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Saké in a Tumbler

Face at the Bottom of the World and Other Poems

by Hagiwara Sakutaro, translated by Graeme Wilson
Charles E. Tuttle Company, 83 pp., $4.00

Hagiwara Sakutaro (1886-1942) is possibly the most accomplished so far of Japan’s Western-style or “modern” poets, and one can see why he has been called “the Japanese Baudelaire.” I think one can also see why Baudelaire is never likely to be called “the French Hagiwara,” even by the Japanese. In introducing his dexterous translations, Graeme Wilson speaks of Hagiwara’s having achieved “universality”: if by this he alludes to a successful fusing of native and foreign literary characteristics he is more surely correct than if he is claiming a central human relevance for the poet. Mr. Wilson is of the opinion that the intellectual elements in Hagiwara’s later poetry adulterate or even sour his earlier pure lyricism. It may be that the later poetry is weaker or less satisfactory, but if so, this is not to be blamed on intellectualism as such, but (I would venture) on Hagiwara’s unsuccessful and perhaps too deliberate attempts at it.

Pure lyricism, if it exists, is a thin and not very appetising diet, and if Mr. Wilson hasn’t exactly added intellectualism in the course of translating, he has supplied something of that simple “meaningfulness” which most Western readers still expect from poetry. His hostility toward “logical argument” is the odder in that he appears to have introduced a measure of this literary virtue: my feeling (which may be wrong) is that there is more of a “story” in his versions than in the originals.

A Western-style poetry seems to have offered an outlet for that Japanese morbidness (or, if you prefer, that fascination with extreme conditions of suffering, estrangement, and horror) which the traditional forms, because of their set conventions, perhaps their very shortness, and certainly their aura of highmindedness, could not cater for. Hagiwara’s verse is copious in images of pain, disease, putrefaction, slugs (“black gland on glistening gland”), wet tangled hair, damp clay, but it is usually saved from H-certificate sickliness by the persistent grain of humor in the author. There was after all a good deal of fun to be got out of writing like Western poets, sometimes rather sinister fun, occasionally sexual fun, at other times the conscious ironic frisson to be derived from drinking saké out of a tumbler or vinho tinto from a saké cup or eating omuretsu with a fork. Who could be naughty in tanka or haiku?—there just wasn’t room in them for those exciting new foreign words….

Doubts have been voiced as to the legitimacy of Western-style writing in Japanese on the grounds that there was nothing in its literary past for modernism to latch on to, or because the traditional forms are linguistically the only “natural” ones. But I would say that the swiftness with which Western models were taken up and the facility with which (despite the inevitable disasters) Western influences were assimilated all go to suggest that they came as a considerable relief and release, that there was something either in the character of the Japanese or in their changing way of life which required a new style, a new mode of utterance. That this response to Western verse was more than a mere fad, a passing instance of cultural miscegenation, has been proved by now, by a number of poets, perhaps chief among them Hagiwara himself.

Even so, I suspect that the comparison with Baudelaire implies a pronounced over-estimate of the Japanese poet. Hagiwara is excruciatingly introspective, and his states of mind are often gratuitous, presented as effects unrelated to causes, and hence private or personal in a limiting and finally rather antagonizing way. To describe his work as “pure lyricism” doesn’t invalidate this complaint: even our most romantic lyricists cannot be adduced in support of the theory that logic is the mortal enemy of lyricism. I am not asking that the poet should invariably provide us with a detailed diagnosis of his “case,” but he should contrive to throw the reader a life-line, or to locate a door by which the reader can enter into the poem. Hagiwara is exceptionally sensitive and sharply direct; he can become a nest of roots or a rotting clam or the smell of grief or the touch of wet clay; his nerves are raw, there seems to be no skin between him and the objects of his apprehension. “His phenomenal perceptiveness, his lyric hypersensitivity, his remorseless wringing of the nervous system of the soul are unique,” says Mr. Wilson.

But the reader will ask—a crude question maybe, but in a way it is a tribute to Hagiwara that the question is asked—“So what? What next? Where am I being taken?” In other words, there is something not quite firm in the relationship between writer and reader. I don’t think Hagiwara was really interested in his fellow men, his brothers, or in any shared monstre délicat. For all that Mr. Wilson says about his unique vision of the world and “the peculiarly piercing quality of his poetry,” I doubt whether Baudelaire’s line, Nos péchés sont têtus, nos repentirs sont lâches, would have meant very much to him, and he could never have risen to the poignancy, both private and public, of the French poet’s cry:

Ah! Seigneur! donnez-moi la force et le courage
De contempler mon coeur et mon corps sans dégoût!

It is precisely the absence of an intellectual edge to his sensibility that makes Hagiwara inferior to, less interesting than, Baudelaire. The latter’s “sickness” is a fairly universal one; by comparison, Hagiwara’s is private, debilitatingly cryptic, minor: de la putréfaction…la blafarde lumière.”

Mr. Wilson is a remarkably enterprising translator; it is possible that he does his subject more than justice. Hagiwara does not rhyme—rhyme being “unnatural” to the Japanese language, more tellingly avoided than achieved—but Mr. Wilson, arguing that rhyme is natural to English poetry, does. He is an adroit rhymer, and only very rarely is it obvious that he has gone out of his way to procure a rhyme. One occasion is “a golden / Beetle wee,” to chime with “see.” And in “Late Autumn,”

A train was passing overhead.
My random thoughts were shade- wards led
And, looking back, I was surprised
To find my heart so tranquilized,

the quest for rhyme has led to a touch of syntactic archaism in the second line and an inappropriate echo of Wordsworth in the second couplet.

But Mr. Wilson tells us frankly that these are translations “only in the sense that Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat is a translation of the work of Omar Khayyam. I have not regarded the literal words in Hagiwara’s texts as of prime or even secondary importance. Instead, I have sought first to convey the feel and intent of his work, the meaning of the feelings behind the vocabulary; and, secondly, to re-present those feelings in the forms and vocabulary of English.”

In general, “imitations” seem to me a dubious phenomenon, hermaphroditic and parasitic, useful as “a kind of occupational therapy for poets partly or temporarily disabled,” as Michael Hamburger has put it, but possibly harmful in the long run to both the imitator and the imitated by confusing both with a shadowy third. Robert Lowell’s Baudelaire is neither Lowell nor Baudelaire, but (I think) inferior to both poets at their characteristic level. Hagiwara is a special case, though. Most of Mr. Wilson’s readers will know next to nothing of Hagiwara—he can almost be said to have invented him—and none of them is likely to use Mr. Wilson’s versions as an aid to reading the originals.

The virtues of Mr. Wilson’s procedure, at least in Mr. Wilson’s hands, will emerge if we compare him with earlier translators of Hagiwara—none of whom has tackled the poet on this scale, incidentally. We may take the eponymous piece:

Below the surface of the earth a face appearing,
A sad invalid face appearing.

In the dark below the surface of the earth
A grass stem softly starting to sprout,
A rat’s nest starting to sprout,
Countless tresses entangled,
The nest beginning to tremble;
And at the winter solstice
On the sad sick surface of the earth
Beginning to grow, the roots of green bamboos
Beginning to grow,
Looking terribly pathetic,
Gossamer-web,
Terribly, terribly pathetic…

In the dark below the surface of the earth
A sad invalid face appearing…
(“A Sick Face below the Surface of the Earth,” The Poetry of
Living Japan, Ninomiya and Enright, Grove Press)Face at the bottom of the world:
A sick, a lonely face,
One invalided out
Of every inner place;
Yet, slowly there uncurled,
Green in the gloom the grasses sprout.
And, as a rat’s nest stirs,
Its million tangled hairs
One queasy quivering,
Thinnest of winterers,
The bamboo shoot prepares
Its green grope to the spring.

Sad in the ailing earth,
Tongue-tender with despair,
Green moves through grief’s grimace;
And, sick and lonely, there
In the gloom of the under world,
At the bottom of the world, a face.
(“Face at the Bottom of the World,” Wilson)

My attempts to ascertain whether “below the surface of the earth” is more correct than “at the bottom of the world” have met with the tentative suggestion that what the Japanese title means is something analogous to the inside bottom of a thick glass ashtray as distinct from the outside bottom or base. Perhaps what is intended is the bottom of the top: where roots are generally located. Mr. Wilson’s third and fourth lines seem to have no origin in Hagiwara, but justify themselves poetically. His “million tangled hairs” is distinctly superior to “countless tresses,” and his “Green moves through grief’s grimace” develops profitably the story of the shoots (not “roots”) which Hagiwara leaves rather obscure.

Next, two versions of “Turtle” (or perhaps “Tortoise”):

A grove,
A swamp,
And an azure sky:
Weighing ponderously upon one’s hand
A pure-gold tortoise quietly sleeps…
This bright unhappy Heaven-and- Earth
He bears in pain,
And probingly sinks through one’s soul…
The tortoise sinks in the deep azure sky.
(Ninomiya and Enright)
Woods, swamps and the cobalt
Sky-carapace, sky-vault.

Heavy to human hands
The pure gold turtle sleeps
Whose quiet shining weight
Weighs on the mind more deeply
The more one thinks and thinks
Of quietude innate,
The more one understands
Man’s animal estate.

And down the sky’s blue deeps,
Shining, the turtle sinks.
(Wilson)

Perhaps the second version has been cleaned up: it makes sense at any rate, which I have suggested is a notable virtue. The first is enigmatic, either because the original is enigmatic or (which is quite possible) because the translators failed to understand it or else I failed to understand Professor Ninomiya….

As regards sense Mr. Wilson’s “Woman” is in line with several versions I have seen, while reading much better than any of them:

With lips light-pinkly painted
And powder smelling white
And cool about the neck-hair,
Woman, relax the tight
Thrust of your breasts against me,
Their sorbo surge. Be still,
And let your whitebait fingers
Their sly back-tickling skill,
Woman, forego. Abandon
Those surged and scented sighs
With which you now abandon
Yourself against my eyes.
Drop, woman, all your little tricks.
Woman, you’re sad who know
That women, dupes of knowing- ness,
Can never let them go.

Mr. Wilson never betrays any uncertainty as to what Hagiwara meant: we note that he has taken out insurance against accidents on that front. He has declined to be unnerved by the reputation of modern poetry in general and of modern Japanese poetry in particular for obscurity either legitimate or otherwise, and he is never obscure himself. We all know the sort of translator who excuses himself in the name of greater fidelity from reproducing the meter and rhyme of the original and then goes on nonetheless to perpetrate all sorts of wanton clumsinesses. If, having allowed himself this liberty of interpretation, Mr. Wilson had come up with that limpness and lameness so often found in translations from oriental languages, he would be in serious trouble. The discipline imposed by rhyming, together with his skill in it, has helped to save him quite splendidly. How far his “Winter” departs in sense and intention from Hagiwara I cannot say, but it is certainly an attractive poem in itself:

Symbols of sin appear in the sky.

Above the treetops and the blond
Snow-heaps, shining, they appear;
Mosaics of the atmosphere
Bright as if brazed to brightness by
A coldness burning far beyond
The mere mid-wintering of the year.

All see these symbols of your sin,
All read their shining sentence.

But mark the dark-as-Saladin,
The sleeping earth; and how there- in
The simple creatures now begin
Building the house of your repent- ance.

It is good to have this selection (and to know that Mr. Wilson is planning to translate all of Hagiwara’s poetry), for this strange talent is all the more refreshing in its paradoxical way after a plethora of haiku and haiku-type verselets, whether knocked off by Japanese or by their retarded Western imitators—“that flower of Edo poetry,” as Mr. Wilson wittily puts it, “now shriveled to a tourist’s gaud.”

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