“The idea is a work and also the work is an idea – Walter Benjamin, The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism”
“…by what language other than the fragmentary – other than the language of shattering, of infinite dispersal – can time be marked?” – Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of The Disaster
“Poetry is a road which, in order to continue, must be severed. It is a road which deviates from the main road. And yet at the same time, it is the road which connects all roads”. – Hiraide Takashi, Multiple-Way Street
There is only writing. Writing which never ends, which knows no direction or set form. It flows incessantly out of itself, self-generating, and empties, finally, into that great abyss – the emptiness of history. As in Blanchot, we enter the space of writing. The space of writing is an essentially undefined and indefinable territory. A field as it were. (And for Hiraide, this is likely a baseball field.)
Perhaps the division between poetry and prose; literary text and critical text; autobiography and fiction, is merely artificial. Ultimately, for a writer like Hiraide, there is only textual production. And such an activity might embrace all of these at once.
In his writings on poetics, Hiraide speaks often of the excess of poetry, as well as the excess of Japanese prose as such. (Translations are all my own unless otherwise stated.)
“If we examine conceptually the significance of the prose poem as it is practiced today, it can be seen as the place [or site] where poetry, i.e. the change and accumulation of thought forms pursued by poetry under conditions unique to the Japanese language, have been collected and contained in the form of an excess.” – Hiraide Takashi, Multiple-Way Street
For Hiraide, Japanese prose contains the coming together in an acutely heightened containment of conflicting tensions, an entire history of linguistic and literary development. In other words, prose becomes the conflicted stage of history itself. He mentions on the one hand the shift from the traditional forms – Haiku, Tanka, Kanshi – and the particular rhythms associated with them, thought to be most natural to Japanese. The new European-influenced Shintaishi brought accusations of being merely “prose broken up into short lines” because of the lack of those older rhythmical conventions. Apparently, Kitahara Hakushu was in the habit of first writing out his poetic thoughts in prose and then “poetisizing” them. Here, Hiraide attempts to demonstrate that for modern Japanese, because of the peculiarities of its history, prose itself is the original poetic form.
By insisting that prose is the essential “poetic” writing, and that this writing encompasses all possible genres including criticism (i.e. essentially bypassing the question of conventional genre), Hiraide takes the postmodern impulse and pushes it beyond into a new literary framework which is in a sense “post-poetry” or what I call “the death of poetry.”
This “self-deconstructing” process stands directly in the line of Modernist experiment. From its beginnings, Modernism questions the basic nature of poetic form. First as a means of renewing the tradition (Pound and Elliot), and “purifying the language of the tribe.” This is done by virtue of Pound’s call to “listen to how it sounds” rather than following set rules of rhyme and meter, which distance the poet from the raw workings of language. Ultimately, however, this fundamental questioning has led over the years to a continual search for new forms, each one considered to be more authentic or directly in contact with the essential poetic spirit than the last. The final result of this process is that “poetry” as we have known it is completely dismantled… from the “inside” as it were.
We should of course not ignore Japan’s literary uniqueness, the fact that, despite the intensive Western influence from the Meiji period on, especially from French Modernism but Anglo-American Modernism as well, that Japan does have its own localized version of that tradition as theorized by the likes of Nishiwaki Junzaburō and Takiguchi Shūzō. But we can see how that same tendency toward formal experiment means that in Japanese Modanizumu as well, a process by which poetry gradually dismantles itself from the inside, ultimately stepping “outside itself,” is shared by the major thrust of Japanese poetry as exemplified by the work of Hiraide Takashi. Perhaps we could speak of a meeting within the postmodern topography between the borrowed Western tradition of Modernist poetics and native literary traditions, in which there was no rigid separation between genres (hence Basho could come up with the Haibun, mixing Haiku and ruminative prose, without much fanfare). In this sense the internal, self-deconstructing function of Modernism finally meets with the pre-modern (or perhaps Edo postmodern?) in Hiraide.
Despite this involvement in formal experiment, Hiraide is interested in Benjamin’s insistence on a connection between the life of writing and the life of action in the external world.
“True literary activity cannot aspire to take place within a literary framework. Significant literary effectiveness can come into being only in a strict alternation between action and writing.” – Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street
Hiraide manifests this rule by setting up generative situations for the writing based on real-world conditions. For instance writing on the train going to work as in For The Fighting Spirit Of The Walnut, being forced to write only with his left hand because of an actual injury as in Hidarite Nikki (Left-Handed Diary), or in the writing and sending of actual postcards in Postcards for Donald Evens (the latter containing an element of performance art). As Hiraide writes in his essay, Multiple-Way Street (the title is an intentional pun on Benjamin’s One-Way-Street), “The time of poetic production is the time of the work.” In other words, the poetic work as it is understood by Hiraide is the writing process itself, rather than the conventional understanding of what it is that comprises a completed creative work.
The whole purpose of Hiraide’s project is, from its very beginnings, to alter perspective. This may be done within a particular work through subject-object confusion (Portrait of a Young Osteopath), or by taking such a microscopic perspective that the reader feels this could not be an actual scene being described (For The Fighting Spirit of The Walnut). Then between works there is the shifting of voice or the preference for what Sawako Nakayasu calls, in the introduction to her translation of this last work mentioned above, “hybrid works,” such as A Guest Cat or The Berlin Moment, and others, works which are travelogue, novel, memoir, and poetic prose woven together in one.
In For The Fighting Spirit of The Walnut (1982) we are presented with a discrete series of numbered paragraphs, one paragraph to a page, where each is held carefully, gently within the aesthetic frame of the surrounding blank space. We immediately assume, i.e. we never question, that what we are reading is a poem… or perhaps a prose poem.
“The brightly colored subway. The wall that clears
up and is endless. In the thundering prayer of steel
that fastens the days together, one brush stroke of
cloud gathers. The beginning. Your nesting place.”
But already at this early stage Hiraide is undermining the boundaries. For this work is in actual fact one in which critical theory is of extreme importance.
“… the act of writing as an act of enfolding, wrapping, containing (the “hard nut of the text”) that which is destroyed (or erased) by rupture, concatenation, fragmentation, and the “final disaster” that the reader enacts upon the work. A walnut theory is thus developed and placed in conversation with French theory, in part via Blanchot’s writings on disaster.” – Sawako Nakayasu, Introduction, For The Fighting Spirit of The Walnut, New Directions Books (2008)
We notice also that, with the exception of the mention of the subway, the language seems to be somewhat conceptual, not a description of actual reality. In this early work, Hiraide retains a certain connection with the Modernist/Surrealist poetic language of the likes of Yoshioka Minoru or Irisawa Yasuo. In other words, though the poetic style is certainly not the conventional, discursive one of most postwar poetry, we definitely remain at this stage within the boundaries of the “poetic” – i.e. a privileged language. (This is a significant point, as Hiraide will move further and further away from poetic language as his career progresses.)
Consider for a moment the second stanza in the series. In this work, Hiraide set up certain rules and methodologies to place formal limitations on the poem. Mainly, he would write the pieces only in the morning during his commute to work on the Tokyo trains and subways. Hence many of the stanzas, though expressing an almost surreal tone, are actual descriptions of things seen, but described from an unusual perspective.
“The sound of the tearing of the fruit’s flesh
scatters between your ears. The forefront of the
burst of spray beckons to those outside sorrow.”
The pieces all have some kind of connection with actual occurrences on the train; things observed and the writer’s thoughts about these things. There may be a certain surreality, but the description is actually quite concrete. What Nakayasu calls “an accretion of description homing in toward its source.” Hence the focus on “the forefront of the burst of spray,” as well as the actual sound of the fruit’s skin being pealed – a minute detail that would normally go unnoticed. But this hyper-real approach to observation does not prevent Hiraide from weaving in more complex allusions and metaphors.
“The production of ideas at zero. Pack it away in a
box and there is a white explosion. I have the
tendency to want to call this, and only this, a poem.
How many times I have bathed myself in unhappiness
mistaken for rays of sun beneath the round roof at the
base of the cliff. While the particles of rain live one
after the other on my head.”
In its straddling of poetry and prose, this book also becomes a meditation on poetics – a kind of multilayered “walnut poetics” – in which Hiraide insists on a dynamic relationship between the narrative and non-narrative; poetry and prose; fiction and the critical essay. Once established, this approach continues into the works that will follow. But “Walnut” is the last work in which Hiraide would write in a form that would recognizably be called “poetry.”
In Portraits of a Young Osteopath (1984), Hiraide introduces aspects of scientific writing and observation into his poetic prose. Again, he establishes the rules of the work. First, the style mimes that of an actual naturalist’s notebook which Hiraide stumbled upon in a used bookstore.
“September 7, 1949, afternoon with sun beating down; I had fallen into the sleep of rotting isu trees on the shore near my birthplace. Sleep brought me sufficient material. I had found the stuff for a fine experiment which would allow me to perform a sort of osteopathy on all things living and dead, without simply leaving prosaic scratches.”
In imitating the work of the naturalist, Hiraide presents us with observations of the insect world where we move further and further into the nearly microscopic. At the same time, the work establishes, according to Hiraide, a method of critical writing which can be contained within the creative work itself.
“November 14, 1949, 2:00 pm; I happened upon a certain method of criticism… am I my habits? If a vortex were to appear in the sky, holding my breath I would smash into its simplified network, what ought to be called its essence, the center of his absence…”
Here again we stumble upon the issue of perspective, which doubles also as a questioning of the nature of the “I” or the narrative self in writing. We come to a point in the work where, almost in mid-sentence the place of the observer (the narrative self) shifts from naturalist to insect (subject/object confusion). This becomes the opportunity for Hiraide to play a game with the technicalities of writing in Japanese (the nature of the Japanese syntax and the convention of dropping the subject make this little trick much easier to do than in English), while at the same time performing a critical study of the fundamental nature of narrative.
“Moving the prism’s narrow roost up and down with a rustling sound as if he had been surprised made it look like a shadow play due to the slanting sunlight. Far, far away in what looked like the west, clouds were approaching at ease, so I kept on running lightly around in the manner of thread being wound around a spool, and occasionally stopping, made as if to peer into the middle from the mountain ridge stitch. For him it must be a terrible thing. The sun hazed. Behaving as if I were something with insect wings I became transparent like the bones of bony creatures laid out in the sun, and then in the shadows felt as if I were the clouds themselves which blurred myself and this tract of land. Upon which something giving way around the shoulders and something bubbling up around the vicinity of the chest showed signs of setting about the circulation of a boundless and ancient memory.”
As of this point Hiraide seems to have established his sense of what the prose narrative is all about, substantiated further by publications of essays on poetics published around the same time, such as Future of Shipwreck. From here he would go on to publish a series of prose works, all straddling the genres of novel, memoir, travelogue, and essay. At the same time, he began sending postcards to a dead painter of images of postage stamps, Donald Evans, whose work he had become fascinated with, between 1985 and 1988. The postcards were actually sent to people in various locations, then collected and organized as a final work in 2001. This is Postcards To Donald Evans (2003). Here again we find the setting up of a methodology, an event as it were, which in this case borders on performance art and is dependent on a large number of collaborators in order to pull off. The ability to put together the final work at all depended on these others to collect the postcards and return them at a later date, in some cases more than ten years after they were originally sent. Hence many of the postcards were lost. (In a curious way, these lost or “absent” postcards become an important part of the work.) (Translations from Postcards to Donald Evans are by Tomoyuki Iino.)
“Dear Donald Evans,
My letters to your parents were politely rejected at the counter of the Iowa City post office. A clerk with an anchor tattooed on his arm kindly pointed out that, although Morristown is much smaller than Iowa City, the address give was so incomplete the letter would doubtless be sent back, and with an enormous return charge.
It occurred to me that I was not ignorant of ‘where Donald Evans was not.’”
The correspondence begins during Hiraide’s stay at the University of Iowa and continues from all the various locations which the poet visits over the following ten years, including Amsterdam and Berlin. He even describes (to artist friends of the dead Donald Evans in New York) the plan of the work which, at the time of the writing of that particular postcard, was yet to be written.
“I revealed the plans for the book I was going to write: short, dated journal entries will be sent, in postcards, to Donald Evans, while traveling from place to place. Needless to say, one of your postage stamps will be put on each card.”
“From small to minute; from minute to microscopic. What you had started partly for fun became your life.”
“Along the small canal where trees quietly sway, there is a row of 17th century warehouses that have been converted into apartments. “
“In the attic of 63 Krom Boomssloot, you built yourself a final workshop. The door facing the street by the river is shut as though your world were still enclosed in there, and I can’t get inside.”
“I walked and walked, till my feet were like lead. The Spree River, Berlin Zoo, Tiergarten, and then the Wall and more of the Wall. In from of a Soviet guard post, armed soldiers stood without making even the slightest motion.”
In bits and pieces, in a variety of narrative tones from frivolous to somber, the postcards form a discrete narrative on art, death, and time, while giving the reader a tour through much of the United States and Europe, as well as Tokyo and environs. But an interesting affect of these changing locations is that, not only are the cards addressed to “the other world,” i.e. to the dead Donald Evans, but the actual travels of the narrator take on a somehow other-worldly character as well. Hiraide engages in intellectual travelogue in other works, but here, travel becomes more the condition of metaphysical transit, something like the Tibetan Bardo, that state in which the soul hangs in balance in the no-man’s-land between death and afterlife. It is in this state of metaphysical transit where authentic insight is reached, and the series of postcards ends, interestingly, with the narrator’s announcement that, “I just left the world, and I’m bound for another.”
“Dear Donald Evans,
Stars seem to fall without ever spoiling the entire constellation. I climbed down the steep cliff road in pitch black to the bay where the Oldenburg was moored. On my way, a cat presented itself, getting tangled up with my feet.
When I finally reached the bay, the passengers taking the ferry were already waiting, whispering, like shadows.
Goodbye, Donald. I just left the world, and I’m bound for another. Everything is so different, dear Donald, and everything is new to me, too.”
Indeed, in leaving one place for another we in a sense pass into other worlds, but here Hiraide seems to insinuate that the narrative itself constitutes a kind of world, and that when the writer finishes a work, he in effect takes leave of that world, even experiencing a symbolic death of sorts, until he regains life by initiating a new project.
This taking leave for a metaphorical afterlife is most appropriate for Hiraide’s work, which is an engagement with the afterlife of poetry – a reworking and re-exploration of the possibilities of poetry during a time when poetries influenced by the Modernist-experimentalist impulse have in effect moved beyond the traditional boundaries of poetic form into a literary/cultural situation which I have expressed in the phrase “after the death of poetry.”
The work of Hiraide Takashi forms an important step in that process of formal development (or deconstruction?) which I have described. Working initially from influences such as Yoshioka Minoru, as well as the discrete prose poem sequences of Kawata Ayane, Hiraide developed his own significant style of hybrid writing through an intensive engagement with continental philosophical and critical thought, especially the aphorisms of Walter Benjamin (One-Way Street) and Maurice Blanchot (The Writing of the Disaster). Hiraide’s hybrid works make way for those of the following generation, including Nomura Kiwao and Sekiguchi Ryōko, and lead finally to the current-day situation in which younger poets as diverse as Tsukagoshi Yuka and Tachibana Jō attempt to redefine poetry through various means such as performance. Poetry now belongs to what has been called by critics such as Kido Shuri the “Zero Generation,” a name deriving originally from the preponderance of zeroes in the years spanning 2000 to present, but it has another, more important meaning. In this current “post-poetic” age, we now stand at a kind of “writing degree zero,” where poets are given the opportunity to redefine and reinvent poetry. It will be interesting to see how the younger generation of Japanese poets defines exactly what Japanese poetry should be. Hiraide himself continues to produce hybrid works, while pursuing his busy schedule as head of the Department of Aesthetics at Tama Art University.
Books by Hiraide Takashi:
Future of Shipwreck (Hasen no Yukue), Shichosha (1982)
For the Fighting Spirit of The Walnut (trans. Sawako Nakayasu), New Directions Books (2008)
Postcards to Donald Evans (trans. Tomoyuki Iino), Tibor De Nagy Editions (2003)
Excerpts from For the Fighting Spirit of The Walnut and Portrait of a Young Osteopath translated by Eric Selland have appeared in various journals over the years, including Factorial (vol. 3) (go to http://www.factorial.org/ ), and can now be viewed at http://durationpress.com/authors/takashi/home.html or Eric Selland’s blog The New Modernism http://ericselland.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/hiraide-takashi-excerpts-from-portrait-of-a-young-osteopath-translated-by-eric-selland/
Walter Benjamin Selected Writings Volume 1, Harvard University Press (1996)
The writing of the Disaster, by Maurice Blanchot, University of Nebraska Press (1995)
The Space of Literature, by Maurice Blanchot, University of Nebraska Press (1982)
Time of Sky & Castles In The Air, by Kawata Ayane (trans. Sawako Nakayasu), Litmus Press (2010)
Hiraide Takashi Laboratorium http://www.wwalnuts.jp/lab/about-this-archive/
Takashi Hiraide main website http://www.wwalnuts.jp/