In honor of Burton Watson’s passing, I am collecting statements and memories from friends and fans, to be posted as they come in. The following remembrance is by Jesse Glass, adapted from his entry in Salutations; a Festschrift for Burton Watson (Ahadada / Ekleksographia, 2015), which he edited with Philip Williams:
When I made my exit from America I threw a party: poets, painters, cabaret singers, gallery owners, teachers, philosophers of the street, strangers and passersby looking for a bargain, everyone was welcome. Somehow I had managed to shake free from everything and everyone I thought I loved, reduced my worldly goods to a suitcase and a few boxes in friends’ attics, and it was time to make my way to Japan the very next morning. But first we’d have a party: I’d play a record on my little black plastic machine, then give it away, and by the end of the night I gave the record player away too; I made sure my suits, my hats, my ties, some paintings, a Haitian deity in repousse steel, went walking out the door. My 1928 Underwood typewriter grew unsteady legs too after we’d typed dozens of drunken, communal, but surprisingly dry-eyed verses. I remember we’d all staggered down to the Milwaukee river an hour or two before sunrise, laughing at the lights reflected lights, at the trees and at the few cold stars left in the sky. I was poorer and happier than I had been in a long time and I was not afraid. I kept referring in my mind to the one book I did not give away but would take with me on the plane, and keep with me through the coming years in countryside Japan, in south China, in Korea and in Japan again: the book told me of trees that were useless, and best that way, and of a butcher who never needed to sharpen his knife, and of a giant bird and a vast fish that divided the waters of the deep beyond the skill of anyone to catch, and a skull existing in a perpetual dream of autumn, and of an unbearably ugly man who for some reason proved so attractive that everyone wanted to be near him and even princesses would fight to be his mistress, and of butterflies dreaming they were philosophers and philosophers dreaming they were butterflies. These stories nourished and consoled me then as they do even now. After many years, when I finally met the gentleman who gave me those precious stories, wrestling them expertly from the ancient Chinese into memorable English, I showed him the dog-eared, coffee-stained, annotated, and deeply decrepit pages and he wrote on the fly-leaf of Chuang Tzu; Basic Writings: “ October 22, 2005/ For Jesse Glass, / In appreciation of a well-read copy, Burton”.
Due to the incredible generosity of Burton Watson with his gifts we all have been given a key to the intellectual riches of a part of the world that is just as crucial to the collective future of humanity as it is to its past. The stories, the poems, the teachings of great sages and the epic histories that Burton Watson has given us, both directly in his superb translations from the Chinese and the Japanese, and indirectly through his role as teacher and exemplar to dozens of other scholars, translators, poets, writers, and artists, continue to unpack their treasures. No, Burton, the appreciation, the pleasure, has been ours as well. Please accept this small gift from us, sensei.
Contact me if you would like to add your own remembrance.