Archive for April, 2017

Hagiwara Sakutaro: Translations and Notes on Translation, by Eric Selland

April 19, 2017

The Diseased Face in the Depths of the Earth

From the depths of the earth a face appears,

The face of a lonely invalid.

In the darkness below the surface of the earth,

Everywhere fingers of grass burst forth like a stain,

Then nests of mice sprout up,

The nests entangled hopelessly

In countless hairs quivering as they emerge.

From the lonely diseased earth of midwinter,

Slender roots of green bamboo grow,

Grow and spread.

How absolutely miserable they look,

Like a thickening fog,

How horribly, horribly pitiful they look.

In the darkness below the surface of the earth,

The miserable face of a lonely invalid.


Stems of Grass

Behold the stems of grass

Enwrapped in fine, thin hairs

In the winter cold.

The stems, turning a deeper green, are lonely

Encased on one side in thin hairs

But behold! These stems of grass.

Far off in the sky preparing for snow

Stems of grass burst forth.



On the shining earth bamboo grows,

Green bamboo grows,

Beneath the earth its roots spread,

Growing thinner, and thinner,

From the tips of the roots emerge fine hairs,

Spreading imperceptibly like smoke,

Faintly trembling.


On the hard earth bamboo grows,

Grows straight up from the surface of the earth,

Bamboo grows restlessly,

Dignified the rigid joints,

Beneath the clear blue sky they grow,

Bamboo, bamboo, bamboo grows.



There is a wood,

And there is a marsh,

And an azure sky,

Its weight felt on the human hand,

The turtle of pure gold sleeps quietly.

This shining

Sad nature’s pain endured,

It sinks into the hearts of the people,

The turtle sinks into the depths of the azure sky



From below the ground upon which I gaze,

A queer row of hands emerges,

Feet emerge,

Then necks are thrust out.

Oh my people!

For God’s sake,

What kind of geese are these?

From below the ground upon which I gaze,

With stupid looks on their faces,

Hands emerge,

Feet emerge,

Then the necks are thrust out.



Doubtless with your pretty teeth

You’re a woman who’d bite right through the green of this grass,

Woman –

With the pigment from this pale blue grass

Paint your face, get all dolled up,

Inflame your feelings of desire

Let us play secretly in the overgrown thicket,

Look –

The bellflowers are shaking their heads

And over there, the late-flowering perennials are moving softly,

Now I hold your breasts firmly

And with all your strength you press yourself against me,

Then, in this desolate field,

Let us play like snakes,

Let me love you till it hurts,

Let me rub the oils from the blades of blue grass all over your beautiful skin


One Who Loves Love

I painted rouge upon my lips

And kissed the branch of a young birch tree.

Even if I were a more handsome man

I have no breasts like rubber balls upon my chest

And there is no scent of fine white powder on my skin

I’m just a shriveled up man with no luck

Ah, what a pathetic man am I

And so in a fragrant field of early summer

In a glistening grove

I fit my hands into pale blue gloves

And slipped a corset around my waist

Then I put white powder on my neck

And secretly put on coquettish airs

Like the young women

I leaned in with both heart and nipples

And kissed the branch of a young birch tree

With rose-colored rouge upon my lips

I embraced the tall white tree.


The Blue Cat

It’s good to love this beautiful city

Good to love the buildings of the metropolis

To woo all the sweet women

To pursue all that is exalted in life

It’s good to come to the capital and pass along its bustling streets

In the rows of cherry trees lining the boulevards

There too sing numberless sparrows.

Ah, but the only one who can sleep through these big city nights

Is the shadow of one blue cat

That shadowy cat who speaks of humanity’s sad history

The blue shadow of fortune I pursue ceaselessly.

Even on wintry days of sleet I love Tokyo and think of it

Seeking every kind of shadow

What kind of dreams do beggars like this one dream

Hanging cold to the walls of the back streets.


Early poems:


Poems of Love and compassion


The Midnight Train

Faint glow of dawn shows

Coldly on door’s glass

Mark of finger lingering there

Delicate the whitening of mountains far

Somber like quicksilver

The traveler’s sleep yet undisturbed by

Spent electric lamp whose numberless sighs

And smoke from an imported cigar

Whose smell makes one feel faint

In a midnight train where wearily despair

Kept in so long now speaks in tears –

For she is another man’s wife.

The train has yet to pass through Yamashina

So she loosens the cap on the air cushion

Gently heaving a sigh as from a woman’s heart

Then suddenly the two of them in sadness

Move their bodies closer and embrace

And as daybreak nears gaze out the window

At unknown mountain villages

Columbine blooming white all around.



I think I’d like to go to France

But France is so far

I should at least buy a new suit

And wander, carefree, on a journey to nowhere.

When the train starts up a mountain incline

I’d lean out the window and stare at the clear blue sky

And think how pleasant it is to be alone here like this

On an early morning in May

The feel of young spring grass in my heart –

I’ll do what I please.


Death Poems:


Two Haiku (1942)

A pair of horns now appears

From out of the shadow

Of the black curtain


The procession ends

In a hell full of

Hungry ghosts


Notes on translating Hagiwara Sakutaro:

A poetry which is impossible to translate. That is, impossible to translate completely in a way which successfully brings across the entire effect, the entire experience. It seems one would have to be able to enter completely into the mind of the poet and reify his process, thereby repeating the poet’s own experience and rewriting it in one’s own language. Yet this is a process from which the translator recoils – for Hagiwara takes us to a place where we cannot follow. And even if it were possible, it would mean entering a region from which there is no return.

Modernism’s global zeitgeist

It is well-understood that poetry constitutes a performative utterance. However, Hagiwara Sakutarō’s famous sequence of bamboo poems is so much of a performative nature that translation ultimately robs it of all content. This is of course because its significance is in the event of the utterance itself. The poem has a rhythmical or musical value. Here translating meaning in the conventional sense completely misses the point. Even an approach toward meaning that accepts the need to try innovative translations rather than sticking wholly to the dictionary misses the mark. For Sakutarō’s bamboo poems have nothing at all to do with meaning [i.e. discursive meaning]. Not even a little bit.

Translation reveals the non-semantic nature of Sakutarō’s bamboo poems especially, and this indicates that a translation based on conventional meanings is not possible.

The mirror image in Sakutarō – ground as mirror (Nomura).

“The transition from the elegant literary language to the vernacular as the vehicle of poetry was by no means easy.” [Hosea Hirata, The Poetry and Poetics of Nishiwaki Junzaburō: Modernism in Translation]

“The anxiety one senses in Hagiwara may be called the anxiety of translation, or the anxiety of the language of modernity. I suggest here that the anxiety of translation lies at the nucleus of modernism in Japan.” [ibid.]

(Hirata then quotes the early poem “Travelling” which I have also translated)

“In this conflation of origin and foreign, we must seek the beginning of Modernism, or even the essential constitution of Japanese Modernism.” [ibid.]

“Japanese modern poetry thus begins from an aporia, an impasse, or the anxiety of being unable to reach its origin…” [ibid.]

“It is the modern text itself which demands the author disappear.” [ibid.]

“It is the porous text. Many gaps are opened by the force of translation.” [ibid.]

We also must keep in mind in this comparison that translation both enhances and in certain ways diminishes or undermines our observations. Suffice it to say, therefore, that we must ultimately rely on the awareness that the problem of indeterminacy of meaning resides not only in the translated text, but in the so-called original as well.

Sakutarō’s bamboo sequence tends to make use of the suspended form of the verb. In other words, no verb, and therefore no action, is ever completed. The things described in the poem always remain in process, always active, dynamic, but never complete. The poem and its “meaning” remains completely open at all times. The suspended form of the Japanese verb unfortunately does not translate into English (the verb in English simply remains in present perfect tense) so this fact is not immediately recognizable. But on the level of grammar, this is one of the most important poetic techniques that Sakutarō uses in these poems.

The non-semantic nature of Sakutarō’s bamboo poem works on the level of sound and rhythm. There is ultimately very little provided to the reader in the way of meanings and meaning relationships (which normally would be thought elements communicate to the reader) by the poems in the bamboo sequence, but the reader is “fooled” into feeling that the poem provides a deep or meaningful experience because the rhythm created by meaningless repetition just “sounds right”.

Sakutarō uses rhythmical repetition of simple, fundamental words in the language (i.e. the colloquial language – this would not be possible if the poet were to use difficult kanji compounds with dense meanings).

As for the question of whether or not Hagiwara Sakutarō was a Modernist, it may help to offer a definition of Modernism. This is a term which has been notoriously difficult to define. Moreover, definitions have changed and developed over time. For our purposes here, the writings of Susan Stanford Friedman are most helpful. She argues that Modernism across the arts must be linked to modernity (much as I have suggested by the mentioning of socio-economic conditions contributing to the world of the poet in early 20th century). Modernism, thus, can be seen as encompassing “any cultural response to accelerated societal change brought about by a combination of new technologies, knowledge revolutions, state formations, and expanding intercultural contacts that contribute to radical questions and dismantling of traditional ontologies, epistemologies, and institutional structures.”

Hirato Renkichi and Japanese Modernist Poetry

April 16, 2017

Note: This is the original, non-edited version of my afterward to Sho Sugita’s translation of Hirato Renkichi (Spiral Staircase, Ugly Duckling Presse). I am posting this earlier, and longer version because it relates to the development of Japanese Modernist and avant-garde poetry in general.


It is impossible to overstate the importance of this book’s arrival, because for the first time ever, readers of poetry in the U.S. are given the chance to encounter the poetry of one of Japan’s pioneers of the Modernist avant-garde. It’s been awhile now since Japan’s own Modanizumu[1] became widely recognized by academics as one of the alternative or global modernisms, but it is still hard to find translations other than those tucked away in the appendices of academic studies. This publication therefore fills the gap in that a general readership can now get a taste of what was going on during the early years of Japan’s avant-garde just after WWI.


For poets practicing experimental poetics throughout the 20th century, the basic assumption or belief has been that the process or act of breaking through the barriers of conventional form, meaning, and poetic language, is synonymous with the liberation of human consciousness.[2] Poets felt that they were unveiling an essential human truth by virtue of tearing down literary and social convention. The discovery of the new in an age of rapid change brought on by new technologies was no doubt part of it, but that was not all. The point I would like to make here, and what this publication impressively demonstrates, is that Japanese poets pursuing avant-garde methodologies felt the same way about their activities as did European poets and poets all over the world. This relationship to poetry as discovery or a kind of intellectual enlightenment is one that was largely ignored by scholars and critics in both Japan and the West until the 1990s. American scholars with a certain Neo-Orientalist bent tended to prefer the traditional, and Japan’s avant-garde was usually accused of being merely imitation, not the real thing as it was in the West. Moreover, according to the assessment of some of Japan’s most influential postwar poets and critics, Japan’s early experimental poems were immature, showing a lack of depth and development, as well as the all-important Japaneseness required for acceptance into the canon. Japan’s experimental poets were tainted by direct foreign influence. This stands in contrast to those few poets from the period who were accepted by academia – these poets were seen as having some kind of lyric sensitivity and essential Japaneseness which others did not have. But in order to reposition poets who had their beginnings in Dadaism and Surrealism as uniquely Japanese, their work had to be decontextualized and placed in an ahistorical vacuum, the greatness of their work associated with special personality traits, such as sensitivity and talent in making use of a Japanese language assumed to have a unique beauty and purity. This misinterpretation and refusal to understand the period is profound, but what is truly ironic is how Japanese critics relied on what are basically Neo-Orientalist and neo-colonialist attitudes (precisely the racist imperialist attitudes held by Westerners pooh-poohing Japan’s supposed imitation of the West) in order to prove their point in devaluing these poets.[3]


But just what were the historical and social forces in Japan at the beginning of the 20th century that allowed for the appearance of Modernism? Intensive efforts towards modernization began with the advent of the Meiji era in 1868 when Japan first established itself as a nation state along the European model. At first the concern was mainly the import of European institutions and new technologies, but most importantly for literature, changes were made to the language as well. Standardization of the spoken language was gradually taking place through the new nationalized education system, but it was the complex writing system and its distance from how the language was actually spoken which demanded attention. Over time, Chinese characters (or kanji) as used in Japanese were simplified and new words were invented using kanji to express Western concepts and to ease the process of translating Western languages into Japanese. The genbun itchi movement was key in bringing the written and spoken languages closer to together and allowing for the expression of colloquial language in writing. This process of modernization and standardization of Japanese was complete by the end of the 19th century.


Once the Meiji period rush to modernize was well underway, poets began to take part in their own way, feeling that it was also important to create a new, more cosmopolitan literary culture. Part of the concern was how to translate Western literary works. This required the invention of a new poetic language and forms which could mime those of European poetic forms. The Shintaishi poets (poetry in new form) then began applying this approach to writing poetry in a new European influenced form. Their poetry was for the most part Romantic and Symbolist in approach. There were three existing genres of poetry in Japan as of the end of the Edo Period – tanka, haiku, and kanshi. Tanka is the oldest form of poetry in Japan using a total of 31 syllables in sections of 5-7-5-7-7, while haiku has 17 syllables in sections of 5-7-5. Kanshi is poetry in classical Chinese forms, which was written and read by the Japanese with the help of a system of diacritical marks which allowed the reader to “translate” the Chinese into Japanese in his head as he read along. Shintaishi poets worked with what they already had available to them, and hence used various syllabic patterns of 5-7-5 and so on. The poetic language they used, though it was called “new”, tended to be classical or neo-classical in form. Hence for Renkichi and other poets of his generation who had available to them a whole new language which was closer to the actual language spoken, the poetry of the previous generation was already old-fashioned, overly formal and unwieldy.


Japan was completely modernized by early in the 20th century and had an economy based on heavy industry by the WWI era. The quick pace of industrialization and urbanization, the sudden tearing away from the traditional lifestyle of the rural village to be thrown into the high-paced life of the big city, was an alienating experience for many poets, and is likely a factor behind the development of Japanese Modernism, including the angst-ridden work of poets such as Hagiwara Sakutarō.[4] But it was also a time of great excitement and intellectual discovery. 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 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). There were flourishing avant-garde art movements such as MAVO, and active revolutionary Marxist and anarchist movements.[5] Kitasono Katue was developing what he referred to as “abstract poetry” which would lead to his later “plastic poems.” Nishiwaki Junzaburo,[6] one of the founders of the Modernist magazine Poetry and Poetics (Shi to Shiron), was developing a poetics of translation, appropriation and allusion. 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,[7] surrealist poet and translator of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. This is the milieu into which Hirato Renkichi leads us as he stands on that corner of Hibiya Park in 1921 distributing his Futurist Manifesto to passersby.


Japanese writers and intellectuals in the interwar period negotiated a complex terrain of rapid social, political, and technological change while engaging in important formal and linguistic experiments that would literally redefine the very nature of Japanese literature. This process was one of cultural and intellectual negotiation, involving translation, interpretation, creative thinking and writing, as well as argument and discussion with fellow writers and thinkers. The final end of the process is one of transformation as is all poetry.


[1] I use the term Modernism as it is commonly understood by poets and scholars in the U.S. In Japan, Modernism in poetry, or Modanizumu shi, usually refers only to that group of poets associated with the magazine Shi to Shiron (Poetry and Poetics) who called themselves modernists. The magazine was published between 1928 and 1931 edited by Haruyama Yukio, with important input from Nishiwaki Junzaburo and Takiguchi Shūzō.

[2] I refer here to Jeremy Rothenberg’s introduction to the first volume of his anthology of the international avant-garde, Poetry for the Millennium, in which he outlines the qualities shared by avant-garde poetry movements worldwide.

[3] An excellent overview of this situation in Japanese literary studies is to be found in William J. Tyler’s introduction to his Modanizumu: Modernist Fiction from Japan 1913-1938.

[4] See Howling at the Moon, by Hagiwara Sakutarō (trans. Hiroaki Sato) Sun & Moon (2002).

[5] See For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution: An Anthology of Japanese Proletarian Literature, Edited by Norma Field and Heather Bowen-Struyk (University of Chicago Press, 2016)

[6] See The Poetry and Poetics of Nishiwaki Junzaburo: Modernism in Translation, by Hosea Hirata (Studies of the East Asian Institute: Princeton Legacy Library)

[7] See The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa, Trans. Sawako Nakayasu (Canarium Books, 2015)