The songs of the waking/ birds

I got food poisoning from an oyster. I'll never eat those things again. Or would that be letting them win?

Here is a quick link to a new blog started by friend and collaborator Eric Selland: The New Modernism. The inaugural post is about, and entitled, American poets and the popular perception of Japanese poetry.

[Kenneth] Rexroth takes a special interest in the feminine aspects of the classical work and produces fluid, lyric translations which, in many cases accentuate sexual content in a much more direct or literal way than in the original poems. A direct inheritor of the Pound tradition, Rexroth’s framing of Japanese poetry continues the sense of exotic, ancient beauty existing outside time. [...] An important element is added to this formula when Rexroth publishes his second edition of classical Japanese poetry in 1974. Embedded cleverly in this volume are the poems of an invented contemporary woman, Marichiko, living in Kyoto near a Buddhist temple complete with an invented goddess of sex. Here Rexroth completes the tropes of Edward Fitzgerald in his rewriting of Omar Khayyam but one ups him in providing not only the ultimate heterosexual male fantasy, but precisely the image that American capitalism’s cultural hegemony in Asia desires. Another interesting, as well as ironic point here is that, of all the Japanese translations that Rexroth produced, it was the Poems of Marichiko, Rexroth’s own work, which most impressed and influenced poets such as Robert Creeley.

Protip: The best Marichiko poems are the ones that sound like they were generated by cutting up the Japanese canon and pulling phrases out of an eboshi:

I waited all night.
By midnight I was on fire.
In the dawn, hoping
To find a dream of you,
I laid my weary head
On my folded arms,
But the songs of the waking
Birds tormented me.


This world of ours, before we
Can know its fleeting sorrows,
We enter it through tears.
Do the reverberations
Of the evening bell of
The mountain temple ever
Totally die away? [...]

No, Marichiko, they just become ever more barnacled with footnotes.

Anyway, the essay is a bit compressed, having once been a spoken presentation, and no doubt many of the readers of this blog will find some of the material a bit basic (or infuriating; I am cringing in anticipation of the withering Languagehat rebuttal of the bits about Pound), but as a scene-setter I think it works marvelously.

Next question: Why is everybody and her PhD supervisor so into Japanese modernism now, and is this intense scrutiny what is rapidly making it as distant and idealized as the hazy, blurred-together premodernity it upstaged?

Popularity factor: 10


Regarding modernity: I don't know. But I don't think the love for modernity is limited to the study of Japan. There's a fair amount of love for the Weimer Republic, or so it seemed when I last skirted the edges of a relevant job search.

language hat:

"However, Pound’s approach is still essentially imperialist in its concern with the appropriation of bits and pieces of Asian culture..."

I stopped reading right there. There was a time and a place for that kind of overheated, simplistic rhetoric, and that time and place was New Haven in 1975. Wake up and smell the 21st century, sucka!


MMS: Let me guess the search terms: "medieval mysticism" & "axis powers" -thule

LH: O, simplistic, yes, again owing to the format I suspect. But not overheated. He isn't calling for a Canto-burning and an all-Maya Angelou corrective curriculum, just using academic code words to argue that Pound's approach to his Asian sources was weighted heavily (entirely?) in favor of the premodern, exotic, and pastoral, ignoring the then-current trends throughout Asia towards industrialization and capital-M Modernity (despite Pound's having correspondents in Asia directly involved in those trends).


Er, and the relevant conclusion is "and the Pound approach to Asia dominated Japanese poetry translations in English through the 20th C." Not "Denounce utterly the Pisan betrayer of the people and scatter his personae to the four winds."

Leonardo Boiko:

It’s because taishō chic and shōwa chic are on the rise. Or is it the other way around?

Oysters are just too tasty for me to give up on them, food poisoning or not.

language hat:

Yeah, but I just have zero tolerance for that variety of academic code. I was actually living in New Haven and working in bookstores during the '70s, and I got enough of it to last me a lifetime. Besides (and I realize I am once again outing myself as a hopelessly bourgeois reactionary unable to comprehend the necessity of Theory to a vibrant mental life) my take on it is that Pound took the materials at hand, applied his genius to them, and produced poems that will live as long as the English language that happen to be based, in a rickety fashion, on some ancient Chinese poems. It is not his fault that lazy people coming after him imitated him rather than going out and finding their own materials and methods, and it has nothing to do with imperialism and alterity and all that jazz. Such connections are invented by academics with syllabuses to fill and tenure to win.

Oops, they're coming to take me off to a self-criticism and reeducation session -- gotta go!

L.N. Hammer:

Heh. And just this week, I picked up one of Rexroth's translations, one without Marichiko poems, and am finding them generally good poetry in English but erratic in their accuracy (insofar as I can work my way through the original). He also tends to make everyone sound the same -- Hitomaro, Komachi, and Narihira write very differently.

That I'm tag-team reading this with Larkin's collected poems and Ooki na mori no chisa na ei makes it all the more headbendingly fun.



Modernism of all sorts seems to be in vogue; the hipsters are all over early 20th century, even though every time I see a new designer chair or Canadian architect-indulged cabin, I think that they're trying to remake the Eames Office's work in a safer way. (Read: "more muted color palette and less metal.")

As a product of the 1980s/90s American public school system, the Pound poem we saw the most was "In a Station of the Metro," which certainly has a smack of orientalism, though nowhere close to the Chinese orientalism of "The River Merchant's Wife." The Parisian title probably mutes any Asia-as-other effect. We read it after we had been introduced to haiku as a fully anglicized 5-7-5 form; in our survey English course for 12-year-olds, it was simply another set form like a sonnet, and we didn't delve much (if at all) into the traditional superposition or the oft-quoted requirement for natural imagery.

It also seems to me that Pound's approach to his European sources is pretty narrow, too: this is a man who built poems on Provencal lais. I have a general-audience American poetry paperback from the 1960s, and I don't think that any of Pound's Chinese or Japanese translations are included, other than "River Merchant." The bulk of his section is made up of selections from _The Cantos_, which mixes the Asian stuff in with Homer and medievalism.

language hat:

I'm deeply grateful nobody made me read Pound in school; I discovered him for myself in college, opening his Selected Poems at random and laughing in delight at Ancient Music("Winter is icummen in,/ Lhude sing Goddamm") -- who knew poetry could be so raucously hilarious? I bought it and graduated to "Sestina: Altaforte" and "The Return" and Cathay and The Cantos (my copy of which is thoroughly beat up and annotated to within an inch of its life). I did have to read Eliot in school, which is one reason I never really warmed up to him.


I had a similar reaction to Frank O'Hara's Les Etiquettes Jaunes:

... Leaf! you are so big!
How can you change your
color, then just fall!

As if there were no
such thing as integrity!

I've heard the poem described as "playful", but I cannot but read it as a deadly serious denunciation by the archetypical cranky old man.

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