Translated from the Japanese by Hiroaki Sato

‘Lyric poetry has to be exorbitant or not at all.’
Gottfried Benn, tr. Pierre Joris

Sakutarō Hagiwara, who, with his 1917 book of poems, Tsuki ni hoeru (Howling at the Moon), opened up new territory in Japanese poetry by using the language in which ‘poetry appears concretely in words themselves’, as the poet Kōtarō Takamura put it, was a defeated man by the time he published Hyōtō (The Iceland), in 1934.

Five years earlier, his wife, Ineko, had eloped with a man who came to the dance parties he held in his house, and that had destroyed the semblance of family life he had maintained despite his dissolute behaviour, frequent bar-hopping with or without friends the least of it. He was forced to leave Tokyo, the centre of literary and artistic activities, to 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.

More importantly and the mental, psychological make-up that had enabled him to write poems to create an ‘illusory internal realism’, in the words of a later poet, Tarō Naka, seemed to have long deserted him. Those were the poems gathered in Howling at the Moon and his second book, Aoneko (Blue Cat), in 1923. The change was clearest in the ‘poetic diction’ he employed in The Iceland. And Hagiwara felt uneasy about it – so uneasy that he wrote a full-throated defense of the 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 long-time Japanese practice of ‘translating’ classical Chinese writings as literally as possible, retaining as many Chinese words and phrases as is 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 referred to the style used in writing, as opposed to spoken language, although he may have meant more of bungo, classical language with compressed verb inflections. In his mind, bunshō-go also included archaisms such as nanji, which is comparable to the English ‘thou’.

‘That I wrote them in language for writing was to me a clear “retreat”’ Hagiwara 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.

Yet he had to make the ‘self-humiliating retreat’ out of psychological necessity, Hagiwara pleaded.

. . . in writing the poems in The Iceland, language for writing to me was 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 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. What remained in my mind was fury, hatred, desolation, denial, skepticism and all the fierce emotions. The spirit that The Iceland held out as poesy could in fact be summed up in what’ s contained in the word ‘scream’.

– Hiroaki Sato




The New Koide Highway

Here the road that’s just opened
must go directly to the city streets.
Though I stand on this new road where people come and go
I cannot fathom the horizons in the four directions.
What a dark depressing day.
Heaven’s sun low on the eaves of houses
the trees of thickets are cut here and there.
How is it, how is it, that I turn my thought
On the road I did not take in revolt
The new trees have all been cut.



What I Do Not Have Is Everything

What I do not have is Everything:
how is it that I won’t bear this neediness?
Even when I cross a bridge alone
it presses on me scorchingly
and my heart is all ready to go mad with powerless anger.
Ah what I do not have is everything.
How is it that shamelessly as a beggar
I should beg for what someone dropped on a road?
Throw it away! Throw it away!
Grab the meagre honor and hope you’ve taken,
and the sweat-smelly pennies you’ve taken,
smash all that down against the trunk of the withered street tree
after the cars running at fierce speed.
Ah erase all that obscene,
your powerless life.



The Junior High Schoolyard

The day I was in junior high
I suffered from erotic passion.
Angrily tossing off my books
I lay on my back on schoolyard grass alone when
whose pity and hurt was it
flying away from the distance, that azure
heaven’s sun hit me directly, shining not on the brim of my hat.


These poems are extracted from The Iceland, published by New Directions.

Photograph by alper

Bucket of Eels
Three Japanese Books