A Personal Note on Japanese Poetry, for Hiromi Ito

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:10 AM
[Written for publication along with other materials in the Japanese poetry magazine, Gendai-shi Techo]

I would have to go back to the 1950s at least, to recall how Japanese poetry and culture began to enter our consciousness. It had something to do with the aftermath of the war and the possibility for some of us of travel to Japan, but that was not my own case, since I was still settled in New York and my only real possibilities for travel were eastward (to Europe) and southward (to Mexico). I had however begun to read and to be startled by some of what I was reading. Notably at that time it was translations of Japanese Noh theater that I think had the greatest impact on me. Arthur Waley and Ezra Pound were the dominant translators, and what came through in their wake was not only a dynamic dramatic and poetic form, but a poetics associated with ancient figures such as Seami and Kwanami Motokiyo. Their concept of yugen, which LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) took for the title of his early poetry magazine, stood alongside Lorca’s duende, Koranic ta’wil, Hebraic kabbala, and ancient Australian alcheringa, as touchstones for the emergence of a radically new/old poetry.

From such beginnings other openings soon followed, assisted notably by a remarkable increase in works translated from Japanese, poetry and fiction both old and new and, for some of us, religious and philosophical texts newly uncovered and set into readable English prose. By the early 1960s works as old as Kojiki and Manyoshu or as classical as the fictions of Murasaki and the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon were a part of our own private and global anthologies. Along with these came new works of poetry assembled by translators such as Donald Keene and Thomas Fitzsimmons, as well as novels by Yukio Mishima, Osamu Dazai, Yasunaru Kawabata, and others, and the new cinema of directors such as Akira Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima. In Mishima’s case too his experimental noh plays were a further indication of how old forms could be adapted to contemporary circumstances – a matter of some concern to many of us both then and now.

Some of my contemporaries, whom I did not know until later, spent extended time in Japan during the 1950s and 60s – Gary Snyder, Cid Corman, Philip Whalen, and Clayton Eshleman, to name those who come most easily to mind. For myself, with no over all sense of purpose, I used available GI Bill money to spend most of a year at Columbia University studying Japanese language and literature. While I’ve retained very little of the actual language, my sense of some of its underlying strategies was of great importance to me; but not only that. By the end of that year I was able to translate a few poems by Fuyuhiko Kitagawa and a part of Mishima’s Mizu no Oto [Sound of Water] – something that greatly surprises me in retrospect. I also attended a class of Donald Keene’s and for a while I was scheduled to publish his translation of Basho’s Narrow Road of Oku for an independent press that I was then directing. The press’s name was Hawk’s Well Press – after Yeats’s play At the Hawk’s Well, its structure derived from his early fascination with Noh theater. An accompanying little magazine of mine, Poems from the Floating World, also had a Japanese-derived title, not in the familiar ukiyo-e sense (though something of that too) but as it turns up in an old Japanese Buddhist text that I only came across recently: “The [floating] world [ukiyo] is one in which happening gives way to happening, illusion follows illusion, and all of it is nothing but a phenomenon void of substance.” To top it off a series of my poems from the early 1960s, The Seven Hells of the Jigoku Zoshi, had its source in the hell-scrolls of that name, but brought definitively, I would like to think, into the immediate and continuing present.

It was not until the 1990s, however, that I began to make actual contact with a number of my Japanese contemporaries. My first visit to Japan came in 1991, largely at the invitation of Hisao Kanaseki, who was using my books Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin as two of the underpinnings for his own American Indian no Uta. Through Kanaseki there was a reading and feast at a large restaurant in Tokyo, attended by a number of prominent Japanese poets. Most important for me it was there and at a small dinner in Kanaseki’s home that I first met Hiromi Ito, who would later move near to me and my wife in southern California. Hiromi became a dear friend and an important intermediary for me, as did several others over the next two decades and five subsequent visits to Japan. In 1997 at the annual Nakahara Chuya festival in Yamaguchi I came together not only with Hiromi but with a number of other active poets: Gozo Yoshimasu, Shuntaro Tanikawa, Mutsuo Takahashi, and Sasaki Mikiro. Several years later (in 2000 to be exact) Gozo arranged an extraordinary visit for me to Okinawa and from there to Hokkaido, where Ryutu Imafuku received me and arranged several years later for a memorable appearance at a conference and festival around the theme of “poets and tricksters.” In Okinawa too another close friend, Makoto Oda, arranged for a meeting and joint performance with singer and activist Sokichi Kina at Kina’s nightclub in Naha. And it was with Oda, on a very different occasion, that I performed in a musical happening composed by Charlie Morrow and presented at the Bread & Puppet Theater’s grounds in Vermont: a joint work based on Oda’s novel, Hiroshima, and my series of poems, Khurbn [Holocaust]. Needless to say some of my visits to Japan also resulted in a number of poems that I wrote and that have remained of considerable importance to me.

For me, finally, the culminating work in Japan has been the recent renshi event [March 2010] in Kumamoto, in which I participated alongside Hiromi, Tanikawa, Wakako Kaku, and Yasuhiro Yotsumoto, with the last of whom (along with the American translator Jeffrey Angles) I have been collaborating on a translation of the poems of Nakahara Chuya. That the five of us could work, as we did in Kumamoto, across languages and cultures, vindicated for me the sense I’ve long had of poetry, for all its particularities of culture and language, as an international enterprise at its deepest and even sometimes at its most superficial levels. This is something that I’ve written about elsewhere but that may still be worthwhile saying even here.

P.S. Another aspect of my pursuit of a transcultural approach to poetry is my long-standing interest in translation – my own and that of others – as in a recent publication in a University of California Press series of which I’m the co-editor, of Hiroaki Sato’s selections and translations from the poetry of Kenji Miyazawa. Needless to say too that Sato’s presence in New York as a translator and a friend has been another major factor in bringing me into some small comprehension of Japanese poetry as a whole.

Jerome Rothenberg
Encinitas, California
May 2010

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