Books / Reviews

Two billion light years of poetry

SHUNTARO TANKIAWA SELECTED POEMS, translated by William I. Elliott and Kazuo Kawamura. Manchester: Carcanet, 1998, 115 pp. + preface, 12.95 British pounds

In early November 1998, Shuntaro Tanikawa and his translators took part in Britain’s Poetry International. Among the bards contributing with Tanikawa are Czeslaw Milosz, Derek Walcott, Marge Piercy, Galway Kinnell, W.D. Snodgrass and Adonis.

In addition, to his translators, as announced by The Society of Authors, are the recipients of the inaugural Sasakawa Translation Prize (with prize money of 2,000 British pounds) for this volume under review, an award that has helped assure Tanikawa’s place as Japan’s most popular poet in and out of Japan.

Due to Tanikawa’s adeptness at reading poems aloud — among the top four Japanese spoken word poets with Kazuko Shiraishi, Nanao Sakaki, and Gozo Yoshimasu — and to having his translators join him in bilingual performances abroad and in Japan, he has done much to destroy the “Japanese poetry equals haiku and tanka” equation.

The number of his English editions including this new one is nearly a dozen, making him the most translated contemporary Japanese poet and probably only out-done by Matsuo Basho’s many translators.

The number of volumes rendered in English by the current team is nine, while Harold Wright has translated two volumes, including “The Selected Poems of Shuntaro Tanikawa” (North Point Press, 1983).

The current selection contains poems taken from a total of 11 poetry volumes dating from his first, “Two Billion Light Years of Solitude” (1952), published when the poet was 21 years old, to “Listening to Mozart” (1995).

Of these 11, seven have been translated in whole to English (in the case of “Two Billion Light Years of Solitude” there is a bilingual edition available from Hokuseido) and more are in the works.

Fortunately here, we have poems otherwise unavailable from “The Naif” (“seken shirazu”), which adds to our understanding of Tanikawa’s personality; some pieces highlight his frailties as a person.

As Junichi Takachi indicated in his highly enlightening yet at times linguistically baffling critical article “Mozartesque and the Naming of Nowhere” (Poetry Tokyo, Winter/1997), Tanikawa ironically gives the most eloquent expression of the incapacity of words as a viable mode of communication.

The first poem from “The Naif” included here is “A Key of Words.”

Here is the third stanza of four: There is a door a key of words will not open.

We live in a land where even our native tongue seems alien. And that is our true home.

This tone of general resignation is reflected not only by way of some of his poems here, but in his comments as well.

At times, a contradictory personae is evident in an honest, utterly humane manner.

For example, in “A Night Radio,” he dreams “I long for the days when I’d nothing to do with poems.”

This sentiment is echoed in citations in the article by Takachi: “Now it is a pain to me either to read, or to think.

Now I want to keep myself away from poetry, and not to write poems any more, unless it is unremmittable required writing.

Just allow me this selfish egoism.”

Though this dreary attitude may be a result his third divorce in 1996, it is surprising that he still pursues his poetry activities, such as flying to England for the festival.

After Tanikawa’s first poems were published in the journal Bungakkai (Literary World) in 1950, he was asked to write lyrics for a composer. He stated ” . . . I was writing poetry and getting paid.

It was like filling a need of the world [laughs]. I had the feeling that I was offering a service to society.”

Though this comment has a flippant tone, he did and does much to promote poetry in the mass media. He does not emulate the ecological engagement of Nanao Sakaki, the proletarian poetry of Hiroshi Sekine, the poetry of witness and protest of Kunio Hamaguchi or Sadako Kurihara.

He is an aesthete who particularly gives expression to the “new poetic generation.”

contemporary consciousness is given shape in many of these contemplative poems, at other times, he is humorous in a cool way, allowing us to laugh at our often ridiculous lives.

A few poems here are also included in the previous omnibus.

These include the title poem “Two Billion Light Years of Solitude,” (entitled “Two Billion Light-Years of Loneliness” in Wright’s version) and “Nero,” about the death of Tanikawa’s dog, and numbers 45, 56 and 58 from “62 Sonnets” (1953).

The most moving poem from the previously mentioned section is number 58: It’s distance that makes mountains mountains.

Looked at closely, they start to resemble me.

Vast panoramas stop people in their tracks and make them conscious of the engulfing distances.

Those very distances make people the people they are. Yet people also contain distances inside themselves, which is why they go on yearning . . . They soon find they’re just places violated by distances, and no longer observed.

They have then become scenery.

In Wright’s version of the same “sonnet” (in form, not at all an actual sonnet), it is the last stanza that is most different: Occasionally man cannot exceed the place that transgresses every remoteness, Without being seen anymore Man at such times becomes the landscape.

In Elliott’s and Kawamura’s version, the language is more idiomatic, accessible, direct and clipped, while Wright’s version reaches for a deeper interpretation.

As is well known, Tanikawa is the translator of the comic strip Peanuts and Mother Goose.

From “At Midnight in the Kitchen I just Wanted to Talk to You” (1980), number 10, is “in the manner of Charlie Brown”: Under the bed there’s pair of comfortable old shoes and so again this morning I feel like getting up.

Time is actually just like a clock: it works overtime and never gets bored.

Let’s change the subject.

Wind is flowing across the grass, I see the same old familiar scenery.

It’s not easy to change the subject.

This is light-hearted, unpretentious cuteness showing how language can encroach on us contrary to our initial aims, shown in an objectively humorous way.

Other personal hits here are “Naming Hidden Names” from Definitions (1975), “Intercourse,” “World Play” (exhibiting an amazing feat of translation) and the mytho-poetic “some Forged Fragment of the Talaimaika Tribe” from “Coca Cola Lessons” (1980).

From the last poem, the section “What Can Be Counted On Fingers” is funny.

This is actually quite active stuff, so join in! 1 is divided into 2 2 is divided into 3 3 is divided into 4 4 is divided into 5 Ask your middle finger why.

More wacky, quirky fun can be found in poems from “Songs of Nonsense” (1985), like the literal throat-clearing of “The Hole.”

Also, “Sidewalk Shop,” from “Floating in the River of Melancholy” (1988), is a shitty poem. Sometimes riveting poetry stinks! For more commentary on the volume of children’s poetry, “Naked,” from which there is a selection included here, readers may be directed to my article here on March 12, 1996.

While the work in “Selected Poems” may not incite any riots or death threats, many poems will make the reader ponder mysteries and revelation, musings on the limitations of language, and the articulation of silent states.

The work here represents a monumental achievement for Tanikawa’s translators, who have condensed a mammoth amount of material to an exciting, readable publication.

May the poet continue his contradictions so we can continue reading more of Tanikawa’s jocular, meditative, accessible work.

Coronavirus banner