Friday, September 18, 2015

The Living Dead

~ Honouring our poetic ancestors ~

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.


The flowers whirl away

In the wind like snow.
The thing that falls away
Is myself.


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.


In a gust of wind the white dew

On the Autumn grass
Scatters like a broken necklace.


If only the world

Would always remain this way.
Some fishermen
Drawing a little rowboat
Up the riverbank.


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 –
The sound
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.


  1. Kenneth's poems often consist of that one catchy phrase which wanders my mind for days to come...

  2. Interesting feature, Rosemary. I do think that it must be hard to translate so few words to so few words & maintain the accuracy of the ideas as well as trying to make it poetic in a different language. I do like those you have chosen!

    1. I'm sure translation is VERY difficult, particularly as, we are told, 'poetry is that which gets lost in translation'.

    2. That definitely makes sense, Rosemary!

  3. I am smitten~ These are so beautiful~ I love the broken necklace-thank you, Rosemary!

    1. They are enchanting, aren't they? I particularly love the last one about the fishermen and the rowboat.

  4. In the translation of Basho's Old Pond, water (mi-zu) is not here but 'the sound of a diving frog' makes it all the more mysterious...a very interesting article Rosemary....

    1. I don't know the Japanese, but to my mind both 'pond' and 'diving' imply water.

  5. I fall away too in the face of great translations of Haiku. They hold multilevel spirit. Thank you.

  6. I've not read many Japanese or Chinese poems. I like your selections here. These are indeed soothing and exhude a certain beauty. Thanks for this Rosemary.

  7. translation would be so hard, as you are bound to be missing some of the cultural context of that moment in history - and possibly even language connections of the particular region.

    1. Yes, as well as whatever music is created by the original sounds. However, if we can't read the original language, we must perforce relate only to the translations' own poetic qualities.

  8. This is a very intriguing feature, Rosemary. I love the haiku and found your discussion very interesting. I especially adore the old pond and the diving frog.

    1. Note, these poems are not all haiku! In fact I am not sure any of them (except Basho's frog) are meant to be. Several appear to be tanka.

  9. The ones you chose are lovely. I esp liked the one by EMPRESS EIFUKU. There is just that little element of surprise in these poems.

  10. good selection, Rosemary!

    there's always something lost in translation, but we should appreciate and enjoy it too.
    i thought the poem by Empress Eifuku was very clever. maybe even controversial, considering the culture of the time. :)

  11. I love Rexroth--I used to have a book--probably have it somewhere--100 poems from the Japanese and another from the Chinese--I recognize the ones you quoted above--another of my favorites:

    Some day you will think of this time
    in which you are so unhappy
    and remember it fondly.

    Something like that. Thanks, Rosemary. k.

    1. ps - you were absolutely right about my process note and I corrected it to make it clearer, thanks for kind comment. k.


This community is not meant to be used in a negative manner. We ask that you be respectful of all the people on this site as each individual writer is entitled to their own opinion, style, and path to creativity.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Blog Archive