The Journey to Words: Chris Beckett & Isao Miura on the life’s work of a modern Japanese master

Shuntarō Tanikawa
New Selected Poems (translated by William I Elliott and Kazuo Kawamura)
Carcanet £12.99

‘Giving people poems / is like giving people air’ writes Tanikawa in 1991. And this wonderful new selection feels as light, fresh, vital as air – despite its two hundred pages representing a career of over sixty collections, starting in 1952 and still going strong! It also celebrates a remarkable collaboration with his translators, William I Elliott and Kazuo Kawamura, which dates back to the 1960s. Tanikawa is probably the most prolific and popular post-war Japanese poet, so this book is a welcome and necessary reminder of his ongoing importance. His first collection, Two Billion Light-Years of Solitude, sprang as from nowhere in 1952: not a haiku nor a plum blossom in sight! Just twenty-one, he seemed to emerge from the horrors of a wartime childhood completely unscathed, surrounded by the shiny jeeps and Studebakers, sci-fi comics and X-ray machines of the US Occupation. Whereas an older poet, Shinkichi Takahashi, saw Japan (spiritually, intellectually) as a pair of broken glasses in the bombed-out rubble of Tokyo, now Tanikawa’s young poet listens to classical records (probably Mozart, a life-long passion) and plays games with the Zen river of time:

I govern the time
by skipping three records.

I reverse time
by going back to largo from finale.

I even govern the BBC
by starting with the middle of Side 3.

‘Boys, be ambitious!’

(‘Ambitions’)

The language is colloquial, direct, consciously non- poetic. Occasional Americanisms in the translation suit the background perfectly. In fact, the last line above is a famous exhortation by American agricultural advisor, William Clarke, to his students in Hokkaido in 1876. Tanikawa effectively places his poetry in the vanguard of the post-Meiji / post-WW2 modernisation of Japan: ambitious indeed! So his lines do not count syllables; they are rhythmic, free, humorous:

I’ve no notion
what Martians do on their small orb
(neririing or kiriruing or hararaing)’,

(‘Two Billion Light-Years of Solitude’)

But this is also a world where ‘God is not present. / A new model car ran over him’; where people cannot help longing for wolves because ‘bank notes grow rich and buy slaves’ (‘A Contemporary Afternoon Snack’). Underneath their cosmopolitan surface, Tanikawa’s poems are seriously looking for meaning in the modern world.

Just a year later, his second book, 62 Sonnets, launched a series of intense lyrical meditations on love and death, and the alienation of language:

In the song I sing
the world is wounded.
I try to make it sing
but it stays silent.

Words are poor little kids
forever lost,
who perch on things, like dragonflies assemble
in the midst of dense silence.

(‘57’)

It must have seemed odd and exciting for a young Japanese poet to write sonnets, trying them on like western clothes to see how they fit. And why 62? Something to do with the zodiac cycle? Or that Shakespeare’s sonnet 62 is about self-love, self-study? We do not know, but we feel the power of Tanikawa’s young ‘I’ setting off through life and poetry in these first two collections, like Bashō departing on his Narrow Road with a new string to his hat and a head full of eternal thoughts. There is a world of surface difference between Bashō and Tanikawa, but the search for something like satori, what Lucien Stryk calls ‘an all-or-nothing striving after illumination’, is clearly at the heart of both.

Over the next sixty years, Tanikawa’s many collections (Elliott compares him to an active volcano) continue to engage and delight, experimenting with form, also continuing the poet’s very public tussles with language:

The journey to words
is as far as the journey to Mars

but

It is a word – one mere word – that makes me human.

Rather like Marianne Moore (‘I too dislike it’), he constantly finds himself admitting that he has nothing special to say in a poem or inadequate words to say it. He distrusts titles (‘making titles is snobbish’) and calls a whole collection Definitions, only to describe how everything from scissors to the self is indefinable. Inanimate objects spring to life: scissors talk about the time they will return to their pre-manufactured state, as ore; the ‘plump and snug and feathery’ ball of yarn (in Songs of Nonsense) rolls gaily down the street, ‘three years ago / it was all five fingers / of a lovely glove’. Even a hole, that epitome of nothing, cracks up laughing.

There is a constant sense of the poet testing poetry’s ability to keep up with life in all its strangeness. Poems are ‘a breeze weaving a way between people’ (‘On Giving People Poems’) but they are also like postcards signed by Debussy, suddenly worth six million yen in the financial bubble of the late 1980’s. Tanikawa famously translated Peanuts into Japanese and wrote the theme song for Howl’s Moving Castle. Even in old age, he is determinedly in the world, and in poetry, even as he moves towards the blank page:

I’m a short, baldheaded old man.
For over half a century
I’ve lived tossed about by words such as
nouns, verbs, postpositions, adjectives and question marks;
so I rather prefer silence.

(‘Self-Introduction’ (Watashi, 2007))