Not even the finest translations can fully convey the subtle nuances of tone, the delicacy of imagery, and the great suggestiveness and complex allusiveness of Yosano Akiko’s poetry—or indeed of most Japanese literature; English simply does not have the “feel” of Japanese, in sound, diction, grammar, or prosody. For example, there are no English equivalents for poignant sighs at the ends of many poems, or exclamations such as ya! and kana!
Fortunately, Rexroth’s masterful renditions reveal Akiko’s sensibility, passion, and imagination in English poems that are themselves enduring works of art. In the selections from her work included in his One Hundred More Poems from the Japanese (1974)—in which each English version is followed by the poem in romanized Japanese—Rexroth captures the erotic intensity that shocked Akiko’s first readers. Other poems in this selection poignantly foreshadow separation—as a man fondles his lover in the autumn, as lovers gaze at each other without speaking or thinking of the future, or as a woman smells her lover’s clothes in the darkness as he says good-bye. In others, the poet remembers writing a poem with her lover before separating from him, looks back on her passion like a blind man unafraid of the dark, contemplates sorrow as if it were hail or feathers falling, and watches cherry blossoms fall as stars go out in a false dawn. Such poems suggest the intricate, heartbreaking love story that comes alive, as in a novel, in hundreds of Akiko’s original poems, many of them arranged to be read in a kind of narrative sequence. Most of them, however, are still unavailable in English.
Akiko also wrote many poems that calmly contemplate nature—poems in which, for example, snow and stars shine on her disheveled hair; an old boat reflects the autumn sky; ginkgo leaves scatter in the sunset; the nightingale sleeps with doubled-up jeweled claws; a white bird flying over the breakers becomes an obsessive dream; and cranes fly crying across Waka Bay to the other shore (an image traditionally suggesting Nirvana).
In his 1977 anthology, The Burning Heart: Women Poets of Japan, Rexroth included additional translations of Akiko’s poetry. This collection illustrates how Akiko’s influence has enabled women poets to speak out in a country whose literary tradition has been dominated by men. Some of Akiko’s tanka included in the volume concern the love triangle in which Tomiko—Akiko’s friend and her husband’s lover—appears as a lily or queen in summer fields; Akiko’s heart is envisioned as the sun drowned in darkness and rain. One of Akiko’s poems in free verse, “Labor Pains,” is also included; in it, the birth of her baby is likened to truth pushing outward from inwardness.
Rexroth usually renders Akiko’s tanka in five lines, and he often approximates the normal syllable count without distorting sound or sense; his cadences, as well as his melodies and imagery, evoke the tone of the Japanese much more reliably than does H. H. Honda’s rhymed quatrains, which seem more akin to A. E. Housman’s verse than to Akiko’s. Honda’s The Poetry of Yosano Akiko is useful, however, for readers with even an elementary knowledge of Japanese, for the original poem is given in Japanese script as well as in romanized Japanese under each translation; Honda’s selections from nineteen of Akiko’s books are arranged so the reader can follow the overall development of the poet’s work and her growing consciousness of aging, of her children, and of her place in society and in the universe. Although he bypasses the explicitly erotic passages that attracted Rexroth, Honda does convey something of Akiko’s sensuousness in poems that show her cherishing her five-foot-long hair after a bath or rain, gazing at herself in a mirror for an hour, caressing herself, and floating like a serene lily in a pond. Some of Honda’s best renditions are “The Cherries and the Moon,” a snow scene in Kyoto; “Upon the Bridge of Shijo,” where twilight hail...
(The entire section is 1674 words.)