To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Ōoka Makoto: from “What Is Poetry?” in "Beneath the Sleepless Tossing of the Planets: Selected Poems"

Translation from Japanese by Janine Beichman

[The recent publication of Ōoka’s “selected poems” (Kurodahan Press, 2018) is a generous introduction in English to one of the leading figures of the Postwar Japanese Poetry generation.  I have long kept in mind & often repeated his observation that “the demand ‘Bring back totality through poetry’ was common to every group and trend in postwar Japan until at least the 1960s.”  And beyond that & elsewhere as well. (J.R.)]

What Is Poetry #1
Shi to wa Nani ka 1

It’s forever coming at me head on
from the opposite direction
but mostly I just step out of its path
and keep straight on

What Is Poetry? #2
Shi to wa Nani ka 2

It is not
child’s play
but   the poet
is a child

What Is Poetry? #3
Shi to wa Nani ka 3

Precisely the process
by which all psychological scenes
proceed to total extinction

What Is Poetry? #4
Shi to wa Nani ka 4

It doesn’t study time
it ignores the colors of the sky
like a new born
it leaps into time-space
the old pond

What Is Poetry? #6
Shi to wa Nani ka 6

Little things
reflected big     eyes

Big things
come out small   lips

What Is Poetry? #8
Shi to wa Nani ka 8

In the hollow of a hand that polishes
blades of grass, a faint light

in pure darkness

What Is Poetry? #10
Shi to wa Nani ka 10

The kitten
sits on a

How deep is the fur
of those who live

What Is Poetry? #12
Shi to wa Nani ka 12

To train a word
you must praise it

Even if praised to the skies
a word almost never sings

Hug the word tightly
stroke it softly

Until it releases two sighs
and long, trailing vowels

What Is Poetry? #15: The Case of a Star
Shi to wa Nani ka 15—Hoshi no Baai

Heaven and earth are being created
One with the wind
a star’s light
is rubbing the root of a rock
that’s grown crystals
heating itself alone

What Is Poetry? #17: The Case Of Rain
Shi to wa Nani ka 17— Ame no Baai

The rain—
drop on the leaf’s tip
pulls together
in the shape of a drop and then
as though sucked forth
lengthens out
all its weight
concentrated at
the trembling
it falls
in the shape of firm decision


What Is Poetry? #21
Shi to wa Nani ka 21

Look at that pregnant puss

fully content
rubbing her belly on bamboo grass
eyes narrowed in ecstasy

The essence of life
conservatism’s pulsating breath

is rubbing her belly on bamboo grass
eyes narrowed
in ecstasy

Ah this!
A wordless song

Shut up behind her eyelids,
penetrating sight

Carried behind in the temperate zone between her legs,
the pink, bad place, softly closed

What Is Poetry? #24: Rules For Its Creation And Interpretation
Shi to wa Nani ka 24—Shi no Seisaku Kaidoku Kokoroe

Involuntary motions of the heart:
you don’t even know what you dreamed
until you wake up

When we paint   or   write
we never perceive the totality
of our creating    The totality
resides in the future and the unknown
which is to say in dreams

An obscure marker   is all we can see
The marker itself
takes on indeterminate shape2
moment by moment
as the task of creation marches on
In one poem
is an irrepressible dream of flying
is the ache at the core of the pistil after fertilization

In one poem
is a dream of a butterfly’s escape   to the blue empyrean
That   is the wish   to drown in scarlet flames
engulfing the body3

1 To write a poem
to draw a picture
to fire clay—
awakening   meditation

2 The relation of the marker and creative activity
may be compared to the conflict between
technique and air pressure
in trying to unite the head and tail
of an aerial oil pipe line

3 It was a whirlpool who first called
the straight line a straight line
It was a full circle who first murmured
“My own sweet arc!” to the half-circle

translator’s note. Ōoka Makoto (1931-2017) was one of the premier poets and critics of his generation in Japan and known abroad as an emissary of Japanese poetry and culture. Born in Mishima, a small city near Mt. Fuji, Ōoka began writing poetry in his teens. By the time he was twenty-five, his first books—one of poems and one of criticism—established him as a spokesman for contemporary poets. He often visited Europe, Asia, and the United States, lecturing and giving readings at the Collège de France, Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton Universities, as well as many literary festivals. His pioneering experiments with renga or linked verse, a traditional form of collaborative poetry, brought him into contact with poets around the world. President of Japan P.E.N. Club from 1989 to 1993, he was also a prolific translator who helped introduce to Japan modern poets such as Paul Éluard, André Breton, and John Ashbery. For almost three decades, Ōoka’s daily column “Poems for All Seasons” ran on the front page of the Asahi newspaper, and through it poetry entered the daily lives of millions of readers in Japan. Ōoka’s works have also been translated into Chinese, Dutch, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Korean, Macedonian, and Spanish. 

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