Is poetry lost or found in translation?

by David Burleigh

BRIGHT MOON, WHITE CLOUDS: Selected Poems of Li Po, edited and translated by J.P. Seaton. Shambhala, 2012, 224 pp., $14.95 (paperback)
KANEKO TOHTA: Selected Haiku 1937-1960, translated by The Kon Nichi Translation Group. Red Moon Press, 2012, 256 pp., $12.00 (paperback)

Two books of poetry, both pocket-size, and put out by small publishers in the United States, one in Boston, the other in Virginia (the former specializing in spiritually uplifting works, the latter in haiku); both are volumes of translation, from Chinese and Japanese respectively, and come with detailed notes about the poets and their work.

Li Po (701-762), who is also sometimes known by other names such as Li Bai, is held to be one of the very greatest Chinese poets, from the golden age of poetry in the Tang dynasty. Not much is known about his life, though J.P. Seaton makes the best of what there is in a jocular introduction. Born in a remote area, somewhere on the borderlands of China, Li Po traveled a good deal, enjoyed distinguished company and patronage, including that of the emperor, and experienced some dramatic reverses. Famously, he drank a lot as well.

The classic story about the poet’s death is that he fell into a pond and drowned trying to embrace the moon while he was drunk. He is often paired with the other great poet of the age, Tu Fu (712-770), with whom he was on friendly terms. Li Po cuts a more colorful and romantic figure, though some critics consider Tu Fu to have been more influential. There are some poems from Li Po addressed to his friend included here.

Arthur Waley, whom Seaton mentions in his account of Li Po’s life, was one of the earliest to suggest that Chinese poetry was more about friendship than romantic love. Where the first section of five in the book is mostly about drinking, the second contains many poems about parting from friends, particularly other poets. Like Waley, Seaton renders the poems into English in unrhymed and fairly lucid versions. Sometimes he produces elegant lines, such as this sort of stretched alexandrine: “Of what there is that may give joy I bid you take, and taste.”

If Li Po saw himself as “a Taoist Immortal banished from Heaven,” Seaton updates him for modern times with references to Robin Hood and Timothy Leary. As a scholar of Chinese he is able to explain many things about the poems in the notes that follow, including the approach that he has taken to translation. His use of italics for stress, even in the poems, is a little irritating sometimes, but his versions of the poet are much better than the other two I have on my shelves.

The second book is more pioneering, in that it attempts to give a comprehensive view of an important living poet, Kaneko Tohta (b. 1919), and is the third in a projected series of four, though the first to present the poems. It is not as user-friendly, or as meticulous, as the volume above, but we note from the first verse the influence of Chinese poetry on haiku:

white plum blossoms —

Lao-Tzu dwells in a journey

of no-mind

As we learn from the detailed chronology, the poet’s father was serving in China as a doctor when Tohta was a child. Later the poet fought in the war in the Truk Islands, and then worked for the Bank of Japan when peace came, taking early retirement to devote himself to haiku. He continues to live in the area of Saitama where he was raised, and is today the head of the Modern Haiku Association in Japan. His work is much admired and has struck new paths.

The haiku are presented bilingually, with the vertical Japanese and horizontal English and romanized versions sometimes intersecting on the small pages. Now and then the poems are even printed diagonally across the page, so that the effect is rather like a scrapbook and quite unlike the neatly spaced lines of the original collections. The English versions are occasionally baffling, like this one with the last word left untranslated:

meat devoured

in feast, of wilderness

my wife aware

There is a great deal of information in the notes, though they are not easily accessed since, although they are numbered, the haiku are not, and neither do the numbers refer to pages. There is an index of the poems in English, but not in Japanese. The grouping into sections divides them according to the parts of the poet’s life. One begins: “In January 1958, Kaneko moved to Nagasaki. Although eight years had passed since the atomic bombing …” Whoever wrote that needs to study arithmetic, or history. We are also told that he was “interred” [sic] in a POW camp.

In the introduction to the book another well-known poet, Tsubouchi Nenten, has both his names misspelled. There are a number of sloppy errors in the book like this, which is really a pity, because it is otherwise a valuable introduction, with much fascinating detail. There is an excellent, well-referenced essay on the Chichibu Incident by Ito Yuki, whom I take to be one of the more important contributors. But a poet of the caliber and distinction of Kaneko Tohta deserves to be treated with a lot more care in the editing and presentation of his work than he gets here.