Escaping East: Shuntaro Tanikawa

Ahead of the publication of his New Selected Poems, we look at the work of Shuntaro Tanikawa, one of Japan's best-kept literary secrets

Feature by Holly Rimmer-Tagoe | 09 Nov 2015

In Japanese Buddhist culture, time is thought of as a continuous flow. There is no beginning and no end; instead, Zen advocates unhurried meditation and awareness. This can be seen in the Japanese gardens that frequent cities across the Western world: water, rocks and flowers are chosen for their symbolic value and to assist contemplation. The sense of an evolving continuum is also an apt description of one of Japan’s most highly regarded writers.

Shuntaro Tanikawa published his first poetry collection, Two Billion Light Years of Solitude, in 1952, quickly capturing the attention of the Japanese public. He has gone on to publish prolifically, and to avoid the peaks and troughs usually associated with a poetic writing career. Tanikawa seamlessly straddles the divide between literary and popular; he is the most widely read modern poet in Japan and is also touted as a future winner of the Nobel prize for literature.

A reason for Tanikawa's spanning the divide between immense popularity and critical recognition, a position which any contemporary poet would envy, is his deceptively simple use of language. He avoids wordiness while at the same time enriching his poems with meanings that can be read on numerous levels.

Shuntaro Tanikawa and Western Readers

You can read his poems as simply a ‘moment’ – a feeling of elation, a glimpse of desire or a quick dose of comedy – but echoes of the past creep into every syllable, along with allusions to history and myth. In the poem A Night, Tanikawa depicts ‘A good old man… ascending towards the sub-stratosphere on a chariot especially dispatched.’ Death, birth and being are tossed together in a tangle of philosophy and references to Ancient Greece. He has a knack for making the difficult and the profound suddenly appear clear and precise.

And yet, among Western readers, Tanikawa is largely unknown. Unless you’re au fait with the intricacies of Japanese poetry, it’s highly likely that you have never come across his work. The reaction to Marlon James’s recent Man Booker Prize win suggests that some literary bods are surprised that there is such a thing as writers who live in Jamaica and equally astonished that they can actually be quite good. James’s win was quickly labelled representative of a ‘renaissance in Jamaican writing’ to mask the fact that work from Jamaica is largely both ignored and unknown by British critics.

There is a pervading notion that the best work is exclusively Anglo-American, meaning that other markets and talents are often overlooked. Carcanet Press are going some way to rectify this by publishing the poet’s New Selected Poems, a collection drawing on the wealth of Tanikawa’s poetry across the decades.

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Tanikawa’s body of work is highly experimental; the form of his poems constantly shifts from epic and satire to sonnet and prose. When reading his poetry, there is a strong sense that he sees the technical elements of poetry, form and rhythm, as secondary to the content and ideas of his work. He views form as an organic process, rather than an artifice used to give meaning to language. “I start writing a poem unconscious of a form,” he says, speaking through his translators William I Elliott and Kazuo Kawamura. “As I go on writing, a ‘form’ is born naturally. It sometimes happens that I use a ready-made form such as a sonnet.”

New Selected Poems shows a poet with a delicate hand threading a multitude of ideas together with an invisible needle. Tanikawa manages to do what few poets can: to keep the reader transfixed and unconscious of the poet’s work. The thread of lyrical flexibility and emotional intelligence always remains hidden.

One example of this unseen complexity is his manipulation of the first-person pronoun ‘I.’ The ‘I’ is constantly changing and comes to stand in for – not exclusively – humankind, a wanderer, a writer post-Shakespeare, a carpenter. Pretty much whatever the reader imagines ‘I’ to be. As Tanikawa writes, in poem 55 from 62 Sonnets (1953), ‘I am a discarded vessel in the shape of waiting, knowing I’ll never be filled.’

‘I’ takes on symbolic significance and reflects the relationship between the individual and the wider external forces of community and society. “I basically regard poetry as fiction,” Tanikawa says. “The first person ‘I’ in my poem is both the author, who is myself, as well as a characters in the poem. ‘Self’ is the depth of collective unconscious and is fluid.”

Music and Writing

For Tanikawa, his work is also deeply musical: “Because English ‘song’ and Japanese ‘uta’ contain different implications, how ‘song’ differs from ‘poem’ is hard to answer, but there’s no doubt that there something in my poems that can be called ‘uta.’ Compared to the traditional Japanese form called ‘tanka’ (often called ‘uta’), well, my poems are different from that kind of ‘uta.’ It’s just that I’m a person who needs, for living, music more than poetry; so I think that music has greatly influenced my poems.”

The late neurologist Oliver Sacks, who writes beautifully about his patients with varying brain defects, draws parallels between the creation of music and the act of writing. In his 2007 book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Sacks explains how music is an innate human sensibility and how words and language are mapped onto music, rather than the other way around. “Our poetry, our ballads, our songs are full of repetition… We are attracted to repetition, even as adults; we want the stimulus and the reward again and again.” You can certainly hear the towering musical stimulus in Tanikawa’s poems; sometimes as a crescendo, sometimes as a slow ebb.

Tanikawa recoils from the term ‘post-war poet,’ which critics often dub him, preferring to describe his work as simply following “right along in the tradition of Japanese poetry.” Either way, he is steaming ahead with more writing, continuing to combine literary and mass appeal, while smashing the cloying nostalgia and tweed jackets that poetry has become wedded to – some British poets could learn a lot.

New Selected Poems, translated by William I Elliot and Kazuo Kawamura, is out now, published by Carcanet Press, RRP £12.99