“I have nothing to declare except my genius,” Oscar Wilde supposedly once told an American customs officer. The same could be said of Santoka Taneda (1882-1940), Japan’s beloved modern haiku poet.
But Taneda was too humble to make such a boast. “I’m nothing but a panhandling priest,” he said of his life as a mendicant monk, wandering the backroads of Japan, constantly composing free verse haiku. “It’s because I’m without talent or genius that I’ve been able to single-mindedly devote myself to the path of making verses. I’ve been incapable of doing anything else.”
He was a flop at running his father’s sake brewery, and a failure as a husband and father. He even considered himself a fraud as a Zen priest.
And he drank. He often drank so much sake that friends would have to carry him home, usually after first paying his bill.
Yet he had an extraordinary gift for haiku. Haiku “seemed to come bubbling up out of him just like water flowing from a spring,” says William Scott Wilson, the translator of “The Life and Zen Haiku Poetry of Santoka Taneda,” which will be published by Tuttle Publishing next month.
Wilson first came across Taneda in R.H. Blyth’s “A History of Haiku Vol 2.” “Other haiku poets like Hosai Ozaki and Inoue Seigetsu were described as eccentric, but Taneda seemed to be in a class all of his own,” says Wilson, who was impressed by Taneda’s “struggle to be honest with himself” and his “raw, unaffected and honest haiku.”
This struggle is lovingly portrayed by the book’s author Sumita Oyama (1899-1994), himself a haiku poet and Zen practitioner. Oyama became one of Taneda’s closest friends and benefactors and, in creating the book, he spoke to Taneda’s wife, his drinking friends and even the abbot who made Taneda a priest. The book also quotes from Taneda’s letters and journals, and includes some 300 of Taneda’s haiku, as well as his “Diary of the One-Grass Hut,” written near the end of his life. The result is a complete and compelling portrait of this fascinating poet.
By 1903, Taneda was already hailed as a genius while at Waseda University. Four years later, at his father’s insistence, he married Sakino Sato. According to Sato, four disasters shaped Taneda’s path: his mother’s suicide when he was just 11, his having a wife and son, and his love affair with sake. She did not elaborate on the fourth.
“The fact that he couldn’t sit still while being a Zen monk or even a human being may have been a factor,” Wilson says. “But without that freedom to constantly be on the move, he would not have been free to be himself and to have written his exuberant verses.”
The watershed moment in his life came at age 43, when a drunken Taneda was nearly hit by a streetcar in Kumamoto. In the ensuing confusion, a passing stranger took the dazed poet to the nearby Hoonji temple, where the kindly abbot took Taneda in, giving him food and shelter.
Taneda began cleaning up his life and lived by the temple routine (cleaning, meditating, begging). He applied himself diligently to his Buddhist studies. Where his life hitherto had been “tormented and dissipated,” religion gave him a new path. In 1925, he became a Zen priest.
But, incapable of staying in one place, he was soon off on his wanderings again. Nevertheless, he strove to stay faithful to his Buddhist vows, aiming to “make his daily travels function as Zen self-discipline,” writes Oyama. But he could never shake his love for sake.
Taneda’s friends reacted to his drunkenness with admirable generosity. “Taneda was a great talker and raconteur,” Wilson explains. “His enthusiasm for life must have been catching, and his ebullient vulnerability engendered an endearing empathy.”
“His haiku demonstrate a great sensitivity to life,” Wilson adds. “And this must have made him a boon companion. And while his friends always covered the bill at their hot springs and sake outings, they must have felt fully compensated just for his companionship. It was said that everyone liked to see Taneda coming, even though they knew it was going to cost them.”
This unique blend of genius and geniality is key to making this book such a joy to read. As one drinking buddy puts it: “Enjoying yourself with Taneda somehow always gave you a good feeling.”
For Taneda, life and haiku were inseparable. “Literature is the man. Poetry is his soul. If the soul is not polished, how will the poetry shine?”
After his death, “Taneda became a sort of beloved national resource,” says Wilson, who attributes this affection to the “Japanese admiration of those men who were, in a sense, underdogs, and failed in their missions.” He adds that “the Japanese are intrigued by (Taneda’s) individual drive to be exactly who he was, despite his many failures, and by the poetry that consistently expressed this theme.”
Taneda truly became himself when composing haiku. “To improve your verse is to improve your humanity,” he wrote. His ceaseless struggle to overcome his weaknesses and become a better poet and person is what makes this book both touchingly human and inspirational.
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