Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Isolation of Two Billion Light Years & Beyond (Tanikawa Shuntarō)

In 1952 Tanikawa Shuntarō published The Isolation of Two Billion Light Years, and was hailed as the first poet of the post-war generation. The following year he founded the Kai (Oar) group with fellow writers such as Yoshino HiroshiOoka Makoto & Kawasaki Hiroshi. Members of the Kai School were lyric poets, expressing the new hopes of the Japanese at this time and acting as a counterpoint to the nihilism of the Arechi (Wasteland) poets, who took the name of their school from T.S Eliot’s work, as it chimed with the desolation of the landscape and the prevailing atmosphere of doom that was apparent just after the war.

1952, was the year that marked the end of the Occupation by Allied Forces begun in 1945, and the nation was on the path to recovery from the war’s devastation lead by its new democratic constitution. Creating a political climate that could generate hope & a new creative outpouring within the society.  This was the background to the publication of The Isolation of Two Billion Light Years, which catapulted Tanikawa Shuntarō, to the forefront of Japan’s literary scene making him popular with both the public and critics.

Two Billion Light-Years of Solitude
 Human beings on this small orb
sleep, waken and work, and sometimes
wish for friends on Mars.

I've no notion
what Martians do on their small orb 
(neririing or kiruruing or hararaing)
But sometimes they like to have friends on Earth.
No doubt about that.

Universal gravitation is the power of solitudes
pulling each other.

Because the universe is distorted,
we all seek for one another.

Because the universe goes on expanding,
we are all uneasy.

With the chill of two billion light-years of solitude,
I suddenly sneezed.

                                                         (Translated by William I. Elliott and Kazao Kawamura)


Tanikawa Shuntarō (谷川 俊太郎) was born December 15, 1931 in Tokyo City, Japan, the son of the philosopher Tetsuzō Tanikawa  and a concert pianist, spending his formative years as a citizen of an occupied nation. He was mostly self-educated, never attended college and began publishing his poetry at around the age of nineteen, quickly rising to prominence amongst the newly forming literary scene. Along with a lot of his contemporaries he came to believe that traditional Japanese poetry was too restrictive, antiquated and didn't reflect the prevailing ideology. They believed that the traditional Japanese culture had been swept aside by the war & was no longer relevant to the reality faced by their generation. Turning to western ideas & poetry he sought to redefine a more universal ideal that would encompass the idea of what he has described as a "universal consciousness."

Anonym 1
 If I stay silent 
I must say I am silent 
If I cannot write 
I must write that I cannot write 

 That’s the spirit 
However drained I feel 
I am a man 
not by virtue of a single tree 
not by virtue of a single bird 
only by virtue of a single word 

I do not hope to have you give me an answer 
You can simply lean on a chair 
You can simply rely on the mass of men 

But I will give my own answer 
to the light that is about to dissolve into the woods 
to the scream I could not hear, to silence
                                                     (Translated by, Takako Lento)



Apart from publishing over 60 books of poetry (winning every major Japanese award), in styles as diverse as lyrical, analytical, prose, epic poems, satirical poems and experimenting with whatever form took his fancy, he has also written award winning plays, penned songs & theme tunes such as the theme to Hayao Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle, and translated Mother Goose and Charles Schulz's Peanuts into Japanese. He was nominated for the 2008 Hans Christian Andersen Award for his contributions to children's literature & is amongst a rare group of individuals who is a frequent subject of speculations regarding the Nobel Prize in Literature and is one of the most widely read and highly regarded of living Japanese poets, both in Japan and abroad.

An Impossible Approach to a Glass  

It often takes a cylindrical shape with a base, but not a top. It is a depression that stands erect. It is a defined space closed to face a centre of gravity. It can hold a certain pre-defined amount of liquid without letting the liquid disperse within the earth’s gravitation. When only the air fills it we say it is empty, but even then its outline is shown clearly by light, and the existence of its mass can be confirmed by a level-headed glance, without relying on instruments.

When tapped by fingers, it vibrates to generate sound. At times the sound is used as a signal; at rare occasions, as a unit in music. But the resonance has a sort of stubborn self-satisfaction beyond utility and assaults our ears. It is placed on a dining table. Also it is grabbed by a person’s hand. It often slips out of a person’s hand. In fact it hides a possibility of becoming a weapon, as it can easily be intentionally broken into pieces.

But after it is broken into pieces, it does not cease to exist. Even if, at that moment, all of its kind on earth were broken to smithereens, we could not escape from it. Even though it is named in a different orthography in each specific cultural confine, it already exists as a fixed idea shared among all. So, even if we were forbidden, accompanied with extreme forms of punishment, to actually make it (with glass, wood, iron, or clay), we would not be free from the nightmare that it does exist.

It is a tool used mainly to quench thirst. But in spite of the fact that, under some extreme circumstances, it functions no better than two palms put together to create a depression, it undoubtedly exists silently as a thing of beauty, in the context of current diversified human lives, at times under the morning sunlight, at times under artificial lighting.

Our intelligence, our experience, and our technology gave birth to it on this earth and named it. We point to it by a string of sounds as if that were a matter of course. Yet, as to what it really is, people may not necessarily have accurate knowledge.
                                                                                        (Translated by Takako Lento)

As one of the most prominent writers of his generation Tanikawa Shuntarō, could quite easily sit back on his laurels & relax into his dotage, but he is a keen supporter of his fellow poets actively promoting and supporting the translation of their works aiding the spread and understanding of Japanese poetry onto the world stage. He has taken part in poetry readings and festivals around the globe and has worked in collaboration with various international writers creating Renshi poems inspired by those pioneered by Makoto Ōoka. His poetry has been widely translated into Mongolian, Korean, Chinese and most Eastern and Western European languages, his Floating the River in Melancholy, translated by William I. Eliott and Kazuo Kawamura, won the American Book Award in 1989.

Epitaph for “Poet’s Tomb” 

“I, infinite silence, will grant you words” [God Contemplates Man]  —Jules Supervielle
 When I was born
I was nameless
like a water molecule
But right away I was fed vowels mouth-to-mouth
consonants tickled my ears
I was called and
pulled away from the cosmos

Oscillating the atmosphere
carved onto clay tablets
inscribed on bamboo
recorded on sand
words are onion skins
If I keep on peeling
I will not find the cosmos

I would have loved to lose words
to be a tree singing in the wind
I would have loved to be a cloud from a hundred thousand years ago
I would have loved to be a whale’s song
Now I go back to being nameless
with dirt over my eyes, my ears and my mouth
with stars leading me by the fingers


 Giving People Poems (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Saru / Katydid Books, 2005


Selected Poems (trans. by Leith Morton), Vagabond Press, Sydney, 2006

Watashi (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Vagabond Press, Sydney, 2010

The Art of Being Alone: Poems 1952-2009 (trans. by Takako U. Lento), Cornell East Asia Series, 2011

With Silence My Companion (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Prescott Street Press, 1975

At Midnight in the Kitchen I Just Wanted to Talk to You (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Prescott Street Press, 1980

The Selected Poems of Shuntaro Tanikawa (trans. by H. Wright), North Point Press, 1983

Coca-Cola Lessons (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Prescott Street Press, 
1986

Floating in the River in Melancholy (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Prescott Street Press, 1988 

Songs of Nonsense (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Seidosha, 1991 [English/Japanese version of Yoshinashiuta]

62 Sonnets & Definitions (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Katydid Books, 1992

Naked (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Stone Bridge Press/Saru Press International, 1996 [English/Japanese version of Hadaka]

Two Billion Light-Years of Solitude (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura),

Shuntaro Tanikawa: Selected Poems (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura) Carcanet Press 1998/ Persea Books 2001 

Looking Down (trans. by Y. Yaguchi & G. Tyeryar), Kyoubunsha, 2000 [English/Japanese version of Utsumuku Seinen with a reading CD]

On Love (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Minato no Hito, 2003 [English/Japanese version of Ai ni Tsuite]

The Naif 
(trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Katydid Books, 2004

Listening (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Kyoubunsha, 2004 


And Then 
 When it is summer
again
cicadas cry

fireworks are
frozen
in my memory

a distant country is
hazy, but
the Cosmos is right in front of my nose

what divine grace —
a man
can die

leaving behind
just a conjunction:
and then

          (Takako U. Lento)






6 comments:

Bellezza said...

Parrish Lantern! I like these poems! I really, really do. I've wanted friends on Mars. I've been uneasy with the expanding universe, and that's just the first poem.

Then, the way the last poem eludes to the biblical concept "to dust I will return" in the last takes my breath. (Genesis 3:19..."For dust you are, and to dust you will return.")

You teach me much, open many doors, and connect many dots in my literary world.

Parrish Lantern said...

Hi Bellezza, all good learning is a two way street, for example it was this challenge that introduced me to so many writers I was unaware of. As to the biblical reference & the connecting of dots that also ties in beautifully with Tanikawa Shuntarō's own idea of a universal consciousness

Brian Joseph said...

I really like the verse that you posted. There are many reasons that I do.

I really like the fact that Shuntarō incorporates some scientific and other modern concepts while at the same time still centering the poems around people and the issues that we face.

Parrish Lantern said...

Hi Brian, hadn't thought of it like that & could explain part of the reason I like this writer as this is also how a favourite poet Miroslav Holub wrote.

me. said...

Many thanks for this, will pick up my copy for a re-read!.

Parrish Lantern said...

Hi Me, glad you liked the post concerning a writer you posted about ages ago, so consider the thanks returned for all the writers I've learnt about from you.