Archive for January, 2010

Contemporary Japanese Poets: Ryoko Sekiguchi

January 19, 2010

[This book review originally appeared in Jacket]

Ryoko Sekiguchi: Two Markets, Once Again, Translated from the French by Sarah Riggs, reviewed by Eric Selland
50pp. The Post-Apollo Press. US$14. 978-0-942996-65-4 paper
Available via Small Press Distribution at

By the same author: Heliotropes, La Presse, Iowa City, 2008

Ryoko Sekiguchi is also included in the Litmus Press anthology Four From Japan, edited by Sawako Nakayasu

This is the latest and possibly the culmination of the Post-Apollo pocketbook series which includes such luminaries as Fanny Howe, Lyn Hejinian, and Claude Royet-Journoud. Deceptively small, this little book packs a wallop. Sekiguchi is a master of the experimental prose poetry sequence:

Pages the letters fling themselves against which
could have been traced directly by this firm
 hand, chapters unaware of changes in line or
 punctuation, the act of reading that engenders
space, that surrounds us.

A text which proves upon further reading to be highly dense and multilayered despite the relative lack of torque, which I suspect may be due to its having travelled first through its French version, translated here by Sarah Riggs, an American poet living in Paris (generally the distance between Japanese and English creates more resistance in translation and hence more difficult sentence structures… but more on translation later). And the lines continue:

                                                 The exceptional
intensity in pronouncing the time clause at that
very moment caused us to whiten immediately,
alerting us to the error in reading it, but too late,
this intensity creates here a market instantly, a
market that had always existed, where we had
always lived.

Ryoko Sekiguchi is perhaps one of the most engaging poets of that generation now approaching mid-career currently writing in Japan. Though she maintains a recognizable relationship to developments in Japan’s late Modernism, she has stretched the available avant-garde vocabulary in the Japanese language to include, as seen in one of her earlier books, Luminescent Diapositive, graphic elements reminding one of Charles Olson, or the playfulness of the Japanese Dadaist cutups of an earlier era, something which was rejected by Japan’s Modernists as they grew older and more stuffy. In her more recent work, Sekiguchi has managed to mold this foundation in the highly controlled formal experiments of her predecessors to more recent interests in Japanese women’s poetry, which tends to explore the textures and patterns of feminine speech and experience. Sekiguchi’s own version of these more recent developments in Japanese women’s writing is, however, more intellectually dense, more highly complex than most other writers.

Sekiguchi has lived in Paris since 1997, is fluent in French and apparently a number of other languages, and translates/rewrites her own work into French. This in itself is quite an interesting cultural development, as in the recent past, it would have been extremely difficult to find acceptance as a poet in Japan and be an expatriate at the same time. Until recently, the assumption would have been that in order to be completely Japanese and completely authentic as a poet, living for such long periods of time in a foreign country, and especially, actually attaining fluency in the language, would somehow dilute whatever it is one is looking for in a writer, and in a work of the caliber that might be considered for inclusion in a ‘national literature.’ Obviously this is no longer the case in the era of writers like Haruki Murakami and the era of the internet, where physical space and ‘culture’ in the traditional sense seem to have lost some of the more precisely defined boundaries they once had. And perhaps it is also this shift in modes, in the location of the poetic topology from the actual to the imagined, from physical to virtual, that in an odd way informs this text.

Two Markets Once Again is an especially satisfying example of recent developments in the writer’s work. It is a landscape which is at once the imagination, the actual world through which the author travels in a mixture of distance and awe, and the text itself – text as field, as the eroticism of language, and as a topology of markers and signs.

Sekiguchi makes her way deftly through this landscape, taking the reader on a tour as it were, through the labyrinth of language. Here, identity of author, reader, and text, a text which itself is also the labyrinth of the mind, become intermixed.

Sekiguchi weaves in and out of this textual and textural landscape, occasionally allowing surreal glimpses of the actual world she travels through (texts were produced on trips to Syria and Iran), which exudes the smells of coffee and coriander.

The ‘market’ is the open space in the text, the gap or dislocation in language through which the reader/writer slips, as well as the strange, unidentifiable sense of place the traveler finds in the unknown country.

It is also a journey through a language being learned – the language of classical Arabic, as well as all the visual and sensual experience of being in that new environment.

The voice of the poem fights against the text, but is finally always drawn back in. And yet the gap or dislocation as represented by the market is also the site of all possibility and experience, ‘for this market, the act of writing, in itself, is always possible.’

It is the dislocations in language that make writing/poetry possible – the chiasm is poetry itself. And yet it is also ‘The trace of negation or refusal’ –

In every part, in the debris or the remainder of
text, we recognize the trace of negation or

The text is interspersed with Arabic, Latin, Italian, and Provencal — She quotes a line from the Latin text of the Stabat Mater; she quotes the poetry of the troubadours and Dante’s Inferno (most likely from the narration of the encounter with the ghost of Francesca Di Rimini, a name mentioned elsewhere in the text). There are also allusions to Greek tragedy (most likely Euripides), the voice of Persephone speaking in one of the poems of Sappho, Homer, and other classical Greek texts.

The more one reads and rereads the text, and the more languages you know or are willing to google, the more numerous and intricately interwoven become the meanings and allusions. This is most certainly a book that can bear many readings. Despite the fairly small number of pages in this little book, it is a gigantic work and has a far reach beyond all the assumed cultural and linguistic boundaries.

As for the question of translation, it would be more appropriate to understand this text as a recreation or ‘multiplication of versions’ in the words of Sekiguchi, and Sarah Riggs not merely a translator, but a partner in the creation of a collaborative work which has already travelled from Japanese to French and now finds its third extension in the English of this text.

Sekiguchi, speaking of her self-translation into French, notes that, ‘The very idea of an original text subsisting through the displacement of one language into another is therefore put into question…’ [tr. Chet Weiner, in Four From Japan, Edited by Sawako Nakayasu, Litmus Press]

The text itself is nothing but a particular and infinite instance… It is therefore no longer a question of depth but of stretching the surface of the text: such is the aim of this effort at self-translation/multiplication of versions.

Sekiguchi is a must-read, not only because of the intricacy and delicacy of her writing, a writing which carries both the density and weight of a fine-tuned intellect and yet offers turns of a certain lightness, the tongue-in-cheek, and the simple enjoyment of language, but because the increasing availability of hers and other works of contemporary and Modernist avant-garde Japanese poetry in English means there is no longer an excuse for American readers having a complete lack of familiarity with this dynamic and ever-changing modern tradition.

                                                            we read
and are read, we call and are called, in reading,
sounding out, the text remaining silent, we
ourselves becoming texts


The Modernist Tradition in Japan: Some Introductory Comments

January 14, 2010

(This article originally appeared in the Chicago Review, Vol. 39, 1993)

            Japanese poetry as currently practiced has its roots in French Modernism.1 The word for poetry in Japanese — shi — is itself a term originally coined for poems written in classical Chinese by Buddhist clergy and other members of the intellectual class during the early literary period (686-784 AD)2, and hence  has always carried certain connotations of foreignness. It was in this period that the Japanese cultural dichotomy between the native and the foreign developed as a result of an intensive exposure to cultural borrowings from T’ang China.3 A rigid delineation has existed since then between forms which are native (waka, renga, haiku, etc.), and those whose origin is foreign. Despite the existence of some outstanding examples of writers who have blurred the line between traditional form and modernism, when speaking of poetry in postwar Japan we are speaking primarily of work done in the European tradition. Those who have written haiku in a modern or experimental vein have most often been met with rejection by conventional haiku circles. Banished from the haiku anthologies, these writers have usually appeared in magazines and collections beside poets heavily influenced by Valery and Baudelaire. Indeed, Japanese poetry of the 20th Century owes a great debt to the French. Not to say that other influences have been absent (both Eliot and Pound, and more recently Olson and Ashbery, not to mention the Beats, have had avid readers in Japan). French poetry, especially that written by the early modernists, seems to occupy a special position for the Japanese. In an afterward to one of the more influential anthologies of modern poetry of its time4, the poet Ooka Makoto introduces the work of both his contemporaries and the major prewar modernists by way of Baudelaire, Valery and Mallarme. In a more recent critical work5, translator and poet Suzumura Kazunari focuses on poets Arthur Rimbaud, Edmond Jabes and Claude Royet-Journoud, along with the thought of philosopher Jacques Derrida in a continuation of the tendency to go to French sources in search of new directions for Japanese poetry.

            Japanese poetry of the postwar period can be said to have its beginnings in a movement which was the culmination of the modernist effort up to that time6. The voice of that movement was the magazine Shi to Shiron  (Poetry and Poetics), whose publication began in 1928. The magazine featured virtually all of the important modernists such as Miyoshi Tatsuji and Kitagawa Fuyuhiko, and included both surrealist poetry and theoretical writings by Nishiwaki Junzaburo, who would bring a great influence on later poets such as Yoshioka Minoru and others. The magazine also introduced the work and thought of Valery, Eliot, Breton and Pound through translations by Nishiwaki and Horiguchi Daigaku. Shi to Shiron  remained a dominant force in Japanese poetry until dispersing in 1931, less from the political pressure of the rising tide of militarism than from theoretical disagreements.7

            An anthology of 20th Century Japanese writing might very well be subtitled “The Anxiety of Influence”. Despite a certain tongue-in-cheek air to this suggestion, it would be appropriate, considering the fact that Japanese poetry has responded to virtually every major movement in the West with its own version of the same. Japan has had its own Symbolists such as Kitahara Hakushu, its Dadaists such as Nakahara Chuya and Takahashi Shinkichi, and Surrealists such as Nishiwaki Junzaburo. It has also produced a vibrant political poetry which was associated closely with the leftist movement of the ’20s. This is by no means to suggest that Japanese poetry has been merely imitative, or that it has less value because of its dependence on European ideas. As all critics know, patterns of influence can be immensely complex, and rarely lead to a mere carbon copy. In fact, the Modernist achievement in literature by the Japanese, as exemplified by poets such as Yoshida Issui and Tomisawa Kakio, can be ignored no longer. Cultural prejudice and a serious shortage of good translators (preferably these should be poets themselves) has prevented the best of Japan’s Modernist poetry from being properly presented to English readers. It is only now that Yoshida and Tomisawa are being given closer attention through the translations of Steven Forth.

            In his book-length critique of the work of modernist writer Yokomitsu Riichi8, Dennis Keene evokes both the cultural dilemma and personal ambivalence which a project so dependent on iconoclastic newness and cultural otherness brought on its author. Yokomitsu could never be completely comfortable with the European modernism which he had advocated, and later became a supporter of Japanism, and of the growing militarism of the late ’30s. In contrast, the poets of the postwar period have found themselves in a completely different situation. For them, the only literary choices available come from the Western tradition, or at least the only ones which could satisfy an intellect coming of age in a post-nuclear, post-industrial, post-modern, indeed, post-everything era. For the young Japanese poets of today, talking about the latest in French philosophy and criticism, or of the work of poets such as Octavio Paz or Paul Celan, is second nature. For most of these younger poets it is the only thing to talk about. Despite past examples of “cultural neurosis” as seen in Yokomitsu, or in the poet Takamura Kotaro9, it would be much more apt to say, especially in the context of the high-technology, information-intensive Japan of today, that Japan is, and has been for some time, an active member of contemporary cosmopolitan culture. And this perhaps explains more than anything else the involvement with recent European thought, something which American poets have a weakness for as well.

            After 1945 amidst the destruction left by the Pacific War, there was an immense flowering of poetry.10 The modernists, whose careers had been interrupted during the war, continued where they had left off, while younger poets felt the need to start off afresh. One of the first new schools of poetry which arose during this period was the Arechi Group (the Wasteland Poets). Deriving their name from Eliot’s long poem, The Wasteland, this group mixed the influence of Eliot and Auden with the Existentialist thought of Sartre and Camus to give expression to the feelings of desolation immediately after World War II.11 Besides Miyoshi Toyoichiro and Kitamura Taro, the best known member of this group is Tamura Ryuichi12, who rejected Modernist distance and “artiness” for the directness and simplicity of common speech as a means of dealing with the current social and political reality.

            During the ’50s numerous poetry publications, each advocating its own aesthetic and ideological stance, began to appear. Notable amongst these were the Retto (island chain) group which attempted a mixture of socialist realism and surrealist techniques, and Kai (oars) whose best known members Ibaragi Noriko, Ooka Makoto and Tanikawa Shuntaro were the first of Japan’s poets to write in a more popular lyric mode, giving public readings and writing poetic dramas for radio and television. Ooka Makoto later published studies of classical poetry and is well known as the “statesman” of Japanese poetry, while Tanikawa Shuntaro went on to become perhaps the best known poet of his generation due to the simplicity of his popular lyrics13. Tanikawa is also a successful copywriter with his own private office in one of Shinjuku’s expensive office towers. During this time Kusano Shimpei, best known for his child-like frog poems14, established the Rekitei-kai, which remains the largest institutionalized group of poets to this day. The Rekitei-kai embodies the officialdom of the more conventional, and popular side of Japanese poetry. On the more intellectual side, a neo-surrealist magazine called Wani (Crocodile) was established in 1959 by Yoshioka Minoru and Iijima Koichi.15

            Yoshioka had published his first book of poems, Seibutsu  (Still Life)16 just a few years earlier, but had already earned a reputation as a leading member of the avant-garde. He was inspired to begin writing after being exposed to the experimental haiku of Tomisawa Kakio. Later he was influenced by the surrealism of Takahashi Shinkichi, along with other early figures of Japanese modernism such as Nakahara Chuya and Hagiwara Sakutaro. Yoshioka was also an early reader of Horiguchi Daigaku’s classic translation into Japanese of the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. His early poems utilized the aesthetic distancing of high modernism to create perfectly formed architectures — small worlds with their own intense reality, much like his favorite painter, Paul Klee. Later in his career, Yoshioka began experimenting with appropriation and collage, and became interested in the poetry of John Ashbery and Charles Olson. The fruits of these experiments can be found in one of his later, and perhaps most difficult collections, Kusudama 17, from which the selections included in this publication are taken. The word “kusudama” refers to the brightly colored papier-mache balls which could be found hanging in the covered market places of pre-war Tokyo, but the word literally means medicine ball — a grab-bag containing all manner of things. At the same time, “tama” also means “spirit”, and is especially connected with the ancient Japanese concept of the “kotodama”, or word spirits. In a sense, Kusudama  is itself already a translation in the original, “a translation of many worlds, times and modes of being. A world in which the sacred and the profane, the inner and outer, East and West, are inextricably mixed.”18 Yoshioka is considered to be an especially difficult poet. As a matter of fact, one hears the word “difficulty” used so often in regard to his poetry that I feel compelled to offer a definition of the term according to literary critic George Steiner, which may help not only in explaining Yoshioka’s own relationship to language and poetics, but also to place it in the context of world literature as manifested in the 20th Century. Steiner speaks of an “ontological difficulty” found in 20th Century writing:

Ontological difficulty seems to point to a hypostasis of language such as we find, precisely, in the philosophy of Heidegger. It is not so much the poet who speaks, but language itself: die sprache spricht . The authentic, immensely rare, poem is one in which ‘the being of language’ finds unimpeded lodging, in which the poet is not a persona, a subjectivity ‘ruling over language’, but an ‘openness to’, a supreme listener to, the genius of speech. The result of such openness is not so much a text, but an ‘act’, an eventuation of Being and literal ‘coming into being’.19

The mention of Heidegger here seems especially appropriate, as this German philosopher is considered to be a basic by many Japanese poets, especially those of the avant-garde. (The presence of Heidegger has been great in 20th Century Japanese thought, as can be seen in the writings of Japan’s most important philosopher of the century, Nishida Kitaro, founder of the Kyoto school of philosophy.)

            During the 1960’s, the possibilities for poetry opened up even further for the Japanese, as did the opportunity of direct contact with poets in other countries, due to the lifting of government restrictions on travel and foreign exchange. It was during this period that American poetry became truly influential for the first time, especially the poetry of the Beats, who themselves were being influenced by Zen philosophy and Japanese poetry (though mostly in traditional forms). Yoshimasu Gozo20 and Shiraishi Kazuko21 are representative figures of the youthful experimentation of this period. Poetic language was no longer privileged as in modernism, but was direct, expressive, musical and oral rather than existing only on the page. (It is interesting that both Yoshimasu and Shiraishi received so much encouragement from Yoshioka despite the opposite tendencies of the work). A new and significant development in the process of Japan’s cultural borrowing is that poets were no longer passively accepting Western poetic techniques via written texts. Instead, there was a much more dynamic and personal exchange occurring — influence was becoming a two-way street. Both Yoshimasu and Shiraishi had friendships with American poets such as Gary Snyder (who learned Japanese and translated the Buddhist-naturalist poetry of Miyazawa Kenji), Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Rexroth.

            Yoshimasu’s work shows an interest in the oral techniques of the ancient kataribe  (reciters of myths and stories in pre-literate Japan), and in shamanistic ritual. He often gives readings where the poetry is spontaneously created in performance, as in jazz improvisation. Shiraishi Kazuko first appeared on Japan’s poetry scene with a book of highly controlled, well-formed poems utilizing a Modernist aesthetic. She soon, however, became the main voice of Beat poetry in Japan — no longer would she write well-behaved poetry. Shiraishi embarked on a project meant to shock. She gave lively public readings with jazz back-up (and still does), and made the open expression of feminine experience and sexuality her central theme. She has been a leading member in the renaissance of women’s poetry in Japan (other prominent figures in women’s poetry during this time are Tomioka Taeko and Ishigaki Rin), and was included in Rexroth’s well-known anthology of Japanese women poets.22 

            As with many American poets active in the ’60s, lifestyle and political commitment became a central focus of the poetic project for some in Japan. Nanao Sakaki is one of these. A close companion of Gary Snyder, who translated some of his poetry while living with him on a commune in Japan, Sakaki’s major concern is environmentalism. Unlike his comrade, however, Sakaki’s work is now all but forgotten. This is due in part to the deflated status of social commitment in a post-war Japan where economic concerns have been, until recently, paramount, and where the average person tends to be decidedly apolitical. On the other hand, it may simply be the fate of a project where lifestyle and ideological subject matter take precedence over poetry itself.

            Before continuing on this admittedly arbitrary division into decades (after all, many of the poets mentioned here are still actively publishing), I should mention Irisawa Yasuo and Amazawa Taijiro who have continued the Japanese surrealist tradition through to the present. Irisawa is especially of note, having published a study on the work of Nerval, along with translations from the French. Irisawa is influenced by both Nishiwaki and Eliot, and has published a number of long poems considered to be some of the best of the post-war poets. Irisawa awaits more extensive attention through translation.23

            In the mid-1970’s Inagawa Masato24 began publishing a small magazine with Hiraide Takashi25 and Kawano Michiyo. This group of poets was influenced for the most part by the Japanese and European modernist traditions, though Hiraide has mentioned the “liberating” influence of Shiraishi, Yoshimasu and the American Beats. Yoshioka, however, has been the most prominent figure for these and other poets of the more recent avant-garde arriving on the scene from the late ’70s and on until his death in 1990. As with many American poets of this generation, these poets had become frustrated with the institutionalization of poetic language, the ease with which one willing to write in a way deemed “poetic” by the major magazines and universities could be published in an attractive, marketable volume, and the commoditization of language reflected in this new poetry publishing industry. This has brought about an interest in further experimentation with language, and with the testing of what Inagawa refers to as “the boundaries”. Inagawa refers to poetry as “the last frontier left to us today”. During the late ’70s and on into the ’80s the latest in European philosophy and criticism became available in Japanese translation almost as soon as it was produced. Japanese poets were devouring books by Derrida and Barthe, as well as the critical writings and aphorisms of Walter Benjamin which had become available in English around the same time. Hiraide has named Paul Celan as the European poet he admires the most, and to whose craft he aspires, and he has also found the poetry of John Ashbery an important influence. One sees a return to critical writing by poets during this period, and also the appearance of poetry which is itself a form of criticism (notice the parallel with the American Language Poets). Both Hiraide and Inagawa have published books of criticism considered to be important and influential by poets younger than them. Hiraide now composes in a densely textured prose poetry style which pushes the natural flexibility of the Japanese syntax to its outer limits. His more recent writing often focuses on minute observations of the natural world which form a sort of space of the hyper-real. Meanwhile, Inagawa’s interest seems to be the testing of various poetic languages. Despite his skepticism, and his criticism of recent ideas of the “poetic”, he still believes essentially in the existence, somewhere yet to be found, of a “pure” poetic language. His more recent books, such as Fuuin (Sign), published in 1986, mix the critical impetus with an informal, though driving prosody.

            Active during this same period is Fujii Sadakazu. Though operating outside of the Tokyo-centered poetry cliques, and with a focus on Japan’s own ancient past rather than Western borrowings, Fujii’s poetry also shows a critical bent. Decidedly post-modern in its mixture of worlds, past and present, poetry and prose, lyricism and critical statement, Fujii’s poetry is an attempt to “deconstruct” the past, bringing out elements of Japan’s culture and literature which have been historically marginalized.26

            Hirata Toshiko27 continues the tradition of women’s writing begun in the ’60s. As with many Japanese woman writers, she tends to focus on the personal and the familiar; her basic condition, social and sexual, as a woman. Interesting to note about these writers is not only the conversational quality of the work, but the unembarrassed usage of regional dialects. Another well-known woman writer who has shocked many in Japan with her matter-of-fact, and often graphic, writing about sex is Ito Hiromi.28 Ito, who has been called “the Kathy Acker of Japan” by one of her major supporters here, Jerome Rothenberg, has been translated skillfully by Leith Morton. A book of hers is expected out later this year on Garland Press.

            The modernist project, its particular relationship to, and engagement with form, continued into the ’80s through the person of Yoshioka Minoru and his highly personal contact with younger poets such as the Sentakusen  and Kirin Groups.29 The poets of Sentakusen  (Kido Shuri, Tsuruyama Koji, Tanokura Koichi), have been influenced by post-structuralist thought, and by recent experimental French and American poetry. Translation, with the strong philosophical and critical overtones which such a task infers in the serious poet-practitioner, has also been important to these younger poets. Kido Shuri has translated William Carlos Williams into Japanese, and while editor of the eclectic Gendai Shi Techo , Japan’s major poetry magazine, translated and introduced, with Eric Selland, the poetry of Michael Palmer, Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian and other contemporary American poets. The Sentakusen  poets were also instrumental in bringing further attention to the work of Nagata Koi, a modern haikuist heavily influenced by the Zen philosophy of Dogen. Highly dense and abbreviated, Koi’s work, a kind of radical classicism, breaks too many rules to be acceptable to the boring institutionalism of current haiku composition in Japan. One of Koi’s disciples, Natsuishi Banya, writes wildly avant-garde haiku influenced by European Dadaism, and has also published highly intelligent and contemporary critical writings. All of the poets mentioned here write out of a total engagement, both personal and intellectual, with the reality of their time. The awareness crosses all of the traditional boundaries between cultures, genres and time. Contemporary painting, music and dance (especially the Butoh) have all been important. The most fascinating aspect of the ’80s in Japan as expressed through the arts, sociological and historical thought, and pop culture, has been the gradual emergence of a natural heterogeneity to the great consternation and disbelief of the conservative political powers. Now that the postwar period is officially dead, it should be interesting to witness the new directions such cross-pollination might take, as well as the possibilities of mutual translation by Japanese and North American poets.


1.             Dennis Keene, The Modern Japanese Prose Poem , Princeton Univ. Press, 1980

2.             Robert H. Brower and Earl Miner, Japanese Court Poetry , Stanford Univ. Press, 1961

3.             David Pollack, The Fracture of Meaning: Japan’s Synthesis of China from the Eighth through the Eighteenth Centuries , Princeton Univ. Press, 1986

4.             Gengo Kukan no Tanken: Gendai Bungaku no Hakken, Vol. 13  (Exploration of Language Space: The Discovery of Modern Literature, Vol. 13, Gakugei Shorin, 1969), Editors Ooka, Hirano, Hanada, Yoyogi

5.             Suzumura Kazunari, Kyokai no Shiko (The Boundaries of Thought, Miraisha, 1992)

6.             AR Davis, Introduction, Modern Japanese Poetry  , translated by James Kirkup, University of Queensland Press, 1978

7.             Donald Keene, Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era, Vol. II Poetry, Drama, Criticism , Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984

8.             Dennis Keene, Yokomitsu Riichi, Modernist , Columbia Univ. Press, 1980

9.             Takamura Kotaro, A Brief History of Imbecility , Translated by Hiroaki Sato, Univ. of Hawaii Press, 1992

10.          Donald Keene, Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era, Vol. II Poetry, Drama, Criticism , Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984

11.          AR Davis, Introduction, Modern Japanese Poetry  , translated by James Kirkup, University of Queensland Press, 1978

12.          Tamura Ryuichi, Dead Languages: Selected Poems 1946-1984 , Translated by Christopher Drake, Katydid Books, Oakland University, 1984

13.          Tanikawa Shuntaro, The selected Poems of Shuntaro Tanikawa , Translated by Harold Wright, North Point Press, 1983

14.          Kusano Shimpei, Asking Myself, Answering Myself , translated by Cid Corman, New Directions, 1969 (a new edition was printed in 1984)

15.          Yoshioka Minoru, Iijima Koichi, Celebration in Darkness/Stranger’s Sky , Translated by Onuma Tadayoshi, Katydid Books, Oakland University, 1985

16.          Yoshioka Minoru, Lilac Garden , Translated by Hiroaki Sato, Chicago Review Press, 1976. (The book is a selection of works including some from Still Life ).

17.          Yoshioka Minoru, Kusudama , Translated by Eric Selland, Leech Books, 1991

18.          ibid… Afterword

19.          George Steiner, On Difficulty and Other Essays , Oxford University Press, 1978, pgs 45-46

20.          Yoshimasu Gozo, Devil’s Wind: A Thousand Steps , Katydid Books, Oakland University. Editor, Thomas Fitzsimmons

21.          Shiraishi Kazuko, Seasons of Sacred Lust , Editor, Kenneth Rexroth, New Directions, 1978

22.          Women Poets of Japan , Translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ikuko Atsumi, New Directions, 1982

23.         Irisawa Yasuo, Translated by Eric Selland in Moving Letters #2  , 1983, Edited and published by Joseph Simas out of Paris.

24.          Inagawa Masato, poems from Those Who Make Us Live , Translated by Eric Selland included inThe New Poetry of Japan , Edited by Thomas Fitzsimmons & Yoshimasu Gozo, Katydid Books, 1993

                Some of Inagawa’s early poems translated by Eric Selland appeared in Poetics Journal #8 , edited by Lyn Hejinian and Barrett Watten, 1989

25.          Hiraide Takashi, selections translated by Eric Selland, Moving Letters #2  , 1983, and selections from Portrait of a Young Osteopath , Translated by Eric Selland,  Lyric& #1 , edited by Avery Burns out of San Francisco.

26.          Fujii Sadakazu, Where Is Japanese Poetry? , Translated and introduced by Chris Drake, The New Poetry of Japan , Edited by Thomas Fitzsimmons & Yoshimasu Gozo, Katydid Books, 1993

27.          Hirata Toshiko, selections translated by Robert Brady & Odagawa Kazuko, The New Poetry of Japan , Edited by Thomas Fitzsimmons & Yoshimasu Gozo, Katydid Books, 1993

28.          Ito Hiromi, three poems translated by Leith Morton, collected by Jerome Rothenberg, in Sulfur #32, 1993

29.          Matsuura Hisaki (a member of the Kirin Group), selections translated by Eric Selland, in The New Poetry of Japan , Edited by Thomas Fitzsimmons & Yoshimasu Gozo, Katydid Books, 1993

American Poets and the Popular Perception of Japanese Poetry

January 10, 2010

Every translation is an interpretation. From the moment one chooses which poets to translate, one subtly, or sometimes not so subtly, defines the literature and culture of the source language. The popular perception of Japanese poetry in the United States has been heavily influenced by poets and their interests as can be seen in Kenneth Rexroth’s influence and the Beat Generation’s interest in Zen and the haiku. American poets during the postwar period gained many useful insights through the study of classical and shorter forms, but at the same time unwittingly contributed to a view of Japanese poetry that exoticized Japan.

What I am concerned with here is not the methodology used by a particular poet/translator, but rather the question of representation. How does the poet/translator represent a particular poetic tradition?  How is the work framed? How do choices in what to translate produce a particular representation of the culture?

For all intents and purposes, Japanese and Chinese poetry as they have been known traditionally in this country were invented by Ezra Pound. Pound made his interpretation of the Asian classics as well as the nature and function of the Chinese written character central to his Modernist poetics, hence this same interpretation, along with its focus on haiku and Zen, has remained as a scriptural element in American Modernism and Modernist influenced poetries. Pound’s errors (or what some might call “creative misreadings”) are well known. What is important here is that Pound’s approach originates with 19th century European Orientalism. Pound’s sense of Asian culture comes through Orientalists such as Ernest Fenollosa, H. A. Giles, and Arthur Waley, and also shares a background in American Transcendentalism.  Some scholars insist that the Orientalism of Pound and other Modernists is different from that described by Said in that poets were finding affinities in elements of Asian culture rather than otherness. In other words poets saw themselves in the mirror of the Orient. However, Pound’s approach is still essentially imperialist in its concern with the appropriation of bits and pieces of Asian culture and bringing “the spoils” home to enhance Western culture as can be seen in the poem “Epilogue”: “I bring you the spoils, my nation, / I, who went out in exile, / Am returned to thee with gifts.”

What makes Pound’s appropriation of “exotic” elements of Japanese culture not only Orientalist, but ultimately (though no surprisingly) Fascist, is his refusal to see Japan’s culture in the context of real social and historical processes. The desire to find an ideal beauty and cultural template that is unchanging, standing outside time. The actual reality of Japan’s contemporary society during the entire time Pound was establishing his Asian formula was one of intensive modernization and industrialization, and it is within this context that Japanese poets produced work which responded to the conditions of their own time, conditions which, in actual fact, were not much different than those in European countries.

Japan was completely modernized by early in the 20th century and had an economy based on heavy industry by the WWI era. Scholars now view Japan’s modernity as having been “coeval” with that of the West, rather than less advanced or less complete and attempting to catch up. Japanese poets during the Modernist period engaged in intensive correspondence with European intellectuals such as Breton, Marinetti, and Ezra Pound, and initiated their own local versions and interpretations (not imitations) of all of the contemporary avant-garde movements, including Futurism, Dadaism, and Surrealism. In the high-paced urban environment of 1920s Japan, you could listen to Jazz at places like the Zebra club in Kobe or the Blackbird in Tokyo. A newly affluent middle class dressed in the latest fashions and engaged in “Ginbura” (strolling along the Ginza) purchasing imported luxury products. There were flourishing avant-garde art movements such as MAVO, and active revolutionary Marxist and anarchist movements. By the 1930s Kitasono Katue was developing what he referred to as “abstract poetry” which would lead to his later “plastic poems.” Nishiwaki Junzaburo, one of the founders of the Modernist magazine Poetry and Poetics (Shi to Shiron), was developing a poetics of translation, appropriation and allusion which rejected the idea that poetry should have anything to do with “communication.” His theories still resonate with more recent experimental movements in both Japan and the United States. Japanese poets during the Modernist period, nearly all of whom were translators and theorists, formed an intensely cosmopolitan society familiar with all the latest intellectual trends in Europe, a society which included intellectual women such as Sagawa Chika, surrealist poet and translator of Gertrude Stein, who bore little resemblance to Western stereotypes.

It is somewhat ironic that amongst Pound’s correspondents of the time were major avant-gardists such as Kitasono Katue. In other words, Pound was well aware of the interests most common among Japanese poets of the time, and yet he chose to write about and popularize his sense of the classic, the ancient, and the ideal (interests shared with Fascist thinkers).

During the Cold War the U.S. government needed to change public attitudes produced by wartime propaganda and cultivate positive feelings about Japan, which had become the cornerstone of its anti-Soviet defense strategy in Asia. It was during this time that images of Japan as a place of mystery and exotic beauty began entering the middle class American consciousness in the form of movies, novels and travel articles in popular magazines. The Zen boom took off with the publication of Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen in 1957. The figure of the Geisha became a central theme in the imaging of Japan at this time. The metaphor of the passive feminine serving the dominant male was useful as a means of both explaining and rationalizing American hegemony in Japan and the rest of Asia. Although this new form of American Orientalism generally took a positive view of Japan, it did not leave behind its roots in European imperialism.

It is within this context that Kenneth Rexroth receives a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1948-49 to produce his first anthology of Japanese classical poetry, published in 1955. Rexroth takes a special interest in the feminine aspects of the classical work and produces fluid, lyric translations which, in many cases accentuate sexual content in a much more direct or literal way than in the original poems. A direct inheritor of the Pound tradition, Rexroth’s framing of Japanese poetry continues the sense of exotic, ancient beauty existing outside time. In classic Orientalist fashion, the white European male sets himself up as the expert able to explain the mysterious orient, while retaining a distance from the actual culture, never travelling there nor even truly mastering the language (Rexroth was travelling in Europe and America during this time). An important element is added to this formula when Rexroth publishes his second edition of classical Japanese poetry in 1974. Embedded cleverly in this volume are the poems of an invented contemporary woman, Marichiko, living in Kyoto near a Buddhist temple complete with an invented goddess of sex. Here Rexroth completes the tropes of Edward Fitzgerald in his rewriting of Omar Khayyam but one ups him in providing not only the ultimate heterosexual male fantasy, but precisely the image that American capitalism’s cultural hegemony in Asia desires. Another interesting, as well as ironic point here is that, of all the Japanese translations that Rexroth produced, it was the Poems of Marichiko, Rexroth’s own work, which most impressed and influenced poets such as Robert Creeley.

What is most interesting here is the way in which larger social and political forces intersected with impressions already established by Pound in his Orientalist influenced Modernism such that American poets would continue to represent Japanese poetry as something ancient and exotic, preferring to ignore the reality of Japan’s modernity and the intensely modern or contemporary nature of intellectual production by its writers and thinkers.

Both Rexroth and the Beats may have considered themselves rebels who were questioning American neo-imperialist concerns, but they ultimately played into U.S. interests and goals in Asia by supplying the public with material that merely supported the popular image of Japan as a place of quaint, charming customs, ancient wisdom, and cultural beauty existing outside time. The preference has consistently been to see Japan in an apolitical manner, not as a modern industrial power with the same complex and paradoxical processes as found in other modern societies.

Even Gary Snyder’s work, though coming out of ten years of actually living in Japan mastering the language, rejects Japan’s modernity and makes use of poet Miyazawa Kenji as a means of representing his own ideology, while ignoring the more complex, ambiguous, and intensely modern aspects of that work.

American poets translating Japanese poetry during the 20th century were ultimately less interested in Japanese poetry and language per se as they were in the creation of a new American poetics and new possibilities for the poetic imagination. Ever since the advent of Modernism the interest in shorter forms, in forms which were more compact or condensed than older English forms, has been central to American poetic concerns. This can be seen in major movements including the Objectivists, Black Mountain, and even some of the poets associated with LANGUAGE poetry. Hence the importance of the haiku and Pound’s theories regarding the Chinese character as a poetics, despite Pound’s colossal misunderstandings on a purely linguistic level.

When we look at Japanese poetry as understood by American poets during the Modernist and Postmodernist periods, what we are really talking about is American Modernism. Even the widespread interest in Zen served more of a self-referential function for American poets. Through Zen a poet could claim an existential and poetic authenticity. The poet could gain increased cache’ as well as appearing sophisticated and international, while at the same time remaining safely within the realm of the provincial.

Now we enter an era where for the first time we are able to see Japan in its modernity and in that context, Japan’s dynamic and creative Modernist tradition. This too may have its own social, economic and political background. In other words, Japanese Modernism becomes visible within the context of contemporary global capitalism, in which cultural ebbs and flows, subjectivities and national identities, become more fluid and ambiguous. In other words, we are now in an era in which we can both see and accept the reality of hybrid culture, which has in actual fact been the reality of culture throughout time.


One Hundred Poems From the Japanese, Kenneth Rexroth, New Directions, 1955

One Hundred More Poems From the Japanese, Kenneth Rexroth, New Directions, 1974

The Love Poems of Marichiko, Kenneth Rexroth, Christopher’s Books, 1978

Shiraishi Kazuko, Seasons of Sacred Lust , Editor, Kenneth Rexroth, New Directions, 1978

Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation, Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood, Princeton University Press, 2005

America’s Geisha Ally: Reimagining the Japanese Enemy, by Naoko Shibusawa, Harvard  University Press, 2006

Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961, by Christina Klein, University of California Press, 2003

Orientalism and Modernism: The Legacy of China in Pound and Williams, by Zhaoming Qian, Duke University Press, 1995

The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry: A Critical Edition, by Haun Saussy, Fordham University Press, 2008

The Poetics of Fascism: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Paul de Man, by Paul Morrison, Oxford University Press, 1996

Japanese Hermeneutics: Current Debates on Aesthetics and Interpretation, edited by Michael F. Marra, University of Hawai’i Press, 2002

Mavo: Japanese Artists and the Avant-Garde 1905-1931, by Gennifer Weisenfeld, University of California Press (2002)

Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan, by E. Taylor Atkins, Duke University Press (2001)

Other Readings:

Advertising Tower: Japanese Modernism and Modernity in the 1920s, by William O. Gardner, Harvard University Asia Center, 2006

Modanizumu: Modernist Fiction from Japan 1913-1938, edited by William J. Tyler, University of Hawai’i Press, 2008

Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times, by Miriam Silverberg, University of California Press, 2006

Miryam Sas, Fault Lines: Cultural Memory and Japanese Surrealism, Stanford University Press, 2001

John Solt, Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning: The Poetry and Poetics of Kitasono Katue (1902-1978), Harvard University Asia Center, 1999

Hosea Hirata, The Poetry and Poetics of Nishiwaki Junzaburo, Princeton University Press, 1993

Leslie Pincus, Authenticating Culture in Imperial Japan: Kuki Shuzo and the Rise of National Aesthetics, University of California Press, 1996

Leith Morton, Modernism in Practice: An Introduction to Postwar Japanese Poetry, University of Hawaii Press, 2004

Naoki Sakai, Translation and Subjectivity: On “Japan” and Cultural Nationalism, University of Minnesota Press, 1997

Seiji M. Lippit, Topographies of Japanese Modernism, Columbia University Press, 2002

Harry Harootunian, Overcome by Modernity: History, Culture and Community in Interwar Japan, Princeton University Press (2000)

Robert N. Bellah, Imagining Japan: The Japanese Tradition And Its Modern Interpretation, University of California Press (2003)

Christopher Goto-Jones, Modern Japan: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press (2009)

Some selections of experimental Japanese poetry:

Oceans Beyond Monotonous Space: Selected Poems of Kitasono Katue (1902-1978), tr. John Solt, Highmoonoon Books (2007)

For The Fighting Spirit of The Walnut, by Takashi Hiraide, translated by Sawako Nakayasu, New Directions (2008)

Four from Japan: Contemporary Poetry & Essays By Women, edited and translated by Sawako Nakayasu, Litmus Press (2006)

Sagawa Chika, translations by Sawako Nakayasu on Mind Made Books (chapbooks by subscription only. E-mail Guy Bennett at for back issues)

Two Markets, Once Again, by Ryoko Sekiguchi, The Post-Apollo Press (2008)

Heliotropes, by Ryoko Sekiguchi and Sarah O’Brien, La Presse (2008)

Tada Chimako

Links:         (see author pages for Eric Selland and Sawako Nakayasu to find translations of Japanese Modernist and contemporary poetry)

Murayama Tomoyoshi (circa 1925)

January 10, 2010