Izumi Shikibu | Japanese Poetry | Poetry

Izumi Shikibu (Japanese poet of the 11th century

(I am Izumi Shikibu. It’s nice to be here.)

My name is Izumi Shikibu. Today I will talk to you about my life a poet in the 11 th century. The Japanese poetic customs of the time will intrigue you most as they are quite different to those today. In my day, to express love for someone, we wrote poems – short poems of five lines. If a man delivered one to my door, and I liked what he wrote, I had to write a poem in return and wait for him to arrive at dusk in the hope that he liked my reply. Relationships were not so much about love, but more about lust, and the man’s need to bring home a woman. Here is an example of a poem I sent in reply to a man’s love note.

All my poems were written in title-less traditional Japanese tanka style. Tanka style poetry consists of five lines with each line containing a specific number of syllables (5-7-5-7-7). In the 11th century all forms of art were very strict in their creation, and Tanka is a perfect example of this. Often these five line poems were very concise, and to the point – often in a metaphorical way, however. Sometimes they even included the occasional play on words. Particularly in my poems, I began with the first three lines consisting of an analogy, simile or metaphor, and wrote the last two lines in a much more literal tone. That way, I hoped, it would have more impact on the lover I was writing to. I wrote many, many poems to men who whished to visit me. It did not take long before I was first married (at the age of twenty), to Tachibana no Michisada, who was seventeen years older than me, which was not unusual. In the year 997, I gave birth to my only child, Koshikibu no Naishi. About three years after Koshikibu’s birth, Michisada was appointed Governor of Izumi, so we went with him there. However, I did not like life in Izumi and soon returned home. Before long I had began an affair with prince Tametaka, the son of the Emperor of Izumi. Our affair became a topic of gossip amongst the dignitaries at the time. My parents disowned me and when my husband found out, he divorced me – something that was not uncommon in Japan, even then. Only a couple of years later, my prince Tametaka fell ill and died, and his half brother, prince Atsumichi moved in and I was soon involved in a relationship yet again. When Atsumichi brought me home with him, I discovered that he already had a wife, who promptly stormed out. I was less affected by this than most people would expect. But only four years later Atsumichi also died. I felt as though fate was following me. Was it punishment for not being faithful? I often wondered this.

Atsumichi’s death was the true force behind this poem. I loved him more than my previous lovers…so this poem expressed my true feelings towards him… The influence Heain culture had on me was reflected in my poetry. And by saying that I wanted more pain was really a Heain Japanese metaphor for wanting anything but memories of this man, for his absence was too painful to think about.

© Sarah Don, Australia, 2007

I wrote a book, titled いずみしきぶ日記 [Izumi Shikibu’s diary] (nikki, meaning diary). In my book was published poetry that described my affair with Atsumichi and mourned his death. I also showed how fictional narrative can be translated into everyday themes that the reader could connect with by writing about love and relationships. After Atsumichi’s death I gave up on finding love and became a court attendant for Michinaga’s daughter. Most of my works at this time that were not published in my book, were about court life and my mourning of Atsumichi. Although I had given up on finding love while working in the court, I met Fugiwara no Yasumasa, Michinaga’s steward, and we were soon married – I never returned to the court. However, Yasumasa too soon abandoned me. I spent the rest of my life writing poetry, although I never published another book, as such. Most of my later works were about nature, the seasons and the weather. I also continued to reply to poetry from men, while some of them never returned. I wrote this poem to a man who had not visited for a long time called upon me, but did not call again.

I would have preferred that he be completely cold with me, rather than just teasing me with his short presences. My daughter, Koshikibu died during child birth. My only child, who grew to be a poet herself… While looking at my grandchildren in pity, I wrote this poem:

In early 1030’s, I began to realise that my time was almost up, and I started to write about sad things and ask for men to revisit me… I wrote this particular poem to a man I had not seen in a long time and wished to meet again.

The mood of this poem – which is quite dark – reflects my feelings about death and how I had accepted it quite early. My Buddhist influence encouraged me to expect fate but not fear it. My poetry reflects the typical 11th century Japanese aesthetic appreciation of nature and human understanding of love. As written in a short biography by Thomas McAuley, my poetry remains as some of the most outstanding work ever written by a single poet from the period. My art reflects my life and culture in every way – from my use of a traditional poetry style, to writing about love and nature and about events in my life. I don’t think a truly passionate artist of any kind, could create anything without putting a bit of themselves into it, as I did.

© Sarah Don, Australia, 2007


Disse, D. (2007) Izumi Shikibu, http://home.infionline.net/~ddisse/izumi.html (11/8/07) Hulvey, Y. (2006) Female Waka Poets: Love poetry in the Kokinshû, Simply Haiku, University of Florida, http://www.poetrylives.com/SimplyHaiku/SHv4n3/features/Hulvey.html (14/8/07) McAuley, T. (2001) Izumi Shikibu, BBR, http://www.temcauley.staff.shef.ac.uk/izumi.shtml (10/8/07) Shikibu, I.,Komachi, O. (1995) The Ink Dark Moon, Random House, Inc., USA.

© Sarah Don, Australia, 2007

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