I was rather surprised, and not pleasantly so, by Rexroth’s selection of poems in One Hundred Poems from the Japanese. This is the first collection of Japanese poems, or Chinese poems for that matter, I’ve ever read that contained so many “love" poems.

This poem by “The Mother of the Commander Michitsuna" seems rather typical of a considerable number of poems in the selection:

Have you any idea
How long a night can last, spent
Lying alone and sobbing?

Sounds like love to me, but there’s little to the poem that seems striking to me. Unfortunately, too many of the other selections strike a similar note.

That’s not to say, though, that there aren’t a number of memorable poems in the collection, like this one by “The Prime Minister Kintsune:"

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

Even the best of the poems for me seldom reach the level of poems by Basho, Buson, or Issa.

While this collection might be interesting in a historical sense because it’s one of the earlier translations by a major American poet, personally I’d consider my $11 could be better spent on a collection like Sam Hamill’s The Sound of Water, a small book that cost me $4.98 and includes poems like Basho’s

Seas slowly darken
and the wild duck’s plaintive cry
grows faintly white.

or, one of my favorites, particularly since I happen to keep this small volume by the toilet, Buson’s:

Nobly the great priest
deposits his daily stool
in bleak winter fields.

4 thoughts on “

  1. I suspect what the poet deems noble is the evident respect from some bringing ceremony to the act; you can’t nobly fling your crap into a field. The great priest is someone who treats the things of this world with respect. I remember being at a zen retreat and the first morning we were all served oatmeal. When the meal was finished everybody, seated along the four walls of the room, passed their trays forward. The sensei stopped the procession and lifted a crumpled napkin from a tray. He held it up then placed on the floor, smoothed and folded it. “This is a beautiful paper,” he said. “We should treat it like our friend.” I still fold my napkins after every meal, though I’m pretty reckless about most other things.

  2. Thanks for that interpretation, Tom. I would have read it differentlly, that even the noblest of men retains his human nature.

    Or, as Yeats put it in one of my favorite poems, “Fair and foul are near of kin,/And fair needs foul.”

What do you think?