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Mirror for the Moon.

Four hundred years after the birth of Wang Wei, the most famous medieval Buddhist nature poet of Japan was born to a minor branch of the powerful Fujiwara clan in the old capital city of Heian, present day Kyoto. Saigyo (1118-1190) spent twenty-three years in and around court life in Heian-kyo, Peace-and-Tranquility Capital, becoming a captain in the elite guard of the imperial family before taking Buddhist vows and removing himself to a hermitage. His biography is clouded in legend and folklore. Scholars agree that he lived at times near Mt. Koya and Mt. Yoshino, and his poems record many long journeys.

Like Wang Wei--who surely must have provided a model from among Saigyo's many Chinese sources--Saigyo is an advocate of self-transcendence, albeit more openly didactic in his approach. This poem, from among Saigyo's earliest, was first published anonymously in an imperial anthology in 1151:
 So, then, it's the one yo o sutsuru
 Who has thrown his self away hito wa makoto ni
 Who is thought the loser? sutsuru ka wa
 But he who cannot lose self suteno hito koso
 Is the one who has really lost sutsuru narikere


This translation from William R. LaFleur's 1978 Mirror for the Moon (New Directions) shows the young Saigyo immersed in Buddhist philosophy, but not-yet able to transcend the need to pass judgment. He is not yet able to completely "cast off" (sutsuru, used three times in the poem above) the self.

During his fifty years of Buddhist and poetic practice, he became the archetype for many generations of Zen poets, especially for Basho, who studied and quoted Saigyo at great length and whose own journey into the northern interior recorded in Oku no hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Interior) was inspired by two such journeys undertaken by Saigyo some five hundred years before.

A wandering poet-priest, Saigyo is best known through his major contribution (94 poems) in the imperial anthology Shinkokinshu, and his collected works, Sankashu or Mountain Home Collection, preserves fifteen hundred poems. It represents all he left to the world. He never explained why he left court life, but he lived during a period Japanese Buddhists had declared Mappo, the End of Law, when true faith declines and the world is ruled by mere formalism; he may have been driven from his position through personal intrigues at the court; or perhaps he simply tired of the depressing collapse of a once-great culture. Political power was being stripped from the ruling Fujiwara clan by "warrior" clans like the Minamotos and Tairas, whose wars are recorded in Tale of the Heike. Even as a young officer, Saigyo had closely studied earlier poet-monks such as the priest Noin (998-1050), so the tradition of the Buddhist mountain recluse was not merely a rejection of depressing social circumstances, but a reasonably knowledgeable conscious choice. In any case, in 1140 the young poet abruptly left military service to take vows.

As a Buddhist mountain poet, he was capable of achieving a luminosity to match that of Wang Wei. In a poem from the Shinkokinshu closely echoing a poem by Noin, Saigyo writes:
 Was it a dream Tsu no kani no
 that spring in Naniwa naniwa no haru wa
 in the land of Tsu? yume nare ya
 Now the wind blows over ashi no kareha ni


the dead leaves of the reeds. kaze wataru hari

This translation is from Burton Watson's Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press, 1991.) Noin's poem is a plea for someone "of real feeling" with whom to share the sights of springtime in Naniwa, an area of present-day Osaka. Saigyo responds with a bleak winter landscape that still contains the seeds of spring if only in remembrance. Remembering spring in the midst of dry winter, Saigyo becomes the "person of real feeling" with whom Noin--dead a hundred years--may realize his wish, through whom he may be said to be reborn by way of Saigyo's direct echo of his poem.

In its own, subtle Buddhist way, this poem runs parallel to "Ode to the West Wind," but with a different philosophical apparatus. The implied sense of temporality in the seasons, as in a poet's life, lends the poem, almost miraculously, an air of timeless.

Burton Watson may be trusted--almost absolutely--to add nothing to the original in making his versions but for the necessary article, conjunction, or preposition. Unlike many who translate classical Japanese tanka, he does not "fill out" his lines to an equal number of syllables in English. Poems in Japanese language generally require more syllables than their English-language offspring. Many translators, myself included, often insert a little gloss here, a careful interpretive adjective there, in hopes of approaching something of the syllabic musicality of the original. Watson sticks very closely to the original in meaning. He is, nonetheless, one of the great translators in an age of translation. His poems from classical Chinese and Japanese are invariably sturdy and accurate and intelligent and altogether readable. He never plays fast and loose with images, and he never tries to invent new forms to accommodate modish free interpretation. He is and has been for forty years a model of the scholar-translator.

My own version of Saigyo's poems takes a few liberties, but I take them in part to respect the order of the imagery in the original as much as possible (dream, yume, is in the third line of the Japanese), especially in keeping that wind (kaze) in the last line, crossing over (wataru), despite losing the direct mention of the sound (nari). My use of the word "harsh" is purely interpretive. It is the adjective that implies the sound of wind through dry leaves.

In the land of Tsu,

that glorious Naniwa spring--only

just a dream?

Over the dead leaves of reeds

a harsh wind blows.

In addition to holding to the original order of perception, I wanted to create in English something that might suggest an echo of the 31-syllable musicality of the original. In the Japanese, one may hear the rhyming u sounds of Tsu, kuni, and yume; the off-rhyme of naniwa with kareha; the off-rhymes of nare, kare(ha), kaze, and nari. In searching for a replication, I found o sounds and e sounds most effective in suggesting slant rhyme, and they also add a certain wind-sound to the poem, playing against the long u vowel that ends the first line. I did not feel compelled to try to fill out the customary syllables in the last line, thinking any addition would soften the poem too much, especially after the weight of: "harsh wind blows," with its sullen sounds and cadence.

Having two decent versions of a poem is helpful. My version was born in his. Noting that he altered the order of images, I began to rework the poem; reworking the order of images, I had to make sounds; having to make the sounds of poetry, I listened, listening to Watson's translation, listening to Saigyo, I began to make a parallel poem, a parallel music. It's a good test of translation, and there is something to be learned from each version, and probably still something to be gained from a third version.

Saigyo's contemporaries revered all things Chinese. And from among many Chinese literary ideals, they were particularly drawn to the idea of sabi "loneliness" of a particularly Taoist/Zen kind--a loneliness that does not call for pity, but which arises most significantly from encounters with "nature." And the models for this kind of spiritual loneliness were drawn mostly from the T'ang dynasty, Wang Wei among them. Like his contemporaries Shunzei and Teika, and like Wang before them, Saigyo often ignored the more flashy or exotic image in favor of seeking the numinous mundane:

Fishermen home from

their day's work:

on a bed of seaweed,

little top shells, clams,

hermit crabs, periwinkles

In his introduction, Burton Watson points out that this poem may be read two ways at once: it may be a peek into a fisherman's basket with a childlike sense of discovery and delight; it may also be said to be a Buddhist reproach to one whose daily business is the taking of sentient life. Consequently, the attentive reader "gets it" both ways at once: delight and sadness, perhaps even a suggestion of sabi.

Here are two versions of the same Saigyo poem, the first translation by Burton Watson:
 I'll forget the trail Yoshinoyama
 I marked out on Mount Yoshino kozo no shiori no
 last year, michi kaete
 go searching for blossoms mada minu kata no
 in directions. I've never been before hana o tazunen


Watson has altered the order of images, moving the trail (michi) to the first line, and the blossoms (hana) him the last line to the penultimate. He adds nothing to the imagery of the original, and delivers a very readable, accurate translation.

In Williams R. LaFleur's translation it reads:

Last year, Yoshino,

I walked away bending branches

To point me to blossoms--Which

now are everywhere and I can

Go where I've never been before.

While I'm drawn to the particularity of "bending branches," the poem as a whole suffers from wordiness and, especially, from a confused meaning. If Saigyo has walked away "bending branches to point to blossoms--which now are everywhere," how can he go where he's "never been before"? Mirror for the Moon is a fine book overall an excellent translation, and useful to read alongside the new Watson translation. Unfortunately it is presently out of print. LaFleur's study of Buddhism and literary arts in medieval Japan, The Karma of Words (University of California Press, 1983), is a must read for anyone interested in Japanese poetry, religion, or both.

Both translators remain very close to the original. Watson has a beautiful simplicity that is truer in English to the spirit of the original. The following poems are all from Watson's Poems of a Mountain Home:

I used to gaze at the moon,

my mind wandering endlessly--and

now again

I've come on one of

those old time autumns

Is that "old time autumn" a remembered autumn from the poet's youth, or is it an autumn from a bygone era? Probably both. The same question may be asked about the remembered spring in the poem above. And while I have chosen simple poems from Saigyo for the most part, it should also be noted that his syntax often contains knots or complex shifts of meaning. He is not a strict adherent to a school of "direct simplicity" despite writing a great many poems that might serve as examples of such a lineage.

In addition to his Buddhist mountain poems, Saigyo wrote many beautiful love poems, often in the voice of a woman:

He never came--the

wind too tells

how the night has worn away,

while mournfully the cries of wild geese

approach and pass on

As a love poet, he draws on all the strengths of the tradition, often turning the poem on a closing image in otherwise conventional style:

Her face when we parted,

a parting

I can never forget--And

for keepsake she left it

printed on the moon It is good to remember that in Japanese seeing a face printed on the moon is a striking image: where we habitually see "the man in the moon," the Asian poet sees "the moon-rabbit." Saigyo's moon-face is utterly original. But without a light, deft touch on the part of the translator, it turns into something reminiscent of country-western kitsch.

Saigyo is also capable of composing a poem of almost Creeleyesque domestic tension, as when he says,

"I know

how you must feel!"

And with those words

she grows more hateful

than if she'd never spoken at all.

Nevertheless, Saigyo is at his greatest in the Buddhist-inspired lyric. Musing on the Nirvana Sutra, he reads: "All phenomena are fleeting,/this is the law of birth and death./ When you have wiped out birth and death,/ nirvana is your joy." And he writes a poem that will inspire Basho and dozens of other Zen-influenced poets over many generations:

I think of past times,

so swift

in their vanishing,

the present soon to follow--dew

on the morning-glory

Here again the personal and the social/historical commingle, the whole poem hinging on its closing image, the "meaning" of the poem contained in its interpretation.

Poems of a Mountain Home contains two hundred of Saigyo's best poems in capable, gifted translation. With LaFleur out of print, Watson's is the only substantial collection of Saigyo poems available. Unfortunately, Columbia University Press has seen fit to charge forty-five dollars for this 230-page book, a book that has no index in English or Japanese, making it awkward to use as a sourcebook. (It was recently released in paperback at $13.95.) This is neither competent scholarly publishing nor respectable commercial publishing. It's a shame and an outrage that Burton Watson, perhaps the greatest translator of Chinese and Japanese classics of the last century, should be treated so shabbily by the press he has served for decades with classics like The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu--and I mean the Chuang Tzu-- Su Tung-p'o, The Old Man Who Does as He Pleases (Lu Yu), Grass Hill (Gensei), and many, many others, scholarly and literary.

The influence of Wang Wei and Saigyo and the whole Buddhist mountain poetry tradition on contemporary American poetry can be seen in the poetry of Gary Snyder and other American Buddhist poets, in the poetry of Kenneth Rexroth of course, and also in the poetry of James Wright, Robert Bly, and other "descriptive" or imagistic poets in the same way that Ezra Pound's excursions into Li Po (Cathay) influenced Imagism. Indeed T.S. Eliot, no one's example of the "nature poet," went to school on the Upanishads and the Bagavad Gita while a student at Harvard, primary Buddhist texts that no doubt informed Wang Wei and Saigyo. Eliot also knew the multi-volume translation of Confucian classics by James Legge, especially the Book of Odes, the classic anthology also translated by Arthur Waley and by Ezra Pound.

In an essay for American Poetry Review several years ago ("An Answering Music," reprinted in A Poet's Work: the other side of poetry, Broken Moon Press, 1990), I traced the extensive influence of classical Chinese poetry on contemporary American poets from Eliot, Pound, and Williams through Bly, Wright, John Haines, Denise Levertov, Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Stryk, Colette Inez, Carolyn Kizer and others. Here I underscore the extensive influence of Chinese poems of nature and friendship in particular.

All notions of influence and literary standing aside, recent translations of Wang Wei and Saigyo enlarge and enhance our understanding, offer some beautiful poems in English, and are a welcome gift for which we should all be grateful.
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Author:Hamill, Sam
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Words:2455
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