Selections from 'Written on the Sky:
Poems from the Japanese'
Translated by Kenneth Rexroth
The mists rise over
The still pools at Asuka,
Memory does not
Pass away so easily.
– YAMABE NO AKAHITO (d. 736)
The flowers whirl away
In the wind like snow.
The thing that falls away
– PRIME MINISTER KINTSUNE (13th c.)
We dressed each other
Hurrying to say farewell
In the depth of night.
Our drowsy thighs touched and we
Were caught in bed by the dawn.
– EMPRESS EIFUKU (1271-1342)
The crying plovers
On darkening Narumi
Each grow closer, wing
To wing as the moon declines
Behind the rising tide.
–FUJIWARA NO SUEYOSHI (1152-1211)
In a gust of wind the white dew
On the Autumn grass
Scatters like a broken necklace.
– BUNYA NO ASAYASU 10th c.)
If only the world
Would always remain this way.
Drawing a little rowboat
Up the riverbank.
– MINAMOTO NO SANETOMO (d. 1219)
In my recent feature on Kenneth Rexroth, I mentioned his interest in both Chinese and Japanese poetry. When I spotted this tiny, exquisite volume in a bookshop in Hobart nearly two years ago, I thought it was bound to be a treasure – and in some ways it is. It's a nice thing to have on my bedside table to open at random, either just before sleeping or just after waking, to read one or two entries. They are soothing, somehow. But when I went through it to find selections for you, I realised that many of the verses sound banal.
In 88 pages, these above are the ones I found which had some element of the unexpected.
The others may have been very beautiful in Japanese, and more arresting; I'll never know – but they describe common human experiences in terms that have so often been used before that they have become clichés. Perhaps they were not so when Rexroth was doing his translations. Or perhaps they were not so in the far past when these poets first wrote them. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the ones I've chosen, which are still fresh after all this time.
And here is one more, which you will undoubtedly recognise:
An old pond –
Of a diving frog.
– MATSUO BASHO (1644-1694)
I think this quite straightforward translation is as good as any I've ever read. But then, I don't believe I've ever read a bad translation of this classic. (In poetic terms, I mean; I don't know Japanese so can't comment on the accuracy. But there have been so many translations, I think we've got the gist of it by now.) Perhaps this is a testament to Basho's greatness, that any attempt at faithful translation recreates the definitive qualities of the original – the quintessential haiku.
Poems and photos posted to 'The Living Dead' for purposes of study and review remain the property of the copyright holders.