Jerome Rothenberg: A round of renshi & the poet as other, an experiment in poesis (part one)
An experiment in time & space – how much of my life was given to it – to step
out of where I first had found myself & come into an other, stranger world.
I mean to say that we emerged from the second world war & knew that it
was bigger than that. The world, I mean.
The world as Europe was not the world the mind now knew.
And something had happened that let the mind know many worlds — each
one of which was "other" to the mind.
Europe was also "other."
America was "other."
What was exotic & what was near to hand were "other."
You & I were "other" to ourselves, our minds.
The mind the mind knew was a final otherness: a habitat of minds & worlds.
(This emerged. The world emerged it.)
What you know is what you are. What the mind can hold is what the mind
Enough, the mind says. There is a politics in this & yet there is no politics.
There is a knowledge here that mixes real & unreal, that opens.
There is also the trembling headiness of a world in which, Rimbaud told
us, "I is an other."
What did he mean by that?
What do I mean?
"I" is "other," is "an other," is "the other."
(There is also "you.")
If the mind shapes, configures the world it knows or holds, is there an
imperial/colonizing mind at work here, or is this mind as shaper & collager
still pursuing its old work: to make an image of the world from what appears to
And what appears to it?
I first heard about renshi from Hiromi Itō, a remarkable and justifiably celebrated Japanese poet and writer, who has also been our neighbor in Encinitas, California, for most of the last two decades. Her presence among us goes back to 1991 and to my first visit to Japan, a contact I hadn’t had before but have been able to repeat six times since then. My host for the Tokyo part of the trip was Hisao Kanaseki, a distinguished scholar and translator of Gertrude Stein, who was also compiling a book of American Indian traditional poetry with some acknowledged adaptations from my own Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin. Kanaseki arranged a roundtable reading and dinner for me at a large and presumably newfangled restaurant in the Ginza, and a few days later, at a private dinner in his home, he introduced me more directly to Hiromi, who signaled her intention, which I barely understood at the time or even now in retrospect, to come to California as my student in American Indian culture and related matters. That was the beginning of my acquaintance with Japan and contemporary Japanese poetry and poets, but it connected as well to ideas about poetry that had been a dominant concern of mine from as far back as I can remember.
There was a time – now a good half century in the past – when poets of my generation were discovering themselves as part of what Donald Allen, in the great and seminal anthology of that name, was calling “the new American poetry” (emphasis mine). The connection he asserted there with jazz and abstract expressionism and other good things was incredibly seductive – for me and most of the poets around me – and yet there was something disquieting about it also, something that rhymed too easily with the idea of an “American century” or an American hegemony and seemed to belie the other connections and genealogies that many of us felt. The break with British language and stylistics was one thing, but to my mind at least it went hand in hand with the discovery and recovery of other poetries on a nearly global scale.
It was with something like that in mind that I met with Donald Allen for the first and last time – sometime in the early 1960s. Allen explained to me that unlike the poets in The New American Poetry, I was a part of what he called the international school of poetry. This stung me at the time but after a while made perfect sense to me, and I began to ponder the different ways that I could play his designation to the fullest. My own work I knew was continuous with radical modernisms and postmodernisms that were situated well beyond our shores, and this I thought held for all but a handful of my contemporaries, the few like Olson and Snyder, say, who pushed the American stance to its limits. By the time I appeared in the revised edition of The New American Poetry in 1982, the Vietnam war, among other events, had intervened and may have shaken confidence in a purely American moment.
There is a tension of course between the particularities of place and language (the “localism” that Olson wrote of) and the idea of a poetry that translates, reaches across borders. Both I’ve come to think are necessary, and in the years since my first book – New Young German Poets published by City Lights at the heart, let me say, of the “new American poetry” – translation and travel have allowed me to test and experience the interconnectedness between poetry and poets physically and linguistically at a considerable remove from each other. In some sense too I was likely testing my own otherness, my closeness to or distance from the place from which my parents came. And my experiments with forging a new ethnopoetics was a further exploration of poetic particulars and poetic transmissions across boundaries of space and time.
With all of that behind me, with all of that in mind, I responded to the invitation to come to Japan in March 2010 to engage with Hiromi Itō and others in a round of renshi.
Renga, the traditional and well known form of Japanese collaborative or linked writing, has its modern counterpart in renshi, generally practiced with projective or open forms but always with the shadow of the ancient orders somewhere in the background. While the practice of renga goes back at least 800 years and follows a wide range of traditional rules and constraints, renshi is tied closely to the freeing of verse during the upsurge of a new poetics in the half century and more of Japanese “postwar writing.” Its notable Japanese practitioners include Makoto Ōoka and Shuntarō Tanikawa, key figures of the modernist or postmodernist “postwar” groupings, and an occasional foreign participant, such as British poet Charles Tomlinson in the late 1990s. Far better known in the West is the still earlier collaboration across four European languages by Tomlinson, Octavio Paz, Jacques Roubaud, and Edoardo Sanguinetti. (Renga: A Chain of Poems, 1971), though that one without a Japanese participant.
My own brush with renshi came last March, during a four-day event in the southern Kyushu city of Kumamoto in which I was the fifth wheel with Tanikawa, Hiromi Itō, Yasuhiro Yotsumoto, and Wakako Kaku. For this the chosen site in Kumamoto was the happily alternative Orange cafe and bookstore, as a result of which the place for writing, unlike some other renshi that I know of, was open rather than private, a small area at the rear of the equally small cafe, which was however closed off to outside business during our time there. Even so, people came and went freely, which only enhanced the sense of writing in public – in-the-open, so to speak. That and the relative speed required gave it – to my mind at least – a performative and improvisatory feeling, while responding – always – to what came before and after. For all of that it was the sense of writing that dominated the proceedings – pen and paper augmented by the computers that all six of us brought to the event. At the end the Japanese poets used brush and ink on long strips of exquisite Chinese paper to transcribe their work in calligraphic form, as did Jeffrey Angles who functioned – largely for my benefit – as our principal translator. To top it off there was also a public reading and discussion, a paying event that drew over four-hundred people to an auditorium adjacent to the city’s Literature Museum, where the calligraphic poems hung like banners from wires overhead.
While the renshi event went a long way toward clarifying any sense I had of a connection with Japanese poetry, both contemporary and traditional, I would have to go back to the 1950s at least, to recall how Japanese poetry and culture began to enter our consciousness. It had something to do with the aftermath of the war and the possibility for some of us of travel to Japan, but that was not my own case, since I was still settled in New York and my only real possibilities for travel were eastward (to Europe) and southward (to Mexico). I had however begun to read and to be startled by some of what I was reading. Notably at that time it was translations of Japanese Noh theater that I think had the greatest impact on me. Arthur Waley and Ezra Pound were the dominant translators of course, and what came through in the wake of their translations was not only a dynamic dramatic and poetic form, but a poetics associated with ancient figures such as Zeami and Kanami Motokiyo. Their concept of yugen, which LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) took for the title of his early poetry magazine, stood alongside Lorca’s duende, Koranic ta’wil, Hebraic kabbala, and ancient Australian alcheringa, as touchstones for the emergence of a radically new/old poetry.
There was more than that of course, and for a time (and with more than time on my hands) I gave myself to the language – a year’s study of Japanese at Columbia, following two years (against my will) of army service. While I’ve retained very little of the actual language, my sense of some of its grammatical and syntactic strategies was of great importance to me; but not only that. By the end of that year I was able to translate a few poems by Fuyuhiko Kitagawa and a part of Yukio Mishima’s Mizu no Oto – something that greatly surprises me in retrospect. I also attended a class of Donald Keene’s and for a while I was scheduled to publish his translation of Bashō’s Narrow Road of Oku for an independent press that I was then co-directing with David Antin, but we sadly failed to do so. The press’s name was Hawk’s Well Press, after Yeats’s play At the Hawk’s Well, itself derived from Yeats’s early fascination with Noh theater. An accompanying little magazine of mine, Poems from the Floating World, also had a Japanese-derived title, not in the familiar ukiyo-e sense of an urban pleasure world (though something of that too) but as it turns up in an old Japanese Buddhist text that I only came across recently: “The [floating] world [ukiyo] is one in which happening gives way to happening, illusion follows illusion, and all of it is nothing but a phenomenon void of substance.” To top it off a series of my poems from the early 1960s, The Seven Hells of the Jigoku Zoshi, had its source in the hell-scrolls of that name, but brought definitively, I would like to think, into the immediate and continuing present.
It wasn’t until the 1990s, however, that I began to spend time in Japan and made actual and sometimes surprisingly close contact with a number of my Japanese contemporaries. The first time there, as I mentioned earlier, was through Hisao Kanaseki, and the next couple through Hiromi Itō, but once the visits started, they took on a momentum of their own. Better than that, they carried with them a sense of collaboration that wasn’t, I knew, exactly collaboration, but in the act of being and performing together, it might as well have been. And needless to say too, some of my visits to Japan also resulted in a number of poems that I wrote and that have remained of considerable importance to me.
For me, finally, the culminating work in Japan has been the recent renshi event in Kumamoto, in which I participated alongside Itō, Tanikawa, Kaku, and Yotsumoto, with the last of whom I have been collaborating on a translation of the poems of the Japanese “dada poet” Nakahara Chuya. That the five of us could work, as we did in Kumamoto, across languages and cultures, vindicated for me the sense I’ve long had of poetry, for all its cultural and linguistic specifics, as an international enterprise at its deepest and even sometimes at its most superficial levels. This is something that I’ve written about elsewhere but that may still be worth repeating here.
The result of that and how we got to it is what I’d like to take up next.
A DIGRESSION. Of the five active participants, Tanikawa and I were the oldest, born four days apart in December 1931. There was no question of the deference paid to him, which he took in stride, and I had the sense that some of it got attached to me as well, though it was a little harder to respond from my perspective. He comes across as a physically taut and emotionally self-contained person – under these circumstances at least – and was the only one of us who went off frequently to write in private. One of the leading postwar [post]modernists, his reputation at home is far-reaching, enhanced as a writer of popular children’s books and as the translator of Peanuts and Mother Goose into Japanese.
The two women poets, Itō and Kaku, also have a pop side, Itō as a translator of Doctor Seuss and author of a number of books on childbirth and child rearing, and Kaku as a musician and a lyricist for films such as Hayao Miyazaki’s anime classic, Spirited Away. In Itō’s work this has to be measured against the transgressive extremes in both her poetry and fiction, yet neither she nor Kaku seem to feel this as any kind of rupture. At the end of our public performance, Yotsumoto, a younger counterpart to Tanikawa, had Kaku set one of his renshi poems to music and accompany him on guitar as he performed it karaoke style. (I joined the two of them on a Seneca Indian horn rattle, which I often use in poetry performances.) Here the ease in moving between literary and popular forms is also something to be noted.
[to be continued]