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…

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