Christian Nagle on Chuya Nakahara

Chuya Nakahara was a Japanese early modernist of conflicting, even paradoxical, impulses: almost apolitical but fiercely iconoclastic; a progressive formalist; occasional swain of his own urban pastorals; an agnostic singer of prelapsarian hymns. He rejected the language of his age, of any age, strove to articulate what he called "the world before the word," wherein the primeval saturates the sensorial present. He was dismissive of institutions, especially literary schools and scholasticism, because, as he claimed at the start of his career, he was beyond their prescriptions. Yet, for all his bohemian airs, Chuya (like Dante, he is always affectionately referred to by his first name) was a proudly successful auto-didact, and his mastery of waka (formal, 7/5-syllabic verse) combined with his eventual competency in French to provide the touchstones for his hybrid evolution. He wrote half under the shadow of his Meiji-era predecessors, while straining towards those Symbolists he admired and translated—Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Mallarmé—and, with an assurance unrivaled by any of his peers, the Surrealists. His English was inadequate to an academic understanding of English-language poetry and, like many other Japanese modernists, he was privy only to a random body of English poems in translation, scattered through the journals of his time.

One should not, therefore, consider Chuya in the context of Western poetry. He wrote not within its traditions, only partly out of them. Yet he was, like many other 20th-21st century Japanese artists, a master of assimilation and transmogrification. Fundamental linguistic and prosodic differences between Japanese and English mean that while incorporating whatever Western formal elements he could, Chuya was obliged to make Japanese versions of others. In his sonnets, for example, since Japanese is non-accentual, he refigures iambic pentameter as waka-form syllablic lines. Although not a pioneer in this regard, Chuya is admired today as one of the most scrupulous pre-war Japanese writers of poems informed by European models. He acquired new thematic and tonal license from his obsession with collections like Le Bateau Ivre, but the element of Symbolist poetry that held the greatest value for him was refrain. Through it he found liberation from the claustrophobic dimensions of tanka and haiku, even while the echoes of their decorum kept his poems grounded in the culture from which they derive.

Chuya was a Japanese poet as defined by his language and the literary traditions he was helping both to uphold and transform. Like many of his quasi-revolutionary friends, he was fond of making universal proclamations about poetry, these born of a relativistic despair that the Continental experiment would achieve, as it did, without him. Yet, unlike most of them, Chuya's art quickly outgrew the limitations of manifesto, and he lent his voice sparingly to the salons of his day and their fleeting, spirited publications. His intense, private industry was a disdainful response to the Japanese 'group society' mindset, but resulted in an oeuvre and artist now revered as distinctly Japanese. Still, Chuya's biography leads one to think of certain Western poets whose early demise also spawned cult followings, popularity that far exceeded what they had enjoyed in life: Keats, Rimbaud, Plath. His death in 1937 (legend says from a broken heart; the coroner's report, tuberculosis) hardly registered in a country feverish with military nationalism, but not even his then-greatest admirers could have predicted his eventual status in Japanese letters. He published only one volume of poetry in his lifetime—Goat Songs, a vanity printing funded by his mother, which sold about 50 copies. A second, posthumous book, Songs of Days Past, went a modest 1000. But in 1947, war-shattered and penniless Japan bought over 20,000 copies of a new Chuya collection, and interest in his unpublished poems and drafts has continued at a peak ever since. The 1967 edition of his collected works spans six volumes.

Although Chuya is not a household name in Japan, the title and refrain to his most celebrated poem, "Sorrow Already Spoiled," is known by a majority of Japanese adults. More criticism has been written on him than any other Japanese poet, and he is the continuing subject of heated, sometimes absurd, scholarly debate. In his hometown there is the Chuya Nakahara Memorial Museum, and Yamaguchi prefecture sponsors an annual festival dedicated to his life and work. As with any genius who is cut off prematurely, the buzz over Chuya since his death has become his surrogate life, chatter trying vainly to occupy the void of his unrealized potential. More tragic still, a dearth of interested, qualified translators has until now kept Chuya's poetry from the Western literary table.

Click here to read several poems from Nakahara's Goat Songs translated by Christian Nagle.