Thursday, July 16, 2009

Written on the Sky: Kenneth Rexroth

There is a new collection of the Japanese translations of Kenneth Rexroth, entitled Written on the Sky: Poems from the Japanese," published by New Directions. Although the copyright page lists the years 1974, 1976, and 1977 (with a co-translator, Ikuko Atsumi, listed for 1977), nowhere is it stated what volumes these translations originally appeared in. Only on the fly leaf
is found the statement: "Written on the Sky is a selection of some of Kenneth Rexroth's perfect and enduring translations from the Japanese ..." This lack of clarity is unfortunate; from this statement, the reader must assume all of these translations have previously appeared, either in book or journal form.

Of course, the exact opposite might also be assumed. For those who might wish to trace back a poem to its original appearance, in search of context and companions, no trail is provided. The only other volume of translations listed for Rexroth is Songs of Love, Moon, & Wind: Chinese Poems, a new companion collection. It would seem New Directions' only interest is in these two volumes, despite having published Rexroth's seminal collections in the past (most of which are still in print and available from New Directions).

That being said, Written on the Sky is a handsomely produced volume, with 88 poems, each appearing on a single page. Many of the poems originally appeared, as might be imagined, in One Hundred Poems from the Japanese and One Hundred More Poems from the Japanese. The difference in presentation from previous volumes is readily apparent. Transliterations of the original poems are not provided (though the original Japanese script for the names is, to the cynical allowing for the vertical use of much white space). Translations of some of the names have changed, making collation between the original volumes and the new cumbersome.

There seems to be no apparent unifying theme or approach; if there is, it isn't obvious to the non-scholar. It is 4 x 6," produced with an embossed cover of heavy mylar-like stock and beautiful to hold and behold. The poems are generally every bit as beautiful, which is as good a unifying theme as it gets, I suppose. Rexroth's translations from both the Japanese and Chinese have served over the last 50 years as the introduction to Eastern lyricism for the curious poetry reader. And this book, something of a curio one might expect to just as soon find in a museum shop as a large or independent bookstore, does not disappoint when it comes to the poems themselves.

A small selection illustrates the overall high quality:

The flowers whirl away
In the wind like snow.
The thing that falls away
Is myself.

Prime Minister Kintsune

No, the human heart
Is unknowable.
But in my birthplace
The flowers still smell
The same as always.
Ki No Tsurayuki

The fireflies' light.
How easily it goes on
How easily it goes out again.

No one spoke.
The host, the guest,
The white chrysanthemums.
Ōshima Ryōta

If only the world
Would always remain this way,
Some fisherman
Drawing a little rowboat
Up the riverbank.
Minamoto No Sanetomo

If there is a unifying factor among all these delicate, beautiful pieces, perhaps it is the demonstration of the immortality of the moment. Even in the uncharacteristic conceit of "The flowers whirl away," wherein a direct analogy is drawn between the fleeting nature of the snow and human life, the lasting image in the mind is the flakes, whirling. The sadness, too, lingers, but there is a bittersweet quality to the moment that is at once painterly and transcendent. Another, deeper reading might suggest that the falling away of self for the Eastern mind in fact has no negative connotations, though for me the bitter lingers as an almost perfectly captured epiphanic episode. The tanka "If only the world" expresses a similar sentiment, perhaps with more emphasis on the sweet than the bitter; one has the sense of an immortal moment from a seaside jaunt, although it might just as well be an every day sight seen through fresh eyes. Again the image conjured is painterly. The speaker's realization in "No, the human heart" is potentially catastrophic, yet the focus returns to the beauty of the moment, the unchanging nature of all life, turning what begins in the negative to a seemingly positive realization.

I simply love "No one spoke." We have all had such moments. The resonance here, and in those shared moments, is thunderous. The question for the Western mind is "What would the chrysanthemums say if they could speak?" A Zen pretender might say, "Ha!", yet one need only look to the other poems in this selection for the answer.

The beauty of the Eastern approach is that the reader is as if invited to participate in the creation of the poem. For others, these images will conjure different feelings, possibly diametrically opposed interpretations. To paraphrase Whitman, the Eastern forms contain multitudes. What is shared for all is the perfectly captured moment, the artistic quality of the image, and, above all, a closeness to nature that the West has largely, sadly lost.

Let the chrysanthemums speak to you.

This week's selection of poems from the Lilliput archive comes from issue #20, originally published in 1990, 19 years ago.

Cover by Bobo


you are tired, because I thirst for
salt, we turn to each other.
You are barefoot. It is winter.
This is going to be a difficult story.
Gayle Elen Harvey

Of Duluth I Sing
Oh Duluth.
Oh downtown Dul-
uth. Oh oyster-on-the-
half-shell Duluth. Oh
boarded-up poet-infested
storefront hole-in-the-wall
Duluth, oh.
Wayne Hogan

Song Of Advice
First, you must waken,
Then walk, in cool morning,
Into a meadow
Not of your making,
And listen intently.
Then you may answer.
Paul Ramsey

for the big
chrysanthemum too
autumn ends quickly
translated by David Lanoue



Charles Gramlich said...

Some good stuff here. I think I like the Ryota one best. "no one spoke." very nice.

Ed Baker said...

well jus' so happens I am on page 62 of reding Rwexroth's

The Dragon and the Unicorn


I got a little book that he did a saddle-stiched thin with oh I can't quite remember very short poems on left side page and his brush-work on right...maybe done about 1972 or so..

maybe 16 pages total..

I moved my books around 12 years ago trying to organize
and can't find a damn

(am sure that that little book was on the same shelf as [....]:

in his "preface" to The Dragon and the Unicorn

he writes:

"I don't know about uncrowned legislators, but I do feel that the poet is most important socially and artistically when he speaks in his vatic role, even though he may do so in the guise of a quatrain to his mistress' eyes. For this reason I believe it is the first duty of the poet to communicate. (...)"

well I better look up that word.... 'vatic'

and there-again a nod toward The Muse-Mistress

in her eyes
full moon full moon

Ed Baker said...

I FOUND THE Rexroth book!










the caligraphy is on the left the poem on right

here is one poem:

Spring puddles give way

To young grass.

In the gardebn,

Willow catkins

Change to singing birds.

so his dedication (thanks for asking) reads

"These are love poems
for Carol

But they are dedicated
to my friend Gary Snyder

May he use them
as love poems to Masa"

again, 1973

1973 was/is a "full moon"
haiku moment!

Bureau of Public Secrets said...

Many more Rexroth translations (as well as his own poems and essays) are online at


Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Charles, yes, that one lingers ...

Ed, thanks for all the great Rexroth, particularly the first quote - he and Thoreau would have a few things to say to each other ...

The Bureau of Public Secrets is a real treasure ...