tokyo to be with Yosano Hiroshi, a writer and editor whom she married later that year, shortly after the publication of her first book of poems Midaregami (Tangled Hair). She published translations into modern Japanese of Murasaki Shikibu’s classic Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji,) and Shinyaku Eiga Monogatari (Newly Translated Tale of Flowering Fortunes). She also published a monumental compilation of 26,783 poems (incl. haiku, tanka etc) written by 6,675 poets in modern times. She wrote prolifically to help support her family. (She gave birth to 13 children, 11 of whom survived to adulthood.)

A prominent pacifist and feminist, Yosano Akiko spoke out against the Sino-Japanese war and the growing nationalistic fervor of the times. She later founded a woman’s college, the Bunka Gakuin, in 1921 and made constructive statements on problems of women and education. She was a socialist sympathizer, and openly opposed Japan’s military adventures in the twentieth century, as in a fiercely anti-war poem addressed to her brother (1904), which brought denunciation as a traitor, a rebel, a criminal who ought to be subjected to national punishment.

Yosano Akiko died of a stroke in 1942 at the age of 63. Her death, occurring in the middle of the Pacific War, went almost unnoticed in the press, and, after the war, her works were largely forgotten. However, her romantic, sensual style has come back into popularity in recent years, and she has an ever-increasing following as testified to by the numerous translations her work continues to receive. Her grave is at Tama Cemetery in Fuchu, Tokyo.

 

THE TANKA OF YOSANO AKIKO

Kenneth Rexroth states that  Yosano Akiko is one of the world’s greatest women poets, comparable to Christina Rossetti, Gapara Stampa, Louise Labe and Li Ch’ing Chao. Her first collection of Tanka poetry, Midaregami (Tangled Hair, 1901) caused a sensation among her contemporaries for its freshness of theme and style, and its direct expressions of passion in an uninhibited, sensual language. Yosano Akiko wrote both tanka and free verse, but it is in her tanka (five-line closed verse) that she subtly explores her sexuality and her body. “I realized that if women didn’t really exert themselves they would never mix with men on an equal footing. That was the first time I made a poem.” According to Nicholas Klacsanzky, Though tanka was originally court poetry written by elite individuals in Japanese society, Yosano Akiko showed to a greater extent that tanka can be written without inhibition at the highest poetic level.

Her work, as it moved into the new century, was voluminous; by Kenneth Rexroth’s count, she wrote more than 17,000 tanka, nearly five hundred shintaishi (free verse [poems]), published seventy-five books, including translations of classical literature, and had eleven children.

She is best remembered for her innovative and controversial use of the tanka verse form. I have included a very small number of these tanka in this post, some in their original Japanese. I have, where possible, provided differing translations. I have also included a small selection of translations where I could not find the original Japanese. If anyone can supply it in the comment box below I would be grateful.

 

 

Some Tanka by Yosano Akiko

罪おほき男こらせと肌きよく黒髪ながくつくられし我れ

Made to punish men for their sins
The smoothest skin
The longest black hair…
All that
Is me!

Roger Pulvers

***

To punish
Men for their endless sins,
God gave me
This fair skin,
This long black hair!

Sandford Goldstein and Seishi Shinodo

 

その子二十櫛にながるる黒髪のおごりの春のうつくしきかな

Her hair at twenty
Flowing long and black
Through the teeth of her comb
Oh beautiful spring
Extravagant spring!

Roger Pulvers

 

くろ髪の千すぢの髪のみだれ髪かつおもひみだれおもひみだるる

My black hair
My thick thick black hair
My wild hair
Its thousand strands my heart
Dishevelled, torn apart.

Roger Pulvers

***

Black hair
Tangled in a thousand strands.
Tangled my hair and
Tangled my tangled memories
Of our long nights of love making.

Kenneth Rexroth

***

A thousand lines
Of black black hair
All tangled, tangled —
And tangled too
My thoughts of love!

Sandford Goldstein and Seishi Shinodo

***

My shiny black hair
fallen into disarray,
a thousand tangles
like a thousand tangled thoughts
about my love for you.

Sam Hamill & Keiko Matsui Gibson

 

乳ぶさおさへ神秘のとばりそとけりぬここなる花の紅ぞ濃き

I press my breasts
Gently parting
The shroud of mystery
Revealing the flower
Redder than red

Roger Pulvers

***

Press my breasts,
Part the veil of mystery,
A flower blooms there,
Crimson and fragrant.

Kenneth Rexroth

***

Clasping my hands to my breasts
The curtain of mystery
I kicked gently aside
How crimson is my flower
And how dark!

Leith Morton

***

Pressing my breasts
I softly kick aside
the Curtain of mystery
How deep the crimson
of the flower here

Janine Beichman

© Janine Beichman. Reprinted by permission of the author.

***

Gently I open
the door to eternal
mystery, the flowers
of my breasts cupped,
offered with both my hands.

Sam Hamill & Keiko Matsui Gibson

 

ゆあみして泉を出でしやははだにふるるはつらき人の世のきぬ

My skin is so soft
Fresh from my bath
It pains me to see it touched
Covered by the fabric
Of an everyday world

Roger Pulvers

***

Fresh from my hot bath
I dressed slowly before
the tall mirror,
a smile for my own body,
innocence so long ago.

Sam Hamill & Keiko Matsui Gibson

 

春みじかし何に不滅の命ぞとちからある乳を手にさぐらせぬ

“Spring doesn’t last,” I said to him…
“You don’t believe in permanence, do you?”
And I took his hands in mine
Leading them
To my young full breasts

Roger Pulvers

***

This autumn will end.
Nothing can last forever.
Fate controls our lives.
Fondle my breasts
With your strong hands.

Kenneth Rexroth

***

Spring is short
what is there that has eternal life
I said and
made his hands seek out
my powerful breasts

Janine Beichman

© Janine Beichman. Reprinted by permission of the author.

***

Spring is short!
Nothing endures!
I cried,
Letting him touch
These supple breasts!

Sandford Goldstein and Seishi Shinodo

***

Spring is short:
Why ever should it
Be thought immortal?
I grope for
My full breasts with my hands.

Geoffrey Bownas & Anthony Thwaite

***

Gently I open
the door to eternal
mystery, the flowers
of my breasts cupped,
offered with both my hands.

Sam Hamill & Keiko Matsui Gibson

 

きのふをば千とせの前の世とも思ひ御手なほ肩に有りとも思ふ

Yesterday is another world
A thousand years away…
Yet it rushes to me
This minute!
With your hand on my shoulder…

Roger Pulvers

***

Did we part
yesterday
or a thousand years ago?
Even now I feel
Your hand on my shoulder.

Dennis Maloney and Hide Oshiro

***

Was it a thousand
years ago or only
yesterday we parted?
Even now, on my shoulder
I feel your friendly hand.

Sam Hamill & Keiko Matsui Gibson

 

 

FURTHER TANKA (WITHOUT THE JAPANESE)

Hair unbound, in this
Hothouse of lovemaking.
Perfumed with lilies,
I dread the oncoming of
The pale rose of the end of night.

Kenneth Rexroth

***

Fragrant the lilies
In this room of love;
Hair unbound,
I fear
The pink of night’s passing

Sandford Goldstein and Seishi Shinodo

***

No camellia
Not plum for me,
No flower that is white.
Peach blossom has a color
That does not ask my sins.

Geoffrey Bownas & Anthony Thwaite

***

Poet, sing of this night
Alive with lights and
The wine served.
Our beauty pales
next to the peony.

Dennis Maloney and Hide Oshiro

***

Left on the beach
Full of water,
A worn out boat
Reflects the white sky
Of early autumn.

Kenneth Rexroth

***

I am very grateful to Andrea Marra for her help in sourcing some of these translations.

 

 

LINKS

The Wikipedia entry on Yosano Akiko.

A biography, bibliography and selection of poems from the Living Haiku Anthology.

Kenneth Rexroth’s translations.

Dennis Maloney and Hide Oshiro translate some poems.

Translations of some tanka on Andrea Marra’s blog.

Janine Beichman, Embracing the Firebird: Yosano Akiko and the Birth of the Female Voice in Modern Japanese Poetry.

Awakening Female Sexuality in Yosano Akiko’s Midaregami. 

River of Stars: translations by Sam Hamill & Keiko Matsui Gibson

tangled hair: Selected Tanka from Midaregami (Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda)

Tangled Hair: short narrative sex poems by Andrea Marr, inspired by Yosano Akiko.

 

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One thought on “Tangled Hair – Some Tanka by Yosano Akiko

  1. Pingback: Wet Skirts – Brief Poems by Kenneth Rexroth | Brief Poems

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