Rexroth objected to distinguishing "original" poems from
translations, for they both sprang from the same imaginative
interaction with poets, ancient and modern, from around the world.
Allusions, imitations, and other adaptations of their work echo
throughout poems and plays that are very much his own, shaping
style, technique, and themes, and contributing to his complex
worldview in which the vast influence of religious and philosophical
literature is originally synthesized. His cubism is indebted to Reverdy
and other French poets, for example, and his characteristic technique
of direct address is shaped, in part, by western classical poetry as well
as by such oriental forms as tanka, haiku, Noh, koan, gatha, and the
Nevertheless, he did separate out translations in thirteen
collections as well as in sections in volumes of shorter poems. Only
an expert in Latin, Greek, Chinese, Japanese, French, and Spanish
can properly evaluate his translations as a whole. How accurately do
they reflect the meaning, tone, sound, and implications of the
originals? How did various languages affect his feelings and attitudes
about places, people, and ideas? How reliably do his translations
introduce us to the nuances of unfamiliar literatures and civilizations?
Those important questions cannot be answered here, but a general
approach to Rexroth's translations in terms of his literary philosophy
may help multi-lingual critics as well as general readers.
Though accuracy is one criterion of translation, it is not the
most important. Rexroth called translation "an act of sympathy" in
which one poet identifies with another, transferring the other's speech
to his own.1 Ever since he was fifteen, imaginary conversations with
Sappho, Tu Fu, Martial, and other poets brought him into their worlds
as he comprehended their inner lives as well as their artistry.
Translation for him was, then, like the creation of all art, an act of
sacred contemplation, a compassionate ritual of incarnation, a
reminder that the universe itself is the perpetual translation of forms
of energy. Such universal transformation is symbolized most
eloquently in The Lotus Sutra, the Chinese classic in which
the great Bodhisattvah of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara of many
faces and arms, changes into infinitely various forms that express no-
form, the formless form of Buddha-nature. Like a Bodhisatttvah,
Rexroth became oriental as well as European, and feminine in his
versions of Yosano Akiko, Ono no Komachi, and Li Ch'ing Chao,
changing into countless persons, styles, and forms as "skillful
means" of transmitting wisdom.
How faithfully Rexroth renders the character of a poet in a
particular translation can be judged reliably only by a critic as
sympathetically insightful as himself. Literalists who tolerate only
pedantic equivalence cannot appreciate Rexroth's versions, or
Pound's, or any truly creative translation. Of course there are bound
to be inaccuracies; of course there is always Rexroth's voice, just as
the voice of a versatile actor "becomes" Hamlet's voice, so we
imagine Hamlet while appreciating the actor. Some readers object to
Rexroth's idiosyncrasies, and sometimes these do get in the way; but
more often they help project the unique tone and outlook of poets as
diverse as Meleager and Hitomaro against the figured bass of the
translator's voice; so readers generally seem to share the excitement
of his discovery of many great poets and their work that is conveyed
through his own.
Most importantly, his translations are exemplary works of art in
their own right, English poems that can be thoroughly appreciated
without concern for accuracy, just as Pound's "River Merchant's
Wife" and Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat are part of our own
literature, cherished by those who have no knowledge of Chinese or
Persian. Even as the Marichiko hoax proves that "her" poems require
no knowledge of Japanese "originals," so translations must be judged
as autonomous works of art, regardless of their relationship to work
in other languages.
Rexroth's sensitivity and erudition as a translator were widely
appreciated from the mid-1950's on after the ever-popular One
Hundred Poems from the Japanese came out. His Introduction
states that the Japanese poetry depends primarily on sensibility rather
than on the rhetoric and decoration so familiar in western poetry (ix).
So there are incredibly intense insights in short poems such as: "A
strange old man/Stops me/Looking out of my deep mirror"
(Hitomaro, 24). This volume and One Hundred More Poems from
the Japanese cover the whole tradition from the Eighth Century
Manyoshu into our own century, with copious notes and
bibliographies. The compassionate sadness of solitude, loss,
disillusionment, and dreamy yearning known as mono-no-
aware, the prevailing tone of Japanese Buddhism, is conveyed in
perfectly natural English in poem after poem. The dark path in a
poem by Izamu Shikibu suggests the obscurities of the Buddha's Way
(27). Comparing the world to the white wake of a boat at dawn, the
monk Shami Manei suggests insubstantiality, nothingness, void (36).
And though Rexroth disliked the sentimentality of most haiku, he
cherished Basho's, which he saw no need to render in the 5-7-5
syllables that are perfectly natural in Japanese but constricting in
English and, for example, Shiki's "Fresh from the Void," in which
the moon rises from the sea (109)--a favorite image that also enters
The Phoenix and the Tortoise, The Silver Swan, and other
original works by Rexroth as well.
Although most educated Americans know about haiku, many
having read translations by R. H. Blyth, Kenneth Yasuda, Lucien
Stryk, Soiku Shigematsu, and many others, few know much about
tanka. And although many American children have written haiku in
English, and many poets have been influenced by the sensibility and
imagery, more than the form, of haiku, the work of very few
American poets has been noticeably affected by tanka. In
American Poetry and Japanese Culture Sanehide Kodama
cites Amy Lowell, Adelaide Crapsey, and John Gould Fletcher as
poets who knew enough about tanka for their poetry to be influenced
by it. Among living poets, Cid Corman and Sam Hamill have
produced outstanding translations of tanka. But the only American
poet who studied tanka extensively, translated a couple of hundred
tanka, and wrote original poetry that was profoundly shaped by tanka
in content, spirit, and technique, was Kenneth Rexroth (1905-82).
Rexroth's translations of tanka have been popular for nearly
forty years, and his One Hundred Poems from the Japanese
and One Hundred More Poems from the Japanese continue
to be reprinted and widely sold and read long after his death. The
Burning Heart: Women Poets of Japan, translations of tanka and
modern poems done with the poet Atsumi Ikuko, has a big following
In addition, some of Rexroth's original tanka in English appear
in Flower Wreath Hill: Later Poems (1979): for instance,
I will not presume to judge these poems as tanka, but I can
vouch for their delicacy as English poems that can be appreciated for
their own sake. We who cannot read tanka in the original must rely
on Kodama's expertise, when he shows how tanka influenced
Rexroth's poetry, not only in poems in the 5-7-5-7-7 syllable form,
but more subtly in long poems permeated by the spirit and subjects of
tanka and some of its techniques. Some of Rexroth's poetry is
directly about Japan, often its ancient times; and even when he
focuses on modern subjects, allusions to Japanese history and
literature, and echoes of tanka, are apparent to observant readers.
Kodama shows in detail how English versions of tanka by Lady
Akazone Emon, Emperor Sanjo, Ono no Komachi, and Fujiwara no
Sadayori, from the Hyakunin Isshu, which Rexroth had
worked on since his youth, enter his long poem The Phoenix and
the Tortoise. Similarly, tanka from the Manyoshu shape
certain passages in The Heart's Garden, the Garden's Heart.
And in these and other poems, even when tanka is not quoted or
alluded to, some of its characteristics--direct address, vivid natural
imagery, delicate affection, mono no aware, the expression of
a highly refined aesthetic sensibility--are frequently evident.
The full moon shines on
The first plum blossoms and opens
The Year of the Dragon.
May happy Dragons
Attend you with gifts of joy.
* * *
I wish I could be
Kannon of eleven heads
To kiss you, Kannon
Of the thousand arms,
To embrace you forever.
* * *
Spring is early this year.
Laurel, plums, peaches,
All bloom at once. Under the
Moon, night smells of your body.
Of all tanka poets, Yosano Akiko seems to have affected
Rexroth most deeply, inspiring him as a Muse. Indeed, his versions of
her tanka from Tangled Hair are far more sensuous,
passionate, and visionary than any others that I have read. ("Yosano
Akiko" in Critical Survey of Poetry, 1984).
Feeling that the poetry of Japanese women was not sufficiently
known, Rexroth collaborated with a leading Tokyo feminist, Ikuko
Atsumi, in translations collected in The Burning Heart: Women
Poets of Japan, and with her and others in Seasons of Sacred
Lust: Selected Poems of Kazuko Shiraishi, Japan's most famous
living woman poet whose rebel-ways, atypical of Japanese women,
are suggested by the beginning of a poem about her Canadian origins,
in which she shoots at the face of her country because she loves it
Similarly, Rexroth promoted the work of Chinese women in
The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China and Li Ch'ing
Chao Complete Poems, both books done in collaboration with
the Chinese poet Ling Chung. But first he had issued One
Hundred Poems from the Chinese three decades after he had
begun translating Tu Fu, his favorite non-dramatic, non-epic poet
from all literatures. Coming through more vividly as a whole person
than any other poet in the translations, Tu Fu most resembles Rexroth
in cherishing friendships, loving nature, speaking out against
injustice, and suffering with all humanity, especially in wartime.
These qualities are embodied in the conclusion of "Night in the
House by the River" (33):
The epigrammatic, sometimes tendentious conclusion of many poems
is one of several common characteristics of both Rexroth and Tu Fu,
as in the former poet's version of the latter's "Away, I become like
you,/An empty boat, floating, adrift" or "Life whirls past like
drunken wildfire" (4-5). And a long, eloquent note explains how Tu
Fu's poetry improved Rexroth morally and psychologically (149).
Also in this volume are poems of the Sung Dynasty, randomly
selected as they pleased him, and generally sweeter, more romantic,
less engaged in humanity's suffering than Tu Fu's.
Over the Triple Gorge the Milky Way
Pulsates between the stars.
The bitter cries of thousands of households
Can be heard above the noise of battle.
Everywhere the workers sing wild songs.
The great heroes and generals of old time
Are yellow dust forever now.
Such are the affairs of men.
Poetry and letters
Persist in silence and solitude.
Peter Blum has published a handsome edition of Rexroth's
translations of Tu Fu, China's greatest poet and Rexroth's favorite
non-epic, non-dramatic poet, with whom he identified himself in
many ways. Both poets savored the aesthetics of loneliness even
among cherished friends: "I am like a gull/Lost between heaven and
earth." The two poets brooded on the brevity and disappointments of
life, the loss of greatness, the "silence and solitude" of literature, and
its uselessness in the face of war and other injustices. They celebrated
the beauty of nature in images that dance luminously in the memory:
Rexroth began learning Chinese and translating Tu Fu when he
was fifteen years old, the most creative year of his life. In Classics
Revisited he tells us that Tu Fu's poetry best shows "the
unbreakable wholeness of reality" and affirms the truth that "only the
steadfastness of human loyalty, magnanimity, compassion redeem the
night bound world" (pages 92-93). The translations, which Blum
reprinted from the popular One Hundred Poems from the
Chinese (1956), are outstanding poems in their own right, most
of them composed in the quantitative meter (7-9 syllable lines) that
distinguishes Rexroth's prosody from that of his contemporaries.
Depending on no special knowledge of Chinese poetry, the
translations appeal to general readers as well as to connoisseurs and
should therefore be in every public as well as university library. The
volume is graced by Brice Marden's abstract "Etchings to Rexroth,"
which were inspired by the translations in a way that John Yau has
subtly explained in the "Introduction to the Etchings"; and Brad
Morrow has contributed an "Introduction to the Poems" that is his
most deeply felt essay on Rexroth.
The thatched/Roof is crowned with constellations.
The men and beasts of the zodiac
Have marched over us once more.
Ragged mist settles/In the spreading dusk.
In the blackness the crystalline pool
Exhales the perfume of flowers.
The moonlight shines cold on white bones.
Where the dew sparkles in the grass,
The spider's web waits for its prey.
Finally, In Love and the Turning Year: One Hundred More
Poems from the Chinese, Rexroth goes back to some of the
earliest folk songs from The Book of Odes, then includes
samples from various centuries. A notable omission is Li Po, perhaps
because of the pre-eminence of Pound's versions.
Turning to the West, we find in Poems from the Greek
Anthology a few from Latin, such as the excerpt from the
Carmina Burana, possibly by Abelard, and terse, tough
satires of Martial and Petronius, as well as the majority from Greek.
All are in natural speech that brings these poets back to life.
Thirty Spanish Poems of Love and Exile is an anarchist's
choice of modern lyrics by Alberti, Guillen, Lorca, Machado, and
There are three collections from French. Fourteen Poems by
O. V. de L. Milosz, the first book of translations that Rexroth
published, contains poems of daily life in Paris by this poet who had
been a Lithuanian official after World War I. One Hundred
Poems from the French is also from the modern period--Artaud,
Carco, Char, Cros, Goll, Supervielle, Reverdy, and others who
affected the symbolist and cubist modes of Rexroth's poetry before
World War II--along with three poems from Medieval Provenšal. The
cubist Reverdy influenced him more than anyone in England or
America, according to his Introduction to Pierre Reverdy Selected
Poems, his most spirited defense of "The Revolution of the
Word"; and "A Ringing Bell" shows that cubism may be tender as
well as tough (15).
Besides being delightful as individual poems, Rexroth's
translations are moments of interpersonal communion transmitting
wisdom across frontiers that normally divide languages, literatures,
and civilizations. His translations as a whole, combining vast
traditions of East and West, show us the world in an extension of the
pioneering work by Pound, Hearn, Waley, and others. They are
essential units in Rexroth's worldview, in which each being reflects
every other, just as a Japanese teardrop reflects our loneliness.
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Copyright © 2000 by Morgan Gibson
Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry