A Woman to Know: Ono No Komachi

Even the sound of a barely perceptible breeze pierces the heart. — Ono No Komachi

(image via Met Museum)

In Japan's Heian period, at the turn of the ninth century, the emperor's court prized poetry above all other art forms. Six writers were revered as contemporary "poetic geniuses" of the era — and listed alongside the names of noble sons and wealthy scribes is that of a minor lady-in-waiting, Ono no Komachi.

Komachi's poems became famous for their naked emotion. As a notorious femme fatale, she legendarily tortured paramores with sweet nothings (literally, nothings), never committing to a single suitor. Her verse details heartbreak, courtly slights, loneliness and passionate romance, and her work encouraged future generations of Japanese poets to mine on their own existentialist crises for poetic potential. As novelist Ruth Ozeki describes it, "Her poems suggest a profound understanding of impermanence and samsara."

Komachi continued writing poetry in her old age, living a hermitic life outside the court. She wrote five lines on the unexpected peace of solitude, some time around 900:

Yes, a mountain village
can be lonely ..
Yet living here is easier
than dwelling amid
the worries of the world.

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