The Heian Period (794—1185 A.D.) is remembered as a period of great creativity and literary innovation by the Japanese court—waka, true Japanese poetry, became established as an art form of its own, independent of Chinese poetry, and Ki no Tsurayuki compiled Japanese poems written by the aristocracy into the famous Kokinwakashū in 905 A.D. Although literature continued to thrive and new forms that were written mainly in prose developed under the court as well, poetry was never forgotten and was constantly included in these narratives. The role of poetry in narrative prose was to express emotions and describe scenery that were perhaps too intense to be restricted to prose, serve as a guideline for poem-writing, and give insight into the method of communication between men and women.
Tsurayuki wrote in the preface of the Kokinshū, Kanajō, that poetry was a blend and balance of kotoba (words), kokoro (heart, emotion) and sama (style). It is naturally a very suitable medium for expressing those very emotions that one may feel incapable of putting into words, those majestic or delicate or fleeting sceneries that one may feel even a picture could not capture the true essence of.
In 936 A.D., Tsurayuki wrote the Tosa Nikki (Tosa Diary), a record of his return to the capital after serving as the governor of Tosa. Under the guise of a lady attendant, he wrote of the journey’s hardships, and to fully capture the feelings of his fellow travelers, he recorded poems that they supposedly wrote whenever they were overwhelmed by the sorrow of Tsurayuki’s daughter who passed away while he was in Tosa, or saw a particularly moving scene. One such poem expressed the elegant confusion and anguish of one traveler who could not bear the pain of remembering the girl’s death: “Forgetful, ‘Wherever is that child?’ I cry / —And, oh, the sadness of the truth!” And another poem was recited when they came across beaches that were covered with pine trees and cranes, an incredibly inspiring scene that symbolized longevity: “As far as the eye can see, on each pine top there rests a crane— / Each crane to each pine, perhaps, a faithful companion these thousand years!” (Sargent, 1955) This is how the Japanese thought to convey feelings that suddenly overcame them back then, and so to not include the poems of the people in narratives would be like taking out all the power of their emotions.
As stated before, poetry was essential to the Japanese of that time. The Heian court had imperially-appointed poets who composed poems for certain occasions, seasons, and people. But not everyone had an innate skill for poetry—it had to be learned, and those who lacked the ability to compose a decent, appropriate poem were seen in a negative light by others. Therefore, certain narratives of the Heian period contain a number of poems that essentially teach their readers a bit of the art of poem-writing.
One such example is the Ise Monogatari, the Tales of Ise, which is of unknown...