Phragmites in Amsterdam 2013

If you like word-play, you’ll enjoy this poem quite a bit:

難波江の Naniwa-e no
芦のかりねの Ashi no karine no
一夜ゆへ Hitoyo yue
身をつくしてや Mi wo tsukushite ya
恋わたるべき Koi wataru beki

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

Due to that single night
of fitful sleep, short as a reed’s joint cut at the root
from Naniwa Bay,
am I to exhaust myself, like the channel markers
passing my days in longing?

This poem was composed by Lady Bettō (dates unknown), who served in the house of Empress Seishi, whose husband was Emperor Sutoku. Lady Bettō was also the daughter of Minamono no Yoshitaka.

Although the life of Lady Bettō is relatively unknown, and she doesn’t appear in many anthologies, Professor Mostow points out that her poem is quite a technical feat. There are a lot of “pivot words”, or words that can either refer to the previous statement, or the latter one:

  • karine can mean cutting a root (刈り根) or a brief nap (仮寝) such as when travelling.
  • hitoyo can mean either a single segment of a reed (一節) or a single night (一夜).
  • mi wo tsukushi can mean either to exhaust one’s body (身を尽くし) or one of the famous barriers in Osaka Bay (澪標, see poem 20)

The poem itself uses many familiar themes too. We’ve seen a lot of poems that feature Osaka Bay, called Naniwa in ancient times, including poem 20, poem 19 and poem 72 among others. Similarly, we see references to reeds, just as we do in poem 39 and poem 19 (again).

What makes this poem stand out is the excellent use of word-play throughout. On the surface, it looks like just another love poem, but Lady Bettō knew what she was doing. 😉

Salsitz Weingut (03) 2006-10-06

As a final poem in March to honor women poets in the Hyakunin Isshu, I wanted to post a humorous, witty poem by Sei Shonagon, author of the Pillow Book:

夜をこめて Yo wo komete
鳥の空音は Tori no sorane wa
はかるとも Hakaru tomo
よにあふさかの Yo ni Osaka no
関はゆるさじ Seki wa yurusaji

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

Although, still wrapped in night,
the cock’s false cry
some may deceive,
never will the Barrier
of Meeting Hill let you pass.

Sei Shonagon, along with Lady Ise and Lady Murasaki, is one of the most famous female authors of her generation and Japanese history as a whole. She’s best known as the author of the Pillow Book, which is a book of observations regarding court life, nature, art, etc. Whereas Lady Ise was a hopeless romantic, and Lady Murasaki was melancholy, Sei Shonagon’s writings show she had a sharp, often haughy wit. She had the misfortune of serving Empress Teishi, who fell out of favor after her father died, and the 2nd wife, Empress Shoshi, gained prominence. Lady Ise and Lady Murasaki served the latter, and by that time Sei Shonagon was a bit of a has-been.

This poem demonstrates Sei Shonagon’s wit at her finest though. According to the back-story, she was visited by one Yukinari, the First Controller, came to visit Sei Shonagon among other things, but left early in the night, because he had to be back to the Palace before the rooster crowed. Then Sei Shonagon receives a letter from him the next day, stating that he would have loved to stay longer, but then uses the famous example of a Chinese legend about the Lord of Meng Chang who supposedly tricked the guards at Han Ku gate to open it by imitating a rooster crow at night so that they would believe it was morning.

However, Sei is not convinced by his eloquent excuse and sends this snarky poem back that basically says that no one at Ōsaka Gate (Meeting Hill) would be fooled by it.