Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Work of the Chinese Brush

Clinging a bit longer to the Chinese theme from yesterday’s Kung Te-Ch’eng, thoughts today drifted to a book of Chinese poems translated by poet Kenneth Rexroth. It would be an exaggeration to say that Rexroth is a poet I have read extensively. I am familiar with a small handful of his poems, but have a handsome first edition of Chinese poems translated by Rexroth in my bookshelves. The book is a 1970 publication titled, Love and the Turning Year: One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese.

Kenneth Rexroth was born in South Bend, Indiana in 1905. Orphaned at fourteen, he led a roller-coaster life that included constant traveling both in the US and abroad, political activism, and four marriages. Mostly self-educated, he was an extremely well-read man. His poetry influenced Beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and reflect his wide reading. Much of his work emphasizes ecology, sexuality, and mysticism. Rexroth died in 1982 in California.

Two poems: The first is by the poet Tao Chin (365-427 AD) recognized as one of the greatest of Chinese poets. His poems are quiet and unpretentious.


From my youth up I never liked the city.

I never forgot the mountains where I was born.

The world caught me up and harnessed me

And drove me through dust, thirty years away from home.

Migratory birds return to the same tree.

Fish find their way back to the pools where they were hatched.

I have been over the whole country,

And have come back at last to the garden of my childhood.

My farm is only ten acres.

The farm house has eight or nine rooms.

Elms and willows shade the back garden.

Peach trees stand by the front door.

The village is out of sight.

You can hear dogs bark in the alleys,

And cocks crow in the mulberry trees.

When you come through the gate into the court

You will find no dust or mess.

Peace and quiet live in every room.

I am content to stay here the rest of my life.

At last I have found myself.

Lu Yu (1125-1209) wrote about eleven thousand poems in his lifetime. His poetry is described as loose and casual.


Even when I fall asleep early,

My nights are long and full of bitterness.

Tonight, tortured with insomnia,

Memories of the past flood back

Until they have exhausted me.

Alone in the house beside a smoky lamp,

I rub my heavy eyelids

And idly turn the pages of my notebook.

Again and again I scratch my head

And trim my brush and stir the heavy ink.

The hours go by. The moon comes

And stands in the open door,

White and shining like molten silver.

Suddenly I am back, sailing on Ts’ai Fong River

With the fellows of my youth,

Back in Yuen village.

Oh wonderful mountains! Oh noble boys!

How is it that I have lived so long

And never once gone back to visit you?


  1. I liked both of the poems today. They were a bit sad that all his life he had not gone back "home" but finally did and wondered why it took so long.

  2. INSOMNIA says it all about the writing life, doesn't it? Brush and ink and both writer and reader are back sailing on a river.

  3. I liked the poems today - sad, but beautiful. I'm glad he finally went home.

  4. Many more of Rexroth's translations -- along with lots of his own superb poems, essays and other writings -- are online at http://www.bopsecrets.org/rexroth



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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America