The leaves may shine with colored gloss,
But they will fall, forever lost.
In this false world, what soul, I ask,
May hope in timelessness to last?
Today I cross these mountain depths
With no vain dreams or drunkenness.


Original Japanese

いろはにほへと ちりぬるを
わかよたれそ つねならむ
うゐのおくやま けふこえて
あさきゆめみし ゑひもせすん

Iroha nihoeto        Chirinuru wo
Wakayo tareso      Tsune naramu
Uwi no okuyama    Kefu koete
Asaki yume mishi   Wefi mo sesun


Francesca Leader spent her twenties studying foreign languages and literatures, and found her way back to her mother tongue in her thirties.  Her fiction and artwork have recently been published in “The Coffin Bell Journal” and “FERAL: A Journal of Poetry and Art.”  She lives in Northern Virginia.

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18 Responses

  1. Joe Tessitore

    I agree with Ms. Okun, and am glad that Ms. Leader resisted the temptation to rhyme, which, it seems to me, is powerful in this case.

  2. Margaret Coats

    Indeed a beautiful translation of this celebrated tour-de-force poem, created from the syllables of hiragana, but using each sound only once. Rhyme would not have been appropriate! Near or imperfect rhyme is most suited to the Japanese. As we see from the original, Francesca did not use Kukai’s form, but chose to imagine a form suited to the content. If I had been so bold as to translate this untranslatable work of art, I might have tried eight shorter lines, but as tetrameter is short in English compared to our frequently used pentameter, Francesca’s is a better option, with room enough to accommodate profound thought. The three couplets appear perfect, with each couplet and each of the six lines making a singular contribution to the whole.

  3. C.B. Anderson

    Oh! This poem rhymes for sure. But the rhymes are all assonance rhymes, which creates a perfect compromise between two literary cultures. And this poem would succeed even as a stand-alone original English composition.

    • Francesca Leader

      Assonance rhyme —exactly. That occurs very often in Japanese poetry. It’s not really a priority for the poet, though, and often arises as a natural consequence of how “vowel heavy” the language is.

      • Margaret Coats

        This question is for both Francesca and C. B. Have you seen the term “assonance rhyme” elsewhere? It seems problematic, and unknown to rhyme authorities whom I trust. Assonance is vowel identity, and there’s a lot of it in Japanese poetry, with nearly all recognized syllables ending in vowels, but I never hear this feature described as Japanese “rhyme.” As for the very special creative rhyming technique used by Francesca here in English, it is not assonance (such as we find in “rock” and “crop”), but full, perfect rhyme with a terminal consonant added (to one or both rhyme words), thus making the rhyme imperfect, although the perfect rhyme can be heard (as Joe Tessitore heard it).

        There are other problems with calling Francesca’s technique “assonance rhyme.” First, EVERY perfect rhyme features assonance (vowel identity), so the term says nothing unique. Second, assonance is sometimes described as “vocalic rhyme” (meaning that vowel sounds are identical but consonant sounds different) which means that “assonance rhyme” would be “vocalic rhyme rhyme.” If Francesca wants to name her technique, the name should be something to suggest perfect rhyme, with something done to it for the imperfecting effect. Topped rhyme? Stuffed rhyme? Garnished rhyme? Tainted rhyme? Razed rhyme?

  4. Joe Tessitore

    I had the feeling that this poem rhymed – in the traditional sense – as I read it and found myself going back to check, in spite of the fact that I knew that it didn’t.

    • Francesca Leader

      Hey Joe, As you may know, the value of rhyme in classical Japanese poetry was never high, because it’s far too easy to do in that language. Japanese poetry placed more value on the clever use of allusions and puns, often in the form of “pivot words” or “pillow words, which offer multiple layers of meaning in a single term. Also, this particular poem is unlike any other because it uses each syllable in the Japanese syllabary, as it was in the 8th Century, once and only once. There is no way to replicate this feat in English, as we spell individual letters rather than in consonant-vowel phonemes. The best I felt I could do was to substitute one trick for another — to use rhyme in lieu of the other poetic devices Kukai used. The Irina Poem also has a distinctive meter, which is not the same meter I adopted for my translation, but I think just using done kind of meter is important to be as faithful as possible to the pleasing sound and cleverness of the original.

      • Joe Tessitore

        Thank you for this – it’s very informative. I had known (from Haiku) that rhyme wasn’t important, but I didn’t know the reason.

        You succeeded remarkably well with your translation.

  5. Francesca Leader

    Hi Margaret, I wonder if it might be slant rhyme? I love all of your proposed terms, but I don’t think what I did was novel enough to justify such an honor! I looked up some examples of slant rhyme and it seems to fit – such as when a poet rhymes “food” with “wood” or “eye” with “symmetry” or “none” with “home.”

  6. Margaret Coats

    Hello, Francesca! When I was proposing names for your unique technique in the Iroha translation, I meant it might be useful to have a personal term you could use to describe the imperfect rhymes you created there. I agree that it is better to use standard terms when we can.

    What you use is not slant rhyme, because slant rhyme (also known as near rhyme, para-rhyme, half-rhyme, or oblique rhyme) shows identity of consonant sounds following the vowel that is the rhyme stem. And the vowels in a pair of slant rhyme words do not match. Food/wood is a good example; the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics also offers grope/cup and maze/coze.

    Your source of slant rhymes probably cited none/home (not a slant rhyme pair, strictly speaking) because “n” and “m” are both nasal consonants, and consonants in the same category could be acceptable, by stretching the definition a little. I do not know why they find eye/symmetry to be a slant rhyme, as long I and long E are the vowel stems, but there are no terminal consonants. The absence of terminal consonants is hardly the same as the presence of terminal consonants that match. In my opinion, “eye” and “symmetry” do not rhyme at all, unless the poet hopes readers will pronounce the last syllable of “symmetry” like the word “try,” in which case we have perfect rhyme, not slant rhyme.

    “Assonance” is the basic description for what you do in this translation, because in each couplet, the final words have identical vowel stems, but different terminal consonants. I wouldn’t call your technique “assonance rhyme” because that term seems imprecise and confusing, and it’s not useful to introduce a non-standard term without defining it. If it has been defined, I suspect it still doesn’t fit your unique procedure in the Iroha translation. Here’s why.

    Although your “rhyme words” show assonance, not perfect rhyme, we hear the sounds of perfect rhymes within them. In the first couplet, we hear -oss, in the second -ass, and in the third -ess. This is why Joe Tessitore thought the poem rhymed–and is glad to find that C. B. Anderson says his perceptive ear is correct. But there is more artistry here than mere assonance.

    All the “perceived perfect rhymes” in the poem end with the “s” sound. We might describe this as “monoconsonance,” except that the consonance is pure only in the first and last lines (nice symmetry!). In lines 2 through 4, you add a consonant to make the rhyme imperfect, because perfect rhyme would not suit Kukai’s use of each Japanese syllable only once. His equal and different syllables call for different sounds at the end of each of your lines. In line 5, you show an additional way to achieve this, not by adding another consonant, but by inserting “pth” between the vowel stem and the final “s” that needs to be there, to continue the “s” sound throughout all six lines.

    We could probably find some English couplets that use your technique, in either the 16th or the 20th century, but I would bet against finding an entire poem, even a short one, that does what you do here!

    • Francesca Leader

      Margaret, I am once again very impressed by your knowledge of poetic forms, and I certainly am a novice in that regard myself. My source on slant rhyme was nothing more reliable than a casual online search (mea culpa). I think maybe something like Imperfect Assonoconsanant Rhyme might describe it? Since the initial vowel sounds display assonance, and the final consonants also harmonize, if not perfectly? Such an interesting thing to think about! I truly appreciate your thoughtful comments and questions. You’ve inspired me to learn more.

      I think the idea of deliberate imperfection is very in keeping with this kind of poetry, I might add, because the Classical Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic prizes things both inherently flawed and damaged by time.

      • C.B. Anderson

        TUA MINIMA CULPA, Francesca Leader. Persons put things in different ways, and there is no Constitution or Supreme Court of Poetry that can render dispositive decisions in regard to any of our questions about what is or is not legal when it comes to poetry. Practicality is the gold standard: If it works, then it works; If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t. Your version worked, and that’s that with that.

    • C.B. Anderson

      So right you are, Margaret. “Assonance rhyme” is only a term of convenience, meaning that assonance only is the basis for considering it a rhyme at all. I didn’t invent this term; other persons have used it freely and frequently.

  7. Margaret Coats

    Francesca, I think it might be worthwhile to put the romaji for the poem below the kana–in the same format of four lines each broken into two half lines. That’s the only way most readers can get some idea of what sounds are. I would join the syllables into words, rather than spacing syllable by syllable, but that’s up to you. If you think romaji might be a good idea, put it into an e-mail to submissions@classicalpoets.org and ask for the change. This poem may be here for years, and with syllable sound being so important in this short poem, readers might be interested.

    • Francesca Leader


      That’s a wonderful idea! I will send them the kana rendering with that suggestion.


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