Watching Rain – Brief poems by Ono no Komachi

Ono no Komachi drawn by Kikuchi Yōsai (1781 – 1878)

Ono no Komachi (小野 小町, c. 825 – c. 900) was a Japanese waka (now known as tanka) poet. Very little is known of her life other than a broad date of birth and that she was active in the mid-9th century. Despite extensive research attempting to discover her place of birth, her family and her life, she remains a mystery and a legend. Some believe that she was a lady-of-the-bedchamber in the service of Emperor Ninmyō, others believe that she was a low-ranking consort of the emperor. She had romantic entanglements with various men and these poetic exchanges are preserved in the Kokin Wakashū,  a collection of “Japanese Poems of Ancient and Modern Times”, an early anthology of the waka poetry dating from the Heian period. Her poetry is so well regarded that she is listed among the Rokkasen (Japanese Poetry Immortals), as well as in the introduction to the Kokin Wakashū, which contains her only surviving works. She is also one of the Sanjūrokkasen (the Thirty-six Immortals of Poetry) and the Nyōbōsanjūrokkasen (Thirty-six Immortal Lady Poets).

She was famous for her beauty and passion; she likely served at the court of Emperor Ninmyo, and her poems were a success in her own lifetime. The legends that have developed about her life have eclipsed the historical Ono no Komachi. One such legend is that concerning her harsh treatment of her admirer Fukakusa no Shosho, a high-ranking courtier. Komachi warned her suitor that he would have to visit her every night for 100 nights before she would submit to his charms. Fukakusa set about his task with determination and turned up each evening at Komachi’s house in all weathers. Tragically, though, the strain proved too much and Fukakusa died on the 99th night. Further legends tell of an aged Komachi living to be one hundred, forced to wander in ragged clothes, her beauty faded and her appearance so wretched that she was mocked by all around her, as punishment for her earlier mistreatment of her lovers. Another legend concerns her dying in poverty, her skull lying in a field; when the wind blows through the skull’s eye socket the sound evokes Komachi’s anguish. The true facts may never be known. 

The poetry, however, continues to endure. She is, arguably, the earliest and best example of a passionate woman poet in the Japanese canon commencing a tradition continued by Izumi Shikibu in a later age and Yosano Akiko in the modern one. Those poems, usually sad, deal with such subjects as lost love, unrequited love, loneliness, and the passing of time symbolised by changes in nature, especially fading blossoms and the changing colour of leaves in autumn. In his book, Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century, translator, critic and literary historian Donald Keene said that The intensity of emotion expressed in Komachi’s poetry not only was without precedent but would rarely be encountered in later years. The poetry of the Kokinshu was usually pitched in a lower key, and the ingenious use of language was a mark not of overpowering emotion but of a kind of intellectuality. Komachi’s poetry, however extravagant in expression, always seems sincere. 

The poetess Ono-no Komachi in the rain by Utagawa Toyokuni II.

TRANSLATORS

Helen Craig McCullough (1918 –1998) was an American academic, translator and Japanologist, best known for her 1988 translation of The Tale of the Heike. Her translations are included in Kokin Wakashū: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry (1985)

Donald  Keene (1922 –2019) was an American-born Japanese scholar, historian, teacher, writer and translator of Japanese literature. While staying at Cambridge, after winning a fellowship for Americans to study in England, Keene went to meet Arthur Waley, one of whose translations is included below, who was best known for his translation work in classical Chinese and Japanese literature. For Keene, Waley’s translation of Chinese and Japanese literature was inspiring, even arousing in Keene the thought of becoming a second Waley. He discusses the poetry of Ono no Komachi in his book, Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century (see above).

Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) often regarded, much to his disdain, as one of the central Beat poets was also a prolific reader of Chinese  and Japanese literature. Some of the translations below are from his collection One Hundred Poems from the Japanese. Oddly there are two translations of one poem: a translation he did with his collaborator, Ikuko Atsumi, and one credited only to himself. I prefer the latter. More of his Japanese translations are available on the Kenneth Rexroth post on this blog.

Jane Hirshfield is an American poet, essayist, and translator who has received lay ordination in Soto Zen at the San Francisco Zen Center. Her poetry reflects her immersion in a wide range of poetic traditions, both Asian and Western. She has edited and co-translated, with Mariko Aratani, a collection of the work of the two foremost women poets of classical-era Japan: The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan (1990). Through these, and other translations, she was instrumental in bringing tanka  to the attention of American poets.

Michael R. Burch is an American, poet, columnist, essayist, and editor who lives in Nashville, Tennessee. He also edits The HyperTexts  a literary website which has been online for two decades and currently gets around 1.5 million page views per year. On this site he includes translated poetry from Old English and numerous other languages into modern English. One page on his site is devoted to the poetry of Ono no Komachi where he offers numerous translations of her brief poems. More of what he calls “loose translations” of Ono no Komachi are available on the Michael R. Burch post on this blog.

Brief Poems by Ono no Komachi

花の色はうつりにけりないたづらにわが身世にふるながめせしまに

Hana no iro wa
utsurinikeri na
itazura ni
wa ga mi yo ni furu
nagame seshi ma ni

Alas! The beauty
of the flowers has faded
and come to nothing,
while I have watched the rain,
lost in melancholy thought.

Translated by Helen Craig McCullough

***

The flowers withered
Their colour faded away,
While meaninglessly
I spent my days in brooding,
And the long rains were falling.

Translated by Donald Keene

***

While watching
the long rains falling on this world
my heart, too, fades
with the unseen color
of the spring flowers.

Translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Arantani

***

Without changing color
in the emptiness
of this world of ours,
the heart of man
fades like a flower.

Translated by Kenneth Rexroth and  Ikuko Atsumi 

***

Watching the long, dismal rains
inundating the earth,
my heart too is washed out, bleeds off
with the colors of the late spring flowers.

Translated by Michael R. Burch

Aki no yo mo
na nomi narikeri
au to ieba
koto zo to mo naku
akenuru mono o

Autumn nights, it seems,
are long by repute alone:
scarcely had we met
when morning’s first light appeared,
leaving everything unsaid.

Translated by Helen Craig McCullough

***

The autumn night
is long only in name—
We’ve done no more
than gaze at each other
and it’s already dawn.

Translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Arantani

***

Autumn nights are “long”
only in verse and song:
for we had just begun
to gaze into each other’s eyes
when dawn immolated the skies!

Translated by Michael R. Burch

Hito ni wan
Tsuki no naki ni wa
Omoiokite
Mune hashiribi ni
Kokoro yakeori

This night of no moon
there is no way to meet him.
I rise in longing:
My breast pounds, a leaping flame,
my heart is consumed by fire.

Translated by Donald Keene

***

On such a night as this
When no moon lights your way to me,
I wake, my passion blazing,
My breast a fire raging, exploding flame
While within me my heart chars.

Translated by Earl Miner

***

You do not come
On this moonless night.
I wake wanting you.
My breasts heave and blaze.
My heart burns up.

Translated by Kenneth Rexroth 

***

He does not come.
Tonight in the dark of the moon
I wake wanting him.
My breasts heave and blaze.
My heart chars.

Translated by Kenneth Rexroth and  Ikuko Atsumi 

***

When I cannot see him
In the dark of a moonless night,
Fire rises in me—
Leaping in my burning breast,
Charring my heart with its flames.

Translated by Steven Carter

***

Nights when the moon hides
All hope of seeing you leaves me
Desire lies smoldering
Within my breast flames burn wild
Fire scorching my sleepless heart

Translated by Charles Cabell

***

On nights such as these
when no moon lights your way to me,
I lie awake, my passion blazing,
my breast an inferno wildly raging,
while my heart chars within me.

Translated by Michael R. Burch

わびぬれば身をうき草の根をたえて誘ふ水あらば去なむとぞ思

Wabinureba
mi o ukikusa no
ne o taete
sasou mizu araba
inamu to zo omou

In this forlorn state
I find life dreary indeed:
if a stream beckoned,
I would gladly cut my roots
and float away like duckweed.

Translated by Helen Craig McCullough

***

So lonely am I
My body is a floating weed
Severed at the roots.
Were there water to entice me,
I would follow it, I think.

Translated by Donald Keene

***

This body
grown fragile, floating,
a reed cut from its roots . . .
If a stream would ask me
to follow, I’d go, I think.

Translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Arantani

***

Wretched water-weed that I am,
severed from all roots:
if rapids should entice me to annihilation,
why not welcome their lethal shoots?

Translated by Michael R. Burch

色見えでうつろふ物は世中の人の心の花にぞ有りける

Iro miede
Utsurou momo wa
Yo no naka no
Hito no kokoro no
Hana ni zo arikeru

The flowers and my love
Passed away under the rain,
While I idly looked upon them
Where is my yester-love?

Translated by Yone Noguchi

***

A thing which fades
With no outward sign—
Is the flower
Of the heart of man
In this world!

Translated by Arthur Waley

***

How invisibly
it changes color
in this world,
the flower
of the human heart.

Translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Arantani

***

Imperceptible
It withers in the world,
This flower-like human heart.

Translated by Kenneth Rexroth

***

Two things wilt without warning,
bleeding away their colors:
a flower and a man’s heart.

Translated by Michael R. Burch

思ひつつぬればや人の見えつらむ夢としりせばさめざらましを

Omoitsutsu
Nureba ya hito no
Meitsuramu
Yume to shiriseba
Samezaramashi wo

Thinking about him
I slept, only to have him
Appear before me—
Had I known it was a dream
I should never have wakened.

Translated by Donald Keene

***

Was it then because
I fell asleep with yearning thoughts
That he appeared to me?
Had I known it was a dream
I never would have awakened.

Translated by Edwin A. Cranston

***

Was it that I went to sleep
Thinking of him,
That he came in my dreams?
Had I known it a dream
I should not have wakened.

Translated by Geoffrey Bownas

***

I fell asleep thinking of him,
And he came to me.
If I had known it was only a dream
I would have never awakened

Translated by Kenneth Rexroth

***

Did he appear
because I fell asleep
thinking of him?
If only I’d known I was dreaming,
I’d never have wakened.

Translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Arantani

***

I nodded off thinking about you
only to have your appear in my dreams.
Had I known that I slept,
I’d have never awakened!

Translated by Michael R. Burch

いとせめてこひしき時はむばたまの夜の衣をかへしてぞきる

Ito semete
Koishiki toki wa
Mubatama no
Yoru no koromo o
Kaeshite zo kiru

When longing for him
Tortures me beyond endurance,
I reverse my robe —
Garb of night, black as leopard-flower berries —
And wear it inside out.

Translated by Helen Craig McCullough

***

When love presses me
Relentless in the glistening night
I take off my robe,
Then lie down to sleep again,
Wearing it inside out.

Translated by Edwin A. Cranston

***

When my desire
grows too fierce
I wear my bed clothes
inside out,
dark as the night’s rough husk.

Translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani

***

I feel desire so intensely
in the lily-seed darkness
that tonight I’ll turn my robe inside-out
before donning it.

Translated by Michael R. Burch

LINKS

The Ono no Komachi page on the Waka Poetry site with links to poems in original Japanese.

Ono no Komachi: Modern English Translations by Michael R. Burch.

Japanese and English quotations from the poetry of Ono no Komachi.

Jane Hirshfield discusses the poetry of Ono no Komachi.

An e-text of her poems (in Japanese).

Ono no Komachi and the Standard of Japanese Female Beauty.

Ono no Komachi: A Waka Poet Renowned for her Beauty.

Burning in the Fires of Longing: The Kokinshu Poetry of Ono no Komachi, an essay and translations by Charles Cabell.

Summoning the Spirit: Poems of Komachi

The Wikipedia page on Ono no Komachi.

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.