Category Archives: poetry

An Ideal Heian Gift

What could be a better holiday present than a Kai-Awase clam shell game set with Heian poets and their particular poems hand painted on the inner shells? This evening, while feasting with friends and family or watching television, spare a moment to have an inner feeling of melancholic regret – you could have given or received THIS.

Better luck next year.



Filed under frivolity, games, poetry

Rebuff Unwanted Advances Delicately

As we’ve previously seen, Heian-era aristocrats used poetry to communicate in most areas of life.  One major advantage of poetic communication is that one could be indirect and discreet while still conveying a strong message.  Murasaki Shikibu, author of “The Tale of Genji”, was a lady-in-waiting to Emperor Ichijo’s young consort, Akiko, daughter of Michinaga Fujiwara.

Michinaga had initially selected Murasaki for his young daughter’s entourage. She was known for her cleverness, as the court of Heian Kyo found “Genji” to be fascinating, and she appears to have been a sort of tutor for Akiko as well. Michinaga was interested in having such a refined, imaginative woman influence his young daughter, who would hopefully be the mother of a future emperor.

He was interested in other aspects of Murasaki as well. Known as a lecherous man, Michinaga certainly attempted to enter Murasaki’s room on at least one occasion. Murasaki heard him knocking on the door outside of her room, and lay quietly, ignoring him. The next day, as was custom, Michinaga sent a poem:

How sad for him who stands the whole night long

A flightless Kuina bird.

Knocking on your cedar door

Tap-tap-tap like the cry of the Kuina bird

As was also the custom, Murasaki sent a poem in reply that used the same poetic allusions as the initial poem:

Sadder for her who had answered the Kuina’s tap,

For it was no innocent bird who stood there knocking on the door.

Could one rebuff unwanted advances in such a refined manner today?

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Filed under Michinaga, Murasaki Shikibu, poetry, romance

A Break in the Mountains

I have only just returned from a long trip away from my native soil, and though it is decidedly un-Heian to travel abroad, that is what I just did. Heian-era Japanese became more and more isolated from the world. They no longer sent ambassadors to China and Korea, thought of India, the birthplace of Buddhism, as further away than the moon, and perhaps a place of myth, and did not invite foreign emissaries to the royal court at Heian Kyo. The isolation was such that the Chinese court the Japanese were imitating was that of several hundred years before. This would be the equivalent of Italians today imitating 18th century France. That’s right, weird.
No, people did not venture abroad. Rather, the main traveling that aristocrats of the time did would be to stay for a long time at various Buddhist monasteries, where they would grow spiritually through an austere existence, or simpley wait out the latest gossip about themselves. In that spirit, let’s imagine that rather than having gone on a cruise to Central America, I went took a break in the mountains at a monastery. In a Heian interpretation of said vacation, I have written haikus to impart the important details.
Oooh, iguana farm!
Dominant males rest in trees.
Yes, they are all loose.

Majestic toucan
observes me below and squawks.
I want some fruit loops.

Feeding Honduran
parrots fallen orange pieces.
They all love me now.

You look like Sharpay
from High School Musical 3,
Honduran child says.

Top of Altun Ha,
dense jungle all around me.
My legs still don’t hurt…

Mayan Calendar:
will the world end in three years?
See 2012.


Cozumel – clear springs
abound. This is the island
of fertility.

Mexican ponies:
so very tiny, and quite
ill-tempered as well!

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Filed under buddhism, china, poetry, travel

Demand Poems from All Your Friends

In one of the many anecdotes that characterizes Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book, Sei, a lady in waiting to the Empress Sadako, (who is the wife of Emperor Ichijo and a niece of Michinaga) goes with the other ladies in waiting to see a particular type of bird by a pond. They pile into a carriage and risk attack from robbers outside of the city. Heian Kyo, (current day Kyoto) or the city of peace and tranquility, was a walled city that only the aristocracy or gentry and royal court were allowed to enter and live in. As a result, leaving the city could result in danger from bandits on isolated roads. Nevertheless, the ladies in waiting to Empress Sadako had to see that bird, which was some type of relative of a Kookibura, and so ventured out during the evening to observe it by a pond.

Upon their return to the royal court, they were met with a singular demand by Sadako: Where are your poems?
Writing, sending, and reciting poems was extremely important in Heian society. One sent them to lovers, friends, and relatives, and memorized the most popular ones for recitation contests at the royal court. When one had a sorrowful, spiritual or beautiful experience in nature, one wrote a standard three line poem to express the emotions felt. However, Sei and her cohorts failed to do this, after having told EVERYONE at court that they were specifically going to see this lovely bird with a haunting cry in the evening by a lake. What could inspire poetry if not that scene?
The ladies all sit and immediately try to recapture the moment, but alas, it’s too late. No one writes a poem of which she can be proud, or which she wishes to share with all of the court. They all feel deep humiliation and shame.

When your friends tell of you their experiences, sights, or feelings, indignantly demand a poem. And how did that NOT inspire you to write a three line poem with the standard conceits?, you’ll ask incredulously. Show me the poems!


Filed under Michinaga, Pillow Book, poetry, Sadako

An Ideal Heian Gentleman, Part II

The Heian world had strict codes of behavior everyone kept to, and this was true of romantic entanglements as well. The result of this was that there was no sitting around each day by the door waiting for the messenger’s arrival (the equivalent of waiting by the phone in Heian times) to see if a man were interested in you, or wanted to keep an affair going.

Instead, an ideal Heian gentleman would visit at night, and then take his leave in the early morning. Rather than saying something along the lines of “that was cool, babe, but I have to bounce before your parents find me,” the proper Heian gentleman would use a standard euphemism to announce his leave. Since it would be early morning, the grass would be covered with dew, and the fine gentleman would express a strong desire to see that dew. This would mean he’d have to go. One could then protest, and he’d say the “dew calls me”, or something along those lines.

Once the gentleman had arrived home, he was to immediately sit down, produce a standard three line poem, and send it with a symbolic flower or twig (symbolic of his feelings, whatever they may have been) to the lady he had just visited. If not, his interest in the affair was over. No poem = it’s over.

While seemingly an arcane ritual, this standard of conduct could be imitated today, as women would at least know where they stood. In fact, it would work for anyone. Demand a poem. Tell whomever you’re dating or living with that you’ll require a poem every time they leave to make sure they’re coming back. If they complain, start sending poems to their friends. They’ll take the hint.

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Filed under gentlemen, poetry, romance