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Taiga?s True Views: The Language of Landscape Painting in Eighteenth-Century Japan by Melinda Takeuchi (1994-06-01)
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One Hundred Poems From the Japanese , translations by Kenneth Rexroth

One Hundred Poems from the Japanese - Kenneth Rexroth (Translator)


Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861)

Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982), American poet, literary critic and essayist, was also an interesting translator of classical Chinese and Japanese poetry. I review one of his many collections of Chinese poetry here:




100 Poems from the Japanese (1955) consists of extremely readable translations of poems from a range of poets. Most of the poems are taken from the two most important collections of ancient Japanese poetry, the Manyoshu (compiled in 759 CE) and the Kokinshu (in 905) supplemented by poems from the Hyakunin Isshu (mid-13th century). Although all of the usual difficulties of translating poetry are faced here, at least the additional, special difficulties of translation of classical Chinese poetry are absent, since Japanese is not a tonal language, it makes more use of the connectives common to Western languages, etc.


There now exist complete English translations of all three of the mentioned collections, but I very much like Rexroth's version of the poems he chooses. Judging from the number of poems translated by Rexroth of each poet (usually only one or two), one of his favorites (and one of mine) is Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (c. 662-710), whose imaginary portrait is given in the Ukiyo-e print above. I'd like to quote a few of his gems.


A strange old man

Stops me,

Looking out of my deep mirror.


What a concise, precise, striking evocation of the experience all aging human beings have when they are reminded (having forgotten for a while) that their image of themselves is even more fallacious than it was in the past!


I sit at home

In our room

By our bed

Gazing at your pillow.


Does this invitation to ponder the absence/loss of a loved one really need more words?


Of course, one must be open to such invitations, open to the idea that most of the experience of the poem is left up to the reader to realize, in order to enjoy many of the poems in this collection.


Rexroth closes with a few famous haiku, written much later than the other poems, including this one of Matsuo Basho (1644-1694).


An old pond -

The sound

Of a diving frog.


With the exception of the haiku, the translations are accompanied by the originals in romanji, romanized Japanese, so that one may try to sound out the music of the original.