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Rexroth and jazz at The Cellar in San Francisco in 1957

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Kenneth Rexroth Feature:
Eliot Weinberger
Rexroth From the Chinese

[Excerpts from the introduction to The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, edited by Eliot Weinberger, New Directions 2003.]

In 1956, Kenneth Rexroth had a poetry bestseller with his One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. Thirty-five of the hundred poems were by Tu Fu (“without question the major influence on my own poetry”), who at the time was still eclipsed in English by Pound’s Li Po and Waley’s Po Chü-i; the rest were the first important translations of various Sung Dynasty poets, who had generally been neglected in the prevailing T’angophilia. Rexroth, in his unreliable An Autobiographical Novel, claimed that he first began learning Chinese as a boy; in 1924, at nineteen, he met Witter Bynner in Taos, who spurred his interest in Tu Fu. According to his introduction to One Hundred, the poems were derived from the Chinese texts, as well as French, German, and academic English translations, but the sources hardly matter. Rexroth had reimagined the poems as the work of someone on the other side of the Pacific Rim, speaking in a plain, natural-breathing, neutral American idiom. Ignoring the Chinese line, which is normally a complete syntactical unit, Rexroth enjambed his, often with end-stops in the middle, to give them the illusion of effortless speech. One Hundred was followed in 1970 by Love and the Turning Year: One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese, possibly his best translation, a selection of favorite poems from two thousand years of poetry.

More than any other translator of Chinese, it is almost impossible to separate Rexroth’s translations from his own poetry; they tend to speak as one. And in the 1970s, his Chinese (and Japanese) translations became part of a strange project in old age to reinvent himself as a woman poet. Along with his creation of a young Japanese poet, Marichiko, and her erotic lyrics, and an anthology of Japanese women poets, Rexroth collaborated with the scholar Ling Chung on The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China (1972) and, two years later, an edition of the complete poems of the great Sung poet, Li Ch’ing Chao. Like Whitman, Rexroth was containing multitudes, but they were all East Asian women.

Among the things in Chinese poetry that directly appealed to Rexroth and later Gary Snyder and David Hinton was its celebration of wilderness– something that had been neglected by Pound and Waley, Lowell and Bynner. Many Chinese poets, whether in exile or in Taoist or Buddhist retreat, had inhabited landscapes as dramatic and wild as those of the American West, and the poems they wrote had no equivalent in world literature, where nature tended to be domesticated or fearsome. Snyder has written how his work in the national forests informed his early studies of Chinese poetry; both he and Rexroth, because of their extensive wilderness experience– and a Buddhist training to place it in context– were able to see the natural specifics of Chinese poetry in a way that more desk-bound translators were not.

How classical Chinese entered into American poetry is a simple story, but its effect may never be fully unraveled, for it is often impossible to determine whether the Americans found in it a revelation or merely a confirmation of what they had already discovered.

In the Imagist aesthetic, which has dominated American poetry for the last ninety years, Chinese was perhaps the greatest example of direct presentation without generalizing comment, of “no ideas except in things.” Poets as dissimilar as Charles Reznikoff and Stanley Kunitz, to take one example, each publicly cited the Sung Dynasty critic, Wei T’ai (from the epigraph to A. C. Graham’s Poems of the Late T’ang): “Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling.”

In the modernist project of a poetry that would be about everything, that was open to anything, even (or especially) the most ordinary experiences, Chinese was a poetry where Tu Fu could begin a poem with the crumbling of the state and end complaining that he’s gone bald. It was a poetry that made no distinctions about what was suitable for poetry, and one where it was already assumed that so much depended upon a red wheelbarrow.

As the postwar poets moved into the American wilderness, they found that Chinese poetry, created in a similarly vast landscape, slaked (in Gary Snyder’s words) “the modern thirst for natural, secular clarity” for it

seem[ed] to have found, at its finest, a center within the poles of man, spirit & nature. With strategies of apparent simplicity and understatement it moves us from awe before history, to a deep breath before nature, to a laugh before spirit.

For those who believed, like Pound, that a wise government consults its poets, Chinese was a poetry largely written by civil servants with varying degrees of political power, and sometimes by the emperors themselves. For those like Snyder and Rexroth in Cold War America, who believed in poetry as opposition to the State, the Chinese poet’s role as the exiled or self-exiled recluse-sage in the wilderness was a model — and one, as Snyder has pointed out, not dependent, as is usual among Western oppositional figures, on an alternate theology or political ideology.

In the daily assault of mendacious or empty language, Chinese poetry promoted the Confucian “rectification of names”– that words should mean what they say, that it is the poet’s task to restore meaning, that the poet, like the enlightened ruler, was a person who stood by his word. In the new morality, the eroticism of Chinese lyrics was unabashed, polymorphous, and just plain sexy. In the age of cinematic montage, Chinese poetry leapt from word to word, line to line, and let the reader supply the transitions. Particularly for those who could not read it, it seemed to be a kind of concrete poetry, just at the moment when American poets were preoccupied with the look of the poem on the page. Most of all, it was a poetry where one found the whole panorama of enduring human emotions and experiences, lofty and mundane: war and the weather, loneliness and politics, drunkenness and minor aches and pains, friendship, gardening, bird-watching, failure, river journeys, religious and sexual ecstasy, aging, poverty and riches, courtesans and generals, princes and children, street vendors and monks. Chinese poetry as a whole was a Balzacian human comedy from a distant place and time that ultimately didn’t seem so remote at all.

Kenneth Rexroth: Chinese Poetry and the American Imagination

[Statement for a symposium, April 1977]

Chinese poetry began to influence writers in English with the translations into French of Hervey St. Denis and others in the mid-19th century who translated Three Hundred Poems of the T’ang into French free verse. If American and English poets did not read French, the translations of Herbert Giles and other Sinologists like him were practically worthless, because of the doggerel verse in which they were rendered. Probably the most influential was Judith Gautier’s Le livre de Jade, which was translated by E. Powys Mathers in Colored Stars and A Garden of Bright Waters. Neither Gautier nor Mathers read Chinese and, in fact, her informant was a Thai who didn’t read Chinese either. Nevertheless, these prose poems (which first appeared in Stuart Merrill’s Pastels in Prose) came across as deeply moving poetry in English.

Approximately contemporarily appeared the first translations by Arthur Waley and, not long after, Ezra Pound’s Cathay. Pound and Waley taught the West a kind of irregular iambic pentameter or free verse, in both cases as dependent on quantitative rhythms as on accentual. Chinese poetry, in fact, bears no resemblance to this kind of verse. It is rhymed with considerable emphasis, usually, on the rhymed words, and at first was in four monosyllable lines, or five, or seven, and in addition the tones which distinguished the meanings of homonymous Chinese monosyllables came to follow regular patterns. Later in the T’ang, and reaching its flower in the Sung Dynasty, poems were patterned on the irregular lines of songs, as well as being written in the five or seven syllable classic patterns.

Learned and industrious people have tried to reproduce in English the original rhythms, but have managed to produce only absurdities. So Chinese poetry has come to influence the West as a special form of Chinese verse– which annoys some more pedantic Sinologists of Chinese ancestry. It is a special kind of free verse and its appearance happened to converge with the movement toward objectivism, Imagism, and even the Cubist poetry of Gertrude Stein and Pierre Reverdy– “no ideas but in things,” as Williams says rather naively.

There is almost no rhetorical verse of the kind we find in Augustan Latin and later in Renaissance poetry throughout Europe, nor is there the luxuriously foliate poetry of India (with the possible exception of the Li Sao). There are no true poetic epics in Chinese poetry. The heroic epic of China is an historical novel, The Romance of Three Kingdoms. And, until recent years, the verse of Chinese drama was considered beneath serious literary consideration, although, for instance, “The Flower Burying Song” from the play taken from The Dream of the Red Chamber is quite impressive poetry. There are verse treatises in Chinese comparable to Virgil’s Georgics or Horace’s Art of Poetry, but even they follow the tendency toward direct presentation of concrete images.

Most Chinese poetry, whether elegiac or love poetry, situates the reader in a definite mise-en-scene. “The driving wind and rain tear the banana leaves”– we are in the South. “The swallows huddle in their nest under the gilded rafters”– a palace. “I am too weary to pick up my jade inlaid lute”– probably a concubine. “Soon the wild geese will be returning from the North, but they will bring me no message”– he is away fighting the Northern Barbarians. This can become a facile formula, especially when, in the later Dynasties, the lines were arranged in strictly parallel couplets, but it is certainly a way to produce effective– affective– poetry, if you are a poet. In fact, it differs little from the poetry envisaged by Wordsworth and Coleridge in the preface to Lyrical Ballads and often realized in their best poems. But so true is it also of Horace’s “Under Soracte” or the best poems of Hafiz or the rare poignant imagistic moments in Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.”

Chinese poetry entered the American and, to a much lesser degree, English poetic consciousness at exactly the right moment to purge the rhetoric and moralizing of 19th century Romantic poetry and the even more moralistic, preachy poetry of the 90s. Much of the poetry of Ernest Dowson is little sermons of disappointed Epicureanism.

Japanese poetry, which after all is an extremely compressed expression of Chinese aesthetics, became popular among American poets at about the same time and through the same people– Pound, Waley, and Mathers. Today, for a very large sector of American poets, the poetry of the Far East is more influential than 19th and 20th century French poetry, which has dominated the international idiom for so long, and certainly incomparably more influential than American or English poetry of the 19th century. The only rival is the slowly dying influence of “metaphysical” verse of the English Renaissance. It would be possible to name over a hundred American poets deeply influenced by the poetry of the Far East and some who have difficulty in thinking poetry in any other idiom than Chinese or Japanese. Now, of course, there are a number of poets, by no means uninfluential, who read Chinese and Japanese and who are philosophically Buddhist or Taoist or both.

Kenneth Rexroth: Alternate Versions of Lu Yu

[For his 1970 Love and the Turning Year: One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese, Rexroth rewrote some of his translations from the 1956 One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. These are the revisions of the Sung poet Lu Yu (1125-1210).]


Rain on the River

In the fog we drift hither
And yon over the dark waves.
At last our little boat finds
Shelter under a willow bank.
At midnight I am awake,
Heavy with wine. The smoky
Lamp is still burning. The rain
Is still sighing in the bamboo
Thatch of the cabin of the boat.



Rain on the River

We cross the river over dark waves
Through dense fog and tie up the little boat
Under the bank to a willow.
I wake up heavy with wine in the middle of the night.
The lamp is only a
Smoky red coal. I lie listening to the
Hsiao hsiao of the rain on the bamboo roof
Of the cabin.




I keep the rustic gate closed
For fear somebody might step
On the green moss. The sun grows
Warmer. You can tell it’s Spring.
Once in a while, when the breeze
Shifts, I can hear the sounds of the
Village. My wife is reading
The classics. Now and then she
Asks me the meaning of the word.
I call for wine and my son
Fills my cup till runs over.
I have only a little
Garden, but it is planted
With yellow and purple plums.




Once we had a knocker
On the gate.
Now we seldom
Open it. I don’t want people
Scuffing up the green moss.
The sun grows warm. Spring has really
Come at last. Sometimes you
Can hear faintly on the gentle
Breeze the noise of the street.
My wife is reading the classics.
She asks me the meaning
Of ancient characters.
My son begs for a sip of wine.
He drinks the whole cup before
I can stop him.
Is there anything
Better than an enclosed garden
With yellow plums and purple plums
Planted alternately?



Night Thoughts

I cannot sleep. The long, long
Night is full of bitterness.
I sit alone in my room,
Beside a smoky lamp.
I rub my heavy eyelids
And idly turn the pages
Of my book. Again and again
I trim my brush and stir the ink.
The hours go by. The moon comes
In the open window, pale
And bright like new money.
At last I fall asleep and
I dream of the days on the
River at Tsa-feng, and the
Friends of my youth in Yen Chao.
Young and happy we ran
Over the beautiful hills.
And now the years have gone by,
And I have never gone back.

                  [ 1956]



Even when I fall asleep early,
My nights are long and full of bitterness.
Tonight, tortured with insomnia,
Memories of the past flood back
Until they have exhausted me.
Alone in the house beside a smoky lamp,
I rub my heavy eyelids
And idly turn the page of my notebook.
Again and again I scratch my head
And trim my brush and stir the heavy ink.
The hours go by. The moon comes
And stands in the open door,
White and shining like molten silver.
Suddenly I am back, sailing on Ts’ai Fong River
With the fellows of my youth,
Back in the Yuen village.
Oh wonderful mountains! Oh noble boys!
How is that I have lived so long
And never once gone back to visit you?


Rexroth on Lu Yu:

“Lu Yu is the least classical of the major Sung poets. Although a member of the scholar gentry, he never attained, or desired, high office, and seems to have been genuinely far from rich, especially toward the end of his life. (Understand that throughout China’s history a really ‘poor farmer’ never got a chance to read or write anything.) His poetry is loose, casual. It had to be– he wrote about eleven thousand poems. His poems have that easy directness that is supposed to come only with rare, concentrated effort. By his day Sung China had retreated to the South and the Golden Tatars in the North were already being threatened by the Mongols who were soon to overwhelm all. Lu Yu’s patriotism was not prepared to accept the modus vivendi less doctrinaire minds had worked out, and his stirring agitational poems against the invader have been very popular in twentieth-century China where everybody has been an invader to everybody else.”

Tai Fu-ku (1167-?) on Lu Yu:

“Using what is plain and simple he fashioned subtle lines; / Taking the most ordinary words, he changed them into wonders.” (trans. Burton Watson)

Lu Yu on Lu Yu:

“We make our poems out of pure sadness, for without sadness how would we have any poems?”

Eliot Weinberger’s most recent books are 9/12, a collection of political articles; The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, which he edited; and a translation of Vicente Huidobro’s Altazor.

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at The Cellar in San Francisco in 1957.

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