An Awesome Poetic Comeback: Poem Number 60

“Travelers on a mountain path along the coast”, by Utagawa Hiroshige, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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OeyamaŌe Mountain and
いく野の道のIkuno no michi nothe road that goes to Ikumo
とほければTo kerebaare far away, and so
まだふみも見ずMada fumi mo mizunot yet have I trod there, nor letter seen,
天の橋立Ama no Hashidatefrom Ama-no-Hashidate
Translation by Dr Joshua Mostow

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!

2 responses to “An Awesome Poetic Comeback: Poem Number 60”

  1. Awesome. Thanks for the context, without which, this would’ve been just another lovely-sounding poem.

    1. Ha ha ha, I know how you feel. Sometimes things get lost in 1,000 years worth of language, culture and translation issues. The imperial anthologies were often useful because they had head notes for each poem ( since they were often compiled centuries later). Helps us latecomers too. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: