Graeme Wilson (essay date 1969)
SOURCE: An introduction to Face at the Bottom of the World, and Other Poems by Hagiwara Sakutarō, translated by Graeme Wilson, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1969, pp. 11-32.
[In the following excerpt, Wilson discusses Hagiwara's contributions to modern Japanese poetry, noting the influences of European philosophy on his works and his success at integrating western and Japanese poetic styles.]
Hagiwara began writing during that critical period in the history of Japanese literature when western influences, almost overwhelming in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), were at last being so successfully assimilated as to permit the regrowth of that essentially Japanese spirit which characterized the succeeding Taisho Era (1912-26). By 1910 the seeds dropped from foreign flowers, not all of them Fleurs du Mal, into the loam of Japanese consciousness were coming up like cryptomeria. Wakon yōsai, that Meiji slogan stressing the need to meld "western learning and the Japanese spirit", was still a living inspiration; and Hagiwara, working in full awareness there of, achieved universality.
It is still sometimes said that the artist's function is to hold a mirror up to nature. The time when that remark was true, if ever such a time there was, is now long past. The photographers have taken over; the photographers who implement the lawyers' pettifogging mania for reasonable facsimiles. The artist's function is (and has, I fancy, always been) to hold up mirrors that transmit not the photographers' literal reality but the artist's individual, even his cracked, perception of the universe. His function in the world is, I believe, to create unreasonable facsimiles thereof. For artists, especially lyric poets such as Hagiwara, are not concerned with truths verifiable by photographs, by the due processes of the law, or by the disciplines of formal logic. They have those reasons reason does not know. Hagiwara was once asked to explain the meaning of an early poem. He replied by asking if his questioner considered beautiful the nightingale's song. On receiving the inevitable affirmative, he then asked what that bird-song meant.… For Hagiwara holds no mirror, cracked or commonplace, up to nature: mirrors need light. Instead, he turns a radar onto nature's hitherto unpenetrated darknesses, feeling out shapes invisible. The resultant images, shining, golden or greeny-silver, often indeed distorted, may, to a photographer's eye, seem odd; but they are authentic versions, visions even, of the truth. For Hagiwara was a native of that strange world where Dylan Thomas' question ("Isn't life a terrible thing, thank God") really needs no answer. And of that world his poems are a terrible, but a beautiful, reporting.
Hagiwara's earliest truly modern poems, of which the first examples appeared in magazines during 1913, show traces of the influence of Baudelaire and the French Symbolists. He has, in fact, been called "the Japanese Baudelaire" but, though there are obvious resemblances in their attitudes, Hagiwara's poetry (as distinct from his prose) contains none of the intellectualism of his predecessor. Similarly, those poems in which he shows most resemblance to Rimbaud are in the lighter lyrical field; and it is interesting to compare Hagiwara's "Elegant Appetite" with Rimbaud's Au Cabaret Vert, the latter the poem in which Ezra Pound considers Rimbaud's real originality to be found. Though Hagiwara's work rings with a certain natural pessimism and despair (themselves reflections of ill health, ill nerves and plain ill-luck), its tone was deepened by study of Nietzsche, Bergson and Schopenhauer. Not only his first book but also his middle-period poetry (notably the poems in "To Dream of a Butterfly" of 1923 and "Blue Cat" of the same year) exhibit that pure but desperate lyricism which German critics have called "the Keats' sickness". These poems do not argue: they sing. They are, in Japanese, songs of those very nightingales which, in T. S. Eliot's poem,
Sang within the bloody wood
When Agamemnon cried aloud
And let their liquid siftings fall
To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.
As Hagiwara aged, his poetry began to lose its lyrical purity and, though it never sank to the level of logical argument, it did begin to organize its imagery into a sort of argument by visual analogy. At the same time he reverted to a more frequent use of the classical Japanese literary vocabulary (a vocabulary or, to be more precise, a syllabary derived from the Chinese), and his poems so acquired a clanging rather than a singing quality. These stylistic changes, of which "Late Autumn" is a good example, have been praised as marking Hagiwara's development, albeit belatedly, towards a more masculine manner. Such may indeed have been the poet's own intention, but I share Miyoshi's view that the change was a retrogression. I would not go so far as to echo that comment ("Even the powerful bow weakens in the end") which so annoyed Hagiwara, but there can be no doubt that his later poetry contains intellectual elements which adulterate, if they do not actually sour, his earlier pure lyricism. His prose writings demonstrate his reasoned (and, I think, rightly reasoned) antipathy to the styles of political poetry which, almost world wide, characterized the schools of the 1930s; but so far as these poets were poets and not political theorists or would-be politicians, Hagiwara shared their everdeepening sense of anger, sadness and despair. Some of his later poems such as "Useless Book" and "What I Don't Have Is Everything" are almost querulous. He became eventually so bankrupt of all hope that, in Auden's terrifying words (which might well have been his own), he moved towards the ultimate silence of death
To less and less.
The reasons for Hagiwara's importance in the history of modern Japanese literature (and, indeed, in the whole history of Japanese literature) may be summarized under the following six headings: his use of novel forms, his use of novel language, his escape from the bonds of traditional metric rhythms, his entirely personal music, his astonishing personal vision, and his unprecedented achievement of sustained lyricism.
The earliest collection of Japanese poetry (the Manyōshū of 759) consists largely of tanka, but it also contains many poems in the longer forms of the chōka and sedōka. However, by the time that Ki no Tsurayuki wrote his catalytic Preface to the Kokinshū (the First Imperial Anthology of 905), the Japanese poetic tradition had already begun to crystallize into a tradition of pure lyricism. "Poetry", wrote Tsurayuki, "has its seeds in man's heart"; and this view of poetry as lyricism necessitating no breadth of learning in the lyricist has remained the main strand of the Japanese poetic tradition. Such a tradition demands precisely that intensity of feeling which is always most tellingly expressed in short forms; and for this reason the chōka and sedōka withered away. Though at various times in the subsequent development of Japanese poetry, poets struggled for the freedom of such other longer forms as the imayō, kouta, dodoitsu and jōruri, the five-line tanka remained the normal mode of expression. Some measure of freedom appeared to be offered by the development of linked verse (renga) in which often different poets would compose successive three-line and two-line groups: but, in the event, this breaking of the tanka into a three-line upper hemistich (kami no ku) of 5:7:5 syllables and a two-line lower hemistich (shimo no ku) of 7:7 syllables merely resulted in a yet greater compression of Japanese poetic form. For the upper hemistich embarked on an independent development to become that flower of Edo poetry, now shriveled to a tourist's gaud, the three-line haiku. Thus, at the time when contact was reestablished with the outside world in 1868, the main tradition of Japanese poetry was rigidly confined within the narrow courses of the tanka and the haiku. The notion of poetry as a vehicle for intellectual thought, the concept of the poetry of social protest, the didactic element in Chinese poetry; all these had perished with Yamanoue no Okura (660-733) from the Japanese tradition.
The first result in the poetic field of the Meiji reopening of windows on the west was the appearance in 1882 of Shintaishi (New Style Poetry), a collection of translations of early nineteenth century English poems edited by three Professors (significantly of philosophy, botany and sociology) at the University of Tokyo. The Preface sharply attacked the cramping brevity of traditional forms ("How can a consecutive thought be expressed in such tight forms?"); and three further collections (Shimazaki Tōson's Seedlings in 1887, Mori Ōgai's Semblances in 1889 and Ueda Bin's Sound of the Tide in 1905) pursued the same line of attack but broadened the scope of...
(The entire section is 3751 words.)