Book Review: Rexroth Translations

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Kenneth Rexroth had a complex life and career; just look at what he was doing as a teenager:

“Orphaned at fourteen, Rexroth moved to live with his aunt in Chicago, where he was expelled from high school. He began publishing in magazines at the age of fifteen [in 1920]. As a youth, he supported himself with odd jobs—as a soda jerk, clerk, wrestler, and reporter. He hitchhiked around the country, visited Europe, and backpacked in the wilderness, reading and frequenting literary salons and lecture halls, and teaching himself several languages.” (According to poets.org)

This longer Poetry Foundation Bio is also excellent. In this article I just want to recommend three volumes of Japanese short verse which Rexroth translated, mostly letting samples speak for their excellence.

The volumes mostly consist of tanka, which is a five line form, made of alternating 5 and 7 syllable lines – like haiku, but with 2 extra lines. As someone said, simplicity is the greatest elegance, and these tanka transform the world in a handful of sounds.

The three volumes are: One Hundred Poems From The Japanese; One Hundred More Poems From The Japanese; and Love Poems From The Japanese. The volume of love poems can fit in a shirt pocket, but a fair amount of it’s material overlaps the other two volumes. The original 100 is the strongest collection, and I’ll rely only on it these Tanka Excerpts, with one marked exception.

 

 

 

 

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Incarnate Artists Incarnate Art

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Why do we make art? Why do we make it when sparrows, ravens, dogs, monkeys, elephants, do not make it? People have unique experiences which are so transporting and sometimes overwhelming, sometimes revelatory of such new or significant things, that spending an entire life to record this material can be time well spent.

It is paradoxical that sometimes great creators isolate themselves from others; perhaps they like to create small “universes”. Nonetheless, usually they are at least deeply immersed in the traditions of their medium. They tend too to have interdisciplinary interests. The painter is an amateur historian; the sculptor is very serious about poetry; the musician enters analysis and reads psychology; the actor studies politics and sociology; the poet ties himself to an orthodox religion. For my brother’s travail discloses secrets to me, and my art breathes through conversation with those finished products. While I, Asher, personally long for the meat of this intellectual inquiry, I am still nursing on the child’s milk of sentiment and expression. But this is most necessary for song.

Though the richest vein of art I imagine must of necessity glorify God with high purpose, the vast array of human concerns is still our travail and remains our private glory as creatures made in His image. Though monkishness is most essential, other themes like romance still belong to the deepest places of our heart. Do we not even speak of Christ as the Bridegroom, the Church as the Bride?

The way we revolve around culture can be greatly therapeutic. Could our roving through culture be ever indicative of the real state of our hearts, and reflect the intentions of our free will, though we may think of it as entertainment, education, or culture? When we are at home, do we stay in our room sleeping? Are we spending time cleaning the outdoor areas? Are we planted on the couch? Is it not true that if all things we do have an ethical aspect, then each action (at home or as culture consumers) has an ethical nature? This is to say the ethical manner of the way we listen to music, or the way we watch TV on the couch for that matter, is reflected in the specific turn of our dialogue with the media, and moreover this ethical nature of our relation to art is present even when when our humanity takes center stage of the relation.

This is all said in a kind of appreciation of what is set forth in this video of an orchestra in rehearsal for a performance of Mahler’s 9th Symphony. Mahler, who denied his Jewishness and claimed he was a Catholic because of professional pressure, is nonetheless in an almost world-historical relation to German music. At least, according to conductor Leonard Bernstein, speaking German to this German orchestra, Mahler is the end of the German classical tradition, and was aware of it. Mahler also saw himself as a musical visionary of an apocalyptic future. So if this is true, and Mahler’s imaginative incorporation and reworking of so many German musical cliches was due to his position as the one who makes the summary for the defense, then even if he is in terms of organized religion a non-participant, in terms of Adamic Man, he is an anointed king in the realm of the human heart both regarding raw passion and the desire for aesthetic order.

Mahler is like a high priest in conducting forces that speak of human civilization in early 20th century Germany. And Bernstein takes very seriously his role in bringing out Mahler’s witness, looking both backward and forward. For both men, this artistic path meant bringing mind and body to serve in the work, to bring the self to the alter and lay bare the message contained inside of themselves.

But can we say after all that human art, and human civilization, is religious? Can we say the unbelieving heart, striving in the world, is religious, even when Christ contrasts what is Godly with what is worldly? It is not that art is always beautiful, or that art should always be defended. Obviously civilization, and the world likewise, cannot always be defended and are not at all always godly.

Nonetheless, all our travail, all our history, is part of the drama of our interaction with the Lord, whether we cling to Him and become saved, or fall away. And because we are always in the Lord’s story, and always have some relation to Him, even if only as sinners with darkened hearts, our art and our civilization is in that sense always religious. That term is very controversial, but in any event, we always live as the people of Christ, betraying Him or serving Him. We are the people He came to save, and the people He has made in His own image. So I just want to honor the extreme service and sacrifice of people like Bernstein and Mahler who give their lives exploring the depths of human meaning.

 

 

Book Review: Browning’s Sonnets

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Lately I’ve been wondering how difficult it is to find sincere Christian poets of high caliber. Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was a priest in Victorian England, who is acknowledged today as a bold and brilliant poet is one. But in a three part series of posts called Books Unfit To Read, (see Books Unfit to Read (part 1)) I address the domination of culture by anti-Christian elements. In my opinion this leads the world to heresy in both subtle and overt ways, despite the fact that the world is admittedly furnished thereby with culture, (say what you will).

Elizabeth Barrett Browning appears to be part of the answer to my prayers. She was a Christian poet with intensely ethical concerns. Because of physical illness, (a lung disease since 14, a spinal injury since 15), Elizabeth was a chronic invalid during much of her formative years. In her youth she learned, largely on her own, Hebrew, Greek, classical literature, Shakespeare, and much else; she was very well read in literature. Almost confined to bedrest, she became heavy with grief, especially after her favorite brother died in a drowning accident. Her aspirations and work were literary, and she didn’t really hope for happiness in this world.

Despite the fact that Elizabeth was a slow blooming poet, her writing projects were exciting from an early age. At ten she wrote an epic poem about war. At twenty she wrote “An Essay On Mind” a poem which according to The Poetry Foundation was “a pretentious and frigid effort to survey in some eighty-eight pages the history of science, philosophy, and poetry, from ancient Greece to the present.” About the age of 27 she made a translation of Prometheus Bound, which she considered on hindsight a failure. However she later revised it greatly and apparently honed it into something outstanding.

It was in her thirties Browning first became famous for two volumes of poems. Popular with critics and the public, she was considered one of England’s leading poets. And she thereby came to the attention of Robert Browning, an American poet whom she had praised in a poem. This literary contact sparked a real life romance which in turn became immortalized in these poems, “Sonnets From The Portuguese” written before their marriage, but published after the couple had eloped to Italy.

These “Sonnets From The Portuguese” are the extremely candid and tender-hearted revelation of a woman profoundly grateful to find love when she had written it out of possibility. They also express her care to secure this love. She almost worships Robert in these poems, which is in the sonnet tradition, true, but elicited my own protective instincts because of the extremes of her gratitude. Robert Browning was six years her junior, but certain in his love, and had wooed her, despite her physical disability, and despite the fact that her father tried to prevent his children from marrying. These poems concern the rehabilitation of a heart, moving from grief and isolation slowly, bit by bit, to a love contained by security and hope.

Here are Two Poems from Sonnets From The Portuguese.

The volume is very strong, and conveys so much feeling that it seemed to flow directly off the page. The Sonnets are ahead of their time in their liveliness of meter and enjambment. Though Browning fought in her writing against the domination of women, (as she fought against slavery and the abuse of children,) she believes in patriarchy. Her marriage makes a kind of case for righteous patriarchy, in which love and respect are both reciprocal and Biblical. “Sonnets From The Portuguese” I suspect is a breakthrough in its candor and real intimacy. Other Romantic poets (Browning was considered a Romantic) wrote with candor and vitality, but I don’t remember finding such vulnerability in them, things so important and unguarded in the heart.

I very much enjoyed this volume and hope you will too. A few weeks ago I did a close read of Browning’s most famous poem, Sonnet 43, which you can read here.

Asher Blake’s Former Alchemies

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Here is a new piece: Former Alchemies. Though imo trigger warnings are generally condescending and absurd, and moreover are primarily used to constrain customary freedom, here I must let people know, this piece can be disturbing if you are afraid of Hell, and I know that fear can be a fierce one. In my defense, I am working through some old personal material and this poem emerged, as a necessary handle on the old horror. If you don’t want to tread those grounds, don’t worry it’s just a little piece in the spirit of Hieronymous Bosch.

I won’t miss the opportunity to say that art does not save souls, and brings but limited comfort. My raw fear of Hell, and suffering conscience, were cured by Christ when I took faith in sincere repentance and love of the Lord. I found these through prayer and study of the New Testament. We have responsibilities we cannot always fully articulate, but absolution and love is found for certain in Christ the Lord.

Changing Grief, Changing Poetry

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June Hunt, who has a dynamic Christian counseling program online and on the radio in many cities, has said that depression can be pictured as a heavy weight on the heart, like a brick on a pillow. If it lies there too long, the pillow may not take its old shape anymore.

When I met June she was so kind and joyous with me, but I could tell she wondered why I couldn’t at all bring that energy to her, despite my love for her.

She asked me my name and I told her, they call me it, which. Or they did. They said I was a preposition. Then I found out my name meant happy, but I almost never am – maybe someday, I said.

What device does nature have to enlarge our sense? What things strewn on our path give us pause and help us answer the questions we’ve been collecting? I know these things happen sometimes in conversation. That is how women are heart doctors.

This post is not meant to be an elaborate psychoanalysis. I just wanted to say that my customary grief and heaviness seems somehow to be surfacing in my writing in a new way. Instead of writing poems that labor to express the whole burden of the sadness, as with some elegies, or sad love poems, here it seems like something fresh and living is sprouting from the old grief, like loam rich with black manure. The outward ornament is broken through, there is more wholeness psychologically to the writing, and a plainer style. Other styles are still cropping up, but with some of these new pieces there seems to be a natural mystery poking through. Instead of being “good with words” or “phrasing”, which is nice, these prefer something else, and I am realizing now that phrasing and such just doesn’t get one very far in real poetry.

And I am not very far. However, perhaps it will help to gravitate to where the writing wants to go, and learn from there. James Wright is a great champion in this plain style. He learned to repose on the facts of his lived experience as charged content the reader would find worthwhile. It is amazing that he does not just try to make himself goofy or puff himself with horror or any type of enhancer, but trusts in the plain truth.

Here is one Plain Style Poem by James Wright. Here are three recent Plain Style Poems of my own, though the middle one is a revision. Finally here is a wonderful Plain Style Tanka. Please enjoy.

Grumpy Cat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Philip Sidney’s Sonnet 42

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I’ve been reading Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella and had to post this favorite because it thrilled me so much. Sidney’s eloquence here is a natural overflow of real love. The music tends to be sinuous and has a sometimes surprising, leaping pulse.

While Shakespeare in his Sonnets makes imagination, perhaps not feeling, the workhorse of most of his rhetorical lines; Sidney finds the metaphors, even the thoughts, which make do, and fills them with his feeling.

Here is Sonnet 42 with my comments. And here is a quick analysis of Sonnet 42 by Jonathan Smith of Hanover College.

(Image is Ruth Bader Ginsburg)