Winter nights with Ōkuma Kotomichi

Here's a poem by ŌKUMA Kotomichi (大隈言道), late Edo master of the waka form:

tada hitotsu/ nokoru tomoshibi/ hi nagara mo/ fuyu no yo fukete/ kage zo samukeki

Only one remaining lamp/ Flame though it be, in deepening winter night/ Its very light seems cold

(ŌNO Susumu says that samukeshi is an erroneous backformation from samukeku, the -ku form of samushi [cold], but it does seem to have been used with a separate meaning: to seem cold rather than to be cold.)

Here Ōkuma is riffing off a Heian waka by Fujiwara no Takasuke (藤原隆祐):

shimo kohoru/ yamakaze araki/ kumoma yori/ more-iduru tsuki no/ kage zo samukeki

Rough frost-freezing mountain wind/ In clouds through gaps in which the moon spills bright/ Its very light seems cold

Takasuke's poem is a grand and eerie drama that sweeps across the sky; Ōkuma's is a more serene route through the chill of the night, almost cozy but for that final refutation and echo of a lost age.

Not that Ōkuma was above drama:

nani to ka ya/ tsuki ni ha arade/ osoroshiki/ mono mo iduru beki/ fuyu no yo no kumo

Something, not the moon, some terrible thing/ Seems ready to come out/ Of the clouds this winter night

Special Ōkuma bonus: trash talk.

I have this word I like to use: "puppet poems" (木偶歌). It means poems that have no soul, that are of the past in form and meaning. Writing poems like this, even if you write ten million of them, is like trying to draw water with a basket. There aren't many poems being written by people today that don't drain out of the basket. The more I look at this bumpkin poetry, the more people I see living out their lives as puppets. The ancients are our teachers, not our selves. We are Tenpō folk, not the ancients. If all you do is revere the ancients, you're going to forget who you are.

(His actual phrasing in that last line is "吾身何八、何兵衛なる事を忘る"—"You're going to forget that you're Whatever-hachi or Whatsit-bei"—late Edo equivalents of "Joe Blow", I guess.)

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"...you're going to forget who you are."



Ah, the old argument about how much scholarship and copying deepens or cheapens the work. (Interesting that Okuma derides them as bumpkins, being as wouldn't you need to have good access to the sources to be properly slavish? Inept examples along the fidelity vein could be derided by masters of fidelity as simply ignorant, after all.)

Speaking of which, have you seen Carter's work on the Reizei line?


Seems like it wouldn't be that hard to get a small library of the classics (Man'yoshu, kokinshu, etc.) together, even out in the sticks. What you'd be missing is community and feedback. Actually Okuma's "bumpkin" (田舎人, for the record) thing made me think of those characters you often see in Japanese period fiction: rural, privileged, write poetry as a hobby but not very well.

I haven't read Carter's book on the Reizei line, no. Would you recommend it?


Really, the Man'yoshu? I thought you needed those kokugaku folks to put the editions together. But I always get their dates wrong, so. (And this is telling me I should finish Berry's book on print culture soon, huh?)

I thought the book wasn't bad at all, but I'll be honest that a lot of the distinctions between the styles still elude me in practice. But at least I can quote authorities as to what they were.


Huh, I figured that by Bakumatsu times. your Man'yoshu and so on would have taken shape OK. I have to admit I haven't, uh, mastered the details... maybe I'm just getting it all confused with all those rural old men circulating famous haiku collections.

(I'll have to check out Carter. Thanks for the recommendation!)

robin d gill:

Matt 様

Having read little tokugawa jidai waka, i missed kotomichi's. Thank you for introducing interesting poems. Re Manyou poems, issa studied some and he was on the tail end of the norinaga studies generation, right? Tenpo is later, and, besides books were lent and country bumpkins did after all work in the big cities . . . ah, seeing you are not adverse to riffed-off waka, please keep an eye out for my next book Mad In Translation if i do not find my way back here. It will have over 2000 kyouka and wacky waka, droll didactics, etc.


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