Tag Archives: (century) 12th

Saigyō, Poet

Saigyō, Poet

Saigyō, poet
redefined ancient Waka
breaking restrictions;
he amazes me with his
cherry blossoms and bright moon.


Where in the Western World a piece of prose is often begun with a chapter title, in medieval Japan a Waka was used to close it (whether fictional or non-fictional), capturing the essence of the written work.  Since this is a piece of prose about the twelfth century Japanese poet Saigyō written for a Western audience, I thought it appropriate to open with a Waka.

One of the premiere and pivotal poets of Japan, Saigyō redefined the half a millennium old (in his day) form known as Waka, called Tanka in modern times.  Waka was first published in the Manyōshū in the eighth century.  The poems that appeared there covered a wide range of topics written by everyone, from guards on the far borders of the empire to the Imperial Presence.  By the time the Kokinshū was published a century and a half later, common poetry had become court poetry under the auspices of the Imperial Bureau of Poetry.  Restrictions on topics, patterns and words honed the form with stylistic precision.  But by the time Saigyō was born, everything that could be explored within the restrictive limits had been for over a century.  The form was stagnate, mirroring the culture of the day.

Waka were to be on one item or scene and the poet’s emotional response to it.  The topics were nearly exclusively nature or love.  Verbs were far more prevalent than nouns.  All five lines were to flow smoothly.  Below is a poem was written by Saigyō, and is a classic example of how a Waka would be written before his reforms, followed by a poem he wrote after his reforms.


Gazing at them, Nagamu tote
I’ve grown so very close hana ni mo itaku
to these blossoms, narenureba
to part with them when they fall chiru wakare koso
seems bitter indeed! kanahikarikere Watson p. 45
Looking at the moon Tsuki mireba
I see the branches of cherry kaze ni sakura no
trembling in the wind eda naete
and almost tell myself, hana yo tsuguru
“They’re in bloom!” Kokochi koso sure Watson p. 161


In the first one, there is only one subject, blossoms, and the poet’s response is described subjectively, giving at once emotions and distance from those emotions.  Something many would expect of a restrained Japanese courtier or Buddhist Monk, both of which Saigyō had been during his lifetime.  The second one has a number of subjects, the moon, branches and the wind.  The poet enters the poem and announces startlement, not love or regret.  This poem is dynamic, yet breaks into two very different segments, one part describing what he is seeing and the other has him talking to himself.

Saigyō’s poetry reform and poems captured the change of his times with each microcosm of syllable groupings. During the 12th century, the Heian era finished its slow fall, crumbling under its own entropy.  Emperors gave way to shōguns; courtly peace and intrigue were supplanted by warriors and hostile diplomacy.  Many of the scholars thought they had entered the time of Mappō, or the End of the Law, a period of growing formalism and ignorance of Buddhism.  This apocalyptical era of moral and spiritual decay would only end when the Amida Buddha appeared to take all of the enlightened to the next level.  And during these times while Japan moved from a period of light, color and courtly formalities to something a little more drab and harshly honest, Saigyō lived out his adult life.

Would have the change to poetry happened without him?  Most likely, yes.  The times were changing.  But Saigyō was the pivot on which this change occurred, and his personality and interests directed that change like a sluice in a dam directs a torrent of water from a river.  Through this, he has forever impacted Japanese culture.

Because Waka was an essential part of courtly life, everyone in the courts from the lowest warrior to the emperor (or empress) studied and wrote poetry.  Even today, Japan has hundreds of magazines and clubs dedicated to the creation and study of Tanka.  Only the Johnny-come-lately Haiku (which wasn’t acknowledged as its own unique form until the nineteenth century) is more popular.  But I have no doubts that the highly restrictive three-line form will eventually yield its temporary supremacy to the much more versatile millennium old five-line Tanka.


Even in a latter age Sue no you mo
this art alone knon nasake no mi
remains unchanged! Kawarazu to
But had I not had that dream mishi yme nakuba
I’d have thought it none of my affair yoso ni kikamashi Watson p. 218


Since Japan’s only major cultural influence in period was China, the constant evolution of poetry and art found in the West was not present on this lonely island nation.  Where in Europe, a form would develop in one country (such as the Italian Sonnet) and travel changing form and rhyme scheme as it crossed languages, modifying topic and target-audience as it crossed cultures, the Japanese had only one all powerful neighbor to draw out-of-culture material.  A neighbor which they tried not to be absorbed into as much as they looked to its ancient culture for inspiration.  This isolation made the genius of creativity and metamorphoses have a very small pool to draw from.

Saigyō was such a genius.  Born in a time of change, he rode the whirlwind, and with fifteen thousand poems of thirty-one syllables, created a fulcrum to reinvigorate his society’s culture.  What makes Saigyō amazing isn’t that he came up with a new form, but that he took an old form and cleaned it up.  He respected the past and created innovation for the future.  By not ignoring previous work, he created a continuity that made the innovation fascinating. Saigyō lived at a turning point in his country’s history and he influenced its change.


Let us seek the past, Ato tomete
be an age furuki o shitau
that cherishes the old – yo naranan
then our “today” one day ima mo arieba
will be someone’s “long ago” mukashi narubeshi Watson p. 220



Kojima, Takashi.  Written on Water: Five Hundred Poems from the Man’yoshu.  Charles E. Tuttle Company: Rutland, Vermont.  1995.

This book gives some interesting background to the Japanese culture, but its translations of the poems are leaden.  I recommend checking it out of a library, not buying it.

Ross, Bruce.  How to Haiku: A writer’s guide to haiku and related forms.  Tuttle Publishing: Boston.  2002.

Useful in learning about a number of Japanese poetry forms, as well as how to write them.  This gives no historical information.  Think of it as a modern cookbook to learn to cook, before breaking out the period manuscripts.

Watson, Burton.  Poems of a Mountain Home: Saigyō.  Columbia University Press: New York. 1991.

Very informative.  This is the primary source for this article.  If you are interested in 12th century Japan or Japanese poetry, this is a very good book to own.