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 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 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 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

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.

Hiraide Takashi: Excerpts from Portrait of a Young Osteopath, translated by Eric Selland

April 16, 2010

Opening Scene
Between the huge rocks where the water’s foam frothed upward to become irregular granules of fire and then fall, possessed by the shadow of a jellyfish just dead, one pair of gloves whirled round and round. The ten fingers, some broken off and others twisted, strained to reach out in every direction. But according to observation, only the stars of partial destruction existed on the tips of the various fingers. There I fixed my gaze still harder. Was it as much as fourteen seasons had passed; the burnt aroma of a beehive drifted out of the wide-mouthed cave half submerged nearby, and as if it were all signs, the corpse of one juvenescent piece of bark stood up out of the cave, pulling a bunch of sleep-disheveled hair along with it, up toward the indigo sky of early dawn. Pressing the palm of one hand against my pounding heart, I sensed a new way of thought welling up within myself. These rocks could be just mist congealing darkly in the moss. And the cave could be something like the hollow interior of an anatomical model of the human body which has begun to dissolve, a two-layered crucible as it were. Of course, the uncertainty about speculations such as these cannot be alleviated even with positive proof to the contrary. Then, just to add on for good measure, the following thing happened. The objects imagined to be stars up till that point, each scattered here and there in the branches of the expanding hair, suddenly spread wings of stone, and leisurely began to preen themselves. Later, pulling back so as to hide themselves, they let out a cry, and fell into the extremely shallow sea trench near the cave. It was because at this time the pair of gloves suddenly stopped spinning, and while the right hand flopped against the other churning up foam, the left snuggled up close as if to grasp a small gem, and though they were two, stood straight up from the surface of the water that I understood. It was this time the wind was a resin wind, a number of meters.
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.

Chest and Shoulder, or the Frantic Vortex
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.
The sun shown, and my shadow also, vitreously in bold relief. By and by it sprung upward, and passing into two or three leaves again the sun came beating down. Now rest. As if I were a slender god playing with the movement and disappearance of my own black shadow.
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, from below. He pulled the thread and then fell. He might be saved if there were a thicket below. The attack was a flash, the record posing extreme difficulty even for the observer. When the battle ended, I quickly fixed my makeup there on the sandy soil, and turning him over absorbed the liquid flowing from his mouth, also licking between the chest and hips. Occasionally I nibbled at the membranous base of the hip, but the purpose of this is obscure. At any rate, the children given birth from my poisonous characteristics, and who should be suspended in the empty sky, would no doubt leave his redolent glory behind in the earth in the form of one side of a huge jaw.
3:00 pm, the wind which collects resin, deeper now the sun hazed over. The fingers of the clouds which, lacking fingernails, could only raggedly part began to catch hold of me and my enemy despite our being two, and began to envelop us. He became sand from the shoulder on down and began to fall, while my chest began to flow out from itself. It was as if ascending above this purplish blue field now with one breath where generations had no doubt perished were mirrored in the eyes of someone hidden.

The Motif the Water Whispered
The leaves had already been cut out as if with a dressmaker’s pattern. I am the one who, feeling a slender bone in the intense sunlight which oozes out like waste matter, makes it into an artist’s tool and tries to paint several small hazy scenes taking place just before my birth and which grow increasingly hazy. Already the vascular strands of the leaves of the Isu trees had been severed.
The initial, excessively painful measures for the purpose of life’s bursting forth. It waits patiently for the leaves to droop limply over the others. When another man, shaking the tree’s trunk, awakens inside, it rolls up the leaves like lost letters in which his distressing future is endlessly wrapped, and cuts off the leaf with one last bite, sending it to the ground. It is a cradle unloosed, meant for my bone-writing soul.
Bones of boiling water, swamp bones, waterfall bones, bones of the beach. At the end of one of the ensuing precious moments which these things gradually enfold, a faucet rusts while continually shining, cut off facing the blue sky. I flowed out from there, faster than one could press one’s lips to it.
From February to March, 1950, the above was taught me by the whisper of the water all around.

Contemporary Japanese Poets: Hiraide Takashi

April 16, 2010

I’ve had the pleasure of following Hiraide Takashi’s poetry as well as translating his work since 1983, not long after he published his first book to attract broader critical attention – Kurumi no Sen-i no Tame ni. I was looking for some younger poets to include in a translation issue of a small English language magazine located in Paris and which I was co-editing. So Yoshimasu Gozo (a globe-trotting poet who seems to know virtually everyone) introduced us. A long association has sense ensued, which has included visits to countless unique and out-of-the-way night spots in Tokyo where Hiraide has demonstrated not only his fine sensibilities in food, drink and night life atmosphere, but a most notable ability to negotiate large amounts of liquid substances into his person. Perhaps Hiraide’s next book should be the handbook on unusual drinking establishments in Tokyo. After all, he’s already written the book on baseball. After a semester at the Iowa writer’s workshop in 1985 he made a very special pilgrimage to Cooperstown, the birthplace of baseball. How does he manage to do all this? Hiraide has stated in an essay that for him, poetry is a kind of baseball of sorts. I won’t attempt to explain this. But what I saw when I first attempted to translate some excerpts from the book mentioned above was surrealist prose poetry creating a strange atmosphere with images of subways and glowing lights. Over a glass of mizuwari Hiraide corrected me. In actual fact, these images were not surrealistic at all – they were extremely minute, almost scientific observations of his actual daily commute on the train between Shinjuku and Iidabashi where at the time he was working in book design for Kawade Shobo publishing. Hiraide’s work is not easy. He has now settled into a prose poetry style which is highly dense and complex. But it always retains a connection with the real, as can be seen in Wakai Seikotsu-shi no Shozo (Portrait of a Young Osteopath) – an imaginary naturalist’s notebook, and is also often filled with a kind of tongue-in-cheek sort of humor. One of Hiraide’s favorite American poets is John Ashberry, not surprisingly. I usually describe Hiraide’s poetry as having a certain focus on texture – there is the tendency to pull and stretch the Japanese syntax to see just how far it will go. This makes for very difficult translating. Both Hiraide and those close to him, with their critical awareness and interest in also writing theory and criticism, are probably the closest anyone in Japan comes to the type of avant garde tendencies seen in the U.S. in the eighties focusing on language. But I would call Hiraide’s poetry a kind of hyper-realism. Hiraide has become one of the most widely known and respected members of the younger avant garde set, those who emerged in the early eighties, now being included in the Shichosha collection of modern poets. He currently teaches literary and aesthetic theory at Tama Bijutsu Daigaku.
–Eric Selland
Note: Hiraide’s For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut, Translated by Sawako Nakayasu, is available on New Directions

Kitasono Katue – Poems (trans. John Solt)

April 2, 2010

Night Mechanist (1924)

the café girl
is completely transparent
continuing her pink breathing
she makes her expensive finger shine
and hides mint-colored talk
in a lobelia leaf
while playing the table’s piano
dreamer of chairs and curtains
bohemian of a pitiful city.
from the shadow of curacao
and peppermint
she flashes a seven-colored heart
seducer with stunning matches
on stove chimneys
ties passion ribbons
and dissolves her lovers
into cash register buttons—
mechanist of splendid night

from Human Dismantled Poems (1926)


on the back of the face
insert a blue lens
and peep everyday


burn sulphur
and weird smoke fills it up
a triangular ornament
tinplate nose
twist it
stuff a brush inside
and drag that spiral out from the rear!

Legend of the Airship

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

April 2, 2010

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