Donald Keene (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "Nishiwaki Junzaburō (1894-1982)," in his Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of The Modern Era, Vol. 2, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984, pp. 323-35.
[In the following excerpt, Keene provides an overview of Nishiwaki's poetic career in terms of the European poetic tradition.]
Nishiwaki has been acclaimed as the founder and teacher of a modern Japanese poetry that is part of the modern poetry of the world. A typical evaluation by an admirer states: "Nishiwaki Junzaburō played a decisive role in the fate of the Japanese modern poem. Together with Rilke, Valéry, and Eliot, he is one of four great poets who represent the twentieth century." He has probably exercised the greatest influence of any Japanese poet on the post-1945 generation. Some critics have claimed that Japanese poetry died at the end of the Taishō era in 1926, but many more believe that a great resurgence in Japanese poetry occurred at precisely that time, and that the central figure in the new poetry was Nishiwaki.
Nishiwaki was born in the town of Ojiya in Niigata Prefecture, where his father was a bank president. He displayed a precocious interest in English language and literature while still a middle-school student, even composing some poems in English at the time. He was also talented at drawing, and at one stage in his career went to Tokyo intending to become a professional artist; however, the decadent style of life expected of young artists in those day repelled him, and he gave up his plan. In 1912 he entered Keiō University in the Department of Economics, but spent most of his time reading literature and philology. He presented his graduation thesis in 1917; it was on economics considered as a form of sociology, and was written in Latin.
In 1922 Keiō University sent him as a research student to Oxford University, where he studied Old and Middle English. He associated with various young novelists and poets, and published his first poems in English periodicals. In 1925 a volume of his poetry in English, called Spectrum, appeared. It was well received, but it is an undistinguished collection of Georgian verse. He also wrote some poetry in French at this time. The chief significance of his stay in Europe was that his association on terms of equality with European literary figures of his own age made him "the only poet in Japan without a colonial complex toward European literature and artists."
Nishiwaki returned to Japan late in 1925. The next year he was appointed to a professorship at Keiō University, and soon afterward began contributing poetry and criticism to Mita Bungaku, the literary periodical of that university. He formed a literary salon where he exercised a strong influence as the most authoritative commentator on European Modernism. In particular, he used the journal Shi to Shiron as a platform for his views, especially his advocacy of Surrealism, the movement with which his name is associated.
Nishiwaki had written his early poetry in English or French because he felt it was impossible to express himself adequately in the Japanese language. In later years he recalled an experience of 1920:
In that year I read Howling at the Moon, the collection of poetry by Hagiwara Sakutarō, and I felt for the first time an impulse to compose poetry in Japanese. Until then my resistance to Japanese style—to the elegant classical style—had kept me from composing poetry in Japanese. I had written poems almost exclusively in English or French, but as the result of the complete sympathy I felt with the colloquial, free verse in Howling at the Moon, I resolved henceforth to write in Japanese.
Nishiwaki's first collection of poems in Japanese (1933) appeared under the unfamiliar Latin name Ambarvalia, the designation of the pagan crop processions held in the spring. Classical European influences are certainly present, but they are less prominent than that of Hagiwara, with respect to Nishiwaki's poetic language, or of Keats in the imagery. Nishiwaki also acknowledged the influence of Nietzsche. "Tenki" (Fine Weather), the first poem in the section of Ambarvalia entitled "Greek Lyric Poems," suggests both his indebtedness and his personal vision:
(Kutsugaesareta hōseki) no yō na asa
Nampito ka toguchi ni te dare ka to sasayaku
Sore wa kami no seitan no hi
The translation poses various problems, but this is a possible version:
A morning like "an upturn'd gem"
People are whispering with someone by a door
It is the day of the god's nativity.
The quoted phrase in the first line is from Endymion; stained glass windows in a Gothic cathedral apparently called to the poet's mind the colors refracted in Keats's "upturn'd gem." The inclusion of this poem among the "Greek Lyrics" suggests that the word kami in the third line refers to one or more Greek gods, but Nishiwaki, in response to an interviewer's question, stated that the scene was observed through a church window; in that case, the occasion would be Christmas. Nishiwaki's own note indicates that the second line refers not to people talking by the church door, but to a scene in front of an ordinary house on the street outside as observed through the stainedglass window. Nishiwaki remembered having seen such an illustration to a medieval story. But here, as in many poems, Nishiwaki was not trying to make up a puzzle that had to be solved by the ingenious reader; the images he presented were intended to stir the reader into creating a new and individual interpretation of the materials.
Nishiwaki's first important publication after his return to Japan was the article "Profanus" in the April 1926 issue of Mita Bungaku. In it he declared that Surrealist poetry, far from being a recent novelty, was typical of the great poets of the past. He cited especially Francis Bacon as a notable predecessor, and claimed that the views on poetry presented in The Advancement of Learning were completely realized only by the Surrealist and Dada poets. Although he insisted that the views set forth in his essay were not merely a restatement of the theories of Surrealism of Yvon Goll or André Breton, Nishiwaki followed quite closely Breton's famous manifestos; at one point he even stated as his own opinion Breton's "C'est du rapprochement en quelque sorte fortuit des deux termes qu'a jailli une lumière particulière, lumière de l'image…." Nishiwaki went on:
The Surrealism of Breton destroyed the cause and effect relationship between image and association. It did not merely evoke an obscure awareness, but attempted to raise the electric potential between the images included in the world of awareness and to produce a beautiful radiation of sparks. In short, the point of Surrealist poetry is to create a vast awareness of everything in our minds that cannot be reduced to definite cognition. Surrealist poetry constructs a world of chaotic consciousness, which consciousness itself could never construct. This last statement is not borrowed from the French Surrealists. It is entirely my own opinion.
Nishiwaki's poetry is often puzzling on first reading, and sometimes its meaning eludes to the end even the most determined annotators. This is not surprising in a poet who professed allegiance to such Surrealist principles as "automatic writing"; indeed, it is more surprising that so much of his poetry is not only easily intelligible but sensually pleasing. It is quite possible to read his poems, especially those of the later collections, without reference to any body of poetic doctrines. The surface beauty is so appealing that at times the reader may not trouble to unravel any ambiguities in the text. This is true of the early poem "Ame" (Rain):
The south wind has brought soft goddesses.
They have wet the bronze, wet the fountain,
Wet the swallows' wings, wet the golden feathers,
Wet the tidewater, wet the sand, wet the fishes,
Gently wet the temples, baths and theaters;
This procession of gentle, soft goddesses
Has wet my tongue.
Obviously there is humor in the statements that rain has wet tide water, fishes, and other objects that are wet from the start, and the poetic conceit of imagining the raindrops are "goddesses" brought by the wind is also faintly comic. The scene of the poem is Mediterranean, possibly Rome, as suggested by the mention of bronze statues, fountains, temples, baths, and theaters. Perhaps there is an oblique reference to the Ambarvalia processions in honor of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, in the words "this procession of gentle, soft goddesses." But even without such elucidations the poem is immediately attractive.
Another early poem, also from Ambarvalia, composed of seemingly disconnected fragments, evokes the emotions of a traveler, probably the poet himself. It is called "Tabibito" (Traveler):
You, irascible traveler!
Your excrement has flowed into the Hibernian sea,
You have defiled the North Sea Atlantis the Mediterranean.
May you return to your village
And bless the cliffs of your old home!
That naked soil is your daybreak.
Akebia fruits, like your soul,
Have been dangling all summer.
Instead of explaining or describing the traveler's longing for home, Nishiwaki names the foreign seas he has defiled and suggests the restoration of his senses that his native soil will bring. The akebia fruits growing along the cliffs at home have dangled in the wind like his soul, all but forgotten and waiting for someone to discover them. In later years Nishiwaki wrote about this poem:
The world of poetry is a world of faint awareness, I believe. If this were not the case, awareness would transcend the world of poetry. The world of poetry is a harmony of reality and dream. Humor and pathos must be faintly admixed to create a single, rare entity…. I should like to seek in poetry a faint humor and a faint pathos. That is the kind of poetry I like. Last November, in the mountains by the coast I tried sucking dockmackie (gamazumi) fruits with my children. They tasted like pomegranates, and stirred in me a faint pathos. I felt a faint pathos also in the red earth and the mossy boulders, the voice of a song thrush, the crooked saké bottle. Such things become poems for me in the same manner as poems made of...
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