Kenneth Rexroth, 100 Poems from the Japanese
New Directions, 1964
Kenneth Rexroth—poet, polymath, anarchist, and pacifist—is a fine guide to Chinese and Japanese poetry. He provided six books of translation for the enrichment of common readers like us. (His poem “Thou Shalt Not Kill” was influential back in the day.)
Here are a few from the many poems I noticed:
We were together
Only a little while
And we believed our love
Would last a thousand years.
I have always known
That at last I would
Take this road, but yesterday
I did not know that it would be today.
Do not smile to yourself
Like a green mountain
With a cloud drifting across it.
People will know we are in love.
Of course, in such a volume, Rexroth includes some classic haikus masters:
The Autumn cicada
Dies by the side
Of its empty shell.
In my life
As in the twilight,
A bell sounds.
I enjoy the freshness of evening.
Over the vast field of mustard flowers
The moon rises in the East,
The sun sets in the West.
I must say, I even get charged by Rexroth’s notes, marked by enthusiasm and appreciation:
Akazome Emon lived in the eleventh century, a contemporary of Murasaki, Sei Shonagon, Izumi Shikibu, and Ise Tayu (the Priestess of Ise)—the most brilliant gathering of women in the world’s literature.
Lady Izumi Shikibu’s… correspondence with her lover… the Izumi Shikibu Monogatari, is a masterpiece of Japanese prose. Of all the poets of the classical period, she has, to my mind, the deepest and most poignant Buddhist sensibility. [I just checked this out of the library.]
Ono No Komachi lived from 834 to 880. She is the legendary beauty of Japan. She is supposed to have lost her beauty in old age and become a homeless beggar. This may be true, but it is improbable and is most likely derived from her poems, many of which deal with the transitoriness of life and beauty.
Lady Murasaki Shikibu lived from 974 to 1031. She is the greatest figure in Japanese literature, the author of The Tale of Genji, one of the world’s greatest books, of a diary, and of numerous poems.
Recently, I and a friend were discussing the prospect of reading Proust in 2023; a couple of weeks later I proposed to another friend that we read all of James Joyce (with Richard Ellmann’s biography to boot) except for Finnegans Wake. Having gone through Rexroth’s anthology, I am thinking the modernist men may need to be pushed off to 2024 (or 2025!); Lady Murasaki is calling my name.
The last word goes to an Empress, Yamatohime:
Others may forget you, but not I.
I am haunted by your beautiful ghost.