to the small poem and the quiet voice within

yosano akiko | encore

The previous Basho posting of Yosano Akiko (both poem and photograph) inspired so much interest, I thought I would feature four more poems of hers plus some biography concerning this remarkable poet who fashioned her life into art. – norbert blei

Come at last to this point
I look back on my passion
And realize that I
Have been like a blind man
Who is unafraid of the dark.

Hair unbound, in this
Hothouse of lovemaking.
Perfumed with lilies,
I dread the oncoming of
The pale rose of the end of night.

Like tiny golden
Birds the ginko leaves scatter
from the tree on the
Hill in the sunset glow.

Press my breasts,
Part the veil of mystery,
A flower blooms there,
Crimson and fragrant.

Yosano Akiko was born in 1878 in the family of Otori in the ancient merchant city of Sakai. In 1900 she went to Tokyo, studied poetry with Yosano Hiroshi, who considered himself the leader of the new poetry (tanka) movement, and soon married him. For a while, in Tokyo and Kyoto they were involved in a tragic maison a trois, with a young woman whom they both loved deeply. After a few years she died of tuberculosis. Akiko and Hiroshi founded the “New Poetry Society” and its organ, the magazine Myojo, “Morning Star.” Hiroshi always thought of himself as the genius of the family, although he was a sentimental and commonplace poet, who learned little from the French Symbolists whom he adored. Akiko was quickly recognized and soon earned enough money to send Hiroshi to Paris from 1911 to 1914, but she was only able to save enough money for herself to stay part of 1912, and members of her family assisted them both to return to Japan. She wrote many collections of poetry, novels, essays, children’s stories, and fairy tales. She did a complete translation, of great beauty of style, of The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese. But the day before the manuscript was to go to the publisher, the great Tokyo earthquake of 1923 struck and all copies were destroyed. She bravely set to work and did it all over within the year. She was a leading feminist and pacifist and a socialist sympathizer. Her poem against the Russo-Japanese “War was the first direct criticism of the Emperor ever printed except in political pamphlets, and she wrote in defense and in memoriam of the socialist and anarchist martyrs of 1912 whose execution shocked the world  much as did the Haymarket Martyrs and Sacco and Vanzetti.

She is the only truly great poet to write in traditional tanka form in modern times. She and Hiroshi thought of themselves as stylistic revolutionaries, but in fact her poems are full of echoes of the classics and some arc deliberately modeled on well known Manyoshu poems. But then, behind every re-nascence of poetry in tanka form in Japan has lain a return to the purity of the Manyo. Akiko is more than this she is one of the world’s great women poets, comparable to Christina Rossetti, Gaspara Stampa, Louise Labe, and Li Ching Chao. She is certainly one of the very greatest poets of her time  the most perfect expression of the “Art Nouveau” sensibility  like Debussy, who should have set her poems to music.

She lived until 1942, productive to the end, having betimes in her literary career also mothered eleven children.

[from ONE HUNDRED MORE POEMS FROM THE JAPANESE, Kenneth Rexroth, New Directions, 1974, 1976]


  1. Curtis Dunlap

    Reading Akiko’s poems can inspire an occasional tanka:

    she kneels for Yeats
    I reach for Akiko
    in the poetry aisle
    reading the smile
    of a lovely stranger

    Curtis Dunlap
    Summer 2005 TSA’s Journal: Ribbons

  2. Sharon Auberle

    Thanks, Norb, for the photo of Akiko. I’ve had her poetry for a long time, but never knew what she looked like. She’s timeless, especially for those who have ever loved….

    “Without speaking of the Way,
    without worrying about the future,
    without seeking fame,
    here, loving, gazing at each other.”

    ~Yosano Akiko:
    Tangled Hair: Love Poems

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