nedjelja, 9. prosinca 2012.

The New Modernism - japanski modernizam i avangarda

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Blog Erica Sellanda o japanskoj modernističkoj i avangardnoj poeziji, tj. o nama nepoznatim  Japancima iz prve polovice 20. stoljeća.

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 ), and can now be viewed at or Eric Selland’s blog The New Modernism
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  
Takashi Hiraide main website   

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 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.

The Landscape of Identity: Poetry and the Modern in Japan

March 10, 2010
[This article originally appeared in Aufgabe issue #4 in 2004, edited by Sawako Nakayasu. See the link to Litmus Press/Aufgabe magazine on the blog roll.]
In 1989 the death of Emperor Hirohito officially brought Japan’s postwar period to an end. The category of “postwar”, born out of the cataclysmic events of 1945, had until that time been the major defining image of what contemporary Japanese poetry was all about. For poets standing at that border, poetry had to be reinvented just as Japan as a nation began reinventing itself. But while this was essentially a sense of creativity and liberation from militarist oppression, reopening the gates to new form and experimentation, this new boundary crossed in 1989 presented quite a different problem, and in a sense cut just as deeply into the sense of poetic and national identity. The basic grounding “postwar”, with its dependence on the stark differentiation between a Japan before and after the atomic bomb, was no longer available. Identity was no longer so clearly defined.
In 1990, a most loved and respected member of Japan’s avant-garde and a bridge between Modernist and Post-Modern practice unexpectedly died. Yoshioka Minoru, the very embodiment of what the postwar period meant to Japanese poetry, had influenced virtually all of the younger experimental poets, and received the admiration even of those outside the bounds of that genre. The event shocked and dazed Japan’s poetry community, rendering the confusion and loss of direction all the more graphic and painful. “Poetry has died”, wrote one critic in a commemorative publication a year later. Japanese poetry would again have to reinvent itself.
Already the limits of “postwar” were being exceeded in the work of Hiraide Takashi and Inagawa Masato. These two poets were blurring the boundary between poetry and criticism, poetry and prose, and questioning conventional ideas of what comprised the modern in Japan. At first glance what appears in Hiraide to be a kind of neo-surrealist imagery turns out to be in fact hyper-realism. Hiraide has also produced a book of tanka, the 5-line traditional form, thereby challenging Japanese literary orthodoxy in which modern (i.e. western influenced) poetry and traditional forms are to be kept far apart.
Poet/critic Kido Shuri, in his recent book delineating Japan’s postwar poetic landscape, questions the idea of there ever having been a postmodern in Japan at all. His claim is that the postwar period never completely broke with Modernism, and was instead merely the long, drawn out death of the modern. This may be so, especially when one considers the curious fact (at least curious to westerners) that Japan’s avant-garde, whether during its beginnings in the 1920s or in more recent years, has never been associated with leftist politics. The political writing of Japan’s “Proletarian Literature”, finally crushed by the rise of Militarism in the 1930s, is conventional in form. In fact, Modernist experiment in Japan during the prewar years poses some fundamental questions regarding modernization and cultural transformation. Derrida writes, “the frenzy of experimentation and proliferation of schematizations develops during epochs of historical dislocation, when we are expelled from the site of being.” How is it that literary experiment whose purpose in Europe was to bring established artistic, social, economic, and political structures under serious question becomes the foundation of the new in Japan – the modern, technological, urbanized and westernized Japan. The implications are enormous for Modernist and cultural studies in general.
Despite the interruption of the Pacific War, Modernism in its various forms became the lingua franca of poetry in Japan. The absence of a truly oppositional poetics in Japan, even amongst its experimentalists, may be due to the culture’s need first to assert its difference with the outside, to defend itself against total cultural domination by the west even as it so eagerly devoured all things western.
If anything along the lines of the oppositional could be said to exist, it is more in the voices of women who became increasingly prominent in poetry after 1945. Tomioka Taeko represents the postwar tendency amongst women poets toward direct address, plain language as opposed to high Modernist poeticization, and use of the narrative. Tomioka introduces what she calls the “story poem”, and carries out an exploration of Japanese women’s identity and experience through a multiplicity of voices. Tomioka, in her essays offers an alternative view of society and of Japanese literature. She attempts to rescue the lost work of women Modernists such as Sagawa Chika also included in this selection.
In more recent women’s poetry as well, one finds an exploration of the natural rhythms of speech, often in a specifically feminine language rather than a high, literary form, as well as the language of local dialects. All of these strategies are expressions of difference, whether sexual or regional, and map out shifting fields of identity in modern Japan against a backdrop of mass culture where these identities might otherwise be lost or overlooked.
Ito Hiromi takes this further in an attempt to deconstruct the Japanese image of the feminine, as well as to deconstruct the narrative. Ito looks especially to the thought of Julia Kristeva for the theoretical underpinnings of her work. Park Kyong Mi is a Japanese-Korean poet. Her choice of keeping the Korean reading of her name, rather than to use a Japanized version, which has been not only customary but a requirement for Koreans in Japan, points again toward the expression of particularity amongst women poets, as well as the subtle political strategies used. There is nothing politically overt in Park’s poetry, but the use of the name, and the subtle tilting off the linguistic axes speaks volumes.
Historically, women’s writing has played a major role in Japanese literature from classics such as the Tale of Genji on down to the present, however, women have tended to be more associated with traditional forms, especially the 5-line tanka. Foremost among these in 20th century literature is Yosano Akiko. There are a growing number of scholars who argue that the beginnings of Modernism in Japan are to be found at the end of the 19th century (much as we would see the roots of European Modernism in the work of 19th century poets such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud). According to this point of view Yosano, working in the traditional 5-line tanka and publishing her most famous work, Tangled Hair in 1901, would be Japan’s first Modernist. Yosano introduces personal emotion into the tanka, focusing on the unique experience of an individual ego (a new concept in Japan) in a more modernized version of the language rather than the archaic diction common to the tanka. Sexuality as such has never been taboo in Japan for either sex, but Yosano appropriates the sexual for her own purposes, becoming the agent of her own sexual feelings, and making use of male sexuality for her own pleasure. Yosano was one of Japan’s early Feminists, producing a series of essays calling for the improvement of women’s status in society.
By 1929 when Sagawa Chika arrived in Tokyo to begin her poetic activity, Symbolism, Surrealism and Dadaism had all been introduced to Japan via translations from the French and the writings of Japan’s own poets and theorists such as Takiguchi Shuzo and Nishiwaki Junzaburo, editor of Shi to Shiron (Poetry and Poetics), mouthpiece of Japan’s new Modernist movement. Tokyo was a teeming, modern metropolis only recently rebuilt after the earthquake and fire of 1923. This was the city of all things new where the “modan gaaru” and “modan boui” could be seen wearing the latest in western fashions, where one could dance the night away to American jazz. Fresh from the provinces and only 18 years old, Sagawa jumped into Surrealist experiment, producing a body of work that expresses the essence of her time. Filled with jarring imagery, odd juxtapositions and bright colors, her poetry puts into practice Kitasono Katue’s call to a visual poetry. Yet hers is a poetry of more than just surface. Sagawa produces an acutely personal world of warmth and depth, which hints at other meanings beyond a mere cataloging of the exotic, or dependence on technical experiment alone. Although she would live only until 1936, Sagawa published around 80 poems in the major experimental magazines of the time, developing relationships with major figures such as Nishiwaki Junzaburo, Kitasono Katue, Takiguchi Shuzo, and a group women writers also involved in Modernist work, including Ema Shouko. Although a collected works was published after her death, the poetry of Sagawa Chika soon fell into obscurity, and is only now being rediscovered.
At the same time this rush of experimental activity was taking place with Kitasono Katue’s VOU group and others, another more sinister movement was growing in reaction against the rapid Westernization that began in the late 19th century. This came in the form of militarist fanaticism and empire, but there were philosophical underpinnings to the anti-Westernism that was now growing, produced, ironically, by some of Japan’s European trained philosophers. Kuki Shuzo is the Japanese philosopher spoken so highly of in the first essay in Martin Heidegger’s On the Way to Language. Upon his return to Japan, Kuki both taught and wrote on aesthetic philosophy in an attempt to delineate what was unique about Japanese culture. Through the use of traditional Japanese literature, exoticizing images of Japan oddly dependent on Western stereotypes of the Orient, and an eroticized version of the traditional feminine, Kuki set the stage for a growing politics of cultural authenticity. Soon Japan’s Militarist government would take up the call and begin extending the tentacles of its control into the very minds of the people. This meant a “cleansing” of Japan’s artists and intellectuals. Anything that smacked of the foreign, of the “inauthentic” or unpatriotic, had to be cut out.
In 1940, Saito Sanki, an experimental haikuist, was imprisoned for the crime of writing haiku without any seasonal reference. Kitasono Katue was arrested in the same year and subjected to a grueling three-day interrogation by Japan’s infamous Thought Police. Virtually all of Japan’s Modernists were arrested, sent to the Manchurian front, or silenced. Nishiwaki Junzaburo, whose first book of poems was composed originally in English and then translated into Japanese, and who introduced the technique of Surrealist estrangement to Japan, found it wisest to retreat to his home town with his British wife, where he began research on the Japanese classics (a much safer pursuit during those times). The careers of many writers and artists were completely destroyed by the events of the war era. Not even the restoration of political freedom after the war could recover all of what was lost.
It is interesting to consider the possible affects of a rhetoric of cultural authenticity in which images of the feminine become central in the setting up of difference in relationship to the hegemonic West on literary canonization on into the postwar years. Yosano Akiko becomes a major figure in Japanese letters, in part because of the ability to reread her work and her literary persona within the framework of an authentic “Japaneseness”. Nishiwaki Junzaburo negotiates his literary survival after the war by editing his earlier work, removing some of the strangeness, and making a connection with Japan’s native literary traditions. Canonization in Japan involves a process of normalization, in which the foreign elements present in a poetry whose influences are essentially western are hidden or erased through a re-situating or reinterpretation of the work in relation to the broader culture and to the native tradition – a kind of cultural filtration process. Is it possible that the work of Sagawa Chika and other women Modernists of the prewar years was lost not only in the chasm of war and destruction, but in the politics of cultural authenticity whose echoes remained within academia and elsewhere for much of the postwar era?
One can see in the unfolding of Japan’s literary history over the past century a working out of identities, of possibilities and realities – a negotiation of constant change and shifts in the cultural landscape. Now again, with the death of the postwar, Japanese poetry is in the process of reinventing itself. In his recent work on postwar poetry, Kido Shuri writes, “An unheard of wilderness lies before us.” In this new frontier of poetry, will more room be made for outsiders; will women writers be able to recover their proper place in Japan’s literary and cultural life, a place in which they define themselves on their own terms. In these pages we see some hints of hope.
Suggested Readings:
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
Naoki Sakai, Translation and Subjectivity: On “Japan” and Cultural Nationalism, University of Minnesota Press, 1997
Janine Beichman, Embracing The Firebird: Yosano Akiko and the Birth of the Female Voice in Modern Japanese Poetry, University of Hawaii Press, 2002
James A. Fujii, Complicit Fictions: The Subject in the Modern Japanese Prose Narrative, University of California Press, 1993
Seiji M. Lippit, Topographies of Japanese Modernism, Columbia University Press, 2002
Works in Japanese:
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

New Books in Translation: Killing Kanoko, by Itoh Hiromi

February 26, 2010
KILLING KANOKO: SELECTED POEMS OF HIROMI ITO Translated by Jeffrey Angles (Notre Dame, IN: Action Books, 2009) ISBN 978-0979975547 ($16)
I want to get rid of or kill Kanoko
Before she spills my blood…
Congratulations on your destruction
Congratulations on your destruction
These words come from “Killing Kanoko,” one of the most controversial and dramatic poems of contemporary Japan. Published in 1985, this poem conveys Japanese poet Hiromi Ito’s exhaustion as a mother and her thoughts of infanticide. Ito was subsequently pilloried by the popular press for her writing, while feminist writers held her up as a hero, praising her for her bold and unflinching exploration of the dark, emotional underside of motherhood. The collection _Killing Kanoko: Selected Poems of Hiromi Ito_ includes this famous poem, as well as many other exuberantly transgressive poems exploring gender, sexuality, language and the female body.
Hiromi Ito, born in 1955, is one of the most important contemporary poets and novelists in Japan. To date she has published over a dozen critically acclaimed collections of poetry, several novels and numerous essays. She has won many important Japanese literary prizes including the Takami Jun Prize, Hagiwara Sakutaro Prize, and the Izumi Shikibu Prize. She currently resides near San Diego with her partner and daughters.
Many critics have credited Ito’s dramatically direct poetry and psychological sophistication as singlehandedly igniting a wave of “women’s poetry” that radically transformed that people wrote about the body and physical desire in contemporary Japan. This book of English translations, rendered by Jeffrey Angles (winner of the 2009 Japan-US Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature), makes her most famous, dramatic, and historically important work available to the English-speaking public.
Ito is also well known for her radical experiments with the Japanese language, producing writing that forces the unsaid into the realm of the spoken and that returns to the voice to poetry. For this reason, she has often been lauded as a “shamaness of poetry” or a poet who exemplifies Hélène Cixous’ notion of écriture féminine.
The book is available through as well as the Action Books website. For a limited time, the book will be on sold at a reduced, promotional price through the website
See more poem samples here:
Jeffrey Angles ジェフリー・アングルス
Associate Professor, Japanese Literature and Translation Studies Department of Foreign Languages, Western Michigan University

Translating the Untranslatable: Katoh Ikuya and the Language of Pure Signs

February 3, 2010
[Translating the Untranslatable was originally presented at the Association for Asian Studies conference in 2008]
“…that the poem can only fulfill itself in its own untranslatability.”
- Dennis Schmidt, “Thought and Poetry” , Word Traces
“As soon as there is language, there is interpretation, that is translation.”
- Kearney, introduction to Paul Ricoeur’s On Translation
Prologue: In a sense, to be a translator, to live ones life daily “in translation,” means to speak outside language. And in this same sense, translation is poetry itself at its most originary point.
The poems comprising Katoh Ikuya’s Kyutai Kankaku (Spherical Sense), published in 1959, could be described as a kind of illusion of sorts, a play of mirrors. The title of the first series of sequences is in itself a puzzle. The word ‘Kaishi’ is made up of the Chinese characters for ‘ocean’ and ‘city’. Simple enough, but this is not a common word. It is part of a meta-language, the language of seasonal words in haiku, having their own complex history of allusions and rigid rules (if one is orthodox) dictating their use. As a seasonal word ‘kaishi’ is associated with spring, and has still another meaning hidden below its literal surface – that of ‘mirage’. It is this layered quality, a mirage as it were, that perhaps keys us in to what Katoh is up to. Schooled in Japan’s new experimental poetry deriving primarily from French models, Katoh brings the influence of experimental Modernism to haiku. Yet he chooses to work from within the form, by employing the seasonal words and the proper syllabic structure, while at the same time emptying the seasonal word of its meaning, and shifting the haiku somewhat off-kilter through an unconventional parsing of the syllables, something like making use of enjambment in an English poem. Katoh also uses foreign words, sometimes even in Romanized script in the original, something that was both surprising and innovative in the 1950s.
The word is central in Katoh. Nouns – sometimes a seasonal word, or an archaic term quoted from the classics, even foreign words – have an iconic quality. Take for instance the following poem: Whistling wind / Leaves a bird / In Havana
The literal rendering is Tiger-wind-flute / Havana bird / Left behind.
The first line in the poem is comprised of one word made up of three Chinese characters whose literal reading is tiger-wind-flute. This is a seasonal word representing winter and a direct borrowing from the Chinese. The word is used in classical Chinese poetry to express the sound of the wind blowing through the bamboo in a winter storm. The Japanese reading of the characters, which gives us the five syllables required for the first line of the haiku, is mogaribue, literally mourning-flute (mogari actually being a very old word used to render the Chinese character for “lying in state”). Hence the poem is introduced with a noun having many layers of hidden meanings, so much so as to become completely opaque. This noun is then followed by another noun, the name of a foreign city, written in the rigidly rectangular katakana script. Finally, as if an afterthought, we are given a verb in the last line and a “cutting word” or kireji (the word keru in this case) which supplies us with the sense of something final and in the past tense. It is only the verb at the end of the poem, along with two sentence particles appearing in the second line, which give us any idea at all how to put together this collection of words and images.
In another instance, a phrase from the classics and its aural effects become the center of the poem: The circle of the moon / Plays on a reed / Of ancient Japan
Here Katoh employs the technique of vowel echoing in a sonorous repetition of open vowels more associated with Modernist poets such as Yoshioka Minoru than with haiku. The phrase in Japanese is Toyoashihara no ashi o fuku. The word translated here as “ancient Japan” literally means Land-of-abundant-reed-plains, a word taken from a passage in the Kojiki, it is one of the names given to the ancient kingdom of Yamato. Here Katoh relies not only on rhythm and sound for the central theme of this poem, but on the vast network of cultural meanings and images associated with the classical language itself. In other words, the poem relies on the archetypal nature of the word, its quality as a sign.
In Benveniste, language is understood as taking place on two separate planes – the semiotic and the semantic. The semiotic (the sign) is recognized, but it is only the semantic (discourse) that is understood. “We cannot transpose the semiotics of one language into that of another – this is the non-potential for Translation.” [Benveniste]
Katoh’s poetry plays in the margins between the semiotic and semantic fields, between the spoken and the written (graphic) sign. It constitutes a gesture which Agamben refers to as “the fall back into pure language,” in which discourse becomes a dictionary of mute signs.
To read Katoh’s text at all (in what we normally consider to be its “original” language) is itself a process of translation. Beneath surface meanings are the coded meanings of seasonal words, and yet knowing this is like opening a door to nowhere, for Katoh’s intent is to subvert haiku conventions. The translation of this work creates a host of problems, bringing all concepts of meaning, interpretation and accuracy into question. In a sense, like the veiled nature of Katoh’s poetry itself, the translation must always remain somehow incomplete, always underway toward a possible meaning or form. Perhaps Nabokov’s radically literal approach to translation would give the reader a better sense of their real difficulty, or a complete exposition of all the alternate approaches to their translation (in some cases as much as seven versions were made before deciding on a final one). For the problem of translation, particularly poetic translation, is not merely a linguistic problem – it is a question of interpretation. In other words, we are inevitably drawn to hermeneutics, the philosophy of meaning and interpretation, as a means of finding an approach to translation. Ultimately, the argument of fidelity versus freedom misses the point. Translation can never be complete, or completely accurate. It is an unending dialogue with the Other, in which the missing parts must be supplied in what amounts to an act of faith, the poetic act itself.
1. Katoh Ikuya Kushuu, Jinbunshoin 1975
2. Katoh Ikuya Shishuu, Gendaishi Bunkou 45, Shichousha 1990
3. Infancy and History, Giorgio Agamben, Verso 2007
4. Potentialities, Giorgio Agamben, Stanford University press 1999
5. On Translation, Paul Ricoeur, Routledge 2006
6. Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning, Paul Ricoeur, Texas Christian University Press 1976
7. Translating Heidegger, Miles Groth, Humanity Books 2004
Other Readings
Martin Heidegger:
On the Way to Language
Poetry, Language and Thought
Walter Benjamin:
The Task of the Translator
On Language as such and the Language of Man
(see the collected works)
Word Traces: Readings of Paul Celan, Edited by Aris Fioretos

Katoh Ikuya: Selections from Spherical Sense (1959)

February 3, 2010
Mirage Festival   Festival in a Coastal Town
(Note: Alternate readings appear to the right in italics)


Winter waves
Come to the winter pier
And are returned

Thought of two poems
About flowers
That do not mention flowers

Sunday on which
I do not go to pray
Choosing seeds instead

June -
Now the crane prays
For its own dead

Sand spills
From July’s

Convolvulus noon face
Still visible after noon –

Awaiting each bird
To the treetops
At sunset

At night
A spotted dove flashes
Like a firefly


Seeing a withered tree 
All things seem
As if absent

Memory of sand
On an autumn day

A bird passes
Through an idea
Slanting northward

Furnace lit –
Like being inside
A Mediterranean bowl


Winter trees standing
Yet they are counted

Pool of light
On winter castle wall 
No castle

Whistling wind   Tiger-wind-flute
Leaves a bird
In Havana

Cloud of memory
A sparrow comes and sings
In the hair

A mirage appears   Ocean city
The future erupts
Shines back

Wine in an ant hole
The subterranean

June’s blemishes
A parachute

Department of the Word

Saw the logos 
Bending back roof tiles
In the scorching sun

The old temple’s
Carved images – nearby
An Indian lilac 

Releasing a butterfly
An ancient smile
In the present moment

Flower that bears no fruit  Wasted flower
Flowers are far
On festival day

Someone with 
Ravel’s left hand


The trick to working
The hometown well-bucket
A whirligig beetle

Eye of the needle
Afternoon wanes
Nap over 

Returning from Mary
In a field of flowers
A flower cross

A dog passes
Over a fur coat
Over memory

Lute Without Strings  No Strings

Winter trees stand
And that which makes the winter trees stand -
A cyclorama

For Hino Soujou (1901-1956)

The sundial’s
Spring come again
Pointing, it overflows

The circle of the moon
Plays on a reed
Of ancient Japan   Land-of-abundant-reed-plains

At the boundary of the field
Crop fires beginning
Hope of renewal, prosperity  Farewell

A swan’s
White absence –
Reflections on the water

Contemporary Japanese Poets: Ryoko Sekiguchi

January 19, 2010 [This book review originally appeared in Jacket]
Ryoko Sekiguchi: Two Markets, Once Again, Translated from the French by Sarah Riggs, reviewed by Eric Selland
50pp. The Post-Apollo Press. US$14. 978-0-942996-65-4 paper
Available via Small Press Distribution at
By the same author: Heliotropes, La Presse, Iowa City, 2008
Ryoko Sekiguchi is also included in the Litmus Press anthology Four From Japan, edited by Sawako Nakayasu
This is the latest and possibly the culmination of the Post-Apollo pocketbook series which includes such luminaries as Fanny Howe, Lyn Hejinian, and Claude Royet-Journoud. Deceptively small, this little book packs a wallop. Sekiguchi is a master of the experimental prose poetry sequence:
Pages the letters fling themselves against which
could have been traced directly by this firm
 hand, chapters unaware of changes in line or
 punctuation, the act of reading that engenders
space, that surrounds us.

A text which proves upon further reading to be highly dense and multilayered despite the relative lack of torque, which I suspect may be due to its having travelled first through its French version, translated here by Sarah Riggs, an American poet living in Paris (generally the distance between Japanese and English creates more resistance in translation and hence more difficult sentence structures… but more on translation later). And the lines continue:
                                                 The exceptional
intensity in pronouncing the time clause at that
very moment caused us to whiten immediately,
alerting us to the error in reading it, but too late,
this intensity creates here a market instantly, a
market that had always existed, where we had
always lived.

Ryoko Sekiguchi is perhaps one of the most engaging poets of that generation now approaching mid-career currently writing in Japan. Though she maintains a recognizable relationship to developments in Japan’s late Modernism, she has stretched the available avant-garde vocabulary in the Japanese language to include, as seen in one of her earlier books, Luminescent Diapositive, graphic elements reminding one of Charles Olson, or the playfulness of the Japanese Dadaist cutups of an earlier era, something which was rejected by Japan’s Modernists as they grew older and more stuffy. In her more recent work, Sekiguchi has managed to mold this foundation in the highly controlled formal experiments of her predecessors to more recent interests in Japanese women’s poetry, which tends to explore the textures and patterns of feminine speech and experience. Sekiguchi’s own version of these more recent developments in Japanese women’s writing is, however, more intellectually dense, more highly complex than most other writers.
Sekiguchi has lived in Paris since 1997, is fluent in French and apparently a number of other languages, and translates/rewrites her own work into French. This in itself is quite an interesting cultural development, as in the recent past, it would have been extremely difficult to find acceptance as a poet in Japan and be an expatriate at the same time. Until recently, the assumption would have been that in order to be completely Japanese and completely authentic as a poet, living for such long periods of time in a foreign country, and especially, actually attaining fluency in the language, would somehow dilute whatever it is one is looking for in a writer, and in a work of the caliber that might be considered for inclusion in a ‘national literature.’ Obviously this is no longer the case in the era of writers like Haruki Murakami and the era of the internet, where physical space and ‘culture’ in the traditional sense seem to have lost some of the more precisely defined boundaries they once had. And perhaps it is also this shift in modes, in the location of the poetic topology from the actual to the imagined, from physical to virtual, that in an odd way informs this text.
Two Markets Once Again is an especially satisfying example of recent developments in the writer’s work. It is a landscape which is at once the imagination, the actual world through which the author travels in a mixture of distance and awe, and the text itself – text as field, as the eroticism of language, and as a topology of markers and signs.
Sekiguchi makes her way deftly through this landscape, taking the reader on a tour as it were, through the labyrinth of language. Here, identity of author, reader, and text, a text which itself is also the labyrinth of the mind, become intermixed.
Sekiguchi weaves in and out of this textual and textural landscape, occasionally allowing surreal glimpses of the actual world she travels through (texts were produced on trips to Syria and Iran), which exudes the smells of coffee and coriander.
The ‘market’ is the open space in the text, the gap or dislocation in language through which the reader/writer slips, as well as the strange, unidentifiable sense of place the traveler finds in the unknown country.
It is also a journey through a language being learned – the language of classical Arabic, as well as all the visual and sensual experience of being in that new environment.
The voice of the poem fights against the text, but is finally always drawn back in. And yet the gap or dislocation as represented by the market is also the site of all possibility and experience, ‘for this market, the act of writing, in itself, is always possible.’
It is the dislocations in language that make writing/poetry possible – the chiasm is poetry itself. And yet it is also ‘The trace of negation or refusal’ –
In every part, in the debris or the remainder of
text, we recognize the trace of negation or

The text is interspersed with Arabic, Latin, Italian, and Provencal — She quotes a line from the Latin text of the Stabat Mater; she quotes the poetry of the troubadours and Dante’s Inferno (most likely from the narration of the encounter with the ghost of Francesca Di Rimini, a name mentioned elsewhere in the text). There are also allusions to Greek tragedy (most likely Euripides), the voice of Persephone speaking in one of the poems of Sappho, Homer, and other classical Greek texts.
The more one reads and rereads the text, and the more languages you know or are willing to google, the more numerous and intricately interwoven become the meanings and allusions. This is most certainly a book that can bear many readings. Despite the fairly small number of pages in this little book, it is a gigantic work and has a far reach beyond all the assumed cultural and linguistic boundaries.
As for the question of translation, it would be more appropriate to understand this text as a recreation or ‘multiplication of versions’ in the words of Sekiguchi, and Sarah Riggs not merely a translator, but a partner in the creation of a collaborative work which has already travelled from Japanese to French and now finds its third extension in the English of this text.
Sekiguchi, speaking of her self-translation into French, notes that, ‘The very idea of an original text subsisting through the displacement of one language into another is therefore put into question…’ [tr. Chet Weiner, in Four From Japan, Edited by Sawako Nakayasu, Litmus Press]
The text itself is nothing but a particular and infinite instance… It is therefore no longer a question of depth but of stretching the surface of the text: such is the aim of this effort at self-translation/multiplication of versions.
Sekiguchi is a must-read, not only because of the intricacy and delicacy of her writing, a writing which carries both the density and weight of a fine-tuned intellect and yet offers turns of a certain lightness, the tongue-in-cheek, and the simple enjoyment of language, but because the increasing availability of hers and other works of contemporary and Modernist avant-garde Japanese poetry in English means there is no longer an excuse for American readers having a complete lack of familiarity with this dynamic and ever-changing modern tradition.
                                                            we read
and are read, we call and are called, in reading,
sounding out, the text remaining silent, we
ourselves becoming texts

The Modernist Tradition in Japan: Some Introductory Comments

January 14, 2010 (This article originally appeared in the Chicago Review, Vol. 39, 1993)
            Japanese poetry as currently practiced has its roots in French Modernism.1 The word for poetry in Japanese — shi — is itself a term originally coined for poems written in classical Chinese by Buddhist clergy and other members of the intellectual class during the early literary period (686-784 AD)2, and hence  has always carried certain connotations of foreignness. It was in this period that the Japanese cultural dichotomy between the native and the foreign developed as a result of an intensive exposure to cultural borrowings from T’ang China.3 A rigid delineation has existed since then between forms which are native (waka, renga, haiku, etc.), and those whose origin is foreign. Despite the existence of some outstanding examples of writers who have blurred the line between traditional form and modernism, when speaking of poetry in postwar Japan we are speaking primarily of work done in the European tradition. Those who have written haiku in a modern or experimental vein have most often been met with rejection by conventional haiku circles. Banished from the haiku anthologies, these writers have usually appeared in magazines and collections beside poets heavily influenced by Valery and Baudelaire. Indeed, Japanese poetry of the 20th Century owes a great debt to the French. Not to say that other influences have been absent (both Eliot and Pound, and more recently Olson and Ashbery, not to mention the Beats, have had avid readers in Japan). French poetry, especially that written by the early modernists, seems to occupy a special position for the Japanese. In an afterward to one of the more influential anthologies of modern poetry of its time4, the poet Ooka Makoto introduces the work of both his contemporaries and the major prewar modernists by way of Baudelaire, Valery and Mallarme. In a more recent critical work5, translator and poet Suzumura Kazunari focuses on poets Arthur Rimbaud, Edmond Jabes and Claude Royet-Journoud, along with the thought of philosopher Jacques Derrida in a continuation of the tendency to go to French sources in search of new directions for Japanese poetry.
            Japanese poetry of the postwar period can be said to have its beginnings in a movement which was the culmination of the modernist effort up to that time6. The voice of that movement was the magazine Shi to Shiron  (Poetry and Poetics), whose publication began in 1928. The magazine featured virtually all of the important modernists such as Miyoshi Tatsuji and Kitagawa Fuyuhiko, and included both surrealist poetry and theoretical writings by Nishiwaki Junzaburo, who would bring a great influence on later poets such as Yoshioka Minoru and others. The magazine also introduced the work and thought of Valery, Eliot, Breton and Pound through translations by Nishiwaki and Horiguchi Daigaku. Shi to Shiron  remained a dominant force in Japanese poetry until dispersing in 1931, less from the political pressure of the rising tide of militarism than from theoretical disagreements.7
            An anthology of 20th Century Japanese writing might very well be subtitled “The Anxiety of Influence”. Despite a certain tongue-in-cheek air to this suggestion, it would be appropriate, considering the fact that Japanese poetry has responded to virtually every major movement in the West with its own version of the same. Japan has had its own Symbolists such as Kitahara Hakushu, its Dadaists such as Nakahara Chuya and Takahashi Shinkichi, and Surrealists such as Nishiwaki Junzaburo. It has also produced a vibrant political poetry which was associated closely with the leftist movement of the ’20s. This is by no means to suggest that Japanese poetry has been merely imitative, or that it has less value because of its dependence on European ideas. As all critics know, patterns of influence can be immensely complex, and rarely lead to a mere carbon copy. In fact, the Modernist achievement in literature by the Japanese, as exemplified by poets such as Yoshida Issui and Tomisawa Kakio, can be ignored no longer. Cultural prejudice and a serious shortage of good translators (preferably these should be poets themselves) has prevented the best of Japan’s Modernist poetry from being properly presented to English readers. It is only now that Yoshida and Tomisawa are being given closer attention through the translations of Steven Forth.
            In his book-length critique of the work of modernist writer Yokomitsu Riichi8, Dennis Keene evokes both the cultural dilemma and personal ambivalence which a project so dependent on iconoclastic newness and cultural otherness brought on its author. Yokomitsu could never be completely comfortable with the European modernism which he had advocated, and later became a supporter of Japanism, and of the growing militarism of the late ’30s. In contrast, the poets of the postwar period have found themselves in a completely different situation. For them, the only literary choices available come from the Western tradition, or at least the only ones which could satisfy an intellect coming of age in a post-nuclear, post-industrial, post-modern, indeed, post-everything era. For the young Japanese poets of today, talking about the latest in French philosophy and criticism, or of the work of poets such as Octavio Paz or Paul Celan, is second nature. For most of these younger poets it is the only thing to talk about. Despite past examples of “cultural neurosis” as seen in Yokomitsu, or in the poet Takamura Kotaro9, it would be much more apt to say, especially in the context of the high-technology, information-intensive Japan of today, that Japan is, and has been for some time, an active member of contemporary cosmopolitan culture. And this perhaps explains more than anything else the involvement with recent European thought, something which American poets have a weakness for as well.
            After 1945 amidst the destruction left by the Pacific War, there was an immense flowering of poetry.10 The modernists, whose careers had been interrupted during the war, continued where they had left off, while younger poets felt the need to start off afresh. One of the first new schools of poetry which arose during this period was the Arechi Group (the Wasteland Poets). Deriving their name from Eliot’s long poem, The Wasteland, this group mixed the influence of Eliot and Auden with the Existentialist thought of Sartre and Camus to give expression to the feelings of desolation immediately after World War II.11 Besides Miyoshi Toyoichiro and Kitamura Taro, the best known member of this group is Tamura Ryuichi12, who rejected Modernist distance and “artiness” for the directness and simplicity of common speech as a means of dealing with the current social and political reality.
            During the ’50s numerous poetry publications, each advocating its own aesthetic and ideological stance, began to appear. Notable amongst these were the Retto (island chain) group which attempted a mixture of socialist realism and surrealist techniques, and Kai (oars) whose best known members Ibaragi Noriko, Ooka Makoto and Tanikawa Shuntaro were the first of Japan’s poets to write in a more popular lyric mode, giving public readings and writing poetic dramas for radio and television. Ooka Makoto later published studies of classical poetry and is well known as the “statesman” of Japanese poetry, while Tanikawa Shuntaro went on to become perhaps the best known poet of his generation due to the simplicity of his popular lyrics13. Tanikawa is also a successful copywriter with his own private office in one of Shinjuku’s expensive office towers. During this time Kusano Shimpei, best known for his child-like frog poems14, established the Rekitei-kai, which remains the largest institutionalized group of poets to this day. The Rekitei-kai embodies the officialdom of the more conventional, and popular side of Japanese poetry. On the more intellectual side, a neo-surrealist magazine called Wani (Crocodile) was established in 1959 by Yoshioka Minoru and Iijima Koichi.15
            Yoshioka had published his first book of poems, Seibutsu  (Still Life)16 just a few years earlier, but had already earned a reputation as a leading member of the avant-garde. He was inspired to begin writing after being exposed to the experimental haiku of Tomisawa Kakio. Later he was influenced by the surrealism of Takahashi Shinkichi, along with other early figures of Japanese modernism such as Nakahara Chuya and Hagiwara Sakutaro. Yoshioka was also an early reader of Horiguchi Daigaku’s classic translation into Japanese of the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. His early poems utilized the aesthetic distancing of high modernism to create perfectly formed architectures — small worlds with their own intense reality, much like his favorite painter, Paul Klee. Later in his career, Yoshioka began experimenting with appropriation and collage, and became interested in the poetry of John Ashbery and Charles Olson. The fruits of these experiments can be found in one of his later, and perhaps most difficult collections, Kusudama 17, from which the selections included in this publication are taken. The word “kusudama” refers to the brightly colored papier-mache balls which could be found hanging in the covered market places of pre-war Tokyo, but the word literally means medicine ball — a grab-bag containing all manner of things. At the same time, “tama” also means “spirit”, and is especially connected with the ancient Japanese concept of the “kotodama”, or word spirits. In a sense, Kusudama  is itself already a translation in the original, “a translation of many worlds, times and modes of being. A world in which the sacred and the profane, the inner and outer, East and West, are inextricably mixed.”18 Yoshioka is considered to be an especially difficult poet. As a matter of fact, one hears the word “difficulty” used so often in regard to his poetry that I feel compelled to offer a definition of the term according to literary critic George Steiner, which may help not only in explaining Yoshioka’s own relationship to language and poetics, but also to place it in the context of world literature as manifested in the 20th Century. Steiner speaks of an “ontological difficulty” found in 20th Century writing:
Ontological difficulty seems to point to a hypostasis of language such as we find, precisely, in the philosophy of Heidegger. It is not so much the poet who speaks, but language itself: die sprache spricht . The authentic, immensely rare, poem is one in which ‘the being of language’ finds unimpeded lodging, in which the poet is not a persona, a subjectivity ‘ruling over language’, but an ‘openness to’, a supreme listener to, the genius of speech. The result of such openness is not so much a text, but an ‘act’, an eventuation of Being and literal ‘coming into being’.19
The mention of Heidegger here seems especially appropriate, as this German philosopher is considered to be a basic by many Japanese poets, especially those of the avant-garde. (The presence of Heidegger has been great in 20th Century Japanese thought, as can be seen in the writings of Japan’s most important philosopher of the century, Nishida Kitaro, founder of the Kyoto school of philosophy.)
            During the 1960′s, the possibilities for poetry opened up even further for the Japanese, as did the opportunity of direct contact with poets in other countries, due to the lifting of government restrictions on travel and foreign exchange. It was during this period that American poetry became truly influential for the first time, especially the poetry of the Beats, who themselves were being influenced by Zen philosophy and Japanese poetry (though mostly in traditional forms). Yoshimasu Gozo20 and Shiraishi Kazuko21 are representative figures of the youthful experimentation of this period. Poetic language was no longer privileged as in modernism, but was direct, expressive, musical and oral rather than existing only on the page. (It is interesting that both Yoshimasu and Shiraishi received so much encouragement from Yoshioka despite the opposite tendencies of the work). A new and significant development in the process of Japan’s cultural borrowing is that poets were no longer passively accepting Western poetic techniques via written texts. Instead, there was a much more dynamic and personal exchange occurring — influence was becoming a two-way street. Both Yoshimasu and Shiraishi had friendships with American poets such as Gary Snyder (who learned Japanese and translated the Buddhist-naturalist poetry of Miyazawa Kenji), Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Rexroth.
            Yoshimasu’s work shows an interest in the oral techniques of the ancient kataribe  (reciters of myths and stories in pre-literate Japan), and in shamanistic ritual. He often gives readings where the poetry is spontaneously created in performance, as in jazz improvisation. Shiraishi Kazuko first appeared on Japan’s poetry scene with a book of highly controlled, well-formed poems utilizing a Modernist aesthetic. She soon, however, became the main voice of Beat poetry in Japan — no longer would she write well-behaved poetry. Shiraishi embarked on a project meant to shock. She gave lively public readings with jazz back-up (and still does), and made the open expression of feminine experience and sexuality her central theme. She has been a leading member in the renaissance of women’s poetry in Japan (other prominent figures in women’s poetry during this time are Tomioka Taeko and Ishigaki Rin), and was included in Rexroth’s well-known anthology of Japanese women poets.22
            As with many American poets active in the ’60s, lifestyle and political commitment became a central focus of the poetic project for some in Japan. Nanao Sakaki is one of these. A close companion of Gary Snyder, who translated some of his poetry while living with him on a commune in Japan, Sakaki’s major concern is environmentalism. Unlike his comrade, however, Sakaki’s work is now all but forgotten. This is due in part to the deflated status of social commitment in a post-war Japan where economic concerns have been, until recently, paramount, and where the average person tends to be decidedly apolitical. On the other hand, it may simply be the fate of a project where lifestyle and ideological subject matter take precedence over poetry itself.
            Before continuing on this admittedly arbitrary division into decades (after all, many of the poets mentioned here are still actively publishing), I should mention Irisawa Yasuo and Amazawa Taijiro who have continued the Japanese surrealist tradition through to the present. Irisawa is especially of note, having published a study on the work of Nerval, along with translations from the French. Irisawa is influenced by both Nishiwaki and Eliot, and has published a number of long poems considered to be some of the best of the post-war poets. Irisawa awaits more extensive attention through translation.23
            In the mid-1970′s Inagawa Masato24 began publishing a small magazine with Hiraide Takashi25 and Kawano Michiyo. This group of poets was influenced for the most part by the Japanese and European modernist traditions, though Hiraide has mentioned the “liberating” influence of Shiraishi, Yoshimasu and the American Beats. Yoshioka, however, has been the most prominent figure for these and other poets of the more recent avant-garde arriving on the scene from the late ’70s and on until his death in 1990. As with many American poets of this generation, these poets had become frustrated with the institutionalization of poetic language, the ease with which one willing to write in a way deemed “poetic” by the major magazines and universities could be published in an attractive, marketable volume, and the commoditization of language reflected in this new poetry publishing industry. This has brought about an interest in further experimentation with language, and with the testing of what Inagawa refers to as “the boundaries”. Inagawa refers to poetry as “the last frontier left to us today”. During the late ’70s and on into the ’80s the latest in European philosophy and criticism became available in Japanese translation almost as soon as it was produced. Japanese poets were devouring books by Derrida and Barthe, as well as the critical writings and aphorisms of Walter Benjamin which had become available in English around the same time. Hiraide has named Paul Celan as the European poet he admires the most, and to whose craft he aspires, and he has also found the poetry of John Ashbery an important influence. One sees a return to critical writing by poets during this period, and also the appearance of poetry which is itself a form of criticism (notice the parallel with the American Language Poets). Both Hiraide and Inagawa have published books of criticism considered to be important and influential by poets younger than them. Hiraide now composes in a densely textured prose poetry style which pushes the natural flexibility of the Japanese syntax to its outer limits. His more recent writing often focuses on minute observations of the natural world which form a sort of space of the hyper-real. Meanwhile, Inagawa’s interest seems to be the testing of various poetic languages. Despite his skepticism, and his criticism of recent ideas of the “poetic”, he still believes essentially in the existence, somewhere yet to be found, of a “pure” poetic language. His more recent books, such as Fuuin (Sign), published in 1986, mix the critical impetus with an informal, though driving prosody.
            Active during this same period is Fujii Sadakazu. Though operating outside of the Tokyo-centered poetry cliques, and with a focus on Japan’s own ancient past rather than Western borrowings, Fujii’s poetry also shows a critical bent. Decidedly post-modern in its mixture of worlds, past and present, poetry and prose, lyricism and critical statement, Fujii’s poetry is an attempt to “deconstruct” the past, bringing out elements of Japan’s culture and literature which have been historically marginalized.26
            Hirata Toshiko27 continues the tradition of women’s writing begun in the ’60s. As with many Japanese woman writers, she tends to focus on the personal and the familiar; her basic condition, social and sexual, as a woman. Interesting to note about these writers is not only the conversational quality of the work, but the unembarrassed usage of regional dialects. Another well-known woman writer who has shocked many in Japan with her matter-of-fact, and often graphic, writing about sex is Ito Hiromi.28 Ito, who has been called “the Kathy Acker of Japan” by one of her major supporters here, Jerome Rothenberg, has been translated skillfully by Leith Morton. A book of hers is expected out later this year on Garland Press.
            The modernist project, its particular relationship to, and engagement with form, continued into the ’80s through the person of Yoshioka Minoru and his highly personal contact with younger poets such as the Sentakusen  and Kirin Groups.29 The poets of Sentakusen  (Kido Shuri, Tsuruyama Koji, Tanokura Koichi), have been influenced by post-structuralist thought, and by recent experimental French and American poetry. Translation, with the strong philosophical and critical overtones which such a task infers in the serious poet-practitioner, has also been important to these younger poets. Kido Shuri has translated William Carlos Williams into Japanese, and while editor of the eclectic Gendai Shi Techo , Japan’s major poetry magazine, translated and introduced, with Eric Selland, the poetry of Michael Palmer, Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian and other contemporary American poets. The Sentakusen  poets were also instrumental in bringing further attention to the work of Nagata Koi, a modern haikuist heavily influenced by the Zen philosophy of Dogen. Highly dense and abbreviated, Koi’s work, a kind of radical classicism, breaks too many rules to be acceptable to the boring institutionalism of current haiku composition in Japan. One of Koi’s disciples, Natsuishi Banya, writes wildly avant-garde haiku influenced by European Dadaism, and has also published highly intelligent and contemporary critical writings. All of the poets mentioned here write out of a total engagement, both personal and intellectual, with the reality of their time. The awareness crosses all of the traditional boundaries between cultures, genres and time. Contemporary painting, music and dance (especially the Butoh) have all been important. The most fascinating aspect of the ’80s in Japan as expressed through the arts, sociological and historical thought, and pop culture, has been the gradual emergence of a natural heterogeneity to the great consternation and disbelief of the conservative political powers. Now that the postwar period is officially dead, it should be interesting to witness the new directions such cross-pollination might take, as well as the possibilities of mutual translation by Japanese and North American poets.
1.             Dennis Keene, The Modern Japanese Prose Poem , Princeton Univ. Press, 1980
2.             Robert H. Brower and Earl Miner, Japanese Court Poetry , Stanford Univ. Press, 1961
3.             David Pollack, The Fracture of Meaning: Japan’s Synthesis of China from the Eighth through the Eighteenth Centuries , Princeton Univ. Press, 1986
4.             Gengo Kukan no Tanken: Gendai Bungaku no Hakken, Vol. 13  (Exploration of Language Space: The Discovery of Modern Literature, Vol. 13, Gakugei Shorin, 1969), Editors Ooka, Hirano, Hanada, Yoyogi
5.             Suzumura Kazunari, Kyokai no Shiko (The Boundaries of Thought, Miraisha, 1992)
6.             AR Davis, Introduction, Modern Japanese Poetry  , translated by James Kirkup, University of Queensland Press, 1978
7.             Donald Keene, Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era, Vol. II Poetry, Drama, Criticism , Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984
8.             Dennis Keene, Yokomitsu Riichi, Modernist , Columbia Univ. Press, 1980
9.             Takamura Kotaro, A Brief History of Imbecility , Translated by Hiroaki Sato, Univ. of Hawaii Press, 1992
10.          Donald Keene, Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era, Vol. II Poetry, Drama, Criticism , Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984
11.          AR Davis, Introduction, Modern Japanese Poetry  , translated by James Kirkup, University of Queensland Press, 1978
12.          Tamura Ryuichi, Dead Languages: Selected Poems 1946-1984 , Translated by Christopher Drake, Katydid Books, Oakland University, 1984
13.          Tanikawa Shuntaro, The selected Poems of Shuntaro Tanikawa , Translated by Harold Wright, North Point Press, 1983
14.          Kusano Shimpei, Asking Myself, Answering Myself , translated by Cid Corman, New Directions, 1969 (a new edition was printed in 1984)
15.          Yoshioka Minoru, Iijima Koichi, Celebration in Darkness/Stranger’s Sky , Translated by Onuma Tadayoshi, Katydid Books, Oakland University, 1985
16.          Yoshioka Minoru, Lilac Garden , Translated by Hiroaki Sato, Chicago Review Press, 1976. (The book is a selection of works including some from Still Life ).
17.          Yoshioka Minoru, Kusudama , Translated by Eric Selland, Leech Books, 1991
18.          ibid… Afterword
19.          George Steiner, On Difficulty and Other Essays , Oxford University Press, 1978, pgs 45-46
20.          Yoshimasu Gozo, Devil’s Wind: A Thousand Steps , Katydid Books, Oakland University. Editor, Thomas Fitzsimmons
21.          Shiraishi Kazuko, Seasons of Sacred Lust , Editor, Kenneth Rexroth, New Directions, 1978
22.          Women Poets of Japan , Translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ikuko Atsumi, New Directions, 1982
23.         Irisawa Yasuo, Translated by Eric Selland in Moving Letters #2  , 1983, Edited and published by Joseph Simas out of Paris.
24.          Inagawa Masato, poems from Those Who Make Us Live , Translated by Eric Selland included inThe New Poetry of Japan , Edited by Thomas Fitzsimmons & Yoshimasu Gozo, Katydid Books, 1993
                Some of Inagawa’s early poems translated by Eric Selland appeared in Poetics Journal #8 , edited by Lyn Hejinian and Barrett Watten, 1989
25.          Hiraide Takashi, selections translated by Eric Selland, Moving Letters #2  , 1983, and selections from Portrait of a Young Osteopath , Translated by Eric Selland,  Lyric& #1 , edited by Avery Burns out of San Francisco.
26.          Fujii Sadakazu, Where Is Japanese Poetry? , Translated and introduced by Chris Drake, The New Poetry of Japan , Edited by Thomas Fitzsimmons & Yoshimasu Gozo, Katydid Books, 1993
27.          Hirata Toshiko, selections translated by Robert Brady & Odagawa Kazuko, The New Poetry of Japan , Edited by Thomas Fitzsimmons & Yoshimasu Gozo, Katydid Books, 1993
28.          Ito Hiromi, three poems translated by Leith Morton, collected by Jerome Rothenberg, in Sulfur #32, 1993
29.          Matsuura Hisaki (a member of the Kirin Group), selections translated by Eric Selland, in The New Poetry of Japan , Edited by Thomas Fitzsimmons & Yoshimasu Gozo, Katydid Books, 1993

This is a forum for discussions of Japanese Modernist and contemporary poetry and poetics, as well as all other related interests. It features articles and essays on Japanese poetry, translations, book reviews, discussions of translation theory and method, and writing on other contemporary Japanese arts. The title, New Modernism, also refers to the need to go back to the Modernists to find new material for future explorations now that Postmodernism is over. The importance of translation as a means to a poetics in Modernism, as well as the tendency to create cultural hybrids is especially important here.

Eric Selland is a poet and translator who divides his time between San Francisco and Tokyo. His translations of Modernist and contemporary Japanese poets have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. He has also published articles on Japanese Modernist poetry and translation theory. He is the author of The Condition of Music (Sink Press, 2000), Inventions (Seeing Eye Books, 2007), and Still Lifes (Hank’s Original Loose Gravel Press, 2011). Eric is currently editing an anthology of 20th century Japanese Modernist and avant-garde poetry with poet/translator Sawako Nakayasu.

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