How important is a poet’s personal appeal? This question arises with each of these new volumes of translation, all of them bilingual. The three poets, otherwise quite different and unconnected, are only brought together fortuitously in this review.
Ryokan (1758-1831), monk, and poet, has already been introduced to Western readers, usually in the context of Zen Buddhism. Born in Izumozaki on the coast of Niigata Prefecture, he first followed his father in taking up the duties of a public functionary. But this work did not agree with him, and he soon gave it up to enter a religious order.
For much of his later life, he lived alone in a hut on a mountainside, bitterly cold in winter, but delighted by the natural world throughout the year. He sustained himself by begging, and was much loved in the small community where he was known.
The present translation, containing 100 tanka and 20 haiku, has been produced to coincide with a symposium on Ryokan’s work, the untranslated preface tells us. Sanford Goldstein’s introductory essay gives little biographical information, for which the reader will have to turn elsewhere. But a list of further reading is provided, and the notes on the poems, as with Goldstein’s other volumes, give full and helpful comments.
Though Ryokan’s father had been a haiku poet before his untimely suicide, the son seems largely self-taught. His self-study was mainly in the “Man’yoshu,” Japan’s earliest anthology. There is a classical elegance to many of the verses, but there is earthiness and humor too:
fleas and lice, if they were insects that could sing my bosom would be the Plain of Musashi
The popular image of Ryokan is of a kindly old man, playing ball with the village children, or stopping to pick violets by the side of a path, and leaving his begging-bowl behind:
I forgot and left my begging-bowl but no one took it, no one took it, my poor begging-bowl!
The slight awkwardness of this rendering is made clearer by the note, which explains the sense of pity (“aware”) that the poet felt toward the forsaken bowl.
The latter poem is well known, and one can see the attraction of his personality. Representations of it tend to emphasize the sentimental aspects, something which Ryokan’s translators (John Stevens, Burton Watson, Nobuyuki Yuasa, inter alia)have not always successfully avoided. But there are undeniably appealing moments:
left behind by the thief:
the moon in my window
with a hand-towel
I hide my old face:
the Bon dancing
In one of his haiku, Ryokan parodies the best-known verse by his 17th-century predecessor Basho, and there is another that seems to look forward to the 20th-century priest and poet Santoka. But, unlike these two, Ryokan lived for long periods in one place, and was not a wanderer. Essentially he belongs in the long line of inspired Zen devotees who were known as holy men and fools.
Masajo Suzuki (b. 1906), who owns a bar in Ginza, has never lived separately from the world’s concerns, but always very firmly in them. Married young, her husband disappeared after the birth of their daughter. When her older sister died, she was obliged to marry her dead sister’s husband and take over the management of a hotel. Later, she betrayed her second husband for another man, who was also married.
Masajo’s work is sensual and erotic; which is unusual for haiku:
the last drop from the perfume bottle — cherry blossom rain
cyclamen — longing for him tonight I shave my eyebrows
For many years, the poet and her lover could only meet at certain times, until eventually he became ill and died. Masajo’s love was not the unrequited one said to be good for poets, but difficult and intermittent. From the difficulties she has fashioned an individual poetry in a traditional form. Her poems are undeniably attractive.
The tanka, which is slightly longer than the haiku, is generally thought to be more emotionally expressive. Masajo’s achievement is to combine the seasonal strictures of the shorter form with a passionate content, and still allow the reader freedom to imagine. Her imagery is always very clear, and objectively observed, even as it is intensely personal. Both the translators are haiku poets, and have conveyed Masajo’s verses in admirably clear English.
What gives an edge to the poems is the risks that the poet herself has taken:
firefly light: I step off the path of woman’s virtue
The haiku have been chosen from several collections, and this is the first translation of them. Besides winning prizes, Masajo Suzuki has enjoyed popular success, which is rare for a haiku poet. In a field in which most publication is subsidized by authors, the fact that her poems sell is itself proof of their appeal.
Of all contemporary poets, Shuntaro Tanikawa (b. 1931) is probably the most popular. He is able to live entirely on his writing and the various activities connected with it. Since his first collection appeared almost half a century ago, he has produced dozens of volumes in a variety of styles. His translations of Peanuts and Mother Goose have been much acclaimed, and he has appeared frequently on television.
Tanikawa’s growing reputation overseas is indicated, for example, by the fact that the selection of his work in the “Penguin Book of Japanese Verse” has been expanded in the revised edition. One of his books received an award in the United States, and altogether about 10 volumes by him have appeared in English. The latest of these is a “Selected Poems” from Carcanet in Britain.
The bulk of Tanikawa’s work in English has been translated by the same team (William I. Elliott and Kazuo Kawamura) that made the Carcanet selection.
“Looking Down” offers an opportunity to read some early work that has not appeared before in English. It is a substantial collection that illustrates the full range of Tanikawa’s writing, from the briefly epigrammatic, through lyric sequences, to his experiments with sonnets. As always, the poems are imbued with metaphysical concern.
“Can you hear the stillness?” the poet asks in the opening poem, and answers: “It lurks in lovers in the evening.” In “Tokyo Ballad” he writes:
In Tokyo, you cannot see the sky if you don’t keep your eyes tightly shut.
In Tokyo, you cannot dream if you don’t keep your eyes wide open.
There are other ruminations on the city too. Elsewhere, the “Village of Illusion” is an international exhibition, and some poems create imaginary fairy stories. But the translations are occasionally problematic.
The problems begin with the book’s title, where the fact that it is a young person (“seinen”) gazing downward has not been conveyed. Nor is it apparent from the translated poem. Again, in “A Sightseeing Flight,” we are only told that the subject is “she,” not a young woman or a girl (“shojo”). It is helpful that, as in the other volumes here reviewed, the Japanese original has been included, but it is somewhat unsatisfactory that we have to turn to it to ascertain the meaning.
Now and then the reader snags on phrasing that seems jarring or unnatural, as in “The Sea,” where we are told: “Sometimes it bends / a gigantic tanker like a twig.” The second line of this is nicely rhythmic, but the verb in Japanese means “smash” or “shatter,” so the standard idiom “snaps like a twig” would certainly be clearer,” so the standard idiom “snaps like a twig” would certainly be clearer.
The difficulties involved in translating from Japanese are especially evident in the penultimate poem, called “The Tree.”
The Japanese title, “Ki,” might be called the keyword here. It is one of those simple kanji that beginners quickly learn, and the poet begins numerous lines of the six-part poem with this word. Arranged along the top of the page, from which the meaning vertically descends, they form a little windbreak of their own. Imitating this, part five of the English version starts:
a tree is shaved a tree is chopped,
a tree is painted.
But surely a painted “tree” is not what the last line indicates exactly. When trees are felled, they become logs, which are then cut up as timber, which is coated with paint or varnish as the case may be. The Japanese word “ki” means both “tree” and “wood,” which are different things in English. In maintaining the rhythm of the original, the translators have lost some of the meaning, so that we cannot, as it were, see the wood for the trees. Seemingly simple poems can sometimes be the hardest to translate.
Tanikawa’s poems, though not given in this book in roman letters, should not prove too daunting for the interested reader to attempt in Japanese. In spite of these shortcomings, the poet’s personality does come through, above all in his reading of poems on the CD that the book includes. There are some 40 of these, the English following the Japanese each time, and the recording lasts about an hour.
Tanikawa’s quirky, boyish voice brings the poems very much to life. And even without the poet’s charismatic presence, which makes his live readings so successful, there is still much in this collection to enjoy.
And the answer to the question? Well, if the work itself isn’t any good, no amount of personal charm will compensate for this. But there can be no doubt that an attractive person or an interesting life may act as an enhancement to a body of accomplished work.