Friday, May 13, 2005


As color passes from the petal

The first Japanese poetry I read, around 30 years ago, was in Kenneth Rexroth's 100 Poems from the Japanese and 100 More Poems from the Japanese. I've never learned Japanese, or not more than a few words, and so have sought out translations over the years. Rexroth is one of the great poets of the 20th century and his translations (from varioius languages and literatures) read beautifully in English, though I can't comment on their accuracy as translations. (I've read, elsewhere, that the only language Rexroth really knew well other than English was French, and that many of his "translations" from various languages -- Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, etc. -- were essentially versions or adaptations, or rewritings from scratch, based on already existing translations in English and French. I don't know to what extent this might be true.)

In much Japanese poetry, classical and modern, I find an almost epic quality, even though most of the poetry (especially before the 20th century) is in very short -- tiny -- forms not usually associated with epic: tanka written in 31 syllables, haiku in 17 syllables.
As certain as color
Passes from the petal,
Irrevocable as flesh,
The gazing eye falls through the world.
(Ono no Komachi, translated by Kenneth Rexroth, in Rexroth's 100 Poems from the Japanese.) Epic: the palpable longing and sorrow, the wonder and brilliance of a concentrated moment, confronted with the vastness and inexorable movement of the world.

In a poetry consisting largely of very short poems, much of the power and evocative quality lies in what is not said explicitly, in the large area of open space (open, but not empty) that exists around the poem. When Basho writes (again in Rexroth's translation) "Autumn evening --/ a crow on a bare branch" -- a haiku, in this case of 18 syllables in the original, bending the rules -- the poem calls forth ages of loss and desire, the chill of a world of hard life, the ragged struggle to endure.

In his translation above, Rexroth reversed the order of Basho's lines; the original reads "A crow on a bare branch --/ Autumn evening". With the original order of the lines, the poem expands, conveying a certain philosophical depth, in which the crow verges on becoming the autumn evening. In the reversed order of Rexroth's translation, the poem concentrates on a point of perception, leaving any philosophical suggestion or metaphor unexpressed, silent in the space around the poem. I've seen many English versions of this poem; Rexroth's remains my favorite.

Cid Corman translated much Japanese poetry. His haiku translations were published in the 1980's several small beautifully done collections from Gnomon Press in Frankfort, Kentucky: One Man's Moon; Born of a Dream; Little Enough. I like the offhand colloquial approach Corman takes, giving the poems the gritty quality of the real world. From One Man's Moon, a poem by Basho:
stuck in a bucket
ripping dried cod

For the past couple of months I've been reading Backroads to Far Towns (White Pine Press), Cid Corman's translation of Basho's famous account -- in prose, with haiku scattered throughout to punctuate and mark the narrative -- of traveling through Japan with a friend and companion, Sora, in 1689 (five years before Basho's death). Several translations of this work exist, with various virtues or lack. The most comprehensive is Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings translated by Sam Hamill, published by Shambala. I generally like Hamill as a translator, I find him readable, and his version includes several other of Basho's prose-and-haiku travel journals, as well as a large selection of Basho's poems.

At times Hamill's translation takes on a slackness, a liesurely quality that allows some of the power of the original to escape, almost a false modesty, hesitating to impose itself on the attention of the reader. I like the immediacy of Corman's translation, the rough texture, the quality of an actual human being writing something on the open road, wind and rain and soil and leaves never far away. Basho's work gives an invaluable glimpse of daily life in a time and place far from the 20th century empire of United States.

There are other translations of Japanese poetry I like much also. Among them are Japanese Poetry: The 'Uta' done by Arthur Waley (originally published 1919, reissued sometime in the 1970's by University Press of Hawaii); The Ink Dark Moon, translations by Jane Hirshfield of Izumi Shikibu and Ono no Komachi, published sometime in the late '80's; and The Burning Heart edited and translated by Rexroth, reissued in recent years by New Directions as Women Poets of Japan. A particularly interesting collection is The Dance of the Dust on the Rafters translated by Yasuhiko Moriguchi and David Jenkins (published around 1990 by Broken Moon Press in Seattle), a selection of popular folk poems and songs, dating from at least a couple of centuries prior to the great flowering of literature in Japan in the 800's.

"Once, far over the breakers," writes Yosano Akiko (1878-1942) in Rexroth's translation, "I caught a glimpse/ of a white bird,/ and fell in love/ with this dream which obsesses me." Here again, the understated expression, the intensity and passion, breath held, an almost tangible trembling. Yosano Akiko, one of the great poets of the modern world, lived a life that was itself an epic. In another article I'll say more about her poetry. An epic is a poem in which individual human lives are swept up and lived in the midst of vast and crucial history. It is this quality that infuses the the greatest of Japanese poetry -- the work of Hitomaro, Akahito, Ono no Komachi, Murasaki Shikibu, Otomo no Yakamochi, Yosano Akiko, Takamura Kotaro -- reminding us what it means to be a human being, trying to live a life of meaning, in a world that makes life and meaning ever more difficult.

It’s probably not very important, but haiku is measured in breath count, not syllables (not sure exactly what that means). And, Basho, when writing haiku, deviated from this count quite often.


Thanks for the wonderful comments on my blog and for listing my blog on yours. Best of luck on your two books coming out. I think your blog on Japanese poetry was really good. I also like Tom McGrath a lot--he once lived in Los Angeles. I got to know him briefly on a visit he made to L.A. in in January, 1984, when I got to interview him. It was a great epxerience.

lyle, thanks for stopping by. i read japanese poems early, early on and they had a lot to do with where i started, and where i went, as a poet. have you read vietnamese translations? i worked with john balaban, who was one of the first (the first?) to do english translations of vietnamese poetry (cao do viet nam). he has a more recent collection of translations of an 18th century female vietnamese poet, Ho Xuan Huong, that is just lovely.
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