This is one of my most favorite poems in the Hyakunin Isshu due to its backstory and its clever delivery and was composed by the daughter of Lady Izumi:
|大江山||Oeyama||Ōe Mountain and|
|いく野の道の||Ikuno no michi no||the road that goes to Ikumo|
|とほければ||To kereba||are far away, and so|
|まだふみも見ず||Mada fumi mo mizu||not yet have I trod there, nor letter seen,|
|天の橋立||Ama no Hashidate||from Ama-no-Hashidate|
This poem was composed by Ko-Shikibu no Naishi (小式部内侍, d. 1025), daughter of Lady Izumi (poem 56), who was a handmaiden to Empress Shoshi like her mother. Sadly, she died at a young age, leaving her mother behind, and for such a talented poet, she has only a handful of poems in official anthologies.
According to the backstory of this poem, Lady Izumi was away in the province of Tango with her husband, and there was a poetry contest in the capital. Ko-Shikubu was selected as one of the poets, and one day Middle Counselor Sadayori teases her saying (according to Mostow):
What will you do about the poems? Have you sent someone off to Tango [to ask your mother for help]? Hasn’t the messenger come back? My, you must be worried.
To which the young and bold Ko-Shikibu pulled at Sadayori’s sleeve and composed this poetic reply off-the-cuff. While less obvious in English, the poem is a master piece because it recites three places in Tango in geographic order, has two puns (iku in Ikuno also means to go 行く, and fumi means both a letter 文 and to step 踏み) and the bridge mentioned, Ama-no-Hashidate, is associated with “stepping” too.
As the story goes, Sadayori was totally speechless and couldn’t come back with a good reply, so he ran off. Zing!
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