Thursday, January 7, 2010

Of This World: Issa's Life and Poems

In recent weekly posts, I've been strolling through my poetry shelves to find all manner of treasures hidden there. And, it would seem, the occasional clunker. The stroll has been alphabetical through the Asian anthology section, so the focus has been interesting and pointed. The clunker I ran across is entitled Chinese Love Poetry, a British Museum book with lovely illustrations. The less said about the 40 plus poems the better. I only marked two as outstanding, those being famous poems by Li Po and Wang Wei, the former being "Drinking Alone Under the Moon" and the later being Wang Wei's truly moving inquiry of a passing stranger (page down for English translation) as to whether a winter plum was in bloom back in his village. The art work is really beautiful, printed on high quality paper; unfortunately, it feels as though the poems were chosen to illustrate it rather than vice versa.

So, I've decided to punt and take a look at another oddish item I picked up at the library, entitled Of This World: A Poet's Life in Poetry (1968)by Richard Lewis (pdf), with photographs by Helen Buttfield. Why oddish, you might ask? First, Issa, whose poems are responsible for the primary content of the book, is not named on the cover, the title page, or the rear flap, where the author info resides. In addition, R. H. Blyth, whose translations are used throughout, appears only in micro font on the copyright page. What then is Mr. Lewis responsible for?

Lewis has divided the book into 4 parts, the poems having been arranged in a sort of impressionistic evocation of Issa's life. Each of the sections is proceeded by a brief prose accounting of Issa's life by Lewis, with the whole having an equally brief introduction. Throughout, the book is very nicely illustrated with the photographs of Helen Buttfield. Most pages contain a single poem or two, or a single photograph or two, with a handful containing 3 poems or a poem and a photograph. Interestingly, some bookstores and libraries have classified this as a childrens' item though nowhere is this said to be the stated intent. Children, however, might in fact be an ideal audience, with their openness to experience and imaginations capable of filling in the impressionistic gaps.

The Blyth translations are fine and highlight both his many strengthens and few weaknesses; in fact, the weaknesses are most likely those of this reader than a translator as fine and renowned as Blyth. In the coming weeks I hope to look at another volume that collects Blyth's translations, primarily from his monumental 4 volume classic, Haiku.

I think Blyth's translation of this, one of Issa's most famous and cherished poems, is the finest I've ever read and the best in this particular selection:

The world of dew
Is the world of dew,
And yet . . .
And yet . . .

Another outstanding poem is

-----The autumn wind;
The shadow of the mountain

In these eight words, Blyth captures the full mystery of existence I believe Issa was after with his poem. Here is another, even more mysterious, and as such, for me, equally appealing:

----Getting older,
the song of the earthworm also
----Dwindles every evening.

And, finally, the poem Lewis closes the volume with, and rightly so:

-----In the wintry grove,
-----Of long, long ago.

There are many other fine poems, familiar and otherwise, 77 in total, a quite sizable amount. As to the implied intent in the subtitle, it was an interesting premise that is at least partially successful. Lewis's biographical summary is, though minimal, serviceable and Buttfield's photographs are quite lovely. The poems themselves are the real gold here; their author and translator should have, however, been accorded a degree of respect that goes beyond the actual text itself.

Without the poet, and his able translator, the book would not exist.

Mr. Lewis and Ms Buttfield went on to collaborate on another haiku book, The Way of Silence; The Prose and Poetry of Basho. For another take on the Issa volume, see this review.


click image for close-up

This week's featured broadside is entitled Shorties by Jack Collom and is issue #154 from November 2007 . The 8 page broadside features a mix of 19 poems, including found quotes and one hand-drawn poem, and one graphic anomaly - you have to see that one to "get it." In addition, the cover pictured above is beautifully hand-drawn by the poet himself. Here is a small selection of Shorties:

WISH: ----- I think.
LIE: ------- -Therefore,
DREAM: -- I am.

One syllable
of the word "human"
is not significant

-- Aristotle


(A shortie at one point handed to Ted Berrigan
----------------for his opinion)
--------I'm willing to let my
--------desires settle
--------around you like birds

And Issa's last word:

seeing the inn's
inner garden, the lark
translated by David G. Lanoue



William A. Sigler said...

Thanks, Don, I love the dust floating my way-

Here's a recent, not-unrelated article you might be interested in, a review of David Hinton's Classical Chinese Poetry anthology by Jess Row.

While I think the premise of his essay is fundamentally ridiculous, it is full of fine little details like:

"We have to admit that what we are doing is 'overhearing' the poem: trying to imagine what it would be like to understand it."

Cheers! Bill

"We've lived our lives and have not seen each other,
We've been just like the stars of Shen and Shang.
Oh what an evening is this evening now,
Together in the light of this one lamp?"
-- Du Fu

Anonymous said...

Nice selection, Don!

-- Glenn C.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Thanks for the kind words, Bill. Loved the Du Fu also ... and how fine little details can override the fundamentally ridiculous.

Describing "negative capability" as "a certain willful ignorance" when Keats himself defined it as "I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." is, well, ignorant. Willful has nothing to do with it. It makes me distrust some of his later arguments, because frankly of my own ignorance. The fine details are just that: fine, in the qualitative sense.

Glad you liked the selection, Glenn.

Gail White said...

Issa is an old favorite of mine.
He is supposed to have written this poem on the death of one of his children:

Dew evaporates
And all our world is dew--
So dear, so fresh, so fleeting.

Gail White