Verbal and visual tributes to the poetry of Santoka


HAILSTONES / ARARE / ZIARNA GRADU: Haiku by Taneda Santoka, English translations by John Stevens, Polish Translations by Wioletta Laskowska & Lidia Rozmus, with sumi-e by Lidia Rozmus. Deep North Press, 2006, 33 poem-cards, $50 (boxed)

SANTOKA: A Translation With Photographic Images, English translations by Emiko Miyashita & Paul Watsky, with photographs by Hakudo Inoue. PIE Books, 2006, 400 pp., ¥3,800 (paper)

These two titles have much in common. Both pay tribute to a free-form haiku poet of great popularity in Japan, and now overseas as well. At the same time, the tributes are made both visually and verbally, combining the poems with pictorial imagery. The result, in each case, is a collection of unusual aesthetic interest.

Taneda Santoka (1882-1940), the poet featured in these collections, had an exceptionally tragic and unhappy life, marred first by his mother’s suicide when he was 10. After several failures in adult life, he was rescued by a Buddhist priest and spent some time in a temple, eventually taking Buddhist vows himself. Thereafter he lived as a wandering mendicant, garbed in black, and tried to subsume his unhappiness in haiku and heavy drinking.

Santoka, known by his poetic pen-name (“mountain-head-fire”), has already been the subject of three substantial English translations (John Stevens, 1980; Hiroaki Sato, 2002; Burton Watson, 2003), which is quite exceptional for a modern poet. The unadorned simplicity of his uneven verses, and their directness of expression, offer rare appeal. Though marginal to the literary establishment, he is the only modern rival, in terms of popularity, to the classic Matsuo Basho.

Santoka died in Matsuyama, Shikoku, and it was there at a haiku gathering that I once heard Lidia Rozmus express her determination to translate this poet into her native Polish. This rather special trilingual publication, which is not a book but a boxed collection of folding cards, is the result. Each of the 33 unnumbered cards carries one poem with an Indian-ink drawing (sumi-e) by Rozmus. A graphic artist by profession, she first encountered Japanese art at university in Poland, and now lives in the United States.

The paintings appearing on the cards were previously exhibited at the Polish Embassy in Tokyo. On the inside left of each card, white letters on black, is a poem in three languages (English, Polish and Japanese, all roman letters), while on the right is a reproduction of an ink sketch by Rozmus, with calligraphy by another hand. As befits the medium, the picture is more suggestive than representative. The back of the folding card has a light monochrome illustration, based on a photograph of some natural phenomenon or texture, different in each case.

Rozmus uses English versions of the poems by John Stevens, and her title is taken from a famous verse:

hailstones, too,

enter my begging bowl

A slightly variant translation appears in “Santoka: A Translation With Photographic Images” — this time a new one by Emiko Miyashita and Paul Watsky:

into the begging bowl, too

a hailstone

In this volume, too, each poem is presented in a two-page format, but this time the pages are plain (English horizontal on the left, Japanese vertical on the right). When you turn the leaf over you find a brilliant illustration.

Here, the poems are accompanied by photographs, nearly 100 verses altogether with four pages given to each one, in a book that weighs about a kilogram. The color photographs, by Hakudo Inoue, are stunning, and the slight danger that they might overwhelm the poems is well avoided by having them on different pages, enabling the reader first to imagine from the words alone.

Sometimes, as with an unfamiliar flower, the picture may be informative. Elsewhere, as with a picture of brilliant red spider lilies following a reference to fire, the illustration may add a new imaginative dimension.

There is a long tradition of combining brief haiku poetry with pictures, and even Basho wrote and illustrated his own verses on scrolls and cards.

One of the best-known images of Santoka comes from a verse about the poet vanishing in rain, and a picture of it that he drew himself. That retreating dark-robed figure is suggested in some of Rozmus’ paintings by an upturned “U” shape with another little loop on top. The same figure is silently evoked in a photograph at the start of “Santoka” by a squat little haystack among the snow-covered stubble of a paddy-field.

Though neither of these collections includes this iconic verse, both of them suggest it. The Miyashita-Watsky translations read easily and well, like those by John Stevens (for the Polish I cannot speak). Supplementary material, in the form of commentary or background, is included in both collections.

None of the photographs by Hakudo Inoue are attributed, but one is almost certainly of “Neon-zaka,” the old red-light district in Matsuyama, the city where the poet reached his end.

“Hailstones” can be obtained directly from the artist at 1 Echo Ct #11, Vernon Hills, IL 60061-3003 for $50, postpaid in the United States. Santoka can be ordered from: www.piebooks.com. Shipping rates will vary overseas.