Hiroaki Sato on Hagiwara Sakutarō

"Lyric poetry has to be exorbitant or not at all."
Gottfried Benn, translated by Pierre Joris

Hagiwara Sakutarō (1886-1942) was a defeated man by the time he published Hyōtō ("The Iceland," in his own English) in 1934. Five years earlier, his wife, Ineko, had eloped with a man who attended dance parties he hosted in his house, destroying any semblance of family life Sakutarō had maintained despite his dissolute behavior, frequent bar-hopping with or without friends the least of it. He was forced to leave Tokyo, the center of literary and artistic activities, and return with his two daughters to Maebashi, Gunma, a "barren, barbarous blank-paper zone utterly devoid of any cultural tradition," as he called his hometown. On top of that he called The Iceland "a retreat" (his English) in the use of the Japanese language. The question is—how?

Sakutarō, born the first son of a prosperous physician, started writing poetry when he was fifteen, in the traditional 5-7-5-7-7-syllable tanka form—sometimes called "the oldest poetic form in continuous use." But it was in free verse that Sakutarō established his reputation. And he did so when the question of whether language without rhythm or rhyme could still be "poetic language" was as yet to be settled.

The few decades around 1900 saw the rise of non-traditional forms and the adoption of colloquial, common speech all over the globe. In Japanese poetry, this meant non-adherence to 5- and 7-syllable patterns, and the abandonment of classical inflexions as well as pseudo-Chinese locutions. Yet Sakutarō's writings, as a modernist poet, went well beyond this—at least for a while.

Sakutarō's first book of poetry, Tsuki ni hoeru (Howling at the Moon), was published in 1917. Written at a time when literary diction had largely been replaced by everyday language, the collection blended the two to a disturbing effect. The book quickly became a great success, standing out through its riveting use of language and imagery. The first poem set the tone:

Sickly Face at the Bottom of the Ground

At the bottom of the ground a face emerging,a lonely invalid's face emerging.
In the dark at the bottom of the ground,soft vernal grass-stalks beginning to flare,rats' nest beginning to flare,and entangled with the nest,innumerable hairs beginning to tremble,time the winter solstice,from the lonely sickly ground,roots of thin blue bamboo beginning to grow,beginning to grow,and that, looking truly pathetic,looking blurred,looking truly, truly, pathetic.
In the dark at the bottom of the ground, a lonely invalid's face emerging.
Though the 5-and 7-syllable patterns appear in the original, they are, like iambics in English, in some ways unavoidable, and they are in any case subsumed in the overall structure marked by grammatical progressives. Just one classical inflexion occurs, and it is inconspicuous. The speech is demotic, and the language free of crusty Chinese-derived words—which are, in some ways, comparable to Latinate words in English. When Sakutarō admitted that The Iceland, his poetry collection published eighteen years later, was a "retreat," he meant it abandoned many of those characteristics of "modern poetry" that he had helped champion—although he did not go as far as reverting to 5- and 7-syllabic patterns.

The language Sakutarō employed in Howling at the Moon went beyond the use of daily speech, however. Its rich imagery projected a bizarre world, one that was unprecedented in Japanese poetry. Takamura Kōtarō (1883-1956)—whose 1914 book, Dōtei (Journey), was by general agreement the first to exploit daily language in poetry—judged that Sakutarō opened the way to a use of language in which "poetry appears concretely in words themselves."

And there was something else, as the poem "Sickly Face at the Bottom of the Ground" indicates. Howling at the Moon had some abstract pieces and some descriptive of homely things, but what was striking was the unadorned projection of images contemplated by an "invalid fearful of diseases," as Sakutarō approvingly quotes a friend as saying. Kanbara Ariake (1875-1952), the Symbolist poet, distinctly remembered a quarter century afterward the "effect of taut nerves" that the book had on him, adding, "that impression still remains and hasn't faded at all." In fact, you could argue that Sakutarō's poetic power coincided with the heightening of his mental afflictions. The latter, as later medical analyses suggested, included but were not limited to a variety of phobias.

Those afflictions were to peak around 1915, when at one point he wrote to a friend, "I have discovered my own god," before falling silent for months. Then the mental turmoil that enabled Sakutarō to write poems creating an "illusory internal realism," in the words of a later poet, Naka Tarō (b. 1922), seemed to recede even as he prepared to put together his second book, Aoneko (Blue Cat), in 1923. The change became manifest in the "poetic diction" he employed in the poems collected in The Iceland, effectively his third poetry collection. And Sakutarō felt uneasy about it—so uneasy that he wrote a full-throated defense of this diction two and a half years later: "I wrote the poems in The Iceland all in Chinese-style language for writing," he began his apologia, "On the Poetic Diction of The Iceland." By Chinese-style, kanbun-chō, he referred to the style developed through the longtime Japanese practice of 'translating' classical Chinese writings, verse, and prose as literally as possible, retaining as many Chinese words and phrases as feasible. The results usually come across as terse and 'masculine' against the agglutinative indigenous Japanese language, which can sound more sinuous and 'feminine.' By 'language for writing,' bunshō-go, he was referring to the style used in writing, as opposed to spoken language, although he may have broadly meant bungo, literary language.

"That I wrote them in 'language for writing' was to me a clear 'retreat,'" Sakutarō continued.

The reason was that, beginning with my maiden poetry collection Howling at the Moon, I had resisted [writing] poetry in classical literary language and worked toward a new creation of free verse in spoken language and a bold destruction of the poetry already made. For me to write poems in literary language now was, against my history till then, certainly to decamp toward the rear.
And yet, Sakutarō pleaded, he had to make such a "self-humiliating retreat" out of psychological necessity:

. . . in writing the poems in The Iceland, 'language for writing' was to me the absolutely needed poetic diction. To put it another way, it was impossible to express the emotions and sentiments of that poetry collection in a language other than that for writing. At the time my life was bankrupt, a spiritual crisis was pressing down on me. I felt fury at everything, I constantly felt like shouting out loud. When I wrote Blue Cat, I was in the midst of inaction and lassitude, drowning in dreams of opium, and still held a vision in my mind. But, by the time I wrote The Iceland, I had long lost that vision. Only fury, hatred, desolation, denial, skepticism, all the fierce emotions remained in my mind. The spirit that The Iceland held out as poesy could in fact be summed up in what's contained in the word "scream."
He then turned to explaining how modern-day spoken Japanese, which he had earlier used to its maximum advantage, lacks "tension," how it is "viscous," "inarticulate," "deficient of bounce in rhythm," and so forth. That spoken language—"cadenceless, viscous, as clinging as a spider web"—was most appropriate to Blue Cat, but not here, with The Iceland, Sakutarō argued.

In these poems, Sakutarō also resorted to a heavy or philosophical (if you will) vocabulary that is seemingly undigested. It reflected his absorption in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, both of whom he mentions in his apologia ("Schopenhauerean world of nihility"; "sentiments and imagination with a flexibly strong Will, like Nietzsche's poetry"; and "Nietzsche curses German as a language for military commands"). These and other Western philosophers had been or were being translated into Japanese with certain urgency at the time Sakutarō began writing, with the translations studded with neologisms created by combining Chinese characters. In fact, in his apologia Sakutarō condemns such Chinese-based neologisms as language you can't understand by ear alone, a "visual language that's monstrous," only to say later on that without them he would not have been able to write The Iceland.

Sakutarō ends his apologia with a note of resignation permitted only in a recognized master. "After desperately struggling and suffering in my attempt to discover a new Japanese language, I, in the end, went back to old Japanese," he wrote. "In that respect, I might as well say I have abandoned my cultural mission as a poet."

Most of the linguistic features Sakutarō regretted using in The Iceland are hard to bring across in translation. And his use of punctuation in his poems was exceedingly odd. This oddity has been retained in my translation to the extent I deemed possible, even though this may make the results appear careless at times—a problem compounded by the fact that the Japanese language does not have anything comparable to the capital letters of the English alphabet, let alone the custom of beginning each sentence with a capital letter.

The anomalous diction and style of Sakutarō's original, however, endow many of the poems with an "obdurate fervor" and the "tone of lamentation" associated with certain classical Chinese poetry, as Naka Tarō pointed out—exactly the effects Sakutarō wanted to create in pouring out his grief and disconsolation. The language in The Iceland was, as he said, what he needed to express what, to him, was "the uniform protyle expression of poetic passion"—lyricism.

Click here to read some poems from Hagiwara Sakutarō's The Iceland, translated by Hiraoki Sato.

This is excerpted from the introduction to The Iceland to be published this year by New Directions, somewhat modified for this essay. A fuller introduction to a larger Hagiwara selection, Cat Town, will also be published this year, by New York Review of Books. In this essay Japanese names are given the Japanese way, surname first.