Short As A Reed: Poem Number 88

Phragmites in Amsterdam, photo by PersianDutchNetwork, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If you like word-play, you’ll enjoy this poem quite a bit:

難波江のNaniwa-e noDue to that single night
芦のかりねのAshi no karine noof fitful sleep, short as a reed’s joint cut at the root
一夜ゆへHitoyo yuefrom Naniwa Bay,
身をつくしてやMi wo tsukushite yaam I to exhaust myself, like the channel markers
恋わたるべきKoi wataru bekipassing my days in longing?
Translation by Dr Joshua Mostow

This poem was composed by Lady Bettō (dates unknown), who served in the house of Empress Seishi, whose husband was Emperor Sutoku (poem 77). Lady Bettō was also the daughter of Minamoto no Yoshitaka.

Although the life of Lady Bettō is relatively unknown, and she doesn’t appear in many anthologies, Professor Mostow points out that her poem is quite a technical feat. There are a lot of “pivot words”, or words that can either refer to the previous statement, or the latter one:

  • karine can mean cutting a root (刈り根) or a brief nap (仮寝) such as when travelling.
  • hitoyo can mean either a single segment of a reed (一節) or a single night (一夜).
  • mi wo tsukushi can mean either to exhaust one’s body (身を尽くし) or one of the famous barriers in Osaka Bay (澪標, see poem 20)

The poem itself uses many familiar themes too. We’ve seen a lot of poems that feature Osaka Bay, called Naniwa in ancient times, including poem 20, poem 19 and poem 72 among others. Similarly, we see references to reeds, just as we do in poem 39 and poem 19 (again).

What makes this poem stand out is the excellent use of word-play throughout. On the surface, it looks like just another love poem, but Lady Bettō knew what she was doing. 😉

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