Japanese Modernist Poets: Yoshioka Minoru

Yoshioka Minoru and the Agony of Representation (1919-1990)

“This is the moment in which the shadow of the dream resembled the shadow of the poem.” – Takiguchi Shuzo

How is poetry possible in the wake of the horrors and destruction of a world war… in the absence and questioning of an “ash colored land”? Only within the poet’s own interiority can the complexity of the question be approached. Not to force an answer, but to make questioning possible at all – to bring absence to speech.

Within the hard surface of night’s bowl
swelling with brightness
the autumn fruits
apples, pears, grapes and so on
poised one on top of the other
move toward sleep,
to one melody,
to a larger music…

The interior image – image upon image, forming and reforming, like the mutability and violent impositions of history. Or like the sudden rebirth of the burned out city in the form of oddly shaped buildings and narrow streets leading nowhere in particular.

Yoshioka’s oeuvre has its birth in the early modern haiku experiments of Tomizawa Kakio, as well as the Surrealist theories of Takiguchi Shuzo, and the iconoclastic work of Kitazono Katsue. But Yoshioka’s own genius and painful personal experience has taken his poetry far beyond mere theory, into a realm both intensely personal as well as characteristically Japanese.

When God also was absent
and not a shadow of a living thing was present
neither does the smell of death arise
in the deep atrophy of the summer noon
from a crowded zone
things like clouds are torn away…

As in the portraits of English painter Francis Bacon, whose bizarre imagery so fascinated Yoshioka, it is as if we are being told that it is only through the distortion of normative reality that we are capable of reaching its underlying truth.

Yoshioka’s lines metamorphose seamlessly from one image to the next, producing organic disjunctions not only surprising and strange, but surprisingly natural, due to the flexibility of the Japanese syntax. Moreover, these otherworldly images, set in a timeless framework both distant from us yet intimate, are presented in a form that gives them an intense, lyric beauty. No other post-war poet working in the Japanese Modernist idiom has attained the same level of mastery.

The night wraps them quickly up
the bones
temporarily placed inside the fish
escape the ocean of stars
and are secretly dismantled
on the plate
then the light shifts to another plate –
there in its hollow
inherited by the hunger of life
first a shadow falls
then the egg is called in

Yoshioka was an important part of the intellectual and cultural life of his times, cultivating friendships with important artists in the area of painting, sculpture and dance as well as in literature, and winning the admiration of younger poets, many of whom were profoundly influenced by his work.

Yoshioka’s collected works (Yoshioka Minoru Zenshuu) are now available on Chikuma Shobo. This beautiful book is well worth the expense, but is also rather large if one plans on having it shipped from Japan. The best way to start is the affordable paperback Shichosha modern poets series which should be easily found on the Kinokuniya or Maruzen websites. In English there is my own translation of Kusudama on Leech Books (listed on amazon.com surprisingly enough), and Hiroaki Sato’s masterfully done selected translations of Yoshioka on Chicago Review Press, Lilac Garden. Though out of print, this book may be located with the use of amazon.com or other sites which have the special service of searching for out of print books. The poems quoted above are all from Still Life (Seibutsu), and are translated by myself. They originally appeared in a little magazine in Paris in 1983. More of my translations of Yoshioka and poets influenced by him can be found on http://www.durationpress.com and blackfirewhitefire (available via a link from the Duration site).

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3 Responses to “Japanese Modernist Poets: Yoshioka Minoru”

  1. me. Says:

    Think i might have to check out the Chikuma Shobo edition –

    The interior image – image upon image,forming and reforming,like the imutability and violent impositions of history…

    This passage in particular..he’s a poet i want to read more of.

    • ericselland Says:

      I originally wrote this piece for a translation newsletter in 2000, and since that time the collected works has gone out of print. You might try the used bookstores in Kanda (assuming you’re in Tokyo) or elsewhere, but even if you do find it, it’s likely to be quite pricey. I’d suggest picking up the latest Shichosha paperback edition of the selected works. Cheap, and gives you an overview of everything (though not likely his later, very difficult work). I also translated his magnum opus, Kusudama (1983) (published on a small press in Canada in 1990, now out of print), and attempted to upload some samples, but it looks like I’m going to have to learn some html code and insert it so as to retain the proper formatting.

  2. me. Says:

    Many thanks for the pointers,maybe i’ll search out for the Shichosha edition,i read Celebration In Darkness recently and was wondering which collection to turn to next,so i’ll explore these.

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