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.

Rexroth’s “Incarnation��?

I’ll have to admit that I find it hard to totally agree with these reviewers’ statement that, “It is remarkable that a life as deeply troubled as that of Kenneth Rexroth should produce erotic poetry of such profound transcendence,? but I did find Rexroth’s love poetry at its best as moving as that of Yeats’ love poetry, high praise since Yeats ranks among my five favorite poets.

Several of Rexroth’s poems are more erotic than any that appear in Yeats’ works, perhaps because of a shift in values, but “Incarnation? does remind me a lot of Yeats:

INCARNATION

Climbing alone all day long
In the blazing waste of spring snow,
I came down with the sunset's edge
To the highest meadow, green
In the cold mist of waterfalls,
To a cobweb of water
Woven with innumerable
Bright flowers of wild iris;
And saw far down our fire's smoke
Rising between the canyon walls,
A human thing in the empty mountains.
And as I stood on the stones
In the midst of whirling water,
The whirling iris perfume
Caught me in a vision of you
More real than reality:
Fire in the deep curves of your hair:
Your hips whirled in a tango,
Out and back in dim scented light;
Your cheeks snow-flushed, the zithers
Ringing, all the crowded ski lodge
Dancing and singing; your arms
White in the brown autumn water,
Swimming through the fallen leaves,
Making a fluctuant cobweb
Of light on the sycamores;
Your thigh's exact curve, the fine gauze
Slipping through my hands, and you
Tense on the verge of abandon;
Your breasts' very touch and smell;
The sweet secret odor of sex.
Forever the thought of you,
And the splendor of the iris,
The crinkled iris petal,
The gold hairs powdered with pollen,
And the obscure cantata
Of the tangled water, and the
Burning, impassive snow peaks,
Are knotted together here.
This moment of fact and vision
Seizes Immortality,
Becomes the person of this place.
The responsibility
Of love realized and beauty
Seen burns in a burning angel
Real beyond flower or stone.

Here a Romantic image of nature and of love is fused, and this fusion, this vision, becomes immortal in a way no physical love can ever be. In fact, I would argue that it is this very vision of love, not the physical love itself, that is transcendent when “This moment of fact and vision/ Seizes Immortality/ Becomes the person of this place.?

This vision of love is “more real than reality,? or, at least, as real. Our dreams of what we want life to be, our aspirations, are as real as the failures that we encounter in trying to reach those dreams. Memories of romantic moments in our life, those moments that tie us to those we love, are “more real than reality.? In fact, reality isn’t reality until it is processed, turned into memories.

Rexroth’s “Autumn in California?

Reading Rexroth’s poems written from 1920 to 1940, it’s not hard to see why he’s often classified as a Beat poet, though mistakenly so if we are to believe Rexroth himself, but, even if he’s not a Beat poet, it’s easy to see why the later Beat poets saw him as one of them.

My least favorite of these poems remind me of Pound’s rants, while my favorites are those that tend to be explicitly socialistic, or, more often, personal poems integrating Rexroth’s love of nature.

Although “Autumn in California“ isn’t my favorite poem of this period, I like it and it seems more representative of Rexroth’s poems of this period than my favorite:

AUTUMN IN CALIFORNIA

Autumn in California is a mild
And anonymous season, hills and valleys
Are colorless then, only the sooty green
Eucalyptus, the conifers and oaks sink deep
Into the haze; the fields are plowed, bare, waiting;
The steep pastures are tracked deep by the cattle;
There are no flowers, the herbage is brittle.
All night along the coast and the mountain crests
Birds go by, murmurous, high in the warm air.
Only in the mountain meadows the aspens
Glitter like goldfish moving up swift water;
Only in the desert villages the leaves
Of the cottonwoods descend in smoky air.

Once more I wander in the warm evening
Calling the heart to order and the stiff brain
To passion. I should be thinking of dreaming, loving, dying
Beauty wasting through time like draining blood,
And me alone in all the world with pictures
Of pretty women and the constellations.
But I hear the clocks in Barcelona strike at dawn
And the whistles blowing for noon in Nanking.
I hear the drone, the snapping high in the air
Of planes fighting, the deep reverberant
Grunts of bombardment, the hasty clamor
Of anti-aircraft.

In Nanking at the first bomb,
A moon-faced, willowy young girl runs into the street,
Leaves her rice bowl spilled and her children crying,
And stands stiff, cursing quietly, her face raised to the sky.
Suddenly she bursts like a bag of water,
And then as the blossom of smoke and dust diffuses,
The walls topple slowly over her.

I hear the voices
Young, fatigued and excited, of two comrades
In a closed room in Madrid. They have been up
All night, talking of trout in the Pyrenees,
Spinoza, old nights full of riot and sherry,
Women they might have had or almost had,
Picasso, Velasquez, relativity.
The candlelight reddens, blue bars appear
In the cracks of the shutters, the bombardment
Begins again as though it had never stopped,
The morning wind is cold and dusty,
Their furloughs are over. They are shock troopers,
They may not meet again. The dead light holds
In impersonal focus the patched uniforms,
The dog-eared copy of Lenin's Imperialism,
The heavy cartridge belt, holster and black revolver butt.

The moon rises late over Mt. Diablo,
Huge, gibbous, warm; the wind goes out,
Brown fog spreads over the bay from the marshes,
And overhead the cry of birds is suddenly
Loud, wiry, and tremulous.

Perhaps the reference to Mt. Diablo, a favorite hike when I lived in this area several years later, led me to see this poem more favorably than I might otherwise.

Perhaps it reminds me of my walks in Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge where my observation of wildlife is too often interrupted by the staccato sound of rifles on the firing line, the thump of mortars or sudden bursts of machine gun fire from Fort Lewis, when pleasant thoughts are diusrupted by the reminder that several Strykker units from Fort Lewis are now serving in Iraq and still other units are training here to replace them. It’s hard to focus on what a good time you’re having when faced with the reminder that others who’ve undoubtably enjoyed the same place are dying in foreign lands as I hike.

It is easy to be lulled into a sense of well-being while out hiking, but it’s impossible to entirely shut out thoughts of the world and it’s problems even while you’re enjoying nature’s beauty. Of course, considering that this poem was written over 60 years ago, it’s also a reminder that war and human suffering were a part of our everyday existence before I was born and, judging from our present condition, are likely to go on long after I’m gone.

The poem is certainly a reminder that we can never completely escape our society, our times, that even our experience of joyful moments must be tempered by our awareness of the world around us and of the suffering of others.

Rexroth’s “The Wheel Revolves

It’s a good thing The Collected Shorter Poems of Kenneth Rexroth began with a selection of his later poems or I might have stopped reading before I started because I dislike his early poems, which the promotional copy on the cover describes as written in “the disassociative style — sometimes called ‘literary cubism’— developed by Mallarme´, Appollinaire, and Reverdy. This was not free association, but the conscious disassociation and recombination of elements of the poem to achieve the highest possible level of significance? — not to mention the highest possible level of confusion.

I have more than enough confusion in my life already. I don’t need more confusion in my life, nor do I need to be reminded that much of life doesn’t make sense — I have an increasing number of weird dreams lately to remind me of that.

Luckily, I loved a couple of his last poems included at the beginning of this collection. My favorite was:

THE WHEEL REVOLVES

You were a girl of satin and gauze
Now you are my mountain and waterfall companion.
Long ago I read those lines of Po Chu I
Written in his middle age.
Young as I was they touched me.
I never thought in my own middle age
I would have a beautiful young dancer
To wander with me by falling crystal waters,
Among mountains of snow and granite,
Least of all that unlike Po's girl
She would be my very daughter.

The earth turns towards the sun.
Summer comes to the mountains.
Blue grouse drum in the red fir woods
All the bright long days.
You put blue jay and flicker feathers
In your hair.
Two and two violet green swallows
Play over the lake.
The blue birds have come back
To nest on the little island.
The swallows sip water on the wing
And play at love and dodge and swoop
just like the swallows that swirl
Under and over the Ponte \Tecchio.
Light rain crosses the lake
Hissing faintly. After the rain
There are giant puffballs with tortoise shell backs
At the edge of the meadow.
Snows of a thousand winters
Melt in the sun of one summer.
Wild cyclamen bloom by the stream.
Trout veer in the transparent current.
In the evening marmots bark in the rocks.
The Scorpion curls over the glimmering ice field.

A white crowned night sparrow sings as the moon
Thunder growls far off.
Our campfire is a single light
Amongst a hundred peaks and waterfalls.
The manifold voices of falling water
Talk all night.
Wrapped in your down bag
Starlight on your cheeks and eyelids
Your breath comes and goes
In a tiny cloud in the frosty night.
Ten thousand birds sing in the sunrise.
Ten thousand years revolve without change.
All this will never be again.

Part of the appeal in this poem is the allusion to Po Chu I. I’ve wanted to read some new Chinese poets lately, particularly Taoist poets. Reading about Rexroth, I discovered he had been one of the early translators of Chinese poetry, and I ordered two of his books.

More importantly, though, the poem reminds me of the pleasure I felt when my daughter and son used to hike and backpack with me when they were young. Heck, it even reminded me of last weekend’s hike with Zoe, Logan and her parents.

There’s something very special about spending a fleeting moment with young children in the mountains. Though I doubt ever thought of it in exactly these terms, unconsciously I must have felt feel the tension between this fleeting moment and the eternal quality of the surrounding mountains. While it’s sad if you only realize this while looking back at old photographs, it’s liberating, if not enlightening, if you realize it at the very moment it’s happening since it forces you to savor the moment.