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.

New poem!

Actually, not that new; it was written 3 or 4 years ago about events of 20 years ago. Still, unless you've been rifling through my notebooks, it will be new to you.

You can read This and That featured on Nine Muses Poetry here.

Japan and short poems

Japanese traditional poetic forms are famously short, the most well-known being haiku (17 syllables), and tanka (31 syllables), forms which remain immensely popular and influential here. In English they can seem very slight, but in Japanese they can carry a great profundity (when well done). Here are some reflections, mostly someone else's, on why Japan has loved the short form, beginning with some linguistic reasons.
Firstly, rhythmic. The 5-7-5 syllabic structure of the haiku is to Japanese what iambic pentameter is to English. Namely, it is related to the rhythm of natural speech, is memorable and resonant, and has a musicality to it.
Secondly, the way that Japanese words relate, and the way in which varied concepts can be expressed by a single word, lend themselves to extreme brevity and are able to express significant meaning in very few words.
Thirdly, though most (all?) poetry consciously or unconsciously refers to, or is linked to poetry and language which has gone before, images in Japanese very consciously carry their history and a set, but large, group of linked meanings and images (this is inherited from Chinese poetic traditions, and reaches into the rich treasures of those too). This means that even in the short span of a haiku you can evoke an awful lot of things without mentioning them at all.

But there are cultural reasons too. The most commonly noted one is that transience and ephemerality are key elements in Japanese thought and experience, and haiku especially are often concerned with the capture of a transient moment. The poet and novelist佐藤春夫 (Satoh Haruo) (1892-1964) expands on this point in his 1939 essay 風流論 (A Theory of Elegance)1.

“The first thing I want to talk about when I try to explain what elegance is, is ‘that’. ‘That!’ I cannot speak about this except like a child, but the reader mustn’t laugh. When it comes to expressing that type of feeling which touches on our nation’s poetic soul, even if there is a person who you could call, ‘The King of Words’, if he is truly wise, he will most probably just close his mouth.
Many of the geniuses among our ancestors have devoted their whole lives to trying to accurately capture and plainly express this concept of ‘that’ for which words have left me. In trying to find a true expression of ‘that’, our ancestors found literary forms closer to silence than that of other nations; first thirty-one syllables, then seventeen. Also, by ignoring the shadow which makes substance into exact objects, they found an aesthetic method extremely close to nothingness, one which moves substance itself into the shadow-world. Their poetic sense sought such expression, one close to silence, and to nothingness. This was the elegant art of our ancestors.
                The joyful devotion of one’s life to this elegant art is an elegant waste. Those who truly feel ‘that’, who keenly sense the true joy of ‘that’, find their life’s pleasure there, but at the same time so feel the grief of the transience of that experience that they became one with it, and taste the fierce emotion and profound joy of knowing both extremes. It is at that moment that they feel an eternal connection with the universe, and strongly desire to make that flash of light into something which lasts. They desire to take that which is hidden, or forgotten about in some small corner of our worldly everyday lives, that vague ‘that’, and to bring it in to the centre of our lives, or to move the locus of our lives into the place where ‘that’ is; to make that which dwells in a place inaccessible to our daily lives, into our daily lives.”

Does that (or, indeed, 'that') make things clear? Answers on postcard, in seventeen syllables only.

Quoted in 分銅惇作中原中也. Slightly wooden translation mine.

Reflections on modern Japanese poetry 2: Ishihara Yoshiro and the power of repetition

Poetry in general makes much use of repetition, whether it be rhythm or sound or word or phrase, but it seems to me that Ishihara Yoshiro is an especially repetitious poet, often repeating phrases and  whole lines multiple times within the same poem.
     The Japanese language seems to bear more repetition than English, and my observation (though I have done no comprehensive survey, nor even an incomprehensible or incompetent survey) is that Japanese novels, for example, contain noticeably more repetition than comparable English novels. One of Endo Shusaku's translators said that he cuts out much of the repetition when translating, because it doesn't work in the same way in English.
     However, though Ishihara's work is undoubtedly influenced by that tradition and aspect of the language, I think his use of repetition is primarily reflective of his worldview and experience of life - not least his great internal wrestlings with despair and meaninglessness.

In early 1961, he wrote in his diary, 'Truthfully, since I stood on the threshold of youth, I have been writing exactly the same words as these. However great a journey I attempt to undertake, I have always simply been walking along the same plane*.'
   The same thoughts and battles returned again and again for Ishihara, and yet they weren't simply repetitions. Through his experiences, those repeated thoughts were constantly undergoing a metamorphosis, a deepening. Reading through his diaries, the same words come up again and again, and yet they are never boring, and never feel repetitive. Ishihara may have felt that his journeys never took him anywhere, but they certainly took his words places. The first Ishihara poem I encountered was 葬式列車 (Funeral Train), which begins and ends with exactly the same line:

What was the name of that station we left from?

   However, the extraordinary journey (literally, in the case of this poem) he takes the reader on between the two occurrences of the line means that they read as different lines; they have a quite different resonance, a different weight. It is part of the power of his writing to subtly redefine and expand words as he goes along, so that repetitions are not mere repetitions, but are journey markers,  sometimes of a new, but familiar place, sometimes of the same place transformed.

* As in a flat surface, not an aeroplane, or a misspelling of plain.

Reflections on modern Japanese poetry 1: Ishihara Yoshiro and the poetry of silence

Ishihara Yoshiro (石原吉郎, 1915-1977) was a major and innovating force in postwar Japanese poetry. He characterised his own poetry as a 'poetry of silence', a term with a rich depth of meaning for him. He viewed poetry as a striving to say the unsayable, a venture into the silent world of the inexpressible, bringing back soundings and impressions but never fully capturing whatever it was trying to express. You can see this in the way he combines seemingly unrelated metaphors, and breaks off from one unfinished line of thought to another; each of them a striving after expression and being replaced with another when the first can go no further. Although his poems are exquisitely well-crafted, he described his use of metaphor as 'impulsive', the images which came immediately to mind. Sometimes the relation of the metaphors to each other, or to the main concerns of the poem is unclear and very often left unspoken, but this is key to Ishihara's writing. However unable we may be to connect an image or an emotion to an event or a subject, the very appearance of it in one's mind as we experience or reflect on that experience means that it is related in some way, and must be part of the expression of that experience.

 His thinking was greatly influenced by his 8 years as a Russian prisoner of war. During that time, he and his fellow POWs lost the ability to communicate, both themselves and their experiences. Though they spoke, it was largely meaningless. He didn't notice this loss of words until he was finally released and returned to Japan, and began to experience the resurrection of words and expression. This was a process he found painful as it revealed to him what he had lost and also the limits of language which remain even after the slow resurrection of communication. This led to a period of silence as he sought to recover words.
There was also likely a wider cultural background. The literary critic, Furuhon Takaaki (古本隆明), claims that a major influence on post-war Japanese poetry was the severe curtailing of freedom of expression in the lead-up to and during the war. Post-war poetry was in large part an attempt to rediscover words and meaning. It had no aim beyond the resuscitation, exploration and revival of words. For Ishihara, his drive to write was wider: not just rediscovery of words, but also of a self which had been reduced to an anonymous survival machine during 8 years of harsh captivity, but it certainly included both a reclamation of, and an expansion of the borders of words as he strove to edge slowly nearer to the unsayable.

In translating Ishihara, which I am slowly attempting to do, these pairs - the potential and limitations of words and expression, impulse and craft, attempt and failure to capture - begin to form an approach to his work which I hope might enable me to join in his journey towards the unsayable.

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 to...