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.

Rexroth’s Tu Fu

Although I prefer Chinese poetry that has stronger Taoist or Chan Buddhist elements than those chosen by Kenneth Rexroth in One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. However, even Confucian poets manage to include taoist or Chan elements in their poetry. Tu Fu is generally regarded as a Confucian poet, but my favorite poem of his in Rexroth’s selection sounds like it could have been written by a Taoist priest, perhaps because of its setting:

WRITTEN ON THE WALL AT CHANG’S HERMITAGE

It is spring in the Mountains.
I come along seeking you.
The sound of chopping wood echoes
Between the silent peaks.
The streams are still icy.
There is snow on the trail.
At sunset I reach your grove
In the stony mountain pass.
You want nothing, although at night
You can see the aura of gold
And silver ore all around you.
You have learned to be gentle
As the mountain deer you have tamed.
The way back forgotten, hidden
Away, I become like you
An empty boay, floating, adrift.

Though this is a classic, idealistic, portrayal of a Chinese hermit who has cut himself off from the concerns of the world, but the careful attention to detail, particularly the “aura of gold/ And silver ore all around you? and the smooth transition to the narrator’s own feelings at the end of the poem that make it a masterpiece. We all long for the ability to “want nothing,? to be at one where we are, and perhaps we’ve all felt that in the beauty of the mountains.

My other favorite Tu Fu poem is

LONELINESS

A hawk hovers in the air.
Two white gulls float on the stream.
Soaring with the wind, it is easy
To drop and seize
Birds who foolishly drift with the current.
Where the dew sparkles in the grass,
The spider’s web waits for its prey.
The processes of nature resemble the business of men.
I stand alone with ten thousand sorrows.

The first five lines almost sound anti-Taoist in the sense that it is “foolish? to go with the “flow.? Drift along in life, and someone above will swoop down and destroy you. Perhaps that would be a Confucian objection to Taoist philosophy. It’s not enough to go along, one must strive for position and be aware of those who would conspire against you.

Even the Puritans thought that God delivered messages through natural events, the difficulty, of course, is interpreting those events correctly. I do know that the phrase “sitting duck? has taken on an entirely new meaning to me since I started visiting my nearby wildlife refuge regularly.

No matter how we read it, though, “the processes of nature? can certainly be as cruel as “the business of men,? giving ample reason for “ten thousand sorrows.? It’s hard to admire the beauty of owls, hawks, and eagles without realizing that they prey on the small birds that we love to attract to our bird feeders.

Rexroth’s The American Century?

I’m much fonder than I thought I’d be of Kenneth Rexroth’s poetry, despite, or perhaps because of, Mike’s urgings that I read him. I must have bought his Collected Poems in 1966, since the price at the University Bookstore was $5.25. I’m not sure why I didn’t read the poetry then, but I was in the Army and before long was in Vietnam, without any poetry books. Perhaps I was put off by the early poems, poems I’m still not particularly fond of. Perhaps I just wasn’t ready for the Chinese-influenced later poems.

No matter the reason, I’m quite fond of his later poems now. I like far too many of them to include here, but this one:

THE AMERICAN CENTURY

Blackbirds whistle over the young
Willow leaves, pale celadon green,
In the cleft of the emerald hills.
My daughter is twenty-one months old.
Already she knows the names of
Many birds and flowers and all
The animals of the barnyard and zoo.
She paddles in the stream, chasing
Tiny bright green frogs. She wants
To catch them and kiss them. Now she
Runs to me with a tuft of rose
Gray owl’s clover. “What’s that? Oh! What’s that??
She hoots like an owl and caresses
The flower when I tell her its name.
Overhead in the deep sky
Of May Day jet bombers cut long
White slashes of smoke. The blackbird
Sings and the baby laughs, midway
In the century of horror.

is fairly representative of the poems I like best, concrete poems that quickly capture a particular moment, and, in turn, reveal Rexroth’s world view, a view that I largely identify with, though it’s certainly a socialist view has gone out of style.

This particular poem reminds me that though my personal, direct experience of the world has been largely joyous, the violence and greed that surrounds us has always haunted me.

How can one live fully without being shattered by the realization that most people in the world do not share that joy? How can one look at that other world without worrying about our own complicity in exploiting others?

Some of Rexroth’s translations of Chinese poems, particularly this one by Tsung Ping, also rank high on my list of favorites:

When I am old and infirm
I fear I shall no longer
Be able to roam among
The beautiful mountains.
Clarifying my mind,
I shall meditate on mountain
Trails which wander in vision.

I can’t quite imagine not being able to hike the mountains, but I’ve already had to curtail my backpacks because I don’t have the endurance I once had. When you love something as much as I do the mountains, you have to wonder how you will be able to do without them when you get older.

Rexroth’s “The Advantages of Learning?

As much as I appreciate Rexroth’s erotic poetry, I might enjoy the ironic poems even more, particularly when the two meet as in the following examples taken from volumes from 1944 and 1949. Hopefully, they suggest a natural progression in his life as he aged.

I nearly chose the first one as my favorite poem in the early section but appreciated it even more once I read the later poem:

THE ADVANTAGES OF LEARNING

I am a man with no ambitions
And few friends, wholly incapable
Of making a living, growing no
Younger, fugitive from some just doom.
Lonely, ill-clothed, what does it matter?
At midnight I make myself a jug
Of hot white wine and cardamon seeds.
In a torn grey robe and old beret,
I sit in the cold writing poems,
Drawing nudes on the crooked margins,
Copulating with sixteen year old
Nymphomaniacs of my imagination.

After reading this, one might wonder if there really are any advantages to learning. Personally, I’d rather be in bed with someone I love than writing poetry in the cold and drawing nudes in the margin. Still, it’s nice to know that when all fails we can always use our imagination, or web porn sites, to sustain us when we’re alone and worried about our fate.

It’s comforting, though, to know that Rexroth eventually found something more comforting than sixteen year old nymphomaniacs:

FURTHER ADVANTAGES OF LEARNING

One day in the Library,
Puzzled and distracted,
Leafing through a dull book,
I came on a picture
Of the vase containing
Buddha’s relics. A chill
Passed over me. I was
Haunted by the touch of
A calm I cannot know,
The opening into that
Busy place of a better world.

Now I know I was justified in responding to students’ complaints about how dull books were, with “I don’t think it’s the book that’s dull.? If a dull book can produce enlightenment like this, imagine what effect a good book might have.

I also found it interesting that Rexroth managed to touch on two of the main mantras of the Beats in these two poems. No wonder Gary Snyder offered a tribute to Rexroth in his poetry.