In the Heian court of imperial Japan, a thousand years ago, almost every celebrated literary genius was a woman. This classical age saw an incredibly sophisticated and rich culture. The Heian period (meaning “peace”) is named after the capital of Heian-kyō, or modern-day Kyoto, and was a time characterized by the aristocracy privileging political intrigue over warfare as a way to accrue and conserve power.
The attention to interpersonal relationships and considerations of value and hierarchy made this a time of literary advancement, of celebrating poetry as well as advancing the novel, prose narrative tales, and essays.
But it was poetry that was the staple of court life, and that the women of the court—like Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, whose poems are included here—became infamous for. In the aristocratic culture of the Heian court, personal aesthetics were highly valued. One was constantly assessed by their ability to create “vibes”, the taste and judgement shown in the mixing of incense, the layering of patterned kimonos, music, dance, and—highest of all—the writing and performing of poetry.
The ability to write poetry of beauty illustrated the external beauty of the writer and the value of their character in the same way fearlessness in battle would garner valor for the young aristocrats of the European medieval courts. All of these skills figured into one’s advancement in life and love. All members of court society were expected to write, recall, recite poems, and riff off each other in a myriad of life situations, from the most mundane to the most ritualistic (the sight of the moon, the death of a companion, finding a lost personal item—all of these were occasions for poetry).
Komachi helped to usher in this era of confessional poetry: personal poems that were often erotic or romantic in nature and embodied technical excellence, philosophical depth, and emotional nuance. Komachi was not her real name but a court nickname. Very little is known about her actual life except that she was extraordinarily beautiful and charming, qualities that soon gave her a legendary status. Komachi became so famous that hundreds of years after her death, playwrights wrote dramas about the poetess killing her lovers, making her an original (mythic) femme fatale in Japanese culture.
Shikibu wrote at the height of the culture’s poetic flowering, and her work explored both the erotic and the spiritual in equal measure (often in the same poem), using nature and emotions to create a sense of longing that is both religious and horny.
The poems of the court flowed as a part of life. They were in themselves social interaction, both performance and communication—like a tweet or a text message (given that text messages might also be sent around or go viral). A social situation often called for poetry “contests,” formally or informally, in which participants could make (or break) a name for themselves in the imperial court. Formal contests (uta-awase) named their topics ahead of time and winners were recorded for posterity. Informal contests (ensho-awase) were treated more like parlor games for mere amusement. Teams were divided by gender: one would recite a love poem to a member of the opposite team, who was expected to respond, using the tone and imagery of the original piece for inspiration.
In the introduction to Ink Dark Moon, a collection of poems by Komachi and Shikibu, the translators, Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani, write that poetry’s proper concerns are human emotion and relations with the other as well as nature and the spiritual, a “natural upswelling of language in an awakened and interested heart—an irresistible and effortless answering within the individual to the continual calling of the Other, whether natural, supernatural, or human.”
In Heian society, poetry was integral to romance. For a woman of the court, seduction began with a poem delivered to her door. According to Dark Ink Moon, she would receive a five-line poem in an unfamiliar hand. If she found the poem sufficiently intriguing (after also assessing the penmanship and aesthetic of its packaging), her response, a poem in its own right, would set off the first meeting: a “clandestine night visit” from this mysterious suitor. According to established etiquette, the first night would be spent in hypnotic conversation and love-making, the couple not parting until sunrise. Afterward, a morning-after poem was to be sent and a response made. Only then would the success of the night be judged, and subsequent dates would all be made in the same fashion.
Like modern tweets and unreturned texts, much writing was taken up with the sleepless wondering of whether the other would visit, would write back—was it the weather or some unforeseen circumstance that prevented them, or had they officially ghosted? Like today’s constant flow of text messages, this poetic activity served as a way to reassure, rekindle, or keep the other aware of their partner’s state of heart, whether hot or cool.
Perhaps it’s this quality of the poems, their focus on impermanence, the fact that everything in life is subject to constant change, that makes them feel so applicable today.