Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Edith Shiffert's Solo Hyakuin

Edith Shiffert’s 100 Verse Solo Renga

As readers of this blog know, Renga is my favorite form of poetry.  For quite a few years now I have written solo Renga, which is unusual.  By far the majority of Renga written both in Japan and elsewhere consists of communal Renga; meaning Renga written by a group of poets.  Some sources online will define Renga as a form always written by a group.

Nevertheless, I have been inspired to compose solo Renga by the poet Sogi.  Two of Sogi’s solo Renga have been translated into English, so there is precedent for Renga as a solo form.  Sogi’s 100 Verse (Hyakuin) solo called ‘Sogi Alone’ is my favorite Renga and is the source for and inspiration of my approach to solo Renga.

Still, at times I have felt kind of out on a limb.  The fact that I write solo Renga is unusual by itself.  But in addition, I write syllabic Renga.  In contrast, all the Renga I have seen that are done in the west use a free verse approach to lineation. 

It came, therefore, as a delightful surprise to discover that Edith Shiffert had composed a solo 100 Verse (Hyakuin) Renga using a syllabic approach years before I began my own work on Renga.  I found this Renga in Shiffert’s ‘New and Selected Poems’, which was published in 1979.  The Renga is titled ‘For a Return to Kona’ (Kona is an Island in the Hawaiian chain).  It was selected from her previously published ‘For a Return to Kona’; but I am not sure of the date of that particular volume.  I think this Renga is a fine work.  And it is such a pleasure for me to find another poet whose approach to Renga in English turned in the same direction that I have found congenial and whose work precedes my own.  I find this validating of my own impulses regarding Renga in English.

I believe that this is the first solo Hyakuin Renga in English.  I have decided to present it here primarily for its intrinsic value but also for its historical significance.

One Hundred Stanzas
By Edith Shiffert


The tropic greenness
veiling the long mountain slope
fades only at night.

From an airplane coming in
the whole island has one shape.

Brown cattle feed on
thorny kiave bushes
by the hot shoreline.

How many feet must wander
to mark a path on lava?

A circle of clouds
around the seasonless moon
shines like a rainbow.

Up in the high pastureland
fog hides the grazing horses.

In a cool morning
the fencing of the corral
is wet to lean on.

Ferns grow so high over me
they hide the red flowered trees.


Is Kailua town
still alone on the seashore
with just two thin roads?

It is strange to remember
a place that one knows has changed.

I woke up crying
but had forgotten the dream
that had made me cry.

In places without seasons
roses never stop blooming.

That coffee farmer’s
people wrote poems like this
five hundred years back.

After rain the warm air smells
of husks from the coffee beans.

All the ground was rock
hardened from the flowing lava,
walking sounds hollow.

At the edge of the front porch
people feasted on mangos.

Fresh rainwater cleans
the stickiness of fruit juice
from my hands and lips.

Under netting he and I
slept like children in moonlight.

I still remember
the smell of mosquito punk
after all those years.

How often I was homesick
for a place that was not home.

To come back and look
where I once climbed up mountains
I crossed an ocean.

How can one know the right place
to stay peacefully and rest?


A graying head bends
and fists beat upon the floor
beside the bent knees.

Oh how silently I sit
returned where I used to be.

Steep slopes all around
with a few overgrown paths,
then a whole ocean.

Did you watch this sun go down
from your land some hours ago?

A fisherman walks away
from a landhead of lava
before the moonrise.

As it becomes night I wait
to learn what quietness is.

When a friend’s love sailed
she made him a lei of silk,
he brushed her long hair.

The school bus going uphill
carries thin children who sing.

Who will remember
lima beans climbing up
avocado trees?

The years I lived here
our windows where never closed.

One might ask himself
is the body the garland
blooming from the earth?

I wonder what I should want
now that I am back again.

Plumeria blooms
above forgotten people
in cemeteries.

Coy, I show you the sincere;
Surface is a branch and reeds.


Watching far-of ships
I often wondered if I
would leave the island.

Every wind-storm from the sea
knocks down more sweet coconuts.

When the island shakes
the houses tremble and squeak
and a few dishes fall.

While she kneels to make my tea
I become aware of tears.

The wooden farmhouse
is circled by rusty cans
of purple orchids.

She who danced for the temple
has become a calm matron.

A heavy man sleeps
stretched out on the window sill
of the town’s poolhall.

How could all those years of days
seem like some story I read?

If today I mailed
ripe guava and sweet mangos
they would arrive spoiled.

You never heard this clatter
of rain on a metal roof.

Before I left here
I used to climb trees to look
above the jungle.

Shadows move in the moonlight,
wild pigs crunching fallen fruit.

Wakened by the drum
of the temple I felt cold
under just a sheet.

In closed houses with heat on
one can shiver all night long.


Moonflowers still bloom
on the roofless mansion walls
burned two weeks ago.

When the sirens woke me up
I thought it was the mainland.

What place is behind
the fogginess of morning
where mynah birds call?

People and cars move along
the round-the-island roadway.

How many red leis
came from the porchside rosebush
some stranger planted?

The path slants down to the lane
grassy between coffee fields.

I climbed the long slope,
twice I stayed on top a week
by the crater fumes.

The moon shone on the bright clouds
over the land below me.

While only the sky
and one’s self are visible,
one’s self is nothing.

That other volcano peak
has been dormant some years.

An island is small
in so much water and sky,
and impermanent.

When wind parts the mist I look
into steam and the crater.

All night he and I
Shivered in a summit cave
not far from shelter.

I want to climb there alone
and see the ghost dog wander.


In a slow hammock
I feel the turn of the wind
push me back and forth.

Who lives in my plain board house
with slats for the lower walls?

Walking back quite late,
the fall weeds dampen my skirt
a rat startles me.

A neighbor’s banana trees
were broken off by the wind.

Bright colored birds perch
to peck at over-ripe fruit
the children gave them.

Is grass called sincere and kind
because it never makes mistakes?

The ancient poets
wrote when they felt bewildered
and I read their words.

While I rest here the new moon
grows full, disappears, returns.

If you were to come
and sit on the porch with me
you would understand.

Some are washed into the sea
and disappear forever.

From a coral tree
the sea carved and laid on sand
this pure white stone egg.

What waits at the hard center?
“Even the last grain of sand.”

Past the rain forest,
on the bare sharp lava fields,
our shoes were worn out.

That fisherman’s hands were scarred
from hooks and bites of eels.


When the moon comes up,
first the roosters, then the dogs.
The ocean lies still.

The old lady’s kimono
has cherry blossoms at the hem.

A kerosene lamp
shows fresh tangerines and rice
by the household shrine.

I sleep on the floor, happy
to pretend this is the world.

If a wild bird comes
and allows me to feed it
I will not forget.

Say why I should not enjoy
these pleasures of my ego?

A stone’s shadow leans
over the fish and seaweeds
in the clear tide pools.

And all those years yet to come
will also be like a dream?

I like best to drink
water, heated or still cool
from springs and rainfall.

Even in drought the village
is shaded with gaudy vines.

In the cool Northwest
spring lasts from February
to mid-June roses.

Here the moonlight is scented
with jasmine all of the year.

Violets will come
to the northern woods, briefly
in about two months.

You too can look at flowers
and be almost satisfied.


If I have caused grief
remember we are phantoms
and be forgiving.

One side of the huge mango
has blossoms, the other fruit.

Facing the mountains,
the ocean sound at his back,
the priest sits and talks.

The urge to do right or wrong
fades and there was no wrongness.

Barefoot old women
sucking guavas, gossiping,
spit seeds in the dust.

The ocean of blues and greens
sparkles three miles farther down.

If the volcano
flared up I would not see it
through the morning clouds.

Coffee trees bloom and people
talk of whiteness and fragrance.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Light Comes Slowly, by Edith Shiffert: A Review

Light Comes Slowly
By Edith Shiffert
A Review

As I continue to explore the world of syllabic Haiku, I sometimes discover a work from the past that has faded from view.  Such a work is a collection of Haiku by Edith Shiffert called “Light Comes Slowly”.

“Light” was published in1997 by Katsura Press.  I don’t believe it was ever reprinted.  The collection received the Haiku Society of America’s ‘Merit Book Award’ for 1998.

Shiffert was born in the U.S. but she moved to Japan in the 1960’s.  She has lived in Japan, mostly Kyoto I understand, for decades.  Shiffert married a Japanese man, Yuki Sawa.  Together they published “Haiku Master Buson” in 2007; a superb collection of Buson’s Haiku.

The Haiku collection “Light Comes Slowly” is arranged according to the twelve months; there are twelve chapters beginning with ‘January’, ending with ‘December’.  This is an effective arrangement, a kind of expansion of the four seasons arrangement often found in Haiku anthologies.

The writing in “Light” is assured and mature.  These are observations on nature and the world from a woman who has had a long life and has taken all of her varied experiences, distilled them, and is able to communicate them to us.  There is a sense of serenity in this collection that I find compelling.

Many of the Haiku are from the perspective of old age:

Our silly old age
makes every flower lovely,
every dog a friend.

Some are contemplative:

Be still now, be still.
See the sunlight on your hands
and on air, your breath.

Just now as we change
from one year to another,
I remember you.

Shiffert is self-assured as a poet, having published many volumes previously.  This allows her to use standard English poetic constructions such as metaphor:

I feel my spirit
glowing in a dark forest
like the last red leaves.

I find this Haiku particularly moving.  The metaphor is striking and points to an experience of inwardness that is truly mysterious.

There are themes that weave through the twelve months.  One is that of old age.  Another is her fondness for cats; quite a few of the Haiku highlight her relationship to felines:

Water in a vase
on the table, cat drinking.
The end of August.

Shiffert’s Haiku are syllabic, as the examples above indicate.  The flow of English is completely natural, the images striking, and the way the Haiku link to each other as we move through the calendar year gives the reader a steady sense of flow and ease.  Shiffert’s commitment to a syllabic approach to Haiku is intriguing to me because in other collections of her poetry most of the poems are free verse.  But when she composes Haiku (and Renga, in another collection) Shiffert adopts a syllabic approach.  This is another indication of her sense of self-assuredness and her strong connection with the Japanese poetic tradition, a tradition of formal verse.

This collection deserves to be reprinted, but short of that there are used copies available; I found mine at amazon.  This is an excellent collection of poetry and an excellent collection of Haiku.  I think it deserves to be more widely known. 

In closing, a final Haiku from the collection:

The sky is all black
then light comes slowly, slowly
while the cat watches.

Sunday, July 29, 2012


I cannot control
The way seasons come and go --
Your farewell letter

Friday, July 27, 2012

Someone Else's Backyard

The air is torrid
Even before the sunrise
On his morning walk

Past the High School soccer field
By the corner gas station

Gusts of cold north winds
Push the litter and the snow
Into restlessness

Where dreams of being pursued
Jolt her from chaotic sleep

On a green blanket
Full moon light thickens and swirls
In complete silence

He studies an old codex
And its words from long ago

Breaking through the snow
Crocus leaves and a few mice
In the fading cold

The professor has been told
That he won't receive tenure

Fall leaves look somber,
Pallbearers at the graveside
Of someone well loved

We can tell many stories
About days when we were young

While walking swiftly
Through someone else's backyard
Under a clear sky

Apple buds start to blossom
In the late afternoon light

Thursday, July 26, 2012

On Friendship

Catching up
Filling in the gaps
Of the days and months that have passed,
It is amazing how the lunch hour goes by so fast.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Translation Philosophies and Their Consequences: Part 2

Translation Philosophies and Their Consequences: Part 2

In Part 2 I will compare some translations of the Japanese work “One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each”, the “Ogura Hyakunin Isshu”, sometimes shortened to simply the “Hyakunin Isshu”.  The ‘Ogura’ is an anthology of 100 Tanka by 100 different poets.  Tanka is the most significant and most enduring form of Japanese poetry.  It has a written history of about 1400 years.  Tanka is the basic form from which both Renga and Haiku have emerged.  It is a formal tradition, retaining its syllabic structure over all these centuries.  The syllabic structure is 5-7-5-7-7, for a total of 31 syllables.  It is a form that is loved by all strata of Japanese society from the Imperial Court to the working peasant. 

I have chosen this work to compare the consequences of differing translation philosophies for two reasons.  First, it is one of the most widely read poetry collections in Japan.  It is hugely popular.  It is so popular that a card game has been created from the anthology which is often played during New Year celebrations.  The card game requires that the Tanka of the anthology be memorized.  The way the card game works is that each Tanka is divided into two; the first three lines or ‘ku’ of 5-7-5, and the concluding two lines, or ‘ku’, of 7-7.  The cards with the concluding lines are laid out on a table, or the floor.  The person leading the game then draws from the cards with the first three lines.  The leader then reads the first three lines and the contestants then have to find the correct card that has the concluding two lines which match the three lines just read.  I have heard that some people are so conversant with this collection that all they have to hear are two or three words and they know immediately what to look for.

In addition to this card game, the ‘One Hundred Poets’ has generated a great deal of art.  First, there are the illustrations on the cards for the game.  But the Tanka have also generated a lot of paintings based on the individual Tanka in the collection.  There are art books devoted to these paintings.

Given all of this it is clear that the ‘Ogura’ anthology has had an enduring impact on Japanese culture and poetry.

The second reason I have chosen this work is that there are numerous translations into English available.  And these different translations reflect, in a way that is very clear, the different philosophies of translation.  Understanding this helps us to understand why the different translations are so different.

Let’s take a specific example.  Here is Tanka 88 in three versions:

Because of one night,
A lovers’ nap on those reeds
Of Naniwa Bay,
Ought I, giving my body,
Love you always, do you think?

Translated by Tom Galt


I’ve seen thee but a few short hours;
As short, they seemed to me,
As bamboo reeds at Naniwa;
But tide-stakes in the sea
Can’t gauge my love for thee.

Translated by William Porter


For the sake of one night
on Naniwa Bay
short as the nodes
of a reed but at the root
what is left for me?
Like the wooden
channel markers
out in the sea
must I, too,
wear myself out
pining for my love?

Translated by Peter McMillan


The first translation by Tom Galt is an example of literal, or word-for-word, translation philosophy in application.  The syllabic structure of the Tanka, the 5-7-5-7-7 count, is retained.  Interestingly, the Galt translation is the most explicitly erotic.  By mentioning the body directly, Galt expresses the charged nature of this Tanka.

The third translation by Peter McMillan is an example of a meaning based translation.  Notice that all connection to the formal constraints of Tanka are gone.  The translation has eleven lines.  The syllable count is 51.  This is a free verse poem.  Notice also the run-on from L6 to L7, a common free verse convention.  Also in this version the erotic element is less explicit, the consequences of the one-night stand not as clear.

The second translation by William N. Porter takes a different approach.  Recognizing that Tanka is formal verse, Porter translates the Tanka but instead of mimicking the formal constraints of the Japanese, Porter creates a formal structure that he believes is more resonant of English language poetry.  Porter writes in his ‘Introduction’, “A tanka verse has five lines and thirty-one syllables, arranged thus: 5-7-5-7-7; as this is an unusual meter in our ears, I have adopted for the translation a five-lined verse of 8-6-8-6-6 meter, with the second, fourth, and fifth lines rhyming, in the hope of retaining at least some resemblance to the original form, while making the sound more familiar to English readers.”

Porter’s approach is to recognize that Tanka is formal verse and then translate the verse in such a manner as to align the translation with formal verse conventions as found in English.  For Porter, who was working in 1909, this means an iambic line (hence the even numbered line count) and the use of rhyme.  Porter retains the five-line structure, but curiously he reverses the relationship between the long and short lines of traditional Tanka.  In traditional Tanka L2, 4 & 5 are long, 7-syllable, lines; while L1 & 3 are short, 5-syllable lines.  Porter reverses this with L2, 4 & 5 being short 6-syllable lines, and L1 & 3 being longer, 8-syllable lines.  I find this curious; but that’s the way he decided to shape his translations.  The three short lines, L2, L4, and L5, are further marked by a shared end rhyme.  Japanese poetry does not use rhyme as a structural element of its forms.   But English poetry does and Porter thought that adding rhyme would indicate to the English reader, who is used to rhyme in formal verse, the formal nature of the original poetry.  Interestingly, Porter is not the only translator to adopt this strategy.  H. H. Honda published a translation in 1956 which transforms the Tanka into rhymed Quatrains.  It has not been as successful as the Porter translation, so I’m just going to note it in passing.

Both the Galt and Porter translations give the reader a feel for the formal nature of the poems in the anthology.  That is to say all the poems in these translations have the same form.  For the Galt translation that means they all adhere to the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure, unrhymed.  For Porter that means that they all adhere to the 8-6-8-6-6 syllable structure with an end rhyme scheme.

For the McMillan translation all of the poems vary as to lineation and syllable count.  No two consecutive poems have the same form.  The consequence of this is that the reader is not able to compare the formal relationships among the poems.  In a way, I would say that McMillan’s version is so far from the originals that they are, in a sense, different poems altogether.  McCullough put it that for some a poem in a foreign language is an occasion for writing a new poem in their own language.  And I feel that this is what has happened with the McMillan version.  His poems are based on the poems of the anthology, but the connection to them is so remote as to be more like an inspiration for McMillan’s own poems.

Readers of this blog will guess that I prefer Galt’s translation.  This is because the Galt translation is, quite simply, most faithful to the formal parameters of the original.  For Galt, the form itself has meaning.  And it is here where I think the literal approach to translation surpasses the meaning based approach, or the third way compromise exemplified by Porter.  Porter was correct that odd-line syllable count is rare in English formal verse (especially in 1909).  But that is precisely why I think mimicking the actual syllable count of the original is significant; because it opens up a new way of looking at lineation for the English reader and the English poet.  If we follow Porter’s approach, we miss an opportunity to expand our poetic resources.  This is something that both Porter and McMillan miss.  McMillan misses it because, it seems to me, he is simply form deaf.  McMillan is an extreme example of a meaning based approach where all attempt to mimic the form are rejected in favor of a strictly conceptual approach.  It is a hyper-intellectual, a pure mental, approach to translation. 

But clearly the form of the Tanka was significant to the 100 poets gathered in this collection.  They all wrote the same form; but you would never know that by reading McMillan’s version.  It isn’t only that McMillan’s version misrepresents the formal nature of the individual poems, it also misrepresents the relationship the poems have to each other.  This relationship is a formal one, embedded in a tradition of formal verse. 

Porter’s version is, I think, preferable in that the relationship among the poems is retained.  That is to say the reader can recognize that all the poems were written in the same form; that all 100 authors wrote in the same pattern.  I am sympathetic to Porter wanting to make these poems more accessible to English readers of 1909.  But I also think this was an opportunity lost; in the sense that a good translation into 5-7-5-7-7 could have opened English poetry to non-iambic formal structures.

For those who are interested in composing Tanka in English, the Galt translation can serve as a guide, just as the McCullough translation of the Waka Kokinshu can.  This is its great virtue.  It is a genuine bridge between Japanese and English poetry.  This kind of translation brings us to the deep of well of Tanka and nourishes our own efforts in that form.

In the often-overlooked, elegantly written, preface of the King James Bible, ‘From the Translators to the Reader’, it says, “Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain . . . that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water.”  This is an optimistic view of translation, an inspiring vision.  Implicit in this vision of translation is that language is not a barrier which divides us; rather it is a characteristic which we all share, and that it is the translators’ job to build a bridge between two linguistic communities, the better to broaden our understanding of each other.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Translation Philosophies and Their Consequences: Part 1

Translation Philosophies and Their Consequences: Part 1

I have written a number of times regarding translations of syllabic verse from other cultures in a manner that masks the syllabic nature of the original.  I am particularly concerned with how this has impacted English speaking readers of Chinese poetry.  It is my observation that almost all translations of Chinese poetry into English adopt a free verse line, even though the originals, particularly in classical Chinese poetry, consist of rhymed syllabic verse.  The result of this is that there are many who have the strong impression that classical Chinese poetry was in some sense a precursor of contemporary free verse when the actual case is that classical Chinese poetry is one of the most constrained of formal verse traditions.

My concern with this is that it cuts off from those of us who are interested in formal syllabic verse a resource that could be potentially nourishing.  To make a comparison, if the Italian Sonnet had been translated into English using free verse conventions, I doubt that the Sonnet would ever have taken root in English poetry.  Similarly, whatever insights into how syllabic verse works that Chinese poetry has to offer the English poet are systematically hidden when classical Chinese poetry is translated using contemporary free verse conventions.

In this post I’d like to touch on how this has come about.  The touchstone for this is to understand that there are a number of translation philosophies.  And that the adoption of a particular translation philosophy leads to different results when translating the same work.  In the second part I hope to show how these different approaches work in different translations of the Japanese work, “100 Poems by 100 Poets”, or “Hyakunin Isshu”, also known as the “Ogura Hyakunin Isshu”.

Broadly speaking there are two approaches to translation.  The first one is often referred to as ‘literal’ or ‘word-for-word’.  There are other names for this approach as well, but for this essay these will do.  The basic idea in this approach is that the translator should, as closely as possible, given the constraints of the language being translated into, match the original ‘word-for-word’.  In practice this ideal is not literally achievable by even those most committed to this philosophy of translation.  But it is a motivating ideal, nevertheless.  A translator holding this philosophy will attempt to adhere as closely as possible to the original text, only deviating from it when adhering to such an approach too strictly will generate incoherence.  For example, Japanese word order is commonly subject-object-verb, while English word order is ordinarily subject-verb-object.  In this case word order would be changed because adhering to the Japanese word order would cause unnecessary confusion.  So we are talking about a guiding principle which should not be overstated or overinterpreted.  Strictly literal translations are to be found in what are called ‘interlineal’ translations; where the original is on one line and immediately underneath will be an English translation of each word as it appears in the original.  Interlineals are used by scholars for various reasons, but they are not read for pleasure or for comprehension.  Again, as a translation philosophy, a ‘literal’, or ‘word-for-word’ approach implies that the translator will adhere as closely as possible to the vocabulary, diction, syntax, and form of the original, while at the same time hoping to make the translation meaningful in English.

The second approach is often referred to as ‘meaning-for-meaning’.  Often translators who adopt this view refer to it as ‘dynamic equivalence’.  I like to simply call it ‘meaning based’.  The basic idea here is for the translator to grasp the meaning of the original and then find an appropriate, similar, meaning in English.  Such an approach can deviate significantly from the original in terms of vocabulary, syntax, diction, sentence structure, etc.  Even so, meaning based translators often feel they have captured the original more accurately than those who follow a word-for-word approach.

It is perhaps clear that almost all translations of classical Chinese poetry into English follow the meaning based approach.  That is why the translators are unconcerned with the absence of any formal correlation between their translations and the original.  Because ‘meaning’ in this context means conceptual meaning.  I can’t stress this enough: for the meaning based translator form has no meaning and can be ignored.  It is the conceptual meaning of the poem which must be grasped and translated.  That is considered to be sufficient. 

The two philosophies are not mutually exclusive.  At times the literal translator must defer to a more meaning based approach.  And at times the meaning based translator has to pay attention to the actual vocabulary and structure of the text in order to give the translation something of the idiosyncratic voice of the author.  Nevertheless, translators tend to more strongly align with one or the other of these approaches.

The greatest work in the English language of a literal translation is the King James Bible.  David Norton, one of the foremost contemporary King James Bible scholars refers to the KJB as ‘a triumph of judicious – rather than slavish – literal translation’ (The King James Bible, David Norton, page 199).  The degree to which the translators adhered as much as possible to the originals is surprising, even astonishing.  To give one example, the construction ‘noun+of+noun’ mimics the originals.  It is not something found in Elizabethan English (a mistake people often make).  For example, instead of saying ‘strong man’, the translators might choose ‘man of strength’.  And instead of ‘most vain’, they used ‘vanity of vanities’.  This is an actual mimicking of the underlying originals.  What is surprising is how successfully it works in English.  What this indicates is that in some cases, translators of poetry might successfully mimic syntactical features of the original language in English even if those features are not standard English.  Needless to say this should be done judiciously; but there are times when it would work.

The success of the KJB, its placement for about 300 years at the center of the English speaking world, buttressed the literal translation philosophy.  In fact a literal approach was taken for granted for a long period of time.  But beginning in the post-war period, the meaning based approach began to make headway.  Interestingly, this philosophy first left its mark in modern Bible translations, and then spread to the rest of academia; including the world of poetry translation.

For those of us interested in the potential of syllabic poetry in English, and looking for resources in syllabic traditions, it is helpful to be aware of these different philosophies and the consequences of adopting one or the other.  An example of a literal, or word-for-word approach would be Helen Craig McCullough and her translation of the Waka Kokinshu.  It is a triumph of judicious literal translation from the Japanese into English.  And the great virtue of this work is that it demonstrates that the formal elements of Japanese poetry, in particular the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabics, work in English. 

An example which begins moving towards a meaning based translation would be Jane Hirshfield’s translation of Ono-no-Komachi’s and Izumi Shikibu’s Tanka, ‘The Ink Dark Moon’.  The translations are beautiful.  But notice how some of the formal features of Japanese poetry are lost.  Again, this is because for the meaning based translator form has no meaning and can be ignored as long as one captures the essential thought.  To be fair, though, Hirshfield's approach does retain some commitment to formal elements of the Tanka in that her translations retain the traditional five line format.

Again, these two philosophies are not mutually exclusive and in observing any particular translation one can see both views operative at different times.  It’s a matter of emphasis.  McCullough’s translation indicates a strong commitment to a literal translation philosophy.  With Jane Hirshfield’s ‘Ink Dark Moon’ we move away from a strong adherence to a literal translation philosophy, taking steps towards a meaning based approach.  This is seen in Hirshfield’s lack of a syllabic commitment in her translations; that is to say her translations, unlike McCullough’s do not adhere to the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure.  At another level, though, Hirshfield does acquiesce to the original formal structure in that Hirshfield mimics the traditional five line structure in her translations.  Finally, with Peter McMillan’s translation of the ‘Ogura Hykunin Isshu’, or ‘One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each’, we observe a completely meaning based approach.  McMillan abandons all of the traditional formal parameters of Japanese Tanka; syllable count is unconstrained and a free verse line is substituted for a formal line; and the five-line count is also abandoned.  McMillan’s line counts range from four to 31 lines.  All connection to the formal tradition of Tanka has been eliminated.

The debate between these two approaches continues to unfold.  My view is that they each have their merits.  But, for those interested in syllabics, a literal approach has more to offer in terms of being able to learn the specifics of a syllabic approach to poetry, particularly if one is interested in formal syllabics; by which I mean specific forms with specific line and syllable counts. 

In part two I’m going to compare three translations of ‘100 Poets, One Poem Each’.  This work has been translated numerous times into English (and there are more on the way).  I have chosen one which mimics the Japanese formal structure; it is by Tom Galt.  Another one is the one by Peter McMillan mentioned above and is meaning based.  And the third by William Porter takes a third approach which I think is worth looking at.

In closing Part 1, I want to make one observation about my own view of human language and translating across linguistic divides so that the reader will understand where I am coming from.  It is common today for translators to speak of the great difficulty of transmitting meaning from one linguistic context to another.  This is often stressed by meaning based translators in particular, but is not confined to this approach.  I want to suggest that this may be exaggerated.  Personally, I think people are much the same the world over; and that they were much the same in the past as in the present.  People and cultures aren’t really that different.  They have their loves, hates, families, feuds, wars, reconciliations, lusts and obsessions wherever you go.  Every culture has its Saints and Sages, as well as those who embody malevolence.  Though it is widely believed today that linguistic structure encodes certain meanings which are difficult, or even impossible, to transmit to other linguistic contexts, I am skeptical of this idea.

There are certain areas, for example, where a translation is considered to be completely efficacious.  Euclid’s ‘Elements’ is a stellar example of this.  That is to say an English, Russian, or Japanese translation from the Greek original fully captures the meaning.  No Geometry professor insists that students must read the original in order to comprehend Geometry.

Yet it is commonly assumed that one must read the original of a literary work in order to ‘fully’ understand it.  I am aware that there are significant differences between a mathematical work like the ‘Elements’ and a literary work like the ‘Waka Kokinshu’.  And these are differences in how meaning is communicated.  Still, I have gradually come to the view that we have, as a culture, exaggerated the idea that language creates a chasm between people, a chasm in understanding that cannot be bridged.  Personally, I think we are all more alike than different and the ways that we speak are more shared than we might, at first, think.

Monday, July 23, 2012


Standing on this bluff,
Gazing past the conifers,
To sunset streaked clouds;
I number the days gone by
Since we last saw each other.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Age and View

I'm not an activist any longer.
I sympathize with the activists' stance.
And that was my view when I was younger;
I dearly loved the political dance.

Perhaps it's simply that I've grown older,
Though I would like to think it's more than that.
I no longer get a thrill from rancor
And those devastating critiques feel flat.

There's another world than the human one,
Vaster than our hopes, causes, and concerns.
In this other world all our tasks are done
As all created things unfold in turn.

The beauty of the stars on a clear night,
A lullaby sung to soothe a child's fright.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Cluster of Quince

A sun-drenched morning --
The roses are turning brown
After days of heat

A slow feral dog wanders
On the banks of the dry creek

Five or six sparrows
Searching the short dry grass
By the small madrone

The pieces of a letter
Torn up and then thrown away

It's no use pretending
That we can ever make up
After what was said

Scrolling the text-messages
And the story of a loss

In the old novel
She finds herself reflected
And a sense of calm

As the waxing gibbous moon
Casts its light upon the town

A careful coyote
Silently seeking some prey
Behind the garage

A box of abandoned books
Gathering mold and dry leaves

The broken windows
Of the abandoned strip-mall
And the torn up road

Curving around the cluster
Of quince that are in full bloom

The bicyclists race
Through the early morning park
Past the spectators

Hoping for at least a glimpse
Of their favorite sports hero

At the posh hotel
Thick sheets of snow and the wind
Drifting through the door

Images from the future
And images from the past

Between two trees
Planted a few years ago
The sound of angels

Dancing on the field of time
As the cherry blossoms fall

Friday, July 20, 2012

Slow Growth

We have been friends for over thirty years.
We don't have much to talk about these days.
We've already discussed our hopes and fears,
And those embarrassments that left us dazed.

So we'll play a few hands of a card game,
Or watch a rerun from an old series,
Or speculate if someone's still the same,
Or note that politics leaves us weary.

There's a lot of silence between us now;
Like two old oaks bending to the same breeze
We have learned from each other how to bow
To the circumstances to which life leads.

One of us will welcome the other
Into that land we must all discover.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


Dear Friends:

I had a wonderful vacation.  There were four days of celebration for my Dad and his twin's 90th birthday.  We visited places where my Dad grew up.  And one of my cousins produced a dvd that consisted of transfers of 16 mm film made in 1927 and 1928.  These were home movies of the twins and their sisters and various family friends.  Evidently these home movies had been taken, put in the can, placed in a box, and then forgotten for all these years.  Most of the home movies had disintegrated, but a few were still held together enough for the transfer to a modern medium.

I hope to start begin posting poetry again starting tomorrow.  The change of location seems to have opened my ear to my muse and I was able to write a lot.  Very gratifying.

Best wishes,


Sunday, July 1, 2012


Dear Friends:

Your intrepid blogger is going on a vacation.  I will be leaving early tomorrow morning.  The big reason for the trip is my Dad's 90th birthday!  Go Dad!  My Dad is a twin and my Uncle will also be there. 

Since I rarely travel I have decided to also visit family and friends at various locations.  I may have the time to blog during this vacation, but I doubt it.  I don't have a laptop, and I suspect I will be busy.  So I probably won't be back here until July 20th.

Best wishes,