To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Reconfiguring Romanticism (38): Yuko Otomo, “Onko-Chishin,” a Japanese view of Poems for the Millennium, volume 3

[Born & raised in Japan, Yuko Otomo has worked for many years in New York as an independent poet & artist, whose transition to English resembles that of other “nomadic poets” (P.Joris) over the last century & a half. The context she provides for a reconfiguration of romanticism, previously unpublished, throws a new/old light on a world constantly in flux but where “all ages are contemporaneous in the mind.” (E. Pound)]

“Romantic? Postromantic? Why now? An anachronism! A nostalgia trip! We are in the Postmodern era, aren’t we? Why dig up old bones?” You want to protest, I know. Go ahead. But before & after you do that, just pay attention to the terminologies you are facing here. Can you read them right? It’s “Romantic”, not “Neo-Romantic”. It’s “Postromantic”, not “Late-Romantic”. You see how the subtle shifts in the nuances of words make a big difference.

Now you are confused, rubbing your eyes & scratching your head? Great! You’ll be the best candidate for this big book. Just pick up a copy & look first at the mysterious engraving by Blake on the cover, then feel the weight of the book in your hands. As you do that, pay attention to the word “For” between “Poems” & “The Millennium” Now you are set, open the book.

* * *

This book: Volume 3 is the most recent installment of the Poems for the Millennium series by University of California Press, following Vol.1/The UC Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry: From Fin-de-Siele to Negritude (1995) & Vol.2/The UC Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry: From Postwar to Millennium (1998). The core editor of this anthology series is the prominent poet, scholar/professor, translator, Jerome Rothenberg. For 1 & 2, he was joined by poet & translator Pierre Joris & for this volume by Jeffrey C. Robinson. Its main claim is to bring our attention back to the origin of modern consciousness, poetic, cultural, social or political, guiding us to re-investigate the spirit of Romanticism (including its precursors) & to examine how it segues into Modernism & Postmodernism.

I usually do not care for reading the introduction to a book too much, but for this one, I decided to read it thoroughly to clarify the intention of the editors. “As the twentieth century fades out, the nineteenth begins, again. It is as if nothing happened …” it starts. As I went through it, 2 things relating to my own cultural/poetic heritage as a Japanese came to my mind. One is “Onko-Chishin”: “Warming the old to know the new”; the famed saying from Rongo: The Analects of Confucius. Another is 3 major anthologies compiled more than a millennium ago in Japan. Mannyo-Shu (Anthology of Ten Thousand Leaves, 8th Century), Kokin-Waka-Shu (Anthology of Old & New Tanka, 10th Century) & Shin-Kokin-Waka-Shu (New Anthology of Old & New Tanka, 13th Century) & how they refined the course of Japanese poetry “Onko-Chishin” is one of the most valued methods in the east to learn/study/know anything in any field in true depth, encouraging a student to visit the past to learn the new. 3 Anthologies (20 Volumes each) complied such a long time ago, though it almost sounds unbelievable, still are remarkably influential, shaping & reshaping Japanese poetry, not just Tanka, but the whole sense of what poetry is, even today. Especially, this Romantic & Postromatic poetry anthology reminds me of Manyo-Shu (which contains poems by anonymous commoners along with the ones by aristocrats) because they deal with the roots of poetic heritage & also share the similar democratic & inclusionary (instead of exclusionary) attitude in the selection.

Why “The Romantics”? Why now? The editors explain why, giving us the vision of family tree & a map of Modern Poetry; where the roots are; how it grew; how the branches stemmed out; how it opened up geographically; etc. & how amazing to re-recognize our poetical heritage, lineage & its inheritance through them. Yes, indeed, we all do come from this upheaval of human consciousness of the romantics: the yearnings & desire to have “a better world than this” despite the differences in destinations we claim to have reached.

As is the nature of anthologies in general, you can’t have everything. So, you might find some problems over “who’s in & who’s out”. Since it carries such a big vision, almost too big for one book, it has created certain complications in its structure (which reminds me of a “floor plan” of a big art show). For those who want to skip the rather academic & quite long introduction, the whole thing could be a bit confusing. But, don’t worry. If you don’t want to follow the linear flow of the book, be “Romantic”! Take a rebellious, radical, experimental, visionary attitude & open to a page randomly & jump into the stream. In this massive anthology with over 900 pages, which starts with the line: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” (Social Contract) by Rousseau & ends with the line: “ You must change your life” (An Archaic Torso of Apollo) by Rilke, there are plenty of treasure to suit everyone’s taste/style/idea of poetry & poetics.

Let me list some of the poets &writers who illuminate this anthology. Diderot, Sade, Goethe, Blake, Worthsworth, Novalis, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Heine, Adam Mickiewicz (my first encounter with his work here), Pushkin, Longfellow, Hugo, Nerval, Emerson, Poe, Kierkegaard, Whitman, Melville, Baudelaire, Sousandrade (another new encounter for me. Read his “O Guesa Errante: The Wall Street Inferno”), Jose Marti (another new encounter), E. Dickinson, Mallarme, Strindberg, Lafcadio Hearn, Rimbaud, Thoreau, Nietzsche, Verlaine, Lautreamont, Jarry, Stein, Rilke, Yosano Akiko (One of the most vital & important figures who shaped the new poetic consciousness in Japan. Read “The Woman” & other work by her. I am moved to see her following Rilke & followed by Apollinaire in this book, not in the usual “Asian Women Poetry Anthology” setting, but in a more substantial context!) & more. It also includes sections for “Some Asian Poets” & “Outsider Poets” to cross boundaries & further expand the map. It also provides visual art by Blake & Goya as well as visual poetry by Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll & Apollinaire.

The book ends with a coda of “Manifestos & Poetics” by Goethe, Blake, Whitman, Rimbaud & others. Do you remember the volcanic & electrifying emotional charge you felt when you first encountered the voice of Rimbaud proclaiming the future of Poetry saying “You must be absolutely modern!”? Literarily, doing Onko-Chishin, looking back into the past in a newly focused light, we learn to be truly “Absolutely Modern” & to go beyond & beyond & beyond! 1000 years! It seems so long, but, remember that Mannyo-Shu is still alive, being read & loved by specialists & the general public alike & actively effecting the minds of our time even today. Hopefully, the series of Poems for the Millennium as a whole & especially this volume which deals with the roots of the tree will be alive & well in a similar way in the vastly wide open field called the future.

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