Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East West Wisdom
by Morgan Gibson

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Chapter 6

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 sutras.

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 among feminists.

In addition, some of Rexroth's original tanka in English appear in Flower Wreath Hill: Later Poems (1979): for instance,

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,
Almonds, mimosa,
All bloom at once. Under the
Moon, night smells of your body.

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.

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 (11).

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):

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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

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 climactically, Neruda.

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