Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Something New to Make You Cry : The Poetry of Ishikawa Takuboku

Big beauty, big pain. Blyth says man's essential task--or at least the poet's-- is to reconcile the two.

Yesterday one of my adult students who is aware of my interest in Japanese poetry brought me an issue of a bilingual literary magazine. She drew my attention to one writer in particular.

The writer that my student Kiomi introduced me to has me reeling. How have I never heard of Ishikawa Takuboku (石川 啄木) before?

Since English translations of his work seem scarce on the internet, I'll publish what poems of his I have, and let the man speak for himself. Now settle down and listen.

[Begin plagiarism from unknown Japanese magazine:]

Ishikawa Takuboku (1886-1912)

In 1910, the first collection of tanka by Ishikawa Takuboku came out with the publication of A Fistful of Sand. The book exerted a major influence on Taishō era poetry with its use of plain everyday expressions as well as its distinctive presentation of each poem in a three-line format.

Tuberculosis and poverty drove Takuboku to his grave at the age of 26, and each one of his poems extends from candid feelings about his anguished life. He was the first to create a poetic style of bittersweet lyricism and everyday grief, using language that mutters and stammers, and ignoring conventional poetic terms as well as the standard diction of modern poetry. While wandering from place to place to support his family with meager wage earned from taxing work, Takuboku composed poems through tears of loneliness, thoughts of the past, and nostalgia for his birthplace in Iwate. The exceptional tanka in this collection reveal this poor city dweller's keen sensitivity by crystallizing his heart's momentary tremors, the plaintive echoes of which still move readers today.

A Fistful of Sand

on a patch of white sand on a tiny island in the eastern sea
drenched in my own tears
i play with a crab

just for once i want a love
that feels like plunging my flushed cheeks
into deep soft snow

so i work
and work, yet life gets no easier
i stare down at my hands

once upon a time--imagine!
my heart
felt like a loaf of fresh-baked bread

i called out my name softly
then started crying
no way back to the spring of my fourteenth year


the grief of leaving my hometown
as if chased by men with stones
never goes away

like some ailment
one day this wave of homesickness hits me
what i see--smoke against a blue sky--is all so gloomy

just for laughs i gave my mom a piggy back ride
but she weighed so little i started crying
and couldn't take three steps

it saddens me to think
how i used to play with the little brother
of my big, now deceased sister's boyfriend

there's nothing sadder than
us guys happy to get together
here away from our hometowns


listening to the candy man's flute
is like
finding the heart i'd lost from childhood

i think back one year
on that woman who said i'll lend you some clothes, go dance
at the feast of lanterns

i feel sorry even for that carpenter's bully of a son
who went off to war
and didn't come back alive

a flash of lightning on the wedding day
of the black-hearted landlord's son
ill with consumption

my cousin
sick of hunting in the hills
got drunk, sold his house, fell sick, then died


like white lotuses blooming in a swamp
floats up clear between bouts of inebriation

can you spare me a cigarette?
i talked in the wee hours with a
tramp who came up to me

right below the window of the bank
blue ink is
spilled on the frosty gravel pavement

just as the white radish roots were growing fat
this one child
was born, then soon died

breathing in
maybe three square feet of late autumn air
my son went off to die

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so very much for sharing these poems. They are so beautiful, and so sad. Such a deep feeling for the fleeting beauty of this sentient life. Thank you for your blog. I do not know how I stumbled upon it. I hope you are well, and still pursuing your path.