Poetic similarities

The Swedish writer, Harry Martinson (1904-78), who shared the Nobel prize in literature in 1974, was an avid reader of classical East Asian poets, not least well-known Japanese poets like Matsuo Bashô (1644-94) and Yosa Buson (1716-83). In Martinson’s own writing one can often find an explicit interest in nature, especially in what is frail and transient. His prose and poetry is filled with philosophical insights of the kind one often finds among the Chinese, Korean and Japanese literary giants.

Last year an English translation of some of Martinson’s poetry was published in a book called ”Chickweed Wintergreen” (Bloodaxe Books, London, 2010). In it one can find the following short poem:

Japanese painting
(Maruyama)

A slender bridge floats on tall stilts.
Its bamboo knees bend when the peasant crosses.
A snow-white horse-tail hangs far in the distance.
It’s a waterfall in the Sugi Hills.

(Translation by Robin Fulton)

The Swedish original runs:

Japansk målning
(Maruyama)

En spenslig bro på höga styltor vajar.
Dess bambu knäar till när bonden går.
En snövit hästsvans hänger långt i fjärran.
Det är ett vattenfall i Sugibergen.

If one would transform the poem into a Japanese haiku, or tanka, one would find that it fits well into the East Asian poetic tradition. One of Buson’s poems reads

夏河を越すうれしさよ手に草履
Natsukawa wo kosu ureshisa yo te ni zôri

The pleasure
of crossing a summer river,
straw sandals in your hand

One of Bashôs most famous poems also involves a river:

五月雨を集めて早し最上川
Samidare wo atsumete hayashi mogamigawa

Collecting early summer rains
it flows faster and faster,
the Mogami river

The poems are simple, but after a few moments of reflection the reader realizes that behind the simplicity there is a deeper meaning. In Buson’s case it can be the liberating feeling a struggling farmer has when crossing a river barefoot after a full day’s work. In Bashô’s poem it is the drama that enfolds after seemingly innocent light summer rains continue to fall.

This is exactly the same kind of spirit found in Martinson’s poems, the delicate relationship between hardworking people and the sometimes beautiful, sometimes frightening nature.


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