HOWLING AT THE MOON: Poems and Prose of Hagiwara Sakutaro, translation and introduction by Hiroaki Sato. Kobenhavn & Los Angeles, Green Integer, 2002, 316 pp., $11.95, (paper)

Hagiwara Sakutaro is one of Japan’s most important, and most cherished poets. His first volume of poetry, “Howling at the Moon” (Tsuki ni Hoeru), published in 1917, remains one of the most readable and most popular books of poetry in Japan. His second volume, “The Blue Cat” (Aoneko), came out in 1923. The startling innovation that Hagiwara brought to Japanese poetry was the successful use of colloquial language, a contrast to the formal, long standing 5-7-5 syllabic verse that dates back to the earliest period of Japanese literature, and survives today in the still popular tanka and haiku.

Over the years Hagiwara produced four additional volumes of poetry, at times reverting to classical language and themes. His reputation and popularity in the literary world, however, still lean heavily on his first two volumes of poetry. It was not simply the successful break away from the long-established and deeply ingrained traditional forms that marked Hagiwara’s poetry; he is also revered for moving accounts of his own emotions, the sadness and joy that he felt about his own life. He used images that are found in all periods of Japanese literature — bamboo, moon, cherry blossoms, chrysanthemums — but in his passionate expression, these images of beauty were seen as decaying, musty and ominous. He found loneliness in the dark roots of the bamboo grove; he felt the odor of cherry blossoms to be musty, as if they too were a source of melancholy; withered chrysanthemums became images of decay and sadness.

His poems are sometimes lucid, sometimes mysterious, and at times obscure. Here prolific translator Hiroaki Sato offers the complete text of “Howling at the Moon” and “The Blue Cat,” as well as a selection of poems from other books, a few of Hagiwara’s prose poems, and a complete translation of “Cat Town,” a prose fantasy that reads like an internal monologue on the poet’s sense of his own unbalanced emotional life.

The Green Integer edition is in fact an expanded version of Sato’s “Howling at the Moon: Poems of Hagiwara Sakutaro,” which was originally published by the University of Tokyo Press in 1978. For this 2002 edition, Sato has written a very illuminating introduction. Details about Hagiwara’s life, excerpts from the prefaces Hagiwara attached to his books of poetry, and background of the literary atmosphere into which Hagiwara emerged, give Western readers insights into the poems that cannot be found elsewhere.

Hagiwara was born in Maebashi, north of Tokyo, into a wealthy family. His father, a successful physician, was a strict and typical Meiji Era professional. Hagiwara’s mother was the personification of kindness who pampered her son and gave in to his every whim. It seemed to be a family atmosphere that would produce a happy and well-adjusted child. Hagiwara, however, became so obsessed with poetry at an early age that his schooling suffered. He spent years, Sato points out, floundering through his middle school and high school pursuits, which led nowhere. He began, as would be expected for a young man of that period, writing poetry in the traditional tanka pattern, and for several years he was the tanka editor of a local newspaper.

But it was the pull of the modern, and the new influence of Western writers and their ideas that ultimately drew Hagiwara’s attention. For a period, he was drawn to Christianity, as to other things Western — the guitar, the mandolin. He read with fascination the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Edgar Allan Poe. The philosophers he was particularly drawn to were Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche.

The pervasive melancholy and loneliness that Hagiwara expressed through his poetry are not things that time erodes. The sense of isolation, sexual fantasies and frustrations describe the moods of youths of any era. Reading through the collection, it is astounding how current, how modern and how immediate the poetry of Hagiwara is. Nearly a century has passed since the appearance of the poem “Howling at the Moon,” yet the sensitivities he wrote about then are very much alive in the world today. In his preface, Hagiwara wrote “The dog that is howling at the moon, is howling because he is suspicious of and afraid of his own shadow.” For Hagiwara, “the heart of this ailing dog sees the moon as an ominous mystery, a pale ghost,” and he later wrote “I want to nail my own gloomy shadow onto the moonlit ground so that the shadow will never come chasing after me.”

Of Hagiwara’s poetry, one of the most appealing is the short poem “Kaeru no Shi,” translated by Sato as “A Frog’s Death.” Here, images of horror and pathos send shivers through the reader:

A frog was killed,
the children made a circle and raised their hands,
all together,
raised their lovely
bloody hands,
the moon appeared,
on the hill stands a man
Under his hat there is a face.

One must certainly think of Matsuo Basho when encountering a frog in Japanese literature. A worldwide famous haiku by Basho expresses another side of human sensitivity:

An old pond
a frog jumps
in the sound of water.

How far away from this image Hagiwara takes his reader. Little children at play let out their innocent violence, stand jubilant, and then are discovered and accused. Basho’s frog bridges the gap between a meditative atmosphere and the reality of life, while Hagiwara uncovers the frailty of the human spirit.

The sadness and sense of despair that Hagiwara feels about his own life can be seen in “Sad Moonlit Night”:

A damned thief dog
is howling at the moon above the rotting wharf,
a soul listens,
and in gloomy voices,
yellow daughters are singing in chorus,
singing in chorus,
on the wharf’s dark stone wall.
why am I like this
pale unhappy dog?

The reader is uncertain whether the poet sees the dog as a manifestation of his own gloom, or whether the poet himself is the pale, unhappy dog howling at the moon.

Known primarily for his contribution to the modernization of Japanese poetry, Hagiwara did not reject the values and beauty of the literature of the past. He admired Yosa Buson, and wrote an essay about the enduring beauty of the haiku and tanka poetry of the past. Oddly enough, snatches and stanzas of some of his poems can even be read as tanka-like poems. In volume “The Blue Cat,” the section called The Lonely Blue Cat is prefaced with these lines:

Here’s the blue cat.
And a willow is being blown
in the wind, and over
the graveyard the moon is up.

And again, very oddly, in “The Blue Cat,” a poem titled “Metempsychosis and Transmigration” concludes with the tanka-like stanza:

Where is the weathercock looking
hill of worn soil where the winter days turn
rumbling corn leaves are being blown.

This aspect of Hagiwara’s poetry is a striking example of the Japanese surge into modernism that came with the harboring of a deep love of traditional culture.

Hagiwara’s poetry has been translated into English many times, and in various forms. His poetry appears in virtually every anthology of modern Japanese poetry, but there are few books available that are as complete and as readable as Sato’s full and thorough translation.

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