Still Life and Monks are the poems that launched the career of one of Japan’s most important and unique poets of the postwar period. Self-published in 1955, Still Life gained the attention and admiration of other poets of his generation, while the collection Monks, published in 1958, gained him a major prize for younger poets and the recognition of critics. Yoshioka went on to become the most influential poet of the avant-garde, embraced by counter-cultural circles in the 1960s such as the Butoh dance of Hijikata Tatsumi and the oppositional theater of figures such as Kara Jūrō and Terayama Shūji, while virtually all of the major poets of the generation following him were profoundly influenced by both his work and friendship, including Shiraishi Kazuko, Yoshimasu Gōzō, Kawata Ayane, and Hiraide Takashi.
Yoshioka Minoru was born in 1919 in the Shitamachi district of Tokyo. He received no formal education, but was instead self-taught, and began writing traditional forms of Japanese verse such as waka and haiku during his teens. He was inspired to begin writing himself after reading experimental haiku by Tomisawa Kakio. Later Yoshioka would be greatly influenced by the early Japanese modernists, and introduced to surrealist methods through the work of Kitasono Katue and Sagawa Chika. When drafted into the Imperial Army, he carried a number of books with him to the recruiting center, including a translation of Rilke’s famous writings on Rodin. (The books were promptly confiscated by the military officer in charge, as all foreign literature by this time had been banned by the militarist government.) Yoshioka was sent to Manchuria for the duration of the war, and avoided the fate of other Japanese soldiers sent to prison camps in Siberia after the Imperial Army’s surrender only by chance – he was transferred to another unit on a small island off the coast of North Korea as punishment for putting on a humorous play for the other soldiers with some friends, a parody of Cyrano de Bergerac with mildly erotic themes, involving word play and cross-dressing.
In the prose poems of Monks, Yoshioka engages in the most originary of Modernist exercises, one which speaks back to Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarme, as well as the originators of Japan’s own homegrown version of the tradition, including Surrealist Takiguchi Shūzō. All of these sources can be said to be feeding into Yoshioka’s poetry, the only poetry truly upholding and continuing the Modernist tradition in its pure form in Japan’s postwar period when most poets and critics tended to respond to Japan’s earlier experimentalism with a visceral repugnance, due to its perceived over-dependence on foreign sources and its association with a time best forgotten. But Yoshioka presents somewhat of an enigma, not only in his choice to continue in the Modernist vein when it was no longer popular, but by the fact that he is an avant-gardist without a theory. Unlike his Modernist predecessors, Yoshioka never produced any writings on poetics, and though widely admired, never became the official “leader” of a movement or school of poetry. His singular volume of prose writings consists mainly of remembrances of poets and certain poems, and of his own early life and influences. He writes only once, and briefly, of his own poetic process. When he writes of the work of other poets he writes mostly of haiku rather than the type of poetry with which he himself was involved. And the one time he writes more extensively about another artist it is not a poet at all, but Hijikata Tatsumi, the founder of the avant-garde dance form Butoh. In many respects it is outside the genre of poetry where Yoshioka finds his true peers, in the violent psychic disruptions of Terayama Shūji’s theater of spectacle, or in the shamanic madness of Hijikata Tatsumi’s Butoh dance. Yoshioka’s poetry shares with these artists a sense of the erotic and the grotesque, the beautiful and the strange, and the carnivalesque exposition of archetypal themes, at once comic and horrible, but which dig deeply into the Japanese psyche. The importance of the prose poems is in their narrative discontinuity, how the poem sets up certain narrative expectations in the opening lines and then sets out to undermine those expectations. According to critic Suga Hidemi, Yoshioka’s poetry destroys the monologic nature of poetry, putting into question the idea of the poet as a fixed, integrated consciousness with a recognizable voice. Suga goes on to insist that Yoshioka’s poems fail to attain the state of an integrated whole. The lack of any punctuation in the prose poems, as well as the use of spaces or gaps (breaks) in the text, not necessarily occurring in places where one expects there to be a natural pause in the narrative, contributes to the disjunctions and interruptions in conventional meaning formation. Most importantly is Yoshioka’s pushing of the Japanese syntax, already extremely flexible, to its limit. Quite often there is no clear subject/object relationship at all, due to the ability of Japanese to either dispense with the subject altogether, or to allow it to attach itself to any number of possible objects. This all means that in structural terms, the direction of meaning relationships actually reads backwards through the text or in both directions at once. Not only are there multiple meanings in Yoshioka, there are meanings or images which gradually metamorphose, giving the poem a filmic quality. Compare this to the traditional Surrealist method of estrangement, in which two unlike images are juxtaposed (Breton’s famous umbrella on an operating table). In contrast, Yoshioka’s images are constantly changing, one image morphing into the next, taking on a new meaning and subject/object relationship in the moment the reader assumes she has finally managed to grasp the last. Yoshioka’s poetry has often been compared to sculpture, a comparison which the poet does not deny. (Yoshioka himself suggests viewing his poems as if they were Picasso paintings, cubist images in which the figure appears to be looking in many directions at once. Yoshioka was a great admirer of the paintings of Paul Klee and Francis Bacon, as well as Japanese avant-garde painters.) Perhaps the measure of the greatness of Yoshioka’s poetry is in how it transcends language, doing something that poetry normally does not do, hence leading readers to resort to comparisons with other arts in order to describe it.
The difficulties are numerous in attempting to translate Japanese poetry of any kind, and Yoshioka’s work is famous for being especially difficult. But the primary difficulty the translator runs up against is precisely the major advance over the previous generation of Modernists and Surrealists mentioned earlier. As a young man, Yoshioka turned his interest from haiku to poetry after happening across a book of poems by Kitasono Katue. The young poet was surprised and moved by a beauty having a kind of “solidity” or “spatiality.” What is unusual about Yoshioka is that at such a young age, he does not merely imitate the poetry he admires, but goes a step beyond it. In his earliest collection of poems, Liquid, self-published in 1941 after receiving his draft notice from the Imperial Army, he extends the Surrealist pattern by causing the image to gradually metamorphose, making use of the highly flexible Japanese syntax and its capacity for infinitely long sentences. It is this way of structuring the poem that is impossible to imitate in English. The reader is lead through a series of phrases whose meaning is always inherently indeterminate. The syntax works like a movie – its images always moving and changing. In order to translate a Yoshioka poem, you have to stop the movie and splice the film in just the right places. But where do you stop the film? It is a dangerous balancing act, in which the translator, balancing on a tightrope like a circus performer, could easily fall into the void. Perhaps it is this gap, this void at the heart of language which is the true significance of poetry.
Yoshioka considered his work as a poet to be like that of a worker or craftsman working with his hands, an awareness which he arrived at through his reading of Rilke’s famous work on Rodin, which he was finally able to return to after the war. While at the same time holding aspirations to become a sculptor, Yoshioka went back to “building” poems with this as his inspiration. What he arrived at were the carefully controlled, quiet poems of Still Life, which in painterly terms could be compared to the eerie, empty Surrealist cityscapes of de Chirico. Critics like Suga point to the discontinuities of Yoshioka and the absence or failure of conventional narrative meaning, but it is precisely in this gap where traditional meaning fails that the truth value of Yoshioka’s poetry resides. Poetic meaning in Yoshioka functions in much the same way as the paintings of Francis Bacon – it is only through the distortion of normative reality that we are capable of reaching its underlying truth.
Translations of Yoshioka have appeared in anthologies over the years, and a selection of his poems translated by Hiroaki Sato was published by Chicago University Press in the 1970s. My translation of his later work, Kusudama, utilizing methodologies of appropriation and collage, appeared on a small press in 1990. However, all major publications of his work are now out of print and have been so for years. His two earlier, highly influential collections of the 1950s, which I have discussed here, have never been published in full for an English language readership.