e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

Archive for the tag “poetry in translation”

Surrounded by darkness

Recently I bought a copy of One Hundred Poems from the Japanese: poems selected and translated by Onehundredpoemsfromthejapanese_300_504Kenneth Rexroth. Years ago I borrowed this book from the library and loved it, but at the time I didn’t have spare money to spend on books.

Reading these clear and heartfelt short poems is to wander in a different world: a world of underground passion, verbal precision and appreciation of small things, many with wide implications.

My favourite so far is:

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

This has the human condition so right in so few words: where do we come from? where do we go?

The original was written by Izumi, who I suppose is the same person as Lady Izumi Shikibu. She was a lady in waiting at the Imperial court in the tenth to eleventh century. Apparently writing poetry was a popular activity for courtiers at the time.

Would that the fashion had spread and endured. If our political scene contained more poets who knows what it might achieve.


Cover art from New Directions publisher.


Serendipity in the library

In an obscure corner of our local library, underneath a staircase and next to the kind of tomes no one reads unless they have to, is one of my favourite library shelves – ‘Withdrawn from Circulation and For Sale’. Here, among books on Finnish government statistics for 1980 and the speeches of forgotten Soviet politicians, lies the possibility of finding a jewel.

My most recent discovery here is Selected Poems of Al Mahmud translated by Kabir Chowdhury.

I often read poetry in translation (in this case of a Bangladeshi poet). There are differences of outlook and imagery that I find fascinating. No English poet can write about oil lamps or the cries of monkeys as everyday experiences.

Images such as:

his lips are covered with the fragrance

of powdery flowers. …

from a short poem ‘This World and Beyond’; or this from ‘The Poet and the Black Cat  – 1’:

A rider on a jet black horse comes scaling the wall.

seem to me unlikely ones for a western writer. And I loved the description of the dredger Baleshwar on the Titash river:

When the giant iron tortoise moves forward,

sawing through the bosom of the Titash,

These poems describe small scenes and actions. Some carry a feeling of sadness. The poet states:

Nowadays music does not delight me any more

and in several poems he speaks of being in prison.

A few are more cheerful when he speaks of pleasure in work and the possibilities brought to him by

the favourite devil of my heart

He encounters the ordinary in a pair of sparrows and the village belle among others, and also the mystical like angels and buildings bending low. These poems are complex and beautiful and repay re-reading.

The main effect of the book generally is of a sigh – the world is beautiful, but somehow futile.

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