Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Yakamochi and Lady Ki

An Exchange of Love-Poems
in the Form of Double-Tankas

(somewhere before 800 CE)

1. To Yakamochi, from Lady Ki

It was for you, my slave,
That these hands worked so hard.
These reed-ears, plucked
On the spring moors,
Eat them and grow fat.

Flowering when the sun is up,
Sleeping at night as after love,
Should your lady gaze on it alone?
I send this silk tree to him,
That my slave may see it too.

2. To Lady Ki, from Yakamochi

The slave, it seems,
Loves his lady.
He eats the reed-ears
She deigned to give him,
Yet wastes the more.

The silk tree that
My lady sent
May bear, perhaps,
Flowers alone
And never fruit.

Otomo Yakamochi was the great poet of the Manyoshu, and the Manyoshu was the first great classical anthology of Japanese verse, set down between the 5th century, when the adoption of Chinese characters endowed Japan with literacy, and the end of the 8th century, the age of Yakamochi himself, the time of Nara. Like all poetry, only much more so, Japanese verse aims at compression, which is the subjugation of the prolix; but unlike poetry in the West it is neither liturgy nor social commentary nor moral fable nor the making of snapshots, but a party-game that everybody plays, and nobody more so than lovers. Many courtly ladies offered their love to Yakamochi in the form of Tankas – verses constructed in five lines, of five, seven, five, seven, seven syllables. The evidence of the Manyoshu suggests that Yakamochi, the pragmatic courtier who knew his place, invariably replied in kind.

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