One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Saturday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here.
Chomei at Toyama
(Kamo-no-Chomei, born at Kamo 1154, died at Toyama on Mount Hino, 24 June 1216)
Swirl sleeping in the waterfall!
On motionless pools scum appearing
Eaves formal on the zenith,
lofty city Kyoto,
wealthy, without antiquities!
Housebreakers clamber about,
builders raising floor upon floor
at the corner sites, replacing
gardens by bungalows.
In the town where I was known
the young men stare at me.
A few faces I know remain.
Whence comes man at his birth? or where
does death lead him? Whom do you mourn?
Whose steps wake your delight?
Dewy hibiscus dries: though dew
outlast the petals.
I have been noting events forty years.
On the twentyseventh May eleven hundred
and seventyseven, eight p.m., fire broke out
at the corner of Tomi and Higuchi streets.
In a night
palace, ministries, university, parliament
were destroyed. As the wind veered
flames spread out in the shape of an open fan.
Tongues torn by the gusts stretched and leapt.
In the sky clouds of cinders lit red with the blaze.
Some choked, some burned, some barely escaped.
Sixteen great officials lost houses and
very many poor. A third of the city burned;
several thousands died; and of beasts,
Men are fools to invest in real estate.
Three years less three days later a wind
starting near the outer boulevard
broke a path a quarter mile across
to Sixth Avenue.
Not a house stood. Some were felled whole,
some in splinters; some had left
great beams upright in the ground
and round about
lay rooves scattered where the wind flung them.
Flocks of furniture in the air,
everything flat fluttered like dead leaves.
A dust like fog or smoke,
you could hear nothing for the roar,
Lamed some, wounded some.
This cyclone turned southwest.
Massacre without cause.
The same year thunderbolted change of capital,
fixed here, Kyoto, for ages.
Nothing compelled the change nor was it an easy matter
but the grumbling was disproportionate.
We moved, those with jobs
or wanting jobs or hangers on of the rest,
in haste haste fretting to be the first.
Rooftrees overhanging empty rooms;
dismounted: floating down the river.
The soil returned to heath.
I visited the new site: narrow and too uneven,
cliffs and marshes, deafening shores, perpetual strong winds;
the palace a logcabin dumped amongst the hills
(yet not altogether inelegant).
There was no flat place for houses, many vacant lots,
the former capital wrecked, the new a camp,
and thoughts like clouds changing, frayed by a breath:
peasants bewailing lost land, newcomers aghast at prices.
No one in uniform: the crowds
resembled demobilized conscripts.
There were murmurs. Time defined them.
In the winter the decree was rescinded,
we returned to Kyoto;
but the houses were gone and none
could afford to rebuild them.
I have heard of a time when kings beneath bark rooves
When smoke was scarce, taxes were remitted.
To appreciate present conditions
collate them with those of antiquity.
Drought, floods, and a dearth. Two fruitless autumns.
Empty markets, swarms of beggars. Jewels
sold for a handful of rice. Dead stank
on the curb, lay so thick on
Riverside Drive a car couldn’t pass.
The pest bred.
That winter my fuel was the walls of my own house.
Fathers fed their children and died,
babies died sucking the dead.
The priest Hoshi went about marking their foreheads
A, Amida, their requiem;
he counted them in the East End in the last two months,
fortythree thousand A’s.
Crack, rush, ye mountains, bury your rills!
Spread your green glass, ocean, over the meadows!
Scream, avalanche, boulders amok, strangle the dale!
O ships in the sea’s power, O horses
On shifting roads, in the earth’s power, without hoofhold!
This is the earthquake, this was
the great earthquake of Genryaku!
The chapel fell, the abbey, the minister and the small shrines
fell, their dust rose and a thunder of houses falling.
O to be birds and fly or dragons and ride on a cloud!
The earthquake, the great earthquake of Genryaku!
A child building a mud house against a high wall:
I saw him crushed suddenly, his eyes hung
from their orbits like two tassels.
His father howled shamelessly – an officer.
I was not abashed at his crying.
Such shocks continued three weeks; then lessening,
but still a score daily as big as an average earthquake;
then fewer, alternate days, a tertian ague of tremors.
There is no record of any greater.
It caused a religious revival.
Nobody mentions it now.
This is the unstable world and
we in it unstable and our houses.
A poor man living amongst the rich
gives no rowdy parties, doesn’t sing.
Dare he keep his child at home, keep a dog ?
He dare not pity himself above a whimper.
But he visits, he flatters, he is put in his place,
he remembers the patch on his trousers.
His wife and sons despise him for being poor.
He has no peace.
If he lives in an alley of rotting frame houses
he dreads a fire.
If he commutes he loses his time
and leaves his house daily to be plundered by gunmen.
The bureaucrats are avaricious.
He who has no relatives in the Inland Revenue,
Whoever helps him enslaves him
and follows him crying out: Gratitude!
If he wants success he is wretched.
If he doesn’t he passes for mad.
Where shall I settle, what trade choose
that the mind may practise, the body rest ?
My grandmother left me a house
but I was always away
for my health and because I was alone there.
When I was thirty I couldn’t stand it any longer,
I built a house to suit myself:
one bamboo room, you would have thought it was a cartshed,
poor shelter from snow or wind.
It stood on the flood plain. And that quarter
is also flooded with gangsters.
I saddened myself with idealistic philosophies,
but before I was fifty
I perceived there was no time to lose,
left home and conversation.
Among the cloudy mountains of Ohara
spring and autumn, spring and autumn, spring and autumn,
emptier than ever.
The dew evaporates from my sixty years,
I have built my last house, or hovel,
a hunter’s bivouac, an old
ten feet by ten, seven high: and I,
reckoning it a lodging not a dwelling,
omitted the usual foundation ceremony.
I have filled the frames with clay,
set hinges at the corners;
easy to take it down and carry it away
when I get bored with this place.
Two barrowloads of junk
and the cost of a man to shove the barrow,
no trouble at all.
Since I have trodden Hino mountain
noon has beaten through the awning
over my bamboo balcony, evening
shone on Amida.
I have shelved my books above the window,
lute and mandolin near at hand,
piled bracken and a little straw for bedding,
a smooth desk where the light falls, stove for bramblewood.
I have gathered stones, fitted
stones for a cistern, laid bamboo
pipes. No woodstack,
wood enough in the thicket.
Toyama, snug in the creepers!
Toyama, deep in the dense gully, open
westward whence the dead ride out of Eden
squatting on blue clouds of wistaria.
(Its scent drifts west to Amida.)
Summer? Cuckoo’s Follow, follow – to
harvest Purgatory hill!
Fall ? The nightgrasshopper will
shrill Fickle life!
Snow will thicken on the doorstep,
melt like a drift of sins.
No friend to break silence,
no one will be shocked if I neglect the rite.
There’s a Lent of commandments kept
where there’s no way to break them.
A ripple of white water after a boat,
shining water after the boats Mansami saw
rowing at daybreak
Between the maple leaf and the caneflower
murmurs the afternoon – Po Lo-tien
saying goodbye on the verge of Jinyo river.
(I am playing scales on my mandolin.)
Be limber, my fingers, I am going to play Autumn Wind
to the pines, I am going to play Hastening Brook
to the water. I am no player
but there’s nobody listening,
I do it for my own amusement.
Sixteen and sixty, I and the gamekeeper’s boy,
one zest and equal, chewing tsubana buds,
one zest and equal, persimmon, pricklypear,
ears of sweetcorn pilfered from Valley Farm.
The view from the summit: sky bent over Kyoto,
picnic villages, Fushimi and Toba:
a very economical way of enjoying yourself.
Thought runs along the crest, climbs Sumiyama;
beyond Kasatori it visits the great church,
goes on pilgrimage to Ishiyama (no need to foot it!)
or the graves of poets, of Semimaru who said:
Somehow or other
we scuttle through a lifetime .
Somehow or other
neither palace nor straw-hut
is quite satisfactory.
Not emptyhanded, with cherryblossom, with red maple
as the season gives it to decorate my Buddha
or offer a sprig at a time to chancecomers, home!
A fine moonlit night,
I sit at the window with a headful of old verses.
Whenever a monkey howls there are tears on my cuff.
Those are fireflies that seem
the fisherman’s lights
off Maki island.
A shower at dawn
like the hillbreeze in the leaves.
At the pheasant’s chirr I recall
my father and mother uncertainly.
I rake my ashes.
soon kindled, soon burned out,
fit wife for an old man!
Neither closed in one landscape
nor in one season
the mind moving in illimitable
I came here for a month
five years ago.
There’s moss on the roof.
And I hear Soanso’s dead
back in Kyoto.
I have as much room as I need.
I know myself and mankind.
I don’t want to be bothered.
(You will make me editor
of the Imperial Anthology?
I don’t want to be bothered.)
You build for your wife, children,
cousins and cousins’ cousins.
You want a house to entertain in.
A man like me can have neither servants nor friends
in the present state of society.
If I did not build for myself
for whom should I build?
Friends fancy a rich man’s riches,
friends suck up to a man in high office.
If you keep straight you will have no friends
but catgut and blossom in season.
Servants weigh out their devotion
in proportion to their perquisites.
What do they care for peace and quiet?
There are more pickings in town.
I sweep my own floor
– less fuss.
I walk; I get tired
but do not have to worry about a horse.
My hands and feet will not loiter
when I am not looking.
I will not overwork them.
Besides, it’s good for the health.
My jacket’s wistaria flax,
my blanket hemp,
berries and young greens
(Let it be quite understood,
all this is merely personal.
I am not preaching the simple life
to those who enjoy being rich.)
I am shifting rivermist, not to be trusted.
I do not ask anything extraordinary of myself.
I like a nap after dinner
and to see the seasons come round in good order.
Hankering, vexation and apathy,
that’s the run of the world.
Hankering, vexation and apathy,
keeping a carriage won’t cure it.
Keeping a man in livery
won’t cure it. Keeping a private fortress
won’t cure it. These things satisfy no craving.
Hankering, vexation and apathy…
I am out of place in the capital,
people take me for a beggar,
as you would be out of place in this sort of life,
you are so – I regret it – so welded to your vulgarity.
The moonshadow merges with darkness
on the cliffpath,
a tricky turn near ahead.
Oh! There’s nothing to complain about.
Buddha says: “None of the world is good.”
I am fond of my hut…
I have renounced the world;
have a saintly
I do not enjoy being poor,
I’ve a passionate nature.
clacked a few prayers.