Book Review: Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning – The Poetry and Poetics of Kitasono Katue (1901-1978) , by John Solt

Book Review: Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning – The Poetry and Poetics of Kitasono Katue (1901-1978) , by John Solt, Published by the Harvard University Asia Center and distributed by Harvard University Press, 1999, 395 pages, $49.50 cloth, ISBN 0-674-80733-2. (Available on amazon.com)
Occasionally a book arrives that changes everything. Less, perhaps, in presenting something totally new, than in revealing that which had remained hidden, or forgotten. John Solt’s biography and extended literary analysis of the life’s work of Kitasono Katue, a major practitioner of avant-garde poetic forms from the 1920s to the 1970s, does just that. First in offering up the newest in that short list of very rare full-length studies of a modern Japanese poet, and second in its having laid open a forgotten history of dynamic artistic and literary development, as well as cultural exchange. A history, moreover, which intersects with our own, as becomes evident in the lengthy chapter on Kitasono’s many years of correspondence with Ezra Pound.
Kitasono Katue (Solt uses the Francophile spelling preferred by Kitasono himself in his dealings with foreign poets) originally wanted to become a painter, but after a literary friendship and time spent in Tokyo, broiling with new ideas and a cosmopolitan lifestyle (Hirato Renkichi published his Japanese Futurist manifesto in 1921), Kitasono decided to become a poet. By 1924 he had become involved with a group of young poets publishing Japan’s first Dadaist magazine, Ge.Gjmgjgam.Prrr.Gjmgem , thus beginning his many years of involvement with iconoclastic new forms. The new magazine introduced sound poems, dadaist absurdities and work harkening the eventual development of Surrealism in Japan. One more very important characteristic of the magazine was the introduction of the usage of katakana words in poetry. Foreign words and images were used liberally, appearing both in katakana script and the alphabet. We tend to be non-plussed now about these graphical innovations due to the common use of foreign loan words and Romanized script in the Japanese of the present, but at that time it was revolutionary, and would even become dangerous by the late 1930’s with the rise of militarism.
Kitasono went on to write Surrealist poems, such as appear in his 1929 collection Shiro no Arubamu , and in the 1930’s became the main mover of the VOU club, an experimental group through which he introduced his own poetic theories such as “ideoplasty”. It was at this time the correspondence with Pound began, and Pound eagerly promoted Kitasono and VOU in Europe and the United States, connecting Kitasono’s ideoplasty with his own ideogrammatic theory in Guide to Kulchur (1938). The VOU poets were given an introduction by Pound and published in a London magazine in 1938. Kitasono provided his own translations of his work, a few lines of which appear below:
In leaden slippers I laugh at the fountain of night, and scorn a solitary swan.
A parasol of glass she spreads, and wanders along the lane the cosmos flowering.
Over the cypress tree I image, to myself, a hotel marked with two golf-clubs crossed;
And move my camera on the sand of night.
[Excerpt from “Glass Coil” as originally published in Townsman, Jan. 1, 1938]
Kitasono carried out intensive exchanges with Pound and other Western poets during this period, and remade contact with the West after the war in the form of contacts with Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Kenneth Rexroth and others. Robert Creeley even asked him to provide the cover drawings for the first few issues of the Black Mountain Review.
Rather than settling on one fixed form once found, as has been the case with many Japanese poets of the same period (including those who later lapsed into free-verse sentimentalism after an initial experimental phase), Kitasono went from one experiment to the next. After the war he introduced concrete poetry, then published a series of books each taking a further step toward the complete dislocation (or indeterminacy) of meaning, and finally attempted the leap beyond language itself in his production of what he called “plastic poems”, poems without words in which he utilized photography and design elements. Kitasono can almost be considered Japan’s first Post-Modernist in his willful ignoring of the boundaries between genres, levels of speech, and conventional meaning formation.
Solt explains in his introduction that his approach is a historical one, rather than one whose purpose is to advocate any particular literary theory, however, he does make use of the ideas of important theorists on the international 20th century avant-garde such as Marjorie Perloff, especially in his interpretations of Kitasono’s post-war work. More importantly, Solt’s study offers an exposition of Japanese avant-garde practice through much of this century which serves to tear away the imposition of Western generated Orientalist exoticisms often overlaid on the more immediate intellectual and social realities of Japan. The representation of Japanese literature in this country has often been effected by those more concerned with appropriating an overly idealized version of Zen and haiku for their own ideological purposes within a social and political milieu very different from Japan’s than in understanding the actual historical experience of a non-Western people in their coming to terms with the ideas and realities of their own times. Solt’s book gives us one of the rare looks at actual Japanese concerns within the poetic practice of the 20th century through the eyes of a Japanese poet, hence giving us a much needed breath of fresh air. The appendices, notes and bibliography give the serious reader important source information for further study. It is hoped that this will open the way to more research on the development of Japanese poetic practice, as well as other Japanese arts and intellectual trends of this century. It seems to me that there is much more creative potential for poets in this country in the consideration of the transformational processes involved in this period of intensive cultural cross-pollination, in the various acts of translation, literary readings and creative misreadings, than in the continued reliance on older, and often artificially exotic images invented by previous generations of Westerners with less of an opportunity to come into contact with the real thing.
Note: John Solt’s translations of Kitasono Katsue’s poetry are also available under the title Glass Beret, Morgan Press, 1995, 2979 S. 13th Street, Milwaukee, WI, 53215.

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