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Tanikawa Shuntaro, The Greatest Living Poet You’ve Never Heard Of

By Juliet Grames

In her dispatch for this month's issue on Japanese literature, Juliet Grames directs her attention to the post-war poet Tanikawa Shuntaro and his verse— lyrical, unusual, and largely unheard of in the U.S. —Editors

There's nothing quite as exciting and frustrating as finding a piece of extremely pleasing art that you can't share with or talk about to anyone, since no one else has ever heard of it. This might be a favorite book that's forty years out of print, or the music of a tiny indie band that never made it big a decade ago, something you're doomed to love on your own in a tide of public apathy or inaccessibility. For me, it's the poetry of Tanikawa Shuntaro, the future Nobel Prize-winner (according to the irrefutable Wikipedia), a Japanese poet to whom I was exposed in high school when I first studied Japanese, and whose prodigious body of work has been largely untranslated.

English-language readers, don't fret yet—his work isn't totally inaccessible to you (although all my personal favorite poems are, sadly). In 2001, Perseus published a short selection of Tanikawa's translated poetry (William Elliot translated), and a now out-of-print collection, Floating in a River of Melancholy, also translated by Elliot, won the American Book Award. The New York Times profiled him back in 1983 when The Selected Poems of Shuntaro Tanikawa, translated by Harold Wright, was published by North Point Press.

Tanikawa was born in 1931 and grew up in the generation of the American Occupation of Japan. He was mostly self-educated and never attended college. The Times profile furthers Tanikawa's mystique as the archetypal post-War poet, quoting him from the poet's foreword in such a way as to set a timbre for the collection:

"After the defeat, all the values that the Japanese had believed in were completely destroyed. It was a period of a kind of vacuum for us, and nobody knew what to believe."

Perhaps the "post-War poet" appellation is not inappropriate, since Tanikawa's poems are frequently idea-driven, reflective, nearly religious. I remember one powerful line I was made to memorize back in high school, from a poem called "Ikiteiru," or "To Live," in which the poet lists a number of definitions for what it means to be a living human. The last of these reads:

Kakusareta aku wo chuuibukaku kobamu koto

Translated, this is, perhaps,

"[To live] is to ferret out whatever evil may be hiding deep withing us,"

by which the poet encourages us to strive towards lives of perfect goodness. There is some junction of poetry and spirituality, and Tanikawa visits there frequently. It bears mention that, among his many extracurricular activities, Tanikawa collaborated on a pack of Shinto fortune-telling cards.

Tanikawa is no cave hermit poet. His commitment to the arts is multifarious: besides the many volumes of poetry he's produced over the last six decades, Tanikawa has written award-winning plays, penned (among other songs) the theme to Hayao Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle, and translated Mother Goose and Charles Schulz's Peanuts into Japanese (for which he was nominated for a Hans Christian Andersen award for contributions to children's literature). And as I mentioned above, Wikipedia claims he is a frequently speculated candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature (you go, Wikipedia! You help us make it happen).

I've never known much about poetry in any language (including and especially not limited to English), but my Tanikawa Shuntaro I know. When I was learning Japanese in high school, my teacher, the beatified Buck Sensei, would select a poem from one of his collections each year for us to memorize for the annual school-wide poetry recitation contest. They are very nice for Japanese-as-a-second-language students because of their simplicity and repetitiveness. Tanikawa himself often refers to his poems as "songs," or (as with one poem, "Niji"/"Rainbow") actually provides set music along to which his "lyrics" may be sung. This musicality and trend toward variation on a single theme is great for beginners absorbing vocabulary.

I can't help but wonder if this simplicity and lyricism isn't part of the reason more of Tanikawa's substantial oeuvre hasn't been translated into English. I can't pretend to be a translator or have any of a translator's resources at my disposal, but if I said I'd never spent a chunk of time wondering how I would try to translate these poems, I'd be, well, lying. But the task is quite beyond me. I hope that, especially in light of his upcoming Nobel Prize nomination (cf Wikipedia), some other more capable enthusiast might take up the task.

Pondering this, I flip again through my copy of Utsumuku Seinen (How would one poetically translate this? Well, that's beyond me. But literally it might be "Young Man Looking at the Ground," maybe). Utsumuku Seinen is a spaciously set volume of 125 pages of "songs" about life. It is full of heartfelt emotion and pinpointed pleasures and aches. One poem that makes me tear up every time I read it is "Chichi no Uta," or "A Father's Song," in which a father thinks to himself things he wishes he could tell his son, to go far in life, to ride out his father's fallen dreams, to not be afraid of love and laughter like he was.

One of my favorite poems is called "Waku Waku," an onomatopoeia for fluttering joy that simply doesn't exist in English. I'd love to see what a translator would do with that poem, which is told in "old man" Japanese, in rough (or impolite) verb forms and slurred contractions. Kanashi kerya, yopparau, it goes:

If you get sad, you get drunk

If you get drunk, you break out into song

If you sing a song, you start to cry

You start to cry, but end up laughing

[Waku waku, Waku waku]

The purity, simplicity, and truth of his verse are both the reason (I hazard a guess) he hasn't been more prolifically translated, and the reason he should be.

Juliet Grames is an editor of fiction and nonfiction at The Overlook Press, an independent publishing company in New York.

Published May 13, 2009   Copyright 2009 Juliet Grames

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