Hiraide Takashi and the Death of Genre

March 31, 2011

“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.

(New York)
“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 https://ericselland.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/hiraide-takashi-excerpts-from-portrait-of-a-young-osteopath-translated-by-eric-selland/

Other texts:

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 pages:

Hiraide Takashi Laboratorium            http://www.wwalnuts.jp/lab/about-this-archive/

Takashi Hiraide main website             http://www.wwalnuts.jp/



Forest of Eyes: Selected Poems of Tada Chimako. Translated from the Japanese with introduction and notes by Jeffrey Angles. University of California Press, 2010.

February 13, 2011

There is a quiet renaissance of sorts taking place in the translation and publication of contemporary Japanese poets, especially women poets, and Jeffrey Angles has had a major hand in this development.  Though over the years Japan’s modern poetry has probably fared better than other Asian poetries in gaining some attention, it has always been difficult to convince publishers to take on volumes by a single poet.  When these books do appear, they tend to go out of print quickly.  As of this writing there are at least three poets I can think of offhand, considered to be of great importance to Japan’s postwar literature, whose books are out of print or otherwise difficult to obtain.  Hence the arrival of a substantial selection of poems by Tada Chimako, accompanied by a knowledgeable introduction by the translator, is cause for celebration.

            Though working on the margins, away from Japan’s cultural and literary center in Tokyo, Tada established herself as a major voice during the tumultuous yet frenetically creative years following the end of Japan’s occupation by the U.S. in 1952.  Tada represents the continuance of a feminine high modernism in a postwar climate which overall had rejected the poetic developments of the 1930s, preferring to focus on existential questions and the exploration of the personal and political.  In contrast to these tendencies, Tada remains somewhat distant from contemporary realities, cultivating instead an interest in classical antiquity and later developing her own system of complex symbolism and allegory.  She was also a skilled translator of French.

Angles’s introduction provides useful background knowledge for the reader.  There is much important biographical and literary information here without which approaching these poems might be more difficult.  There are also translator’s notes at the back of the book, which are very helpful for understanding the poems.  Often one feels as if even more explanation is required in order to understand fully Tada’s elaborate allegories, but perhaps that is best left to a more complete scholarly study.  The decision regarding how much information to provide in the form of notes is always a delicate one.  Angles attempts to keep things balanced by providing just enough so that readers can go on to think for themselves, and has placed the notes at the back of the book so as to avoid making the poems themselves appear overly cluttered.   

Stylistically, Tada’s poetry is highly poised and controlled.  A certain distance and reserve allow the intricate narrative of myth and symbol to speak in place of the persona of the poet.  When Tada refers to her own experience and feelings, she does so only obliquely.  Hence the first challenge for the translator is to find the appropriate voice in English to convey Tada’s tone, avoiding both the pitfalls of “translatese” on the one hand, and the opposite tendency to render the source language with the naturalness and ease of colloquial speech (and lose the formality of these works).  This is precisely where Angles’s translation succeeds over most past attempts.

Consider the first lines of the second poem in this selection, “Ancient Love” (Kodai no Koi):

羊であったか                                    Hitsuji de atta ka
海豚であったか                                Iruka de atta ka
金色の背にまたがって                    Kin-iro no se ni matagatte
少年はオーボエを吹いた                Shōnen wa ōboe o fuita (12)

(All Japanese quotes are taken from Gendaishi Bunko #50; Tada Chimako Shishū, (Shichōsha, 1972; 10th edition 2001))

Was it a sheep
Or a dolphin he rode?
Astride its golden back
The youth played his oboe (13)

Composed of deceptively simple verses, the poem plays with Greek mythical themes, but the real heart of the piece is its sound.  Highly poised, subtly lyrical, Tada uses assonance, ending many of the key lines with the open vowel “a.”  The delicate play of vowel sounds and the balance of line lengths produce a kind of “ringing” or reverberation—even the title is pleasurable with the repetition of the “ko” sound and the echoing of the final vowel “i” in both words.  It is, of course, extremely difficult to translate the lyricism of a language with a sound system so different from English, but Angles manages to do this beautifully by retaining just the right balance of rhythms, preserving the poem’s classic tone by using the archaic form in the second line (“a dolphin he rode” rather than “he rode a dolphin”).  Notice that Angles has added the verb here.  Doing so not only allows him to adduce this classic sense, but avoids the overly simple repetition of the question (literally “was it a sheep? / was it a dolphin?” in Japanese), which would cause the poem to fall flat on the English ear.  In the third line Angles chooses to translate the verb “matagaru” as “astride” rather than the more literal “straddle.”  He no longer needs a verb describing the action of riding, and “astride” has a greater classic feel while creating reverberations with other words in the poem.

In the prose poems, such as “From a Woman of a Distant Land” (Tōi Kuni no Onna Kara), the problems are less acute in that the poem depends more on its system of allegory than on lyric form.  However, there is still a subtle balance in sentence structure and tone that must be retained in order to bring across its effect.  In this poem, the speaker feigns objective distance in describing the customs of her (imaginary) country, changing tenor only in the final lines where subtle emotion finally appears.  Though written in a descriptive prose, Tada’s sentences exude a certain lyric poise, as well as care and restraint.  To translate them merely for their literal meanings or to have them take on an overly colloquial tone would therefore destroy the poem’s force.  Here are the opening lines:


Kono kuni dewa shinin o hōmurimasen.  Oningyō no yō ni garasu kē
su ni osame, ie no naka ni kazatte-oku no desu.  (39)

And in Angles’s rendering:

In this country, we do not bury the dead.  We enclose them like dolls in
glass cases and decorate our houses with them.  (23)

Even here in her prose, Tada occasionally uses the vowel echo effect as in “Oningyō no yō ni” (“like dolls”), so we are definitely dealing with a lyric prose, although most of its effects are subtle.  The honorific “o” placed before the word “ningyō” (doll) indicates that this is a woman speaking, but besides a few subtle points like these, the voice remains fairly neutral throughout.  There are several approaches a translator might take to these lines, including the choice of reversing the order of the first phrase so as to produce a more standard sentence.  Doing so, however, would produce almost too much naturalness and ease, and keeping Tada’s control and reserve is important.  Angles has reproduced Tada’s tone by retaining the Japanese syntax and using a certain level of formality.  It may not be possible to reproduce the lyric impact of the vowel echoing, but by keeping sentences well-sculpted and under control, Angles has been able to produce a subtly lyrical rhythm in the English.  The success of a translation of this kind of poem definitely depends on the translator’s own sensitivity and ear for the target language.  A word such as “kazatte-oku,” which literally means “display for some purpose” or “keep on display,” is translated here as “decorate.”  With this choice, Angles avoids interrupting the natural flow of the sentence with phrases that could be overly long or clumsy while keeping well within the fundamental meaning of the term.

Then, there is the question of how to handle words that have no immediate semantic equivalent in English.  These meanings can be explained by adding lines or phrases, but explicitation can be clumsy.  Angles tends to lean toward weaving in the various meanings and finding words with the right balance, one that will work in the rest of the poem, where the poem is understood as an environment rather than a list of dictionary meanings of the original words.  The second stanza of the same poem reads in its entirety:


Watashitachi wa gasshō shimasen.  Yonin atsumaru to yotsu no betsubetsu no
senritsu ga karamiaimasu.  Watashitachi wa kore o kankei to yobimasu.
Sore wa tsune ni isshu no “motsure” desu.  Motsure ga hodokeru to
watashitachi wa shihō e chitte-yukimasu.  Aru toki wa hotto shite,
aru toki wa tōwaku shite. (39)

We do not sing in chorus.  When four people gather, we weave
together four different melodies.  This is what we call a relationship.  Such
encounters are always a sort of entanglement.  When these entanglements
come loose, we scatter in four directions, sometimes with relief, sometimes
at wit’s end. (24)

Here, Tada continues her strategy of understatement, except for one word which is the key to understanding that something is very wrong beneath the outward calm of this imaginary society. The word is “motsure,” which means “tangled,” “twisted,” “knotted” or “complicated.”  It also means “trouble.”  Angles translates it as “entanglement,” which conveys the sense of an involvement and the complexity of relationship, but sounds softer and carries with it less of the nuance of conflict.  One can, of course, search around and find a word that will bring out more of the sense of tension here, but then one risks losing the delicate balance which Tada has set up or breaking the tone by introducing non-standard English.  What Angles does, then, is to place the nuance of tension on a different phrase, the final “at wit’s end.”  The word in Japanese is “tōwaku,” which means “perplexity,” “embarrassment,” “doubt” or “confusion”; the translation exaggerates the weight of this last word in order to make up for what was lost from the earlier “motsure.”  Thus, a closely approximate effect can be produced by understanding the entire stanza as a synthetic whole rather than a collection of separate lines or words.  This is where the true art of translation becomes apparent:  the translator grasps and reproduces poetic function rather than merely providing the dictionary meanings of words.

Finally, I should note that the selection of tanka here is choice.  Not only was Tada herself a master of the form, but Angles has special expertise in this area both as a scholar and translator.  All in all this book provides a well-rounded look at an important modern Japanese poet; gives readers a clearer sense of what it means to be a Japanese poet living under conditions described as “modern” or perhaps “postmodern,” and illustrates how the often ambiguous term “modernity” has inscribed itself into the literature of Japan.                                                                       

—Eric Selland

Forthcoming in Translation Review 80

A Japanese Modernist Reading List

February 6, 2011


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

Leith Morton, An Anthology of Contemporary Japanese Poetry, Garland Publishing, 1993

Makoto Ueda, Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature, Stanford University Press, 1983

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

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

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

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

Harry Harootunian, History’s Disquiet: Modernity, Cultural Practice, and the Question of Everyday Life, Columbia 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)

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

Buddhist Elements in Dada: A Comparison of Tristan Tzara, Takahashi Shinkichi, and Their Fellow Poets, by Ko Won, New York University Press (1977)

Contemporary Korean Poetry, by Ko Won, University of Iowa Press (1970)

Shijin: Autobiography of the Poet Kaneko Mitsuharu 1895-1975, tr. AR Davis, The University of Sydney East Asia Series (1988)

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)

Radicals and Realists in the Japanese Nonverbal Arts: The Avant-Garde Rejection of Modernism, by Thomas R.H. Havens, University of Hawaii Press (2006)

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

Nippon Modern: Japanese Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s, by Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, University of Hawaii Press (2008)

The Angel of History: Rosenzweig, Benjamin, Scholem, by Stephane Moses, Standford University Press (2009)

Takeuchi Yoshimi: Displacing the West, by Richard F. Calichman, Cornell East Asia Series (2004)

What Is Modernity? Writings of Takeuchi Yoshimi, by Takeuchi Yoshimi, Columbia University Press (2005)

Contemporary Japanese Thought, edited by Richard F. Calichman,

Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchuria And The East Asian Modern, by Prasenjit Duara, Rowman & Littlefield (2003)

The Aesthetics of Japanese Fascism, by Alan Tansman, University of California Press (2009)

The Culture of Japanese Fascism, ed. Alan Tansman, Duke University Press (2009)

The Search For A New Order: Intellectuals And Fascism In Prewar Japan, by Miles Fletcher, University of North Carolina Press (1982)

Japanese Imperialism 1894-1945, by W.G. Beasley, Oxford University Press (1987)

War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War, by John W. Dower, Pantheon Books (1986)

Translation And The Languages of Modernism, by Steven G. Yao, Palgrave Macmillan (2002)

Transpacific Displacement: Intertextual Travel in Twentieth-Century American Literature, by Yunte Huang, University of California Press (2002)

Unspeakable Acts: The Avant-Garde Theatre of Terayama Shūji and Postwar Japan, by Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei, University Hawai’i Press (2005)

Japanese Counterculture: The Antiestablishment Art of Terayama Shūji, by Steven C. Ridgely, University of Minnesota Press (2010)

Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb, by John Whittier Treat, University of Chicago Press (1995)

Bodies of Memory: Narratives of War in Postwar Japanese Culture, 1945-1970, by Yoshikuni Igarashi

Text and the City: Essays on Japanese Modernity, by Maeda Ai

Japan’s Frames of Meaning: A Hermeneutics Reader, by Michael F. Marra, University of Hawaii Press (2011)

Japan’s Orient: Rendering Pasts into History, by Stefan Tanaka, University of California Press (1993)

Japanese References:

Senso Shiron 1910-1945, by Seo Ikuo, Heibonsha (2006)

Senchuu Sengou Shiteki Jidai no Shougen 1935-1955, by Hirabayashi Toshihiko, Shichousha (2009)

Shuuroku Toshite no Modanizumu: Nihon Gendaishi no Teiryuu, by Fujimoto Toshihiko, Soubunsha (2009)

Zen’eishi Undoushi no Kenkyuu: Modanizumushi no Keifu, by Nakano, Okisekii (2003)

Modanizumu Shishuu, ed. Tsuruoka, Shichousha (2003)

Kindaishi kara Gendaishi e, by Ayukawa Nobuo, Shichousha (2005)

Sengoushi o Horobosu Tameni, by Kido Shuri, Shichousha (2008)

Kobayashi Hideo Zensakuhin, by Kobayashi Hideo, Shinchousha (2003)

Ueda Tamotsu Chousakushuu, by Ueda Tamotsu, published by Ueda Shizue (1975)

Korekushon Takiguchi Shuuzou, by Takiguchi Shuuzou, Misuzu Shobou (1992)

Shururearisumu no Hako: Shibusawa Tatsuhiko Bungakukan No. 11, by Shibusawa Tatsuhiko, Chikumashobou (1991)

Moderunite 3×3, Kobayashi Yasuo, Matsuura Hisaki, and Matsuura Hisao, Shichousha (1998)

Kindai Nihon no Jigazou, by Teraoka Hiroshi, Shinzansha (2009)

Setsuzoku Suru Chuuya, by Hikita Masaaki, Kasama Shoin (2007)

Tensai Sagawa Chika: Ekoda Bungaku No. 63, ed. Nakamura Fumiaki, Nihon Daigaku Geijutsu Gakubu (2007)

Kido Shuri & Nomura Kiwao, Tougi Sengoushi: Shi no Runessansu e, Shichousha, 1997

Hiraide Takashi (ed.), Gendaishi Tokuhon: Yoshioka Minoru, Shichousha, 1991

Ema Shouko, Shi no Utage: Waga Jinsei, Kage Shobou, 1995

Ohka Makoto (ed.), Gengo Kuukan no Tanken, Gakugei Shorin, 1969

Modaniti no Sozoryoku: Bungaku to Shikakusei, by Nakagawa Shigemi, Shichousha (2009)

Yojou no Shukumei/Shi no Kanata: Sakutaro, Kenji, Chuuya, by Yamada Kenji, Shichousha (2006)

Hagiwara Sakutaro, by Iijima Koichi, Misuzu Shobo (2004)

Umibe no Aporia, by Yasui Kouji, Yuu Shorin (2009)

Shigaku Josetsu, by Yoshimoto Takaaki, Shichousha (2006)

Shi no Gaia o Motomete, by Nomura Kiwao, Shichousha (2009)

Showa Shishi, by Ohka Makoto, Shinomori Bunko (2005)

Nihon no Autosaidaa, by Kawakami Tetsutaro, Chuokoron Shinsha (1978)

Watashi no Shi to Shinjitsu, by Kawakami Tetsutaro, Kodansha Bungei Bunko (2007)

Shiteki Modaniti no Butai, by Suga Hidemi (2008)

Sengou 60-Nen Shi to Hihyou Soutenbou, Gendaishi Techo Tokushu (2005)

Shijintachi no Seiki: Nishiwaki Junzaburo to Ezura Paundo, by Niikura Toshikazu, Misuzu Shobo (2003)

Sengoushi no Poetikusu 1935-1959, by Wada Hirofumi, Sekai Shisousha (2009)

Oguma Hideo to Sono Jidai, Tanaka, Kawai, Tomasu Koubou (2002)

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)

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

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

Time of Sky, Castles In The Air, by Kawata Ayane (tr. Sawako Nakayasu), Litmus Press (2010)
Forest of Eyes: Selected Poems of Tada Chimako (tr. Jeffrey Angles), UC Berkeley Press (2010)

Yoshioka Minoru: Prose Poems from Monks (1958) (tr. Eric Selland)

October 15, 2010

A Comedy

In the corner of the kitchen     an egg with its back ripped open looms     near the coast of a long night     a man who was sleeping stands up     on his shoulder sits a cat wearing a hat     the man digs a hole for his wife who is dying     a pushcart loaded with food and money leaves from the opposite side     bed legs and various fixtures clog the road     because the man strokes it while wailing     the figures of mice dissolve in the cat’s throat like grapes     extinguishing the moon straight ahead     the trees in the forest turn round from afar     before long they are covered in snow     calling the man and the cross-eyed cat back to a small room     but they do not walk     already the man pours wine into a glass in front of the fireplace     meanwhile the cat has been running around the attic     so the man, who is sensitive to cold, goes after the shedding cat     the man averts his gaze from the brightness of the completely naked cat     birds peering in from the window at night take the shape of the dead wife’s hair, so he shoots them all down     eventually the man lets go of the cat’s legs     what those wavelike hands sink into is a crock of intensified yellow butter     fascinated by this dangerous microbe culture     the man puts on a doctor’s whiskers and begins to sweat     inadvertently the cat breaks the glass     no doubt at that moment the man was saved     the finger in the aerosol spray stops the rise of the amoebas     they devolve into human hands     so splendorous blood spurts out from between the broken pieces     now he feels the need to carry a heavy object     the man looks around the room     he is surprised to find himself surrounded by scissors and solid furniture     then the parts that cannot get hurt     feet, face, genitalia and so on, suddenly handled with great care     a sturdy leather pouch from which     the man never again appears


What I do not know     I do not say to others     furthermore I do not walk around the plaster produced by the voices of other people     it’s just when I try to touch with a short handled axe     which gathers in the force of the whole I get nervous     if something is standing     I push it on top of a rock until it falls over     if something is lying down I jump on it     if something is turning I wind it up with my hand     until it gnaws into my blackened flesh     and then yields a passageway to the exodus of the desolate column of moths and blood vessels     if it were a woman I’d toss it back in her eye     I’ll wait patiently until she fills with consummate suppleness and a cold lake     food I will throw up     chopping off the heads of chickens and fish one after the other and tossing them     into the darkness beneath the table where bottles and flasks have sunk and disappeared     I separate the useful objects from those that are unwanted     but errors are within the realm of possibility     when that happens I wipe away the foam of feathers and fish scales     and try to see what’s happening outside the glass window     children jumping rope     the mass of a smokestack giving birth to one night     finally at the call of the trees sleeping in layers of their own grain     I rush out     taking the shape of a single nude figure     a dark image personifying training and endurance     rain-soaked I go     of these facts here I can tell the others

The Island

Going ashore on the island     the man finds amongst the crags     large arched fragments of bones belonging to beasts and fish     bleached by the sun as it rotates     the shrunken map  of a black octopus head     the coast of the eyes of the man who gradually becomes horizontal     is like the acute angle of the moonrise     let us forget     now in extremely high-definition     the eggs of the seabirds advance     why is there no music at a time like this     so when the arc of insomnia takes shape     the distant hands and feet the man flings out barely move     on this occasion from the lower extremity     the dimensions of the island begin to narrow     this place is most certainly the nest of tomorrow’s setting sun     for the phantom birds who do not take flight     magnified at the man’s side     the entire surface of the eggs exposed to the intense light     search as one may, not a trace of even one fingernail of the adventurous human can be found     he does not choose     this Atlas     from the interior of a skinny womb the man     squeezes a bit of voice and some blood     on the other side the winter waves continue to slip along the insulating material


The bare feet inside the cat’s fur as it jumps from atop the chair     a fleeting moment     but we get this now in a huge close-up     then it’s all sucked into the deep folds of a flower     anyone would be surprised being it’s the first time     the four wooden legs     limp across the floor for awhile     and then suddenly stop in a corner of the room     the chair becomes legend     now a man who knows nothing of the incident     appears from beneath a blanket     and sits down in the chair     breaking through the circulating heat and odor     he begins in earnest to trace the tube leading to the anus     but the rubber is uncontrollable and becomes bulky     it takes over the entire room wriggling around     the pulsing of objects     the expansion and contraction of pleasure     because it is night     the man has been side by side with the cat for a long time now     surrounded by the tubing     it becomes darker     he holds his breath     then at the final moment before disappearance     he shouts “fire!”

A Picture of Winter

There are things in my room invisible to others     for instance placed between the bed legs and the wall     are the rubber boots I took off a week ago     one has fallen over and become bent out of shape     while the other remains simply standing     only the rain within the secret meeting of my memory is wet     and only under my bed of bad habits is it dry     and cracked     the proprietress of the boarding house visits my room for one reason only     this is when the cat comes to have her kittens     the thick bundle of fur which is its tail rubs against the floor     all night until the following morning the proprietress maneuvers her black broom     I become sick completely     and below the covers imitate a shrimp     the proprietress is one who dwells on land     she puts on her slippers     and the seaweed trembles     she is unaware of the signs of the ocean’s damp starfish opening and closing in the shadows of the rocks     she leaves with the six newborn kittens stuffed into a cardboard box     I open the bay window leaning toward night just a little     this is the most important part of my daily routine     the proprietress disrobes     and revives the body temperature and resilience of the six kittens sunken in the river     and spills the water from the bathtub     this is a danger to me     for amongst my belongings     are the canvases of a painter who committed suicide     leaning precariously against the wall     which I find     along the stairway leading upstairs and down     only this can withstand the light     those pictures may be the only thing that will protect me     from the rose-colored earthquake of the proprietress’ buttocks     those compositions of anger     painted without reserve by a man who was a destitute painter     exhausted stone torsos      both distant and near     they attempt to embark blindly     from the depths to which they have fallen


With no warning the man died     his wife having nothing but hatred     for the man with the tremendous protruding tailbone     considering his eyes his tongue shone coldly     and his wife, a woman of ample breasts, could not stand it     except for when he ate     his movements were extremely sluggish     or rather absent you might say     especially when he was asleep     evoking the sensation of that part of a plant which never bears flowers     that man could be dragged away by a spider’s thread     and take the form of a gruesome figure on the ground     but to his dead wife this matters little     she simply tosses food to the dog kept on the other side of the wall     day in and day out ceaselessly with her undulating hands     this false testimony genuinely prevents the wife from dying     the cat who has inherited her sterling qualities is covered in snow on the roof     chagrined that she is still alive     if only her bellows could sufficiently stretch from out of the darkness     and thrust back into the room the man walks around in     the odds would be in her favor    and because she has become pregnant with a plaster fetus     the dog takes personal care of the man     fooling around and making him laugh     but he cannot perform the sweet operations that ought to follow     in order to go on living the man     calls the dead wife’s cat back in from the roof where only dust falls     and thinks he should train it to perform some tricks     rather than worldly affairs     he makes the cat up like a beautiful woman     and on the first night warms it up in bed     causing a moon to rise of a kind preferred by those who have died by drowning     dangling a ribbon of lightning     summer comes     raising a shout that ought to make you appreciate     the posture of a naked woman and the disgrace of a half-ripe peach gasping below the leaves     will the man die simply because it is proof that he is human     his head excites the dog     and with the lower part of his body covered in cat hair     he is taken from the great nation of sweat     to a chilly remote village where he is buried


My distorted view is a discomfort to many     sometimes I shave the stem of a plant     and discover a tragic rose-colored family that does not grow     unfolding from the incision     drinking no water     even the rays of light cannot laugh loud     the thin membrane of man and woman    the faint sound of copulation     pollen soils the wall and bedclothes     almost like hard coarse granules to the touch     and for this reason the child does not run through the toy car world     its playground is its mother’s womb     on the lower shelf of a shady sponge cucumber     there he glides by     I quickly head for the countryside     my belief is that things should be solid and stable     I and the compound eyes of a dragonfly simultaneously advance on an ax just propped up     sparing nothing     I copy the entire figure in the running shirt     bearing the burden of an asymmetrical rainbow and a mountain’s pyramid of ice     I dislike all kinds of soft frogs     hard wings     or hard rain I will caress with both hands     as an experiment I will kick a bottle     I come into town in such ecstasy     people can hardly believe it     I strike a stone wall outside a bombed-out temple     this above all is high class entertainment     I follow a young expectant mother on her way to the hospital     gradually I climb uphill and the color boundaries of the stripes on the stone begin to point inward     drawing a thin line as they move along     and at the slippery summit when I can no longer stand it     I show my white belly     this is when the doctors laugh     early evening of fire for which bells are rung wildly     forceps and moving scissors stretch the skin     all around the dandelions of wet seeds     which go to meet the head inside the sack     are painfully plucked     and fat is splattered all over the clean running shirt     seeing true solidity I become anxious     I overlook the irresponsible soldier of coarse blood      advancing along the tracts of the body with fragile underside     and so I leave town     the wind changes me into frozen person or slippery object     that’s why I never laugh     and never say goodbye


Chewing on pickled scallions     that’s the time I’m partial to     nestled in the deep folds of a hospital ward blanket     I wait patiently     neither for treatment nor for death     but for the splendor of consumption     it is April     the bees wiggle their hips     in fields and in skin laden with pollen     the moon in its final days of erotic desire draws near     since my crushed thighbone brings perpetual leisure     I listen to the music of blood     undergo phosphorization     or discharge my vitality    and then as a black staff     show a scene from a deserted pastoral landscape     pushed into a mountain of straw     raising no cries of love     two crows are made to fly off     my sister visits me frequently     and praises the malignant disease of the neighboring patient     she strikes my lowered head     momentarily attracting the explosion of a pomegranate     I take a walk in the garden which is always frozen     rather than the many cranes and flocks of nurses     I approach an ugly woman     I agitate her womb with an inelegant dictionary and voluptuous dreams     next I take a whiff of an intense drug     in a flash I am anointed with the balm of rebirth     and assailed by a gradual death     the notion of ready-made apparel is lost     and I fall on my knees     in the form of a camel which the woman believed since childhood     to be a disgusting animal     annoyances occur in every walk of life     atop the stretcher upon which I am carried out     it is a dawn in which the chafing of starched flesh and bone begins     my thirst is mediated through my eyes     and overflows from the swamp of ice beginning to melt     I get wet up to my tail like an embryonic fish     and all in one gulp drink the water down to the last drop

A Beautiful Journey

The aged waiter clears away the dishes and then leaves     rather than exiting through the door he is absorbed by a sphere in the evening glow     he leaves behind the blue die of his off-the-shelf trousers     in a corner of the brightly polished cabin floor     a man and woman in bed are like two tapeworms     the tremendous waves of napkins     the old waiter will surely die as a result of the intensity of the agitation     he rides horseback on a spoon stripped bare of its plating     leaving on a journey to a strange land of beautiful minerals     rotting meat and vegetables     and the supple movements of thin sheets of wood     cause the old waiter to fly off into the jagged edges of the shredded sky     goodbye     mob of nightsticks     everyday of sacks     ocean of boxes     an aerial view gives you a good grasp     the melodrama of fire     end of the lonely ritual of thunderstorm     the old waiter fetches a warm meal with dexterous hands     later when his nap goes on too long who will rebuke him     who indeed is most familiar with the ways of the dead     by chance at the very moment the old waiter gets up gold buttons scatter everywhere     and he searches throughout the area where they roll away     he takes revenge in spite of himself     making a loud noise at the bottom of the sea     for the first time in his life the old waiter pees in his pants     facing the dead multitude of customers in the shade of the duckweed     he reverently apologizes     in order to dream the long dream of the future     one must endure both disorder and disgrace     now a great success the aged waiter grows fat and enters the secret stone pavilion     briefly he is dazzled by a golden-haired beauty     the moon comes around under the wine barrel     this just may be a bad-mannered graveyard

Some Comments on Yoshioka’s Prose Poems

October 15, 2010

In the prose poems, 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, the great theorist of Japanese Modernism Nishiwaki Junzaburō, and Tominaga Tarō for whom Baudelaire was especially important. Even Hagiwara Sakutarō, the originator of Japan’s modern lyricism, wrote prose poems later in life. 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, performed for the most part early on in Yoshioka’s career, 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 a “whole” (zentai). The lack of any punctuation in the prose poems, as well as the use of spaces or gaps 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.

Japanese Modernist Poets: Yoshioka Minoru

July 17, 2010

Yoshioka Minoru and the Agony of Representation (1919-1990)

“This is the moment in which the shadow of the dream resembled the shadow of the poem.” – Takiguchi Shuzo

How is poetry possible in the wake of the horrors and destruction of a world war… in the absence and questioning of an “ash colored land”? Only within the poet’s own interiority can the complexity of the question be approached. Not to force an answer, but to make questioning possible at all – to bring absence to speech.

Within the hard surface of night’s bowl
swelling with brightness
the autumn fruits
apples, pears, grapes and so on
poised one on top of the other
move toward sleep,
to one melody,
to a larger music…

The interior image – image upon image, forming and reforming, like the mutability and violent impositions of history. Or like the sudden rebirth of the burned out city in the form of oddly shaped buildings and narrow streets leading nowhere in particular.

Yoshioka’s oeuvre has its birth in the early modern haiku experiments of Tomizawa Kakio, as well as the Surrealist theories of Takiguchi Shuzo, and the iconoclastic work of Kitazono Katsue. But Yoshioka’s own genius and painful personal experience has taken his poetry far beyond mere theory, into a realm both intensely personal as well as characteristically Japanese.

When God also was absent
and not a shadow of a living thing was present
neither does the smell of death arise
in the deep atrophy of the summer noon
from a crowded zone
things like clouds are torn away…

As in the portraits of English painter Francis Bacon, whose bizarre imagery so fascinated Yoshioka, it is as if we are being told that it is only through the distortion of normative reality that we are capable of reaching its underlying truth.

Yoshioka’s lines metamorphose seamlessly from one image to the next, producing organic disjunctions not only surprising and strange, but surprisingly natural, due to the flexibility of the Japanese syntax. Moreover, these otherworldly images, set in a timeless framework both distant from us yet intimate, are presented in a form that gives them an intense, lyric beauty. No other post-war poet working in the Japanese Modernist idiom has attained the same level of mastery.

The night wraps them quickly up
the bones
temporarily placed inside the fish
escape the ocean of stars
and are secretly dismantled
on the plate
then the light shifts to another plate –
there in its hollow
inherited by the hunger of life
first a shadow falls
then the egg is called in

Yoshioka was an important part of the intellectual and cultural life of his times, cultivating friendships with important artists in the area of painting, sculpture and dance as well as in literature, and winning the admiration of younger poets, many of whom were profoundly influenced by his work.

Yoshioka’s collected works (Yoshioka Minoru Zenshuu) are now available on Chikuma Shobo. This beautiful book is well worth the expense, but is also rather large if one plans on having it shipped from Japan. The best way to start is the affordable paperback Shichosha modern poets series which should be easily found on the Kinokuniya or Maruzen websites. In English there is my own translation of Kusudama on Leech Books (listed on amazon.com surprisingly enough), and Hiroaki Sato’s masterfully done selected translations of Yoshioka on Chicago Review Press, Lilac Garden. Though out of print, this book may be located with the use of amazon.com or other sites which have the special service of searching for out of print books. The poems quoted above are all from Still Life (Seibutsu), and are translated by myself. They originally appeared in a little magazine in Paris in 1983. More of my translations of Yoshioka and poets influenced by him can be found on http://www.durationpress.com and blackfirewhitefire (available via a link from the Duration site).

Poems by Yoshioka Minoru

July 17, 2010

From A Season of Stupor (1940)
By Yoshioka Minoru (Tr. Eric Selland)


Morning hangs a silver coin on the legs of a butterfly
Inside the stem of a moisture-sensitive plant
A wedding without buttons begins
Oh sky that sleeps briefly in the smell of a phosphorous match
A white glove droops southward
Ennui that darkens into an artificial flower
Bodily temperature pasted upside down on the wall
The stains on the table soak up the cloudy sky
I forget the scale-shaped dream in the mirror of the railway station
And decorate the steeple with lost virginity and stars


Twelve minutes past nine on the morning of the syringe
Deep in the transparent heart of a woman on a balcony
Crushed powder falls from the eyes of a dragonfly
Idle hunters wearing abalone shells on their heads go
Along the edge of nose hairs spinning the rings of a rainbow
The sun melts on a slice of ice candy
And a chicken pecks at yellow spermatozoa on the floor tiles

A Season of Stupor (1)

Up the ladder of water
The season in which dazzle is lost
And the night wearing spectacles climb
The women perish in the smoke rings from a cigar
And the specks on the light bulbs shiver
On top of a chair listlessly turning
A fish with red eyes is all dried up

A Season of Stupor (2)

Inside an empty bottle of milk
Light-beams in a stupor and the acoustics of April
Penetrate like the ears of a tomcat, and faintly
Sunday collapses on the sand and is buried
When bread swells in the wind an egg flows into the water
And in the stucco, the shadow of a flower unfolds its hand and tilts
A man who has taken too many sleeping pills puckers his lips
And disgorges copper coins and wadded up bills
Towing the night, the bats fly around the funeral flowers

From Liquid (1941)


The lamp goes out
A fox awakens
On the tip of a rusty fork
Sticking out of a skull
Its distance colder
Than the Northern Cross
Clasped tightly in the surgeon’s hand
Undulating toward the respiratory tract
And folded up in a wet evening paper
The young men talkatively
Kindle their wings
Inside the dirty dishes
And piled up on top of the fallen leaves
Are all swept away

The Night When Flowers Grow Cold

The trail of tears is broken
And the light in the distant window goes out
Night erupts and fills the garden
Untying its white bandages
Oh stars breathing at the tip of a needle
The flowers grow cold and cannot sleep

Melting Flowers
(for Yoko Nakamura)

The gods swell inside the veins of the spring leaves
Oh hills from which gold coins can be seen
A starfish sparkles atop a bible
Wetted by soap bubbles in the bath
The weathercock turns toward the night
And the youths sink into the white skin
A sock filled with holes and a butterfly
Drift ashore around the neck of an angel
The flowers melt in a cat’s saliva

Liquid I

At the moment the shadow of the green snake trembles lambently in the grains of crystal the letter arrives, and as the retina grows cold, spreading out toward the lake, it covers the bright torso of a sleeping woman; from the corner a red balloon, blazing and shrinking toward a southern town, springs out inside the brain, where varieties of crushed autumn glass begin to dissolve in saliva – the faint sound is transmitted through the leaves of the sacred bo tree, wetting the morning moon forgotten on the stone table on the terrace, like a feather

Liquid II

On the tip of the finger all manner of objects melt while the gods stripped of their powers in the empty sky quiver and sway, their accumulated existence touching an image of the moment; the blood is measured below the ice, and the duet separated from the branch loses its balance in a green hat, and while the abundant skin on both sides is made transparent, the promises and twilight spilled and forgotten on the various plants are caught in an opulent crown and without delay descend onto the map; the children are supported by a metal coated in seasonal winds and the morning donkey emerges from a ventilation tube to be crushed onto the surface of the water without a sound

from Seibutsu (1955)

Still Life

Within the hard surface of night’s bowl
swelling with brightness
the autumn fruits
apples, pears, grapes, and so on
poised one on top of the other
move toward sleep,
to one melody,
to a larger music,
extending into darkness
their nucleus slowly inclines,
the abundant decomposition of time
before the teeth of the dead
the various fruits
unlike stones
do not shoot out,
and collecting their weight
inside the deep bowl
in the image of night
from time to time
hugely tilt.


When God was also absent
and not a shadow of a living thing was present
neither does the smell of death arise
in the deep atrophy of the summer noon
from a crowded zone
things like clouds are torn away
and viscous matter is inundated
in a quiet place
a thing is born
something suggesting a life
polished with dirt and light
an egg occupies the earth


For me, an expansiveness is necessary
desire for echoes of fresh water
one night inside my room
I find a woman’s portrait
and am surprised at its immorality
but in another way am almost moved by it
can’t the functionality of the confusion
of objects be guaranteed?
In the corner of a destitute cafeteria
an inquiry
the death of a woman
now, for the very first time,
a woman has died in my house
the eyes of the woman in the portrait
recede from the frame
the star which had radiated
from within her hair
is cloudy and dislocated
after the whole human race has fallen asleep
in the world of cruel existence
I’ll find a new world
in the circle at the end of a piece of rope
the fruits of the Autumn trees,
which approach precisely
the reflecting sky
in search of dawn’s nail,
are immense
my hunger
and my thirst appear
morning’s lamp crawling over the earth
its fresh revelation of the egg on the table
unaccepted by anyone
my oscillation which is genuine
which surpasses fire, river and human
brushes off the dew covering my body
and despite dignity
I change largely
into a young egg-eating beast

Still Life

The night wraps them quickly up
the bones
temporarily placed
inside the fish
escape the ocean of stars
and are secretly dismantled
on the plate
then the light shifts to another plate –
there in its hollow
inherited by the hunger of life
first a shadow falls
then the egg is called in

Still Life

Attached to the cork
inside an empty bottle of wine
our throats
our thin bodies
beautiful snakes that tilt with the scale
our eyes do not have the weight of gold
what must be remembered is the sun
there is always a new distance
and our hearts
entwined in the long pipes of a horse’s intestines
circle around summer’s corridor
to a night sea where there are only jellyfish
our heads
breed things that do not shine

Haiku found amongst Yoshioka’s juvenilia


Spring ends:
Sweet taste of postage stamp
Brushes tongue


Smoke from the kitchens at evening
Rises from the flowers
In a pear field


Afternoon in which
The ark shells open
Rain distant


Young women
Walking high
Along the breasts of spring

Introducing Natsuishi Ban’ya

June 3, 2010

Natsuishi Banya has been a presence in Japan’s increasingly complex and interesting haiku world since the early eighties. In a traditional literary climate strapped by convention, Natsuishi has boldly broken away from the standard cultural and artistic expectations of a haikuist and made the haiku a platform for experiment and discovery – which is of course exactly what the haiku should be. But for Natsuishi, this means stretching the form beyond its usual boundaries, often ignoring syllable counts and seasonal words, and refusing to lapse into personal sentimentality as a means of producing what might be viewed by readers as the expected “haiku moment”. If the heart of haiku is surprise, then Natsuishi is indeed surprising. One of his earlier books, Shinkuuritsu (Shichousha, 1986), is splattered with katakana, difficult readings and many unique readings of characters supplied with the use of furigana.

Tokyo ni ikareru hana wa yuki no hana
Flowers angry
In Tokyo
Are snow flowers

The character for “angry” (okoru) is given the optional reading of “ikaru” in furigana, and is placed in an odd form (ikareru), making it possible to hear this also as “flowers going to Tokyo”. Then, the choice of characters for “flower” is “hanayaka”, or “ka”, referring also to China, as well as brilliance and luster. It’s an almost too heavy choice for this kind of image, but Natsuishi’s aim in this book is to push the reader’s perceptions somewhat off kilter. This poem leaves the interpretation open in a way so as to allow for at least three readings that I can think of off hand. It is likely that no two people will understand it in quite the same way. In the same book is another poem, also supplied with furigana for kanji (though obviously only for visual effect in this instance), which supplies the surreal image of…

Kuuchuu no teikoku bochi ni tane maku mono yo
Someone spreading seeds
In the Imperial graveyard
In mid-air

Again, Natsuishi breaks with expectations, and utilizes furigana, punctuation and kanji choices to add to the visual experience in a way not previously done in haiku. In a short statement accompanying selections of his haiku included in a modern anthology, Gendai Haiku New Wave (Rippuu Shobou, 1990), Natsuishi poses the question of how one might structurally dismantle the Japanese language so as to have a closer look, not in the analytical sense, but in the poetic sense. This is what Natsuishi sets out to do.

Natsuishi Banya completed his Masters degree in comparative literature at Tokyo University, which has made him deeply familiar with foreign literature, especially the European avant-garde of this century. He works out of the well-established though lesser known tradition of Modernist experiment in haiku begun by iconoclastic writers such as Tomisawa Kakio in early Showa, and continued by figures such as Takayanagi Shigenobu during the post-war period. Natsuishi reveals his theories and his analysis of this history in his book of essays Haiku no Poetikku (Seichisha, 1983).

Literary politics being what it is, Natsuishi has often had a tough time dealing with Japan’s haiku societies, but recently he has risen above the fray and become instrumental in establishing a new, eclectic Modern Haiku Association through his magazine Ginyu, published in a quarterly, bilingual edition. He also helped to present an International Contemporary Haiku Symposium in Tokyo this year, attended by haikuists from England, France and Germany. Some of these same writers from the international community are also regular contributors to the magazine. Through his current activities Natsuishi attempts to make haiku an important presence on the international stage as a “modern short poem”, not necessarily limited by traditional Japanese imagery. A book of his has been published in English translation through Red Moon Press entitled A Future Waterfall: 100 Haiku, and he plans on publishing an anthology of modern haiku in English translation next year.

Suisi miete pari ni sannin yatto sorou
The comet visible:
In Paris the three
Finally together
(from A Future Waterfall, translation by Hiroaki Sato)

Editor: Natsuishi Banya
3-16-11 Tsuruse-Nishi, Fujimi, Saitama, Japan 354-0026
Tel-Fax: 0492-52-9823
(The magazine has lots of interesting modern haikuists, including foreigners and some excellent women haikuists).

Modern Haiku Association
Chairman: Tohta Kaneko
Dai-Ni Kairaku Bldg. 7 F
6-5-4 Soto-Kanda, Chiyoda-Ku, Tokyo 101-0021

Avant-Garde Haiku by Natsuishi Ban’ya

June 3, 2010

Falling flowers or falling snow
A column stands rigidly
Like a splinter – an irritant

Gazing up at falling snow
As if ascending to heaven

Afternoon of the opening wound
Like a raging wildfire

It’s always around this time
I have to let go
The one in the emptiness

Natsuishi Ban’ya’s roost
Has a vividly colored sky

Heaven is a solid
The ants on the mountaintops
Are completely destroyed

The giant of fog
Lays down
In the East

Left behind
The thousand year-old cedar
Coddled by storm

I call to the nothing
Of the pure white arabesque

Pushed down the stairs
I become a rainbow

Evening shower –
Horses bits lined up
Death takes off running

A wind comes from the future
Blowing the waterfall apart

Keeping the waterfall there
For a thousand-year absence

The tail of a lightning bolt
Enters the Japan Sea

The moonlight carries
An infinite “if”
To the doorway

The sea slims down
Even the beach slims down
This big man

Lapis lazuli rolls
From bird to bird

The man turning the north star
In Cappadocia

Oh acorn!
The real Western world
Is a desert

Now in his fifties, Natsuishi Ban’ya has been a controversial figure throughout his career. The perennial bad boy of Japanese haiku, Ban’ya has been the major avant-garde practitioner of the form for the past thirty years, gaining influence as much from French Modernism, Dadaism, Surrealism and concrete poetry as the difficult modern Japanese haikuists he usually mentions as his predecessors (including Takayanagi Jushin and Katoh Ikuya, also translated by myself). Ban’ya and his wife, Kamakura Sayumi, also a haikuist, publish a multilingual magazine. Ban’ya also leads the World Haiku Association, which has a multilingual website, and is active in organizing haiku and poetry events internationally.

Miryam Sas on Japanese Surrealism

May 24, 2010

Book Review: Fault Lines: Cultural Memory and Japanese Surrealism , by Miryam Sas, Published by Stanford University Press, 1999, 240 pages, $18.95 paper, ISBN 0804736499. (Available on amazon.com)

Possibly one of the most significant developments in scholarship in recent years is the willingness to view historical and cultural change in non-western countries on their own terms, rather than exclusively according to Western assumptions and expectations. We may be unable, as the phenomenologist Gadamer points out, to wholly lay aside our own cultural subjectivity, but we can at least listen to the voices of others as they express their thoughts in their own words. Most often in anthologies and biographical sketches the critical and theoretical writings of modern Japanese poets have been ignored. Few studies outlining the details of a particular poet’s thought as it effects actual poetic practice have been produced in this country other than outstanding exceptions such as Hosea Hirata’s work on the poetics of Nishiwaki Junzaburo. With Miryam Sas’ groundbreaking study we are given a clear, and even intensive sense of the Japanese Surrealists as very much modern intellectuals in an active and passionate engagement with the ideas of their time. The theoretical writings and developments in the thought of such notables as Takiguchi Shuzo, who introduced Surrealism to Japan through his translations of Breton as well as his own writings, are covered extensively. Moreover, Sas provides material here which leads not only to a deeper understanding of the thought behind 20th Century Japanese literary movements, but of the process of cultural transfer as well, in all its complexity and ambiguity. Sas notes in her prologue that “Japanese Surrealism is striking and important both for the specific questions it raises and for its exemplary place as an encounter between cultures, literary movements, and languages.” Sas uses the title of her book, “Fault Lines”, to denote how the introduction of Surrealism to Japan was, like the great Kanto earthquake which occurred around the same time, an occasion not only for literary “shock” and “rupture”, but a variety of creative reconfigurations as well.

The book goes beyond a simple chronology of events as they occurred, and instead takes up specific theoretical and often deeply philosophical issues of concern to both French and Japanese poets, showing in great detail how the Japanese poets dealt with these issues within their own thought processes and poetic procedures. Both poetic works and theoretical writings of major Japanese figures such as Takiguchi Shuzo, Nishiwaki Junzaburo and Kitasono Katue, as well as Surrealist forerunner Hagiwara Sakutaro are quoted and examined in great detail. What is striking, as mentioned previously, is that those of us already familiar in general with the works of these poets and their lives are given a much stronger impression of them as brilliant and important thinkers of their time. Takiguchi was both a major theorist and translator of French poetry during his time, and an examination of his work, as well as that of Nishiwaki Junzaburo, brings up specific problems of language, meaning and translation, in regard to which both these thinkers had a surprisingly subtle and sophisticated understanding in a time when the linguistic and semiotic theories those of us in the fields of language and literature now take for granted were just barely being developed. We are also shown exactly how cosmopolitan Japanese poets were before World War II by the examples of the international activities of Kitasono Katue, who corresponded with Ezra Pound for many years, and Takiguchi Shuzo who shared his ideas with Breton during this time, finally visiting him in person in Paris in 1958. Sas provides us with a rich selection of samples of poems, theoretical writings and visuals in the appendix, for those interested in reading these in more detail in the original.

One of the most important contributions this book brings to current scholarship is the rediscovery of two nearly forgotten women Surrealists — Ema Shouko and Tomotani Shizue. These poets, along with other women experimentalists of the pre-war period, have been almost completely ignored until now, not only here but in Japan as well. A major anthology of Japanese Modernist poets published in the 1969 (Gengo Kuukan, edited by Ohka Makoto) includes virtually no women at all. Sas gives both these sensitive and intelligent poets the attention they deserve, opening the way for further research on their work, as well as other women experimental writers of the period.

Sas’ interest in Japanese Surrealism and its influence on later experimental movements has led her in the direction of performance. Hence the epilogue on one of the most important post-war developments in the avant-garde in Japan, that of the Butoh, a new dance-performance art form created by Hijikata Tatsumi. Sas examines the writings and thought of the major artists here, including Ohno Kazuo, and the various ways in which Surrealism, as well as the Japanese Noh theories of Zeami have been adapted and interpreted.

Throughout this study Sas makes an extensive use of the writings of Japanese poets, artists and critics, bringing needed attention not only to the better known modern poets such as Nishiwaki and Takiguchi, but hitherto ignored women poets such as Ema Shouko and Tomotani Shizue as well. In doing so we also run across other names not often seen in academic works, such as Yoshioka Minoru (possibly the most important postwar poet following in the steps of the Surrealists) and Nagata Koi, enigmatic experimental haikuist and essayist on philosophical subjects as well as the Butoh. A wealth of material appears here which should add significantly to the awareness in this country of experimental poetry in Japan during this century, and whet the appetites of students and researchers, leading hopefully to further fruitful work in this area.