Reflections on modern Japanese poetry 5: Iijima Koitsu and the pain and healing of poetry

   Many people turn to poetry at times of difficulty (if only they would turn to it at others times too - it would do wonders for poetry sales), and poetry has a reputation as a medium of healing. But the reality seems to be somewhat more complicated than that. Fiona Sampson points out, for example, that the claim for poetry to be intrinsically therapeutic is called into question by the significant number of poets who have taken their own lives.

飯島耕一(Iijima Koichi)'s poem 母国語 (Mother Tongue) explores this theme of poetry and suffering (among others) through his experiences of living for six months in another country and language.

In the half year I spent abroad
I did not once think
I want to write a poem
I forgot myself
and walked around the place
When I was asked why I wasn't writing poems
I could never give an answer

When I came back to Japan
after a little
I couldn't live without writing poems
Now I understand
at last the half year I could walk around
without writing poems
I have come back inside
my mother tongue

   The next stanza is not easy to translate*, because Iijima dissects the Japanese word for mother tongue, 母国語 into its three elements - 母 mother, 国 country, 語 language. Our English 'mother tongue' lacks the middle word, 'country'. After drawing out these three elements, he continues,

This half year when I was telling myself I am cut off
from my mother, my country and my language
I walked through reality
without getting wounded
In me   there was almost
no need to write poems

His half year abroad was no less real than the majority of his life spent in Japan, and yet there was an alienation attached to it, but an ambiguous one. He was 'telling himself' that he was cut off - a sort of self-caused, self-proclaimed alienation, but not a total one. However, this cutting off from three major influences on his experience of life thus far (mother, country and language) rendered this reality one that hung loosely to him, or one that could not penetrate to the deep places within him, and therefore couldn't wound him. And if there was no wounding, there were no poems, no pressing need for them; he could walk aimlessly through reality without them.
    Whilst I am no deconstructionist, there is no denying that our experience of much of life is mediated through language, and therefore 6 months immersed in and experiencing life through a foreign language of necessity transforms, or translates, that experience.
    We have lived in Japan for nearly 10 years now and the Japanese language no longer feels alienating, or even much like a foreign language. We have been through births and deaths, hopes fulfilled and dashed, bad health and good, and walked with people through all kinds of suffering and joys. I even took my first wedding as a Christian minister here. All in a Japanese environment, all mediated through this particular language, the language which has become my language for prayer, for reading and teaching the Bible, for much of my thinking. Our experience, then, is very different from Iijima's 6 months, and we have long ceased being able to 'walk through reality/without getting wounded.'** I do feel the need to write poems. Anyway, I digress. Let's return to Iijima.

In April, Paul Celan
threw himself into the River Seine but
I feel I understand
what this Jewish poet did
A poem is a thing of sadness
They say that poetry corrects the language
but that is not what it is to me
Every day I am wounded by my mother tongue
Every night, I must set off
for another mother tongue
It is that which makes me write poems   that which makes me exist more

   As much of life is experienced through words, so wounds come to Iijima through words, whether directly, or indirectly. And then there is a further mediation, the 'another mother tongue' of the penultimate line. Presumably a wordless one***, a felt one, one unique to him. It is here, in this deepest of places, that he travels at night bearing the words and wounds of the day, and it is from here that he returns with other words - his poems.
   So was writing poetry a healing process for Iijima? Healing may not be the right word. That final line suggests something different; an enlarging, a deepening, a further enfleshing of his existence; and yet the relationship is not poetry -> existing more. It is 'another mother tongue' -> poems+existing more. The relationship between the latter two is left ambiguous; indeed the effect of poetry writing on Iijima remains unsaid; perhaps he did not know what it was himself.**** The whole flow of the poem, however, gives a sense of urgency and depth and necessity***** to the writing process.
   What he does tell us is that 'A poem is a thing of sadness'******, illustrated by the reference to Paul Celan's suicide (I assume the mention of his Jewishness is intended to bring to emphasise that despite the great difference of worldview between the two, they had this same instinct), and that poetry is not, for him, a corrector of language. This may suggest that poetry and its purpose for him was much more a personal one than a public and communal one.
So were does all this leave us? Is writing poetry therapeutic? Was it so for Iijima? At the very least, I think we can say that for Iijima, it was a necessary means of expression, and a necessary response to the wounds which language inflicted upon him 'every day'.
   If I may mention my own experience (presumably I may since this is my blog), I do find writing poetry therapeutic and, indeed, have been strongly urged by a doctor that having a significant time of writing every week would be greatly beneficial to my mental health. I am very happy to follow his prescription! Though I am not sure I know what the link between the proposed health benefits and the actual writing and content of poetry is. It may just be at the level of having that time by myself each week to reflect, explore and concentrate on something I find stimulating. Or it may run much deeper. The words themselves, the thought and feeling expressed in those words, the discoveries made in the dance with words which is writing.
   So, is poetry therapeutic? I suspect this is not a yes/no question, but a highly subjective one, with a
different answer for different people. It's a bit like asking, is foreign travel good for you? If you are mugged, your apartment is full of cockroaches and you spend the whole time running between a bed and a filthy toilet because of something you ate, you would likely answer quite differently to someone who had seen beautiful scenery, enjoyed the food and various cultural experiences, and met the person who later became their beloved spouse. For the writing of poetry, it will depend on what you write, how you write, why you write, and probably how well you write too. Indeed, different poems will likely have different effects on the writer, and the effect of a well written poem will most often be unpredictable, at least until the writer is well into the writing process.
Would you like Geoffrey Hill to be your therapist?
    The same can also be said of reading poems. Is that therapeutic? I guess that the reading of say, Shakespeare's sonnets, Edward Lear's Nonsense verse, and Geoffrey Hill's, 'The Triumph of Love' will not leave you in the same place as each other. And the effect on each reader will also vary depending on the circumstances in which it is read.
Where is this discussion taking us? Well, how should I know? You'll need to think it out for yourself if you want a clear answer. Or even better, why not go and read and write some poems and see what they do to/for/in you (and your readers). Or, this may be a question which can only be answered in that mysterious 'another mother tongue'.
     But what I do believe about poetry is that a good poem is a territory for exploration and discovery and as a mediator can translate the world and ourselves and other people and thought and feeling and sensation and whatever else you can think of. And so both the writing and reading of poetry have the potential to do much for and in us. But what that will be - wounding or healing, enlarging or condensing, bedbugs or a luxury beach-side cottage - that you won't know until you embark and explore.*******

Liven up Lear's Limericks for the Lockdown

Poetic fun for all ages.

Though Edward Lear’s other poems are generally superb (do read them, or better still get Alan Bennett to read them for you) his limericks are notoriously bad, mainly because of his habit of repeating the first line as the last.

John Clarke's parody of Lear's Limericks is accurate and cutting:

There was an old man with a beard  
A funny old man with a beard  
He had a big beard  
A great big old beard  
That amusing old man with a beard

Anyway, I suspect that some of the 2 people who read this blog may be able to improve on Lear's limericks. For your amusement, here are a few Lear limericks with the last line missing. Have a go at writing the last line that Lear should have written. And why not post your creations in the comments section for the other reader's amusement too (original limericks also welcome).

There was an old person of Fife,
Who was greatly disgusted with life;
They sang him a ballad,
And fed him on salad,
<insert amusing line here>

There was an old person of Slough,
Who danced at the end of a bough;
But they said, 'If you sneeze,
You might damage the trees,
<insert side-splittingly hilarious line here>

There was an old person in black,
A Grasshopper jumped on his back;
When it chirped in his ear,
He was smitten with fear,
<insert some nonsense or other here>

There was a young lady, whose nose,
Continually prospers and grows;
When it grew out of sight,
She exclaimed in a fright,
<insert your jabberings here>

There was an old man of Dunluce,
Who went out to sea on a goose;
When he'd gone out a mile,
He observ'd with a smile,
<insert goose-related idea here>

There was an old person of Pett,
Who was partly consumed by regret;
He sate in a cart,
And ate cold apple tart,
<try not to spill your apple tart here>

There was an old man of Dumbree,
Who taught little owls to drink tea;
For he said, 'To eat mice,
Is not proper or nice'
<no owls were harmed in the making this limerick>

There was an old person of Bow,
Whom nobody happened to know;
So they gave him some soap,
And said coldly, 'We hope
<insert your hopes here>

There was an old person of Pisa,
Whose daughters did nothing to please her;
She dressed them in gray,
And bonged them all day,
<insert something pleasing here>

The world awaits your creations!

Kuroda Saburo and the poetics of humanity

三木卓(Miki Taku), the novelist and poet writes of 黒田三郎 (Kuroda Saburo (1919-1980)), ‘He was a poet who had a constant interest in people living as people, and who always spoke of this through his poems.’ You see this, for example, in his collection ‘With Little Lily’ which is entirely made up of vignettes about him and his daughter. What is interesting, though, in this collection, is that some of the incidents he writes about did not happen, or he has greatly changed them. We are all familiar with the concept of poetic license1, and the liberty of the poet to craft his material; however, for a poet who sets out to write of humans in their humanness, of the human experience of life, of what it is to be human, it creates an interesting tension.
                One of Kuroda’s other big themes is that of alienation and the solitude it creates; that is, according to Kuroda, I can never fully know (or even know to any great degree) another human being or how they experience life, and therefore am, in a sense, cut off from the rest of humanity. It is in this context that he tries to write of humanity – in particular, his own, as he felt that the experience of others was too far beyond his grasp. However, this same thought would render it impossible to convey his own being and experience to others. Nonetheless, such poems can open out our own ways of viewing the world, and draw us that bit nearer to the experience of others.
                Kuroda’s inventions and transformations are meant, I think, to point beyond simply what happened in his life, to his subjective experience of those events. That is, an altered or staged event might better communicate to others his inner life. Along these lines, the other question his poetic interests raise is which most accurately describes our humanity - what actually happens to us and what we actually do, or how we experience those things? To oversimplify a complex existential question, the answer would seem to be both. What it means to live as a human or better, as me in particular, must be rooted in what happens to me, and what I do, but is not reducible to those things. Two people may experience precisely the same event and experience it very differently. We are neither mere machines, nor are we independent from our environment; we are also not simply the sum of what happens to us. Kuroda’s semi-fictions, then, are intended to describe events through which we might glimpse his experience of elements of his life, even though his descriptions of the actual events differ from the facts (in fact, precisely because they differ from the facts).
                What then for poetry? What do we take from Kuroda’s thoughts? Whilst differing from him in various ways*, I think his approach helps us reflects on the beyond-ness of poetry, that is its ability to go beyond relating mere facts, and to communicate to us the emotion, thinking, connections, and dare I say, meaning of diverse human experience. But not simply to communicate an experience, rather to lead the reader into a new experience of their own. Robert Lowell’s famous words, ‘Poetry is not the record of an event: it is an event,’ come to mind.2As do the less famous words of Gregory Wolfe, ‘Great literature moves past communication to become communion – a journey of mutual discovery that takes place between speaker and hearer, an encounter that both have with a mystery that is both a presence and something experienced in the present.3
                All poems, whether they intend to or not, and whether they’re any good or not, tell us something about humanity and, in particular, about another human. If they are good, they will likely tell the reader something about herself too. But a poem can aim at not simply telling, but also involving and expanding, using concrete situations (whether factual or not) to take the reader on a journey into hearts and minds, their own and others’. I forget who said, ‘You yourself are not literature,’ but I’m glad they said it. Writing down your experiences honestly and openly is no doubt a very healthy thing to do, but that does not in itself make it good literature. Literature, as Kuroda saw, can and must do more than that, and give us a glimpse beyond ourselves, and beneath surfaces. And factual situations and constructed symbolic ones are both essential tools for creating poetry which takes us beyond4.

The amazing poetry/moustache competition!

Here it is, the competition of a lifetime! Fasten on your moustache, switch on your poetry brain, and see if you can answer these extremely difficult questions.

Question 1

Identify which picture is English character actor Terry-Thomas, and which is Japanese modernist poet 吉田一穂(Yoshida Issui).

            Question 2

Identify which of the following quotes are from one of Terry-Thomas's films, and which are from Yoshida's major poem, 白鳥.

A) Oh, don't be so ridiculous. Nobody loves a Tax Inspector. They're beyond the Pale!

B) 野の花花,謡ふ童女は孤り

C) 燈を点ける,竟には己れへ還るしかない孤独に

D) There are two crooks here - and both of them are you!

E) And yet, on the other hand, if one will go around marrying persons who pop out of cakes, it's bound to be, well, rather catch as catch can, isn't it, sir?

F) 砂洲は拡きく形成されつゝあつた

Question 3

Who has the best moustache?
A) Yoshida Issui
B) Terry-Thomas
C) Oldham Athletic FC
D) The winner of the World's Best Moustache competition 1997
E) You
F) Lloyds Bank

Question 4

Think of two words which rhyme with moustache. Use them to write a limerick which wins the Forward Prize for Best Poem.

The prize

One winner will receive a calendar of badly translated haiku, a hair each from Yoshida and Terry-Thomas' moustaches, and a small pot of margarine.

How to enter

Write your answers on a hirsute postcard, and send it to your uncle (don't forget to include the 10 pound fee). In the absence of an uncle, take your postcard to your local bookshop and insert it in a copy of 'Uncle Vanya', or 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'.
The winner should present themselves at their local police station (we can take no responsibility if you are arrested/sectioned) and claim the prize.

Reflections on modern Japanese poetry 4: Nakahara Chuya and capturing the experience before words

中原中也 / Nakahara Chuya (1907-1937) is one of the towering figures of 20th Century Japanese poetry and remains influential and much read today.
I would like to mention one of the key tenets in his thinking about poetry, namely that in order to write truly about an experience, we must capture the experience before words come. Since he is talking about writing down experiences in words, that sounds rather self-contradictory, but I think what he means is that in order to write poetry, we must capture our experience/feeling/state of mind* before stock words and phrases, or descriptions pertaining to other experiences come in and start to redefine, or simplify, or generalise that experience. In other words, we must be dealing with that exact experience and finding words and form which fit only that exact experience. There is something of Hopkins' 'inscape'** here. Each experience is unique, and therefore requires unique expression. And that unique expression can be robbed from us by previously used images and words crowding in too soon.
Poetry, then, for Chuya, is the attempt (always destined to fall short) to reenact experience in words, or to draw the reader as close as possible to what they can never truly know: the experience of another.
This insight is hardly unique to Chuya, but his expression of it, and application of it in his writing is excellent, and worth considering.

Reading through Chuya's work***, it seems to me that he only really had two themes: the futility of life, and unrequited love. And yet his poems use strikingly different imagery, metaphor, form and rhythm to express these, because no two experiences are the same. Each one happens at a different time, in a different place, at different levels of tiredness and hunger, in different contexts of nature, accompanied by different thoughts, with different triggers, and so on. Though his imagery is inevitably variable in its richness, at no point are you left thinking 'ah, another one about futility', because, in an important sense, none of them are about 'futility'; each is about a particular moment or experience or state of mind.

I suspect Chuya's early Dada/surrealist influences (his seminal poem, 'Circus' contains the line: 'The customers are all sardines'.) were helpful in training his mind to search far and wide for imagery and metaphor, but he went beyond the Dadaist use of disconnected imagery; his images are original, and striking, but never completely untethered from the concern of the poem (though at their best, they are straining at the leash).

While Chuya's approach to poetry is far from being a comprehensive description of what poetry can try to do, that sense of striving for unique expression of a unique experience/thought/vision/doubt/ thing etc. is surely fundamental to writing good poetry (though if anyone can think of any counterexamples, I'd love to hear about them).  For the writer, it is an essential editing principle - Is this the only way that this could be said? Is this essential to what the poem is striving towards? (note, the poem, not the poet. The poem is free to rebelliously and jubilantly veer away from what the poet was striving towards). And for the reader, there is an invitation to interrogate the poem - Why this expression? Why this form? What does this word/phrase/line break/rhythm bring to this poem? The deeper we dig, the more we approach the inscape of the poem, the unique experience of reading that poem, as opposed to a different poem on a similar theme. Of course, the reader's unique experience of the poem can never be the same as the poet's unique experience which produced the poem, but that is a theme for another day, as are Chuya's sardines.

You can read some English versions of Chuya's poetry by clicking here.

* He was very much a lyric poet#, writing primarily, and directly about his experiences.
** Inscape is Hopkins' word for the unique nature of a thing. So that one bluebell is always different from another, and in writing poetry, one must always be writing about a particular bluebell, or some particular bluebells, not just generic bluebells. A poem about one bluebell which has really seen the inscape of that particular bluebell must, therefore, be necessarily different from a poem about its bluebell neighbour.
*** Available in English here. Having the privilege of reading the originals, I haven't read these translations, but given the quality of the originals, I should think they're worth a go.
****  Even if you don't speak Japanese, this recording of 'Circus' gives you some sense of his rhythmic expression.

# A footnote to a footnote, but I once read an interview with a Japanese poet/critic (I can't recall his name at the time of the writing, and the journal I read it in is a few thousand miles away) who argued strongly that all poetry is inescapably lyric poetry in that, at a deep level, the poet can do no other than to express their own feelings. Is he right? Who knows, but I enjoyed the argument.

Incarnate poetry

Incarnate poetry (受肉化された詩) is a phrase used by poet and critic 小川英晴 (Ogawa Hideharu) in an essay on post-war poetry. He is critiquing more recent Japanese poetry for being largely pure idea, without any life or experience, or concrete detail in it. Interestingly in Don Paterson's book, 'The Poem', he critiques contemporary British poetry for the opposite tendency - being all concrete details with no ideas ('too many contemporary poems read as if they were written by unusually bright seven-year olds')'.

I find this phrase, 'incarnate poetry', a helpful description of the process ideas, and poems themselves, must go through in order to live, and to inhabit us. Ideas, thought, theory, truth and belief are all immensely important for a poem to engage our minds (and, indeed, for life in general). But in order to produce a poem which speaks to the whole person, and which speaks truly, the idea needs to be clothed in flesh. That is, it needs to be born screaming into the world, be knocked around in the playground, get lost, get mugged, eat pizza, swim in the sea, lose a friend, get caught in the rain, shiver, cough, shout, weep, laugh. If the poem is to live and breathe then any idea which dwells in it must first live and breathe.

If I look back at my early attempts to write poetry in any serious way (excluding teenage doggerel, which did not even get this far), most of them seem to me to be ideas for poems, written down in the shape of a poem, rather than actual poems. Not only the ideas in them, but the poems themselves are disembodied; no hands or feet, no skin and bones, no bruises or scars, no frowns or smiles. They have no weight, no texture, and they can never take you by the hand, embrace you or punch you in the face.
Only an incarnate poem lives, and, so, it moves and surprises and ends up not saying what you wanted it to say; it can speak to you, the writer. That means it has much more to say to the reader too.

I feel like I ought to put in some practical tips here, for anyone else who senses the need to enflesh their poems. However, I am going to wimp out of doing that, except to make a few more vague sounding statements: converse with your poem, argue with it, take it to the park, take it to a funeral, make it hold a snake at the petting zoo, tell it a joke, lose it for a while. When you find it, it may have a few words to say to you.

Reflections on modern Japanese poetry 3: Shinkawa Kazue on metaphor (with a guest appearance from Charles Spurgeon)

I recently came across these thoughts on writing poems from Japanese poet 新川和江 (Shinkawa Kazue) (translation mine).

"To me, writing poems is nothing other than the activity of thinking. It is sending your thoughts flying up to a point where you can view from as far away as possible the theme of your poem (A), and yourself (B) who is facing that theme. It is tenaciously traveling backwards and forwards until from that new viewpoint you can see C, which is rising far above the connecting line between A and B. The bigger the swing between the two points, the wider the poetic territory the poem connotes. With the material for metaphor too, we can not settle for things which are close at hand, we must search for them as far away as we can. The further we fly, the richer the scenery of the poem will become."

One of Shinkawa's most famous poems is called '比喩でなく' ('Not a metaphor') which is a beautiful,  precise and ultimately failed attempt to find love, not simply metaphors for love. It is, of course, rich in metaphor found, no doubt, in exploring the uncharted territories of the geography between herself and love. Shinkawa's approach is not to begin with theme A, and image B, but to begin with theme A and oneself. Then to soar up over the vast geography, the mountain ranges which both connect us to and divide us from our theme, to look for new pathways, ones which are both surprising and exact, new and unavoidable, treacherous and glorious. That is where she finds the material for poetry which sheds new light on what is taken to be familiar.

Reflections on modern Japanese poetry 5: Iijima Koitsu and the pain and healing of poetry

   Many people turn to poetry at times of difficulty (if only they would turn to it at others times too - it would do wonders for poetry sal...