Friday, January 06, 2012

Poetry Friday: Heartbreak and Such

My daughter is currently obsessed with Les Misérables, the book and the musical. The first time she watched the musical, she described it as "like someone took my heart out and stomped on it."

Why do we seek that feeling in literature? Why don't we just read happy stories to escape from the sadness in our real lives? I don't know, but there's something about January that makes me want to read sad poems. Christmas is over, it's cold (OK, where I live, cold is seventy degrees, but work with me here), it's time to go back to work, weeks stretching out ahead with nothing much to look forward to. Plus there's next Thursday looming large, the two-year anniversary of the Haitian earthquake. In that mood, nothing's better than Japanese poetry. It's all that all that heartache, all that longing, all that awareness of transience, all that Sehnsucht. Perhaps some of that sensibility comes from living with earthquakes.

I can't read Japanese poetry in the original, but I have two books of it, One Hundred Poems from the Japanese and One Hundred More Poems from the Japanese. The translations are done by Kenneth Rexroth, who explains in his introduction to the first book,
Japanese poetry does what poetry does everywhere: it intensifies and exalts experience. ... Many...editors and translators have been embarrassed by this intensity and concentration and have labored to explain each poem until it has been explained away. Often the explanation has obtruded into the poem itself, which has been expanded with concealed commentary and interpretation.
So I'm not going to include any commentary, but here are a couple of heartbreaking and beautiful Japanese poems for this cold (OK, just not boiling hot) January day.

A strange old man
Stops me,
Looking out of my deep mirror.


May those who are born after me
Never travel such roads of love.


I go out of the darkness
Onto a road of darkness
Lit only by the far off
Moon on the edge of the mountains.


The cricket cries
In the frost.
On my narrow bed,
In a folded quilt,
I sleep alone.

The Regent Fujiwara No Go-Kyogoku

The plovers cry
Over the evening waves
Of Lake Omi.
In my withering heart
I remember the past.

Kakinomoto No Hitomaro

In the dusk the path
You used to come to me
Is overgrown and indistinguishable,
Except for the spider webs
That hang across it
Like threads of sorrow.

Izumi Shikibu

This world of ours,
To what shall I compare it?
To the white wake of a boat
That rows away in the early dawn.

Shami Mansei

Here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.


Sherry said...

Thank you. I especially like the first one, since I see a strange old woman sometimes in my "deep mirror."

Katya said...

Doesn't reading poetry in translation always make you wish you could read the original so you could feel the nuances of the language? It was two wildly different translations of Baudelaire's The Cat (Le Chat) that made me learn French. Every time I ready Japanese poems I want to study Japanese... the poems are so achingly beautiful.

Ruth said...

Katya, YES. My husband has a quote he read once, that reading something in translation is like kissing someone through a screen door. I really wish I could read Japanese. I'd also like to be able to read Spanish, so I could enjoy Neruda in the original.

Diane Mayr said...

May those who are born after me
Never travel such roads of love.

How much is expressed in these two lines! Thanks for sharing these.

Mary Lee said...

I'm with Sherry -- who IS that old woman in the mirror?!?

I'm still thinking about this one...

"the white wake of a boat
That rows away in the early dawn."

...and while I'm not sure I can make sense of it, I can't get away from that boat and that wake and that dawn. I long for that peacefulness...I mourn for the impermanence...maybe I understand it after all...