Wednesday, November 30, 2005


The silver brilliance

The first poems I read by Kenneth Rexroth were a few of his Chinese translations, in the anthology Naked Poetry edited by Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey published originally in 1969. I was in high school, 1970 or 1971, and in a poetry writing group that met (outside of school, on our own) once a week; one of the people in the group mentioned the anthology and I went looking. The handful of Rexroth's Chinese translations included in the collection may in fact have been the first translations I read of anything, from any literature. In their compactness, their clarity, the distinct human voices they conveyed, they seized hold of me immediately. A few years later, while I was a student at the University of Minnesota, I found Rexroth's 100 Poems from the Chinese (published 1971 by New Directions), spent weeks and months with it, and have gone back to it constantly over the years since then. The poems, Rexroth's footnotes, and the extensive bibliography he includes opened up worlds to me.

To what extent the poems should really be called translations is a useful question. In some cases Rexroth clearly took liberties in putting the poems into English. Other sources have indicated that Rexroth often worked from already existing translations in English (the very free versions of Florence Ayscough and Amy Lowell, for example) or French (possibly the translations by Judith Gautier). Rexroth's translations are not the most literally accurate ones available. He was a great poet, and he had a keen intuitive knack for getting at least a little into the mind and sensibility of the poet he was translating. This, along with his vast and varied scholarly reading in multiple fields, resulted in beautiful poems, versions, in English, even when they stray far and obviously from the originals.
The men and beasts of the zodiac
Have marched over us once more.
Green wine bottles and red lobster shells,
Both emptied, litter the table.
"Should auld acquaintance be forgot?" Each
Sits listening to his own thoughts,
And the sound of cars starting outside.
The lines are from a poem by Tu Fu, translated by Rexroth with the title "Winter Dawn," in 100 Poems from the Chinese. I don't know any Chinese, and can't comment on what the original poem says. Tu Fu, who lived 713-770 (the dates Rexroth gives), clearly did not quote Robert Burns in the original. And it's doubtful that there were cars starting outside 1200 years before they were invented. In spite of these obvious meddlings, which occur here and there through Rexroth's translations from various languages, the essence of the poem feels true to me.

(I am using here Rexroth's transliterations of Chinese names, rather than the modern Pinyin system, just to avoid confusion and complication in referring to Rexroth's works. Using Pinyin transliteration, Tu Fu would be written Du Fu.)

Ezra Pound said somewhere something to the effect that all cultures are contemporaneous; he thought it should be possible to make a poem from medieval Provence or T'ang Dynasty China into a contemporary 20th century poem in English, and retain all of the essential qualities of the poetry in each of the languages. That, anyway, is what he appears to have advocated; the approach continues to influence generations of would-be translators: trying to create, in translation, the sort of poem the translator imagines the poet might have written, had he or she written in contemporary American English. Pound's approach largely resulted, in his own case, in "translations" (from Provencal, Chinese, and other languages) that read like an average account by a late-nineteenth century English gentleman of a liesurely walk in the country (or, perhaps, sitting in a study daydreaming about the countryside). The poems get lost in the translator's narrow conceit. Pound's translations remain confined by the limits of Pound's own poetry; he didn't write as well as the poets he purported to translate.

What Rexroth did, at his best, was something else. It's as though he attempted to move his mind and senses into the mind and senses of the poet he was translating; to write the kind of poem Rexroth felt he himself might have written, if he had lived in the time and place and life of the other poet. This remains, of course, ultimately an act of Rexroth's own creativity and imagination. Rexroth, as a poet, was largely equal to the poets he translated. Although his translations of Tu Fu or Su Tung-P'o (or of Sappho or Yosano Akiko) are not always the most literally accurate, his versions do invariably convey the greatness of the poets and the original poems.

One of my favorite Rexroth translations, and one of my favorite poems by anyone, is one I've never found in any other version by any of the other translators I've read; I've considered the possibility that it may be largely of Rexroth's own making, though I don't have any basis for saying that, I'm just idly speculating. From the poem "Moon Festival" by Tu Fu (in 100 Poems from the Chinese):
The moon toad swims in the river
And does not drown. The moon rabbit
Pounds the bitter herbs of the
Elixer of eternal life.
His drug only makes my heart
More bitter. The silver brilliance
Only makes my hair more white.
I know that the country is
Overrun with war. The moonlight
Means nothing to the soldiers
Camped in the western deserts.
In a footnote, Rexroth says that in China the moon is sometimes popularly imagined as a toad, a rabbit, or a mortar for grinding, among other things, in the way that some popular "Western" tradtions imagine a man-in-the-moon face. Whether the moonlight means anything to the soldiers camped in the desert is maybe a worthwhile question; we often turn to isolated moments of calm and beauty in the midst of misery and chaos. But on the scale of history and the world the poem feels true to me.

For readers wanting a closer sense of the Chinese originals, and the detailed workings of Chinese poetry in general, a useful source is The Heart of Chinese Poetry by Greg Whincup (Anchor Books, 1987). Whincup presents several dozen classic Chinese poems, in the original Chinese, with literal word-by-word translations, and his own renderings into something like modern poems in English; and useful prose commentary on the lives of the poets and the historical background of the individual poems. Although his poem translations aren't everything I might hope for, the literal versions he presents are invaluable (especially if you don't know any Chinese) in giving a little bit of a sense of how the poems and the language work; I generally preferred the literal versions, even as awkward as they sometimes were, to Whincup's more finished translations. It can help give a little bit of basis for gauging how far from the originals any particular translator may have wandered.

Issue 23 of the online literary magazine Jacket includes a large section devoted to Rexroth, including a couple of essays dealing with Rexroth as a translator. Though I don't agree across the board with everything in the essays, I found them interesting and provocative. The table of contents for the issue of Jacket is here.

Rexroth did further translations from Chinese, all published by New Directions: Love and the Turning Year: 100 More Poems from the Chinese; Women Poets of China (originally published as The Orchid Boat by The Seabury Press); and Li Ch'ing-Chao: Complete Poems (done in collaboration with Ling Chung). All are wonderful, even with the reservations I've noted above about Rexroth's tendency to take liberties with what the originals say. All of them left me wanting more.

The world is vast and we are small. Even with computers and cell phones and the internet, we find our way through a mysterious world, swept by the forces of politics and history, the whims of love and loss and sorrow, in which we sometimes choose to act, by which we sometimes find ourselves seized and dragged along. A poet writing hundreds of years ago speaks across the distance of years and continents. The struggle to exist on the earth, to make life better, continues, through everything; we speak to each other, and we are not alone.
Once more it is the Ninth Day
Of the Ninth Month. I lie restless
On my brocade pillow, under
The gauze curtains, until, past
Midnight, a chill sweeps into me.
In the East Enclosed Garden
We got drunk one evening.
The wine's secret perfume has never
Left my sleeves. No one else notices,
But it carries my soul away.
Now when the West wind flaps the screens,
I am more frail than the orchid petals.
(From the poem "To the Tune 'Drunk Under Flower Shadows'" by Li Ch'ing-Chao, in Love and the Turning Year: 100 More Poems from the Chinese, cited above.)

That last one was lovely. Thanks for a great read Lyle.
Thanks, Michelle.
Haven't read much by him, I'll have to look him up. Thanks as always for the informative write up.
lyle, this is a really interesting comment on rexroth, but, i think, even moreso on translation, which i first started to see as a salient intrustion to the poem after reading stephen mitchell's translations of rilke, or perhaps i should say, after reading mitchell and then trying, desperately, to read other translations of rilke that i could feel as moved by. i am not sure of how i feel about rexroth's meddlings, but i certainly understand everything you say about the captured essence of the work and how, especially, writers like pound forsaked that essence for their the benefit of their own poetic prowess. and in pound's case, also, i have always felt that the act of translation is for the most part entered into with an essentially colonizing spirit, a usurping of culture as opposed to a re-presentation of its contemporaneous nature. thanks for the article. i found it inspiring...
Ruth, thanks for your comments. Stephen Mitchell is an interesting example to look at. His translations of Rilke stray noticeably at times from the originals, and not necessarily for any compelling reason. Although Rilke isn't one of my favorite poets, the translations of Rilke I like best are the somewhat older ones by W.D. Herter Norton. The Norton translations have had their detractors also, but to my ear they usually come very close to what Rilke's original German actually says.

With regard to Pound, I think often of a comment Robert Bly made in a essay many years back, in which he compared Pound's Cantos to an imperial city-state expanding rampantly out of control, grabbing and swallowing up everything in its path.
Great post. Great links on your site too. It's Kenneth Rexroth's birthday today, and I was writing my emotive for his poetry on my blog, so I linked
your post up to it as a resource under
'Happy Birthday KENNETH REXROTH (part I).
Hey, great essay, enjoyed this very much--only wish I'd seen it sooner. Here's a lil Rexroth gem for you:

"Creamy Breasts"
Fragrant with powder, moist with perspiration,
They are the pegs of a jade inlaid harp.
Aroused by spring, they are soft as cream
Under the fertilizing mist.
After my bath my perfumed lover
Holds them and plays with them
And they are cool as peonies and grapes.
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