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Women Poets of Japan

Tr. Kenneth Rexroth and Ikuko Atsumi

New York: New Directions, 1977; Pages: 184

Review © 2001 Branislav L. Slantchev

What an incredible disappointment! The more I think about this little book, the more it makes me angry. I had really high hopes about the volume: Think about it, a whole book dedicated exclusively to the poetic endeavors of Japanese women. Without exaggeration, many of these ladies are poets of world status, not to mention that some of my favorite verses have been authored by them, and so a special book seems like a fitting tribute to their work, which is at the foundation of contemporary Japanese literature.

It was not to be, at least not with this attempt. The book starts promisingly, with about 43 pages dedicated to the classical period. This is, of course, puzzling, as it is the period of Japanese poetry, and one would have expected to see a larger portion reserved for it. Still, even here the first problems appear: the translation is not very good. I do not know classical Japanese but I have read quite a few translations, so I can tell whether I like one when I see it. As an example, compare the two versions of the most acclaimed waka by Ono no Komachi:

He does not come.
Tonight in the dark of the moon
I wake wanting him.
My breasts heave and blaze.
My heart chars.
On such a night as this
When the lack of moonlight shades your way to me,
I wake from sleep my passions blazing,
My breast a fire raging, exploding flame
While within me my heart chars. 

You guessed it, the first laconic and dispassionate version is from Rexroth, the other is from the appendix of Helen Craig McCullough's translation of Ise monogatari. Although the English in the second is doubtless ornated by the translator, it reflects much better the flamboyant passion that Ono no Komachi is known and remembered for. The versions of Murasaki Shikibu's poems also suffer in comparison with Arthur Waley's superior rendition.

There is a rather small section dedicated to haiku poets of the Tokugawa period and I must say that the selections are less than inspiring. I am not a great fan of the form, whose extreme brevity requires dense packing of meaning that very few seem to be able to achieve. It is also rather demanding on the interpreter, with the end result that one is never sure whether he has deciphered the meaning properly. Sometimes I like this, most often I do not.

The greatest part of the book is taken by modern poetry: tanka, haiku, and free verse. This is where the book suffers its devastating blow. First, the selections are not good, even the ones from the more famous poets like Yosano Akiko. But then, the inclusion of others seems to have been guided by two principles: the poet must have been a lesbian (or at least a bisexual) and/or she must have taken strong social, preferably socialist-communist, stand in her work. This has lead to a rather lopsided version of modern Japanese poetry that is strangely out of sync with the very definition of what makes up for proper versifying.

I am not prepared to get into a lengthy discussion about what constitutes a proper subject for poetry. Indeed, some may contend that there exist no limits to what can be addressed. I agree: everything can be addressed by poets. But not everything should. To some, singing the cosmic penis is poetry; to me it surely is not. (This was no idle metaphor, it is straight out of Shiraishi Kazuko's The Man Root poem.) In general, the strange selection by Rexroth and Atsumi leave one with the impression that contemporary Japanese women poets are quite vulgar and therefore have little to offer in the ways of poetic expression. This betrays Rexroth's own beatnik roots and his inordinate admiration for that other fountain of vulgarity, Allen Ginsberg.

In the end, we have a very uneven volume: biased selections, marred translations, and extensive comments reveling in lurid detail, followed by a brief survey of women poetry in Japan (this survey, by the way, is not bad, just too short). I don't think the editors have done the subject justice and I am awaiting another attempt.

Before concluding, I have to admit to being quite partial to one poem in the collection:

    Blue Horse
    Takiguchi Masako
    Sunken murmurs rise from the sea bottom
    Where you can see a horse through a trough of the waves,
    Blind in both eyes,
    a blue horse plodding along the sea bottom.
    The memory of men on its back almost gone.
    How long has this horse lived in the sea?
    Is the blood splashed on its back its own?
    If not, whose is it?
    It plods on, imperturbably
    Brushing aside the clinging seaweed with its forelegs
    Its blind eyes stealthily turn
    To an indigo deeper far and lonelier than the sea.
    Blood oozes from its wounded belly in the wash of the sea
    And is carried away from wave to wave.
    When autumn comes
    A cold thick fog rises from the sea.
    At that time the horse crouches alone
    Its legs folded under it
    In the shadow of the rocks at the bottom of the sea
    Enduring the cold.
Why could not they have included more poems like this one?

October 20, 2001.

    title     = {Women Poets of Japan},
    editor    = {Kenneth Rexroth and Ikuko Atsumi},
    year      = 1977,
    publisher = {New Directions},
    address   = {New York},
    isbn      = {0-8112-0820-6},
    note      = {Prev. published as ``The Burning Heart''}