Kenneth Rexroth:

Translations from Japanese


Men Poets of the Classic Era (ca. 700-1200)
Shami Mansei
Hitomaro (4)
Akahito (2)
Ki no Tsurayuki
Ônakatomi no Yoshinobu
Anonymous (3)

Women Poets of the Classic Era
Ono no Komachi (3)
Lady Ukon
Sei Shônagon
Murasaki Shikibu (4)
Izumi Shikibu (3)
Lady Suwo

Haiku Poets (ca. 1650-1900)
Bashô (5)
Issa (2)

Anonymous Geisha Songs (7)

Modern Women Poets
Yosano Akiko (7)
Fukao Sumako
Ibaragi Noriko
Shiraishi Kazuko



Men Poets of the Classic Era


This world of ours,
To what shall I compare it?
To the white wake of a boat
That rows away in the early dawn.

SHAMI MANSEI (8th century)



When I gathered flowers
For my girl
From the top of the plum tree
The lower branches
Drenched me with dew.

HITOMARO (8th century)


A strange old man
Stops me,
Looking out of my deep mirror.



I sit at home
In our room
By our bed
Gazing at your pillow.



When she was still alive
We would go out, arm in arm,
And look at the elm trees
Growing on the embankment
In front of our house.
Their branches were interlaced.
Their crowns were dense with spring leaves.
They were like our love.
Love and trust were not enough to turn back
The wheels of life and death.
She faded like a mirage over the desert.
One morning like a bird she was gone
In the white scarves of death.
Now when the child
Whom she left in her memory
Cries and begs for her,
All I can do is pick him up
And hug him clumsily.
I have nothing to give him.
In our bedroom our pillows
Still lie side by side,
As we lay once.
I sit there by myself
And let the days grow dark.
I lie awake at night, sighing till daylight.
No matter how much I mourn
I shall never see her again.
They tell me her spirit
May haunt Mount Hagai
Under the eagles’ wings.
I struggle over the ridges
And climb to the summit.
I know all the time
That I shall never see her,
Not even so much as a faint quiver in the air.
All my longing, all my love
Will never make any difference.




When I went out
In the Spring meadows
To gather violets,
I enjoyed myself
So much that I stayed all night.

AKAHITO (8th century)


The mists rise over
The still pools at Asuka.
Memory does not
Pass away so easily.




I have always known
That at last I would
Take this road, but yesterday
I did not know that it would be today.

NARIHIRA (9th century)



Out in the marsh reeds
A bird cries out in sorrow,
As though it had recalled
Something better forgotten.

KI NO TSURAYUKI (10th century)



The deer on pine mountain,
Where there are no falling leaves,
Knows the coming of autumn
Only by the sound of his own voice.




Why should I be bitter
About someone who was
A complete stranger
Until a certain moment
In a day that has passed.

SAIGYÔ (12th century)



We are, you and me,
Like two pine needles
Which will dry and fall
But never separate.



Evening darkens until
I can no longer see the path.
Still I find my way home,
My horse has gone this way before.



All day I hoe weeds.
At night I sleep.
All night I hoe again
In dreams the weeds of the day.

Anonymous folksong


Women Poets of the Classic Era



You do not come
On this moonless night.
I wake wanting you.
My breasts heave and blaze.
My heart burns up.

ONO NO KOMACHI (9th century)


Although I come to you constantly
over the roads of dreams,
those nights of love
are not worth one waking touch of you.



Doesn’t he realize
that I am not
like the swaying kelp
in the surf,
where the seaweed gatherer
can come as often as he wants.




It does not matter
That I am forgotten,
But I pity
His forsworn life.

LADY UKON (9th century)



Though you can tell me
You heard a cock crow
In the middle of the night,
The guard at Ôsaka Gate
Will not believe you.

SEI SHÔNAGON (10th century)



This life of ours would not cause you sorrow
if you thought of it as like
the mountain cherry blossoms
which bloom and fade in a day.



Someone passes,
And while I wonder
If it is he,
The midnight moon
Is covered with clouds.




Lady Murasaki says:

The troubled waters
are frozen fast.
Under clear heaven
moonlight and shadow
ebb and flow.

Answered by Prince Genji:

The memories of long love
gather like drifting snow,
poignant as the mandarin ducks
who float side by side in sleep.




In the dusk the path
You used to come to me
Is overgrown and indistinguishable,
Except for the spider webs
That hang across it
Like threads of sorrow.

IZUMI SHIKIBU (11th century)


Soon I shall cease to be.
When I am beyond this world,
can I have the memory
of just one more meeting?



Out of the darkness
on a dark path,
I now set out.
Shine on me,
moon of the mountain edge.




That spring night I spent
Pillowed on your arm
Never really happened
Except in a dream.
Unfortunately I am
Talked about anyway.

LADY SUWO (11th-12th century)



How can I complain
that you have shaved your hair?
Since I can never again
pull your heartstrings
like a catalpa wood bow,
I have become a nun
following your way.

YOKOBUE (12th century)



Haiku Poets



Autumn evening —
A crow on a bare branch.

BASHÔ (1644-1694)


An old pond —
The sound
Of a diving frog.



On this road
No one will follow me
In the Autumn evening.



Summer grass
Where warriors dream.



The tree from whose flower
This perfume comes
Is unknowable.




A blind child
Guided by his mother,
Admires the cherry blossoms.

KIKAKU (1660-1707)



Wild goose, wild goose,
At what age
Did you make your first journey?

ISSA (1763-1827)


In my life
As in the twilight,
A bell sounds.
I enjoy the freshness of evening.



I can see the stones
On the bottom fluctuate
Through the clear water.

SHIKI (1867-1902)


Frozen in the ice
A maple leaf.



Shitting in the winter turnip field
The distant lights of the city.



Anonymous Geisha Songs


When it’s the man I love
he goes by and doesn’t come in
but men I hate —
a hundred times a day

* * *

When I pour sake
for the man I love
even before he drinks up
I blush like a cherry blossom

* * *

You and me
we live inside an egg
me, I am the white
and wrap you round with my body

* * *

Tonight as I sleep alone
I am on my bed of tears
like an abandoned boat
on the deep sea

* * *

I dreamed we were back together.
My laughter woke me up.
I searched frantically all around me,
My eyes full of tears.

* * *

The loves of a little while ago
and the smoke of tobacco
little by little leave
only ashes

* * *

When I’ve got the blues
as deep and deep can be
I want to pass the rest of my life
as a nun



Modern Women Poets



Black hair
Tangled in a thousand strands.
Tangled my hair and
Tangled my tangled memories
Of our long nights of love making.

YOSANO AKIKO (1878-1942)


Not speaking of the way,
Not thinking of what comes after,
Not questioning name or fame,
Here, loving love,
You and I look at each other.



This autumn will end.
Nothing can last forever.
Fate controls our lives.
Fondle my breasts
With your strong hands.



Press my breasts,
Part the veil of mystery,
A flower blooms there,
Crimson and fragrant.



I can give myself to her
In her dreams
Whispering her own poems
In her ear as she sleeps beside me.



Left on the beach
Full of water,
A worn out boat
Reflects the white sky
Of early autumn.




I am sick today,
sick in my body,
eyes wide open, silent,
I lie on the bed of childbirth.

Why do I, so used to the nearness of death,
to pain and blood and screaming,
now uncontrollably tremble with dread?

A nice young doctor tried to comfort me,
and talked about the joy of giving birth.
Since I know better than he about this matter,
what good purpose can his prattle serve?

Knowledge is not reality.
Experience belongs to the past.
Let those who lack immediacy be silent.
Let observers be content to observe.

I am all alone,
totally, utterly, entirely on my own,
gnawing my lips, holding my body rigid,
waiting on inexorable fate.

There is only one truth.
I shall give birth to a child,
truth driving outward from my inwardness.
Neither good nor bad; real, no sham about it.

With the first labor pains,
suddenly the sun goes pale.
The indifferent world goes strangely calm.
I am alone.
It is alone I am.





It is a bright house;
not a single room is dim.

It is a house which rises high
on the cliffs, open
as a lookout tower.

When the night comes
I put a light in it,
a light larger than the sun and the moon.

how my heart leaps
when my trembling fingers
strike a match in the evening.

I lift my breasts
and inhale and exhale the sound of love
like the passionate daughter of a lighthouse keeper.

It is a bright house.
I will create in it
a world no man can ever build.

FUKAO SUMAKO (1893-1974)




What a little girl had on her mind was:
Why do the shoulders of other men’s wives
give off so strong a smell like magnolia;
or like gardenias?
What is it,
that faint veil of mist,
over the shoulders of other men’s wives?
She wanted to have one,
that wonderful thing
even the prettiest virgin cannot have.

The little girl grew up.
She became a wife and then a mother.
One day she suddenly realized;
the tenderness
that gathers over the shoulders of wives,
is only fatigue
from loving others day after day.




For Sumiko’s Birthday

God if he exists
Or if he doesn’t
Still has a sense of humor
Like a certain type of man

So this time
He brings a gigantic man root
To join the picnic
Above the end of the sky of my dreams
I’m sorry
I didn’t give Sumiko anything for her birthday
But now I wish I could at least
Set the seeds of that God given penis
In the thin, small, and very charming voice of Sumiko
On the end of the line

Sumiko, I’m so sorry
But the penis shooting up day by day
Flourishes in the heart of the galaxy
As rigid as a wrecked bus
So that if
You’d like to see
The beautiful sky with all its stars
Or just another man instead of this God given cock
A man speeding along a highway
With a hot girl
You’ll have to hang
All the way out of the bus window
With your eyes peeled

It’s spectacular when the cock
Starts nuzzling the edge of the cosmos
At this time
Dear Sumiko
The lonely way the stars of night shine
And the curious coldness of noon
Penetrates my gut
Seen whole
Or even if you refused to look
You’d go crazy
Because you can trace
The nameless, impersonal and timeless penis
In the raucous atmosphere
Of the passers-by
That parade it in a portable shrine
In that stir of voices
You can hear an immensity of savage
Rebellion, the curses of
Heathen gism
God is in conference or out to lunch
It seems he’s away
Absconding from debts but leaving his penis.

So now
The cock abandoned by God
Trots along
Young and gay
And full of callow confidence
Amazingly like the shadow
Of a sophisticated smile

The penis bursting out of bounds
And beyond measure
Arrives here
Truly unique and entirely alone
Seen from whatever perspective
It’s faceless and speechless
I would like to give you, Sumiko
Something like this for your birthday

When it envelops your entire life
And you’ve become invisible even to yourself
Occasionally you’ll turn into the will
Of exactly this penis
And wander
I want to catch in my arms
Someone like you



These translations are from Kenneth Rexroth’s 100 Poems from the Japanese (New Directions, 1955); 100 More Poems from the Japanese (New Directions, 1974); Women Poets of Japan (Seabury, 1977; New Directions, 1982); and Seasons of Sacred Lust: Selected Poems of Kazuko Shiraishi (New Directions, 1978). (The latter two volumes were translated in collaboration with Ikuko Atsumi.) All are copyrighted by Kenneth Rexroth and reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

See also Rexroth’s essay on Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji.

Other Rexroth Translations