Wednesday, August 30

Echoes of Jarrell I Think

I came across this interesting passage in Shitaya sôwa:
This winter Yokoyama Kozan published Selections from the Zhapu Collection. The original Zhapu Collection was edited by a man named Shen Yue [apparently an error for Shen Yun], who collected works by poets affected by the war after the English attacked the southern areas of Qing and forced the secession of Hong Kong in 1842 (that is, Tenpō 13). Obviously Kozan published this work to make a literary appeal for the importance of strengthening Japan’s naval defenses... Luckily this work did not meet with the bakufu’s displeasure.
Zhapu was one of the coastal towns raided by Britain during the first Opium War. This collection sounded interesting, but unfortunately I haven’t managed to get my hands on a copy of it, which as far as I know hasn’t been republished. I did, however, find a couple poems excerpted from it on this fairly dubious bulletin board, so enjoy:
山下鬼 清•黃金台

Ghosts at the Mountain’s Base, by Huang Jintai

The Nine Peaks shine with flying phosphoric light
And battle seems to make the flowers stink of blood.
This night the raging tides surge against the lonely hill,
And passing travelers startle at the eerie wail.
Generals Wei and Han have died for their commission,
The heroes begrudged not their lives to repay their country.
Wolves tear up the bones,
Hawks snatch at the flesh,
And the new ghosts weep together in their rage.
The wind whistles through pines and oaks ten feet around,
While owls fly now even in the midday sun.
Chang’an from here’s ten thousand li away,
To where shall their kin then call home their dead?
It kind of reminds me of the "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Monday, August 28

Meiji Flamewars

Saitō Ryokuu (1867-1904) is a writer and literary critic who is little remembered today, except perhaps for being one of several creepy guys hovering around Higuchi Ichiyō in the months before her death. I came across a collection of book reviews published in Mesamashigusa [Wake-up Weed], a journal he edited with Kōda Rohan and Mori Ōgai. Unfortunately the reviews only cover the years 1896-98, and it’s not an era I know much about, so I didn’t find too much of interest. I did, however, learn one thing: everyone hated Izumi Kyōka. Personally I have nothing but respect for Kyōka as a writer, but to purge any negative energy I have from slogging through his Kōya hijiri [The Saint of Mount Kōya] with insufficient Japanese, I’ll now post him getting repeatedly panned:

The Demon Bird [Kechō]
Leader: A woman who was once wealthy and respected has become a bridge-keeper, and teaches her only son that people of this world are no better than beasts. When he asks her who saved him when he fell in the river, she tells him it was a woman with beautiful wings, but he wonders if in fact the winged woman was his mother. It’s Kyōka’s “Ketchō,” and was
published in Shincho gekkan.
A Human: It’s idiotic for a mother to teach her son that we’re like animals, and it’s pretty hilarious when the kid repeats it in front of his teacher. This kind of thing might be interesting if you
used it in something like Aesop’s Fables, I guess, but it’s absurd to try and make a moving tale out of it. First Kyōka was a demonic gingko tree [Bake-ichō, another Kyōka story] and now a demonic bird—he’s turning into a real weirdo. Who knows what he’ll transform into next? We can only hope he’ll turn back into an actual human being again soon.
Gen Sanmi: This might as well be a stand-up routine... [abbreviated]
Indifferent: Kyōka’s got ideas, terrifically abundant ideas. And, he has
no ability, absolutely no ability.
A Classicist: The title “Kechō” is a bit too Chinese. “Bake-tori monogatari” would have been better.

Hard Bread [Katapan]
Leader: “Dumb Ken” the coachman everyday brings two loaves of hard bread to Orei, a poor innkeeper’s daughter, to see her smile, but is distraught when she is married to someone else, and develops
the habit of biting off hard bread with his front teeth and spitting it out to crush it under his shoes. Soon after Ken disappears. Three months later there is a sideshow at Asakusa featuring an Indian who is said to boil oil on top of his head and such. A coachman friend of Ken’s goes to the show where he sees a man called Ringmaster John come out chomping on bread and stomping it underfoot, and realizes it’s Ken. A Kyōka piece.
A Humble Man: I guess a guy like me just can’t manage to bite into bread this hard.

Old Gen, by Kunikida Doppo [Gen oji]
Leader: Ikeda Gentarō, who runs a ferry on
Katsura Bay near Saeki, after losing his beautiful wife in childbirth...[abbreviated, read the story]
Uninhibited: This guy makes a great pair with Kyōka’s “Dumb Ken.”
A Supporter: He finds the poetic in that which is nothing out of the ordinary, and though the writing is not other than crude, it is full of clever aphorisms. This is very rare in a maiden work these days, and the reason I get something out of Kunikida’s work. In the work of someone like that bizarre Kyōka, even if the events are strange and the writing is polished, there’s none of this poetry or epigram. (But the title is
inappropriate, “oji” should be written in kana.)

Snake Eaters [Hebikui]
Leader: By the Jinzû River in Etchû, a group of beggars called the Ō live in Old Manor Field. Gripping their staves they make their way into town and beg at the houses of the rich. If one is refused food, he pulls a snake from his sleeve, chews it up and spits it [around the house]. Whenever these beggars come, a certain children’s song is heard around the town. A Kyōka piece.
A Heckler: How about you vomit snakes at the publishers who won’t buy your manuscripts?

Well, I’m with them on “Bake-tori monogatari” anyway. Has that been used?

Thursday, August 24

Du Mu and Translation

After coming across a reference to a poem of his in something else I was reading, I’ve been enjoying the poetry of Du Mu lately (who due to his surname has benefited from the sobriquet “Little Du” for over a millennium). The poem referenced was his “Releasing my thoughts”:



Wasted, with wine in hand, I made my way south of the Jiang,
and in the palm of my hand, desolate beauties danced.
Now wakened from this ten year
Yangzhou dream,
A hustler’s repute in the brothels is all I have to show.

I was confused by a couple translations of the poem I saw, because I had been looking at the poem in the Three-hundred Tang Poems, the text of which varies somewhat from what I’ve quoted here.
    I was recently home visiting my family, and when I mentioned this poem to my father, he showed me a poem attributed to Du Mu he had copied down a long time ago that he was very fond of:


Stories of passion make sweet dust,
Calm water, grasses unconcerned.
At sunset, when birds cry in the wind,
Petals are falling like a girl’s robe long ago.

Out of curiosity, I looked up A. C. Graham’s version of this poem in his excellent Poems of the Late T’ang:

Shih Ch’ung’s ‘Golden Valley’ Garden

Scattered pomp has fallen to the scented dust.
The streaming waters know no care, the weeds claim spring for their own.
In the East wind at sunset the plaintive birds cry:
Petals on the ground are her likeness still beneath the tower where she fell.

Graham helpfully quotes from the biography of Shi Chong 石崇 from the Jin shu to explain the classical allusion being made in the last line. It was easy enough from the title to track down the original text of the poem, which is another heavily anthologized piece:



which made it clear that Graham’s version took fewer liberties with the source text, but that didn’t answer the real question: What had become of the “girl’s robe long ago” in my father’s beloved poem?
    My recent experience led me to suspect some sort of alternate text at work here again, as in the first poem. But a quick glance through some annotated editions of Du Mu didn’t turn anything up. The magic of web-searching did turn up the source of my father’s poem, however: The Jade Mountain, a translation of the
Three-hundred Tang Poems by Witter Bynner and Kiang Kang-hu from 1929, so I borrowed a copy from the library.
    Bynner and Kiang include a note to their translation of the poem in the back of the book, explaining the allusion:

The man who owned this garden, Shih Ch’ung of the Chin Dynasty, was the richest man of his time. The last line of this poem alludes one of many stories about him. A certain general coveted a favorite of his, a girl named Lu-chu, whom Shih Ch’ung refused to surrender. Presently the general, charging him with treason, sent troops to seize Lu-chu. She shut herself in her high chamber; and when they took Shih Ch’ung, she threw herself from the window to her death.

This is all very informative, but it tells me nothing about how that robe got into the poem (or what happened to the tower, for that matter). The earlier translation makes something vaguely erotic and decadent out of a much more straightforward historical lament (which Graham’s translation accurately reflects). I know which one I like.

Wednesday, August 23

Lives of the Edo Poets

Nagai Kafû (1879-1959) wrote Shitaya sôwa in the late 1920’s, after the great Kantô earthquake had burned up most of what was left of old Tokyo. It’s an account of Washizu Kidô (Kafû’s maternal grandfather) and Ônuma Chinzan, two poets who were active in the mid-19th century. For Kafû, they seem to represent a culture lost in the modernization initiatives of his own lifetime, and this nostalgia is perhaps the only force holding together the book, which is essentially a piecemeal of biographical fragments Kafû has been able to dig out about the two men, arranged in roughly chronological order.
This nostalgia sometimes leads Kafû to start complaining about the declining character of this modern Taishô era, rather unbecoming for
Japan’s first translator of Nana. However, this sort of speechifying is luckily scarce. Instead we get passages where Kafû tries to rather show us just what we are missing, what it is he feels driven to search through family archives and temple records to reassemble:


It’s pretty rare to find a poem of Chinzan’s that doesn’t use the word “wine” somewhere. This year [1843], Chinzan wrote a long piece called “The Drunkard’s Song” for the monk Baichi. In the preface he wrote, “I’m the sort of fellow that, whenever I drink a bit too much, I can’t remember a thing afterward. Abbot Baichi of the temple I’m staying at allows liqueur every night. He lights the lamp and puzzles over rhymes, and I sit beside him and pour the wine. Whenever he comes up with a couplet he asks my opinion, but I get so drunk I can’t follow him, and my answer is sometimes to a different question all together. However in his kindness the abbot has never blamed me for this. After I come to my senses I’m quite ashamed of myself, so I’ve written this ‘Drunkard’s Song’, both to apologize to the abbot and to relieve my humiliation.” When I read this preface I was struck by a feeling of unspeakable purity, for I saw clearly before me the image of a mountain monastery where an old monk kneels and unfurls a scroll, while a young poet with wine cup in hand sits across from him under the lamplight.

There’s something appealing, I think for Kafû as well, about this sort of idealized literati lifestyle that both (a) appears (ostensibly) to have continued largely unchanged for more than a thousand years from Li Po to Rai San’yô and (b) somehow became something completely out of reach for a writer in the early 20th century.

On a side note, Kafû was apparently inspired to do this sort of archival work by similar books of Mori Ôgai’s, whom Kafû deeply admired. I really find this pairing fascinating, they seem to relate to society in completely opposite ways, but they must have had something in common (apart from apparently each having abandoned a foreign mistress to return to Japan of course).

Tuesday, August 22


Hello, I hope to use this blog to practice writing about things I've seen, read and heard I suppose.