[Originally published in Critical Inquiry, volume 37, number 4, summer 2011]
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.
The world as
And something had happened that let the mind know many worlds — each one of which was "other" to the mind.
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 inThere 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.
, for most of the last
two decades. Her presence among us goes
back to 1991 and to my first visit to Encinitas,
California , a contact I hadn’t had
before but have been able to repeat six times since then. My host for the Japan 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 Tokyo 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. Japan
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
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
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
It wasn’t until the 1990s, however, that I began to spend time in
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
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.
[to be continued]