Stones in Poetry, a Long Tradition Continued

By Tom Elias

First published at VSANA (Viewing Stones of North America) website


(photos of stones below the text)

Attractive or unusual stones in China have been embraced by Chinese literati since the Tang dynasty (618-917 CE). Dozens of poems about fantastic stones are known in classical Chinese literature. The great Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi composed over 2800 poems including Records of Taihu Stones and A Pair of Stones. The latter describes a prize pair of Lake Tai stones he treasured. Another Chinese Tang scholar bureaucrat Niu Sengru wrote Twenty Thymes on Finding a Tai Lake Stone. Song dynasty poet Shu Shi wrote Notes on Strange Stones, and Ouyang Xiu wrote Records of Lingbi Stones. Poems have been produce about stones throughout the dynasties.

In Japan, Mera Hekisai composed 72 poems to accompany 72 of his prized Furuya stones in his 1894 book Hekisai Stone Catalog. He was physician who wrote poetry in Chinese following in the tradition of earlier Chinese scholars. It was fashionable in the Meiji era (1868-1912) in Japan to improve the value of your stones by combining them with famous Chinese poems or with Japanese Waka poems. Both China and Japan have a tradition of composing poems about special stones.


This tradition continues today in China. Poets still praise the remarkable features of stones in their writings. The writing is now world-wide. Three small stones from the Pacific Northwest region of the US have inspired a leading North American poet to continue the long tradition of stone-inspired poetry. Here, we are featuring poems written by an’ya, an American poet specializing in Japanese Tanka style poems. Tanka are short poems that originated in the late 8th century and typically consist of five lines with a set number of syllable (5-7-5-7-7) in each line. Tanka poems were often exchanged between two affectionate people, likely lovers, in place of letters. One’s skill at composing a moving Tanka poem could mean the difference between the success or failure of a relationship. As with other aspects of Japanese culture, rules and rituals developed around Tanka poetry. Tanka poems should not be confused with another more popular short Japanese poetry—haiku—a short three-line poem composed of 5-7-5 syllables. Modern haiku and tanka poets writing in English do not follow the original style because  the Japanese units are shorter than the English syllables.


Shown below are three stones. The brownish coastal stone from the Willamette River in Oregon rests in an aged rectangular antique bronze tray. The accompanying poem conveys the writer’s feeling of sadness about the departure of a loved one. The second stone, jet black and placed in an oval tray led an’ya to write of the energy, passion and beauty of mating rituals of two large birds. While the black stone is small, just 10.2 cm long, 5 cm deep and high, the feelings conveyed in the poem are as strong and large as a mountain. Thus, two similar-sized stones can convey totally different feelings. This is the essence of viewing stones—the ability to convey a message or feeling to the viewer.​The third stone is a black figure stone from a tributary of Oregon’s Willamette River. This stone is 15.2 cm wide and high and 12.7 cm deep and resembles the tail flukes of a whale.

an’ya is one of the world’s leading tanka and haiku poets, the author of many poetry books, and the recipient numerous awards for her creative endeavors. To learn more about an’ya and tanka poetry, go to































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whale-tails Vanish

in pewter-grey seas

a cow and bull

our bedtime story fills

the unVverse with stars