Modernist 20th-century writer Sakutaro Hagiwara redefined Japanese poetry with his free-style verse and daringly common subject matter; he reached sublime heights by examining the mundane.

Cat Town, by Sakutaro Hagiwara, Translated by Hiroaki Sato.
NYRB Poets, Poetry.

Published by the New York Review of Books’ new poetry series, this slim edition begins with Hagiwara’s first two collections of poetry and ends with his surreal, lyrical prose poem, “Cat Town” — the name chosen for this collection.

Meticulously translated by Hiroaki Sato, the topics range from clams to dogs, and corpses to bamboo — nothing escaped the perspicacity of Hagiwara and, taken together, his poems reek of the wondrous complexity of life.

Born in 1886 to a wealthy physician, Hagiwara lived the dissolute life of a wastrel. For him, poetry “is neither a mystery nor a religion,” he writes in the preface to one collection. “Even less is it a ‘life-or-death work’ or ‘a sacred way of ascetic training.’ It is nothing more than ‘a sad consolation’ for me.”

An avid reader of Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer, Hagiwara’s poetry is informed by repetition and rhythm, image and immediacy but the ripple of philosophy subtly emerges: “This utterly unknown dog follows me, / shabby, limping on its hind leg, a crippled dog’s shadow. / Ah, I do not know where I’m going, / in the direction of the road I go.”

This small book might fit in your pocket, but the words of poetic innovator Hagiawara will transport you to a surreal realm of the known.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.

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