Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature

by Makoto Ueda
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Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1857

Until recently, there was little information available in any Western language on the development of modern Japanese poetry. A few translations were available, in varying degrees of accuracy and elegance, in specialized journals and magazines, but nothing that could provide either an overview of this important and rewarding field in...

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Until recently, there was little information available in any Western language on the development of modern Japanese poetry. A few translations were available, in varying degrees of accuracy and elegance, in specialized journals and magazines, but nothing that could provide either an overview of this important and rewarding field in modern Japanese letters or a suitable index to the accomplishments of any particular poet. In recent years, however, thanks to the efforts of a number of scholars and translators, in particular Hiroaki Sato, who has published a major anthology, From the Country of Eight Islands (1981) and a half-dozen other volumes of translations, selections from the work of a number of important Japanese poets have become available to English-speaking readers, and it is now widely acknowledged that modern Japanese poetry in translation can be as provocative and stimulating as the modern Japanese novels that began to appear in translation in the 1950’s.

Now that more of these translations are in print, Makoto Ueda, a distinguished writer of Japanese literature and aesthetics who teaches at Stanford University, has decided to take the necessary next step—that of providing a context in which the talents and accomplishments of the major modern Japanese poets can be examined and evaluated. A fluent writer of English and a master of his often elusive source material, Ueda is perhaps the only scholar in the United States who could have put together a study of this sort, and the results will serve to bring the study and appreciation of modern Japanese poetry to an entirely new and effective level.

Following the same approach which he employed successfully in his study of eight modern Japanese novelists, Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature (1976), Ueda intends that the present study should serve not only as a sourcebook on the eight poets on whom he focuses his attention but also as a running commentary on the development of modern Japanese aesthetics. As poetry has always been central to Japanese artistic and literary traditions, dramatic and narrative alike, Ueda’s study provides insights and observations that range far beyond consideration of poetic conventions and expectations. That information is discussed in gratifying detail, but in addition, Ueda provides crucial evidence for a close proximity between the poetic and religious ways of life. In one way or another, he finds in the life and work of the poets he has chosen to explicate the assumption that poetry came to serve as a way toward some sort of transcendental truth. Given the century and its restless preoccupations, these poets cannot always be identified as Buddhist, but their attitudes about poetry and its place in life call to mind the views of such great figures in the Japanese literary tradition as the waka poet Saigy (1118-1190); the court poet Shunzei (1114-1204), who used the composition of verse as a means of meditation; the great haiku poet Matsuo Bash (1644-1694); and the religious recluse, poet, and calligrapher Rykan (1758-1831). All of the poets in Ueda’s survey touch on the great themes of Japanese traditional poetry: the tension between engagement and religious withdrawal, the search for salvation, the place of man in nature, and the means by which the pain of ego and self-attachment can be transcended.

In underscoring the links between the past and the present, Ueda is careful not to oversimplify the story. Each of the eight figures he treats is anchored in a specific period, and each saw himself or herself as an artist of the time, as often as not engaged in the turmoils of the moment. Because by 1900 Japanese society had become modernized and urbanized, the tensions these poets felt are not unlike those characteristic of Western societies in the same period, so that the attitudes and stances of their verse seem instantly familiar, at least in outline. The differences, however, are even more revealing.

Some of the poets considered by Ueda wrote in the older forms of waka (thirty-one-syllable verse) and haiku, some chose free-verse forms based on European models, and a certain number attempted both. In each case, however, Ueda finds congruences, even if unarticulated in certain cases, with the great traditions of the past. These congruences are more often philosophical and psychological than strictly literary, given the impact of Western literature as a force in modern Japanese culture. Ueda provides fascinating and necessary information on certain technical matters, such as the need to modify the classical language; the stance that poets felt they should adopt (usually enthusiastically positive) in response to new and imported European models; and the tensions between the poet’s traditional wish to look inward as opposed to the felt pressures of material life, and the way in which those relationships tended to alter the scope and limits of aesthetic and poetic consciousness.

Ueda shows great skill in describing these issues not in the abstract but by example, chronicling the particular responses of each poet he sets out to study. The range of materials he has examined in pursuit of the themes he sets out to explicate is enormous: Letters, diaries, essays, poems, revisions of poems, reviews, and all sorts of other documents have been deftly juxtaposed and translated.

On the surface, the differing personalities of these poets might seem too disparate to stand this sort of comparison and close ordering. The waka and haiku composed by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), with his aesthetic insistence on “sketching from life,” seem at a far remove indeed from the interiorized, sensual waka of Yosano Akiko (1878-1942), who reveals a forthright, even robust mentality and an emotional power far more direct than that of Shiki or of Ishikawa Takuboku (1886-1912), who, in his traditional waka at least, shows a certain narcissistic, if highly attractive, self-indulgence. On the other hand, as Ueda points out, it was Takuboku who, ever more aware of the tensions in late Meiji society, was to find himself by the early years of the twentieth century the first proponent and practitioner of a kind of socially conscious poetry that has become an important component in the corpus of the modern Japanese tradition.

If these three poets largely took their forms, if not their content, from the past of Japanese poetry, poets such as Hagiwara Sakutar (1886-1942) either drew their models directly from the West (in Hagiwara’s case, from the French Symbolists) in order to open up the possibilities for poetry in their generation, or in the case of a poet such as the artist and sculptor Takamura Ktar (1883-1959), from the actual experience of living in Europe. Ueda examines the work of these two superb poets, among the most satisfying of all to read in translation, and then juxtaposes their work and attitudes against the life, thought, and accomplishments of Miyazawa Kenji (1896-1933), who developed his own modern and powerful aesthetic on the basis of the ancient Lotus Stra, the central text of medieval Buddhism, and his own imagination. Miyazawa has come to be appreciated in translation since the publication in 1968 of a few short selections of his work by Gary Snyder in The Back Country, later augmented by a greater variety of selections in Hiroaki Sato’s Spring and Asura (1973). Virtually unknown during his lifetime, Miyazawa has become a cult figure in postwar Japan, with plays and poems being written about him and extensive critical studies devoted to his work. Ueda has provided for the first time in English a suitably lengthy sketch of this profoundly moving figure, who worked on an agricultural station in the poor northern part of Japan, attempting through his work and his verse to find a meaningful link between his life and the lives of the poor farmers around him. For Ueda, all three of these “Western-style” poets show how closely the life is intertwined with the writing of poetry, but certainly nowhere more so than in the case of Miyazawa, who now seems to many Japanese to represent a sort of modern Saigy, bent on following what has inevitably become, in the twentieth century, a pilgrimage at least partially secular.

Ueda also considers two unusual figures less well-known to English-language readers, although adequate translations do exist. The first is a master of the so-called free-style haiku, Ogiwara Seisensui (1884-1976), who attempted to adjust the earlier form to the demands of modern psychological truth. The second is Takahashi Shinkichi (born 1901), who began as a disciple from afar of Tristan Tzara and Dadaism yet ended up a modern Rykan, expounding Zen parables in avant-garde verse.

Ueda’s generalizations about the nature of modern Japanese poetry are stimulating, but it is the specifics of the thought and work of each individual poet that make the book so engrossing to read. Every captured detail, on the other hand, helps reflect, even obliquely, Ueda’s contention that much of the best of modern Japanese poetry might be described as a form of play that nevertheless leads to a religious experience.

In terms of the centrality of the poets included, the book is accurate but by no means exhaustive and in fact does not range quite widely enough to indicate adequately the complexities and accomplishments of modern Japanese poetry. Most needed is a chapter on Nishiwaki Junzabur (1894-1982), the Surrealist poet who lived for a time in England and France during the 1920’s, translated T. S. Eliot into Japanese, and produced a body of work as cosmopolitan and intense as any poetry during the period, whatever the country. As yet, no volume-length collection of translations of his work is available, and this regrettable lack no doubt accounts for Ueda’s decision not to include Nishiwaki. Fluent in English, Nishiwaki actively discouraged translations of his works by others. He evidently intended to make some himself, a project apparently never completed. Still, an account of the range of Nishiwaki’s enthusiasms and commitments would have done much not only to reveal the significance of the cosmopolitan aspects of a poet such as Hagiwara (Nishiwaki’s spiritual mentor, incidentally) but also to suggest a link to later developments in the postwar period, when Japanese poetry became even more thoroughly internationalized. Ueda has not attempted to account for developments during this later period, which began almost forty years ago, and the inclusion of one of a half-dozen first-rate postwar poets would have helped to suggest the complexity and richness of the contemporary poetic scene in Japan.

Ueda has also provided a formidable array of scholarly aids to those who would like to pursue matters further. He has included a list of romanized texts for all waka and haiku cited, complete notes on all sources used for texts of poetry and prose alike, and a thorough bibliography of poetry translations and secondary items available in both English and Japanese.

This often deceptively simple book is both the most important homage to modern Japanese poetry to appear in English and a work of love, skill, and high insight. For those interested in poetry in general, and for those who wonder how the rapid changes in Japanese society affected the most sensitive literary minds of several generations, Ueda’s book will prove both an indispensable and exhilarating guide.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5

Library Journal. CVIII, August, 1983, p. 1484.

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