The poems of Tatsuji Miyoshi

A translator’s note by Takako Lento


We cannot step into the same river twice. The river changes constantly, and so do our perceptions and feelings about it.

So it is with poetry. A poem’s effect on its readers shifts according to how the world around it is changing, and according to what the reader brings to the poem in terms of experience, cultural assumptions, even their feelings at the moment.

Of course, a poem has its own integrity, which must be central to any reading. But there is plenty of room for it to resonate beyond its core in different ways for different readers.

A translator is a reader too, but one with a doubly difficult task. He or she must first experience the poem on its own, then transfer that experience into an alien language and culture.

This exchange offers endless possibilities for permutation, depending on the translator’s background, understanding, inclinations, expertise and countless other factors. That is why there are as many versions of a poem as there are translators.

I personally find that reading different translations of the same piece gives me a deeper understanding of the original. It allows me to look into its core from different angles. For example, reading Homer both in rhymed couplets and in free verse, or reading the classic Chinese Book of Poems in annotated texts, free verse and imagistic renditions by different translators, makes me feel that I am getting closer to the original essence of great art.

PIW is publishing some of Tatsuji Miyoshi’s poems in two different English versions. I applaud the editors’ decision, and I am happy to contribute my humble effort toward helping PIW readers gain a deeper appreciation of this great poet. Here is how I experienced Tatsuji Miyoshi’s poems for this translation.

His poetry

As I read poems by Miyoshi, I feel as if I were not only sharing the intimate voice of the poem in my innermost psyche, but peering into the depths of some universal truth of life.

Shuntaro Tanikawa, a leading poet of the generation after Miyoshi, wrote about his mentor:

. . . at the heart of Miyoshi’s poetry is something fleeting yet eternal, something totally of no [practical] use yet directly touching the mysteries of our life, or a miniscule light equally inherent in brightness and darkness. This something is felt, and is tempting us to seize it, at the depths (or pinnacles) of life which are the hardest areas to explore. Even Time, a form of consciousness we can never escape, is on the brink of collapse. This is true even when his work presents the seemingly pleasant mundane matters of daily life. However small a life or a thing it describes, it is presented as part of the mutually referencing structural elements of an organic entity called the world, allowing a penetrating view of an infinite expanse as large as the universe itself. That is the greatness of Miyoshi’s poetry.

The profound power of Miyoshi’s poetry defies categorisation. While he was a modern poet above all, he was also an accomplished practitioner of Japanese traditional verse forms such as waka (a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable verse) and haiku (a 5-7-5 syllable verse). He was also well versed in Chinese classics. At the same time he was a student of the French symbolists. He was deeply impressed by Mallarmé and Baudelaire through seminars at his university, and wrote a graduation thesis titled ‘On Paul Verlaine’s “Sagesse”’. He earned his living as a prolific and widely published translator of French poetry and prose. Thus he effectively participated in the early-twentieth century literary movement involving T.S. Eliot, Proust, James Joyce and others who were heavily influenced by French symbolists.

In its confluence of native emotional lyricism and the symbolist pursuit of the deeper psyche or mystery of existence, Miyoshi’s poetry rises above regional confines, and reaches into the depths of humanity. Miyoshi calls himself a “wanderer”, a word that instantly recalls to a Japanese reader the names of such poets as Saigyo and Basho, whose ideal was a full release from worldly passions and possessions. The French symbolists also considered themselves wanderers, but in a different context. Miyoshi might have allowed both of these wanderers to co-exist inside the “wanderer” he saw himself as.

His style

Miyoshi employs the diction and cadences of both traditional classical verse and contemporary vernacular in his modern poetry. His choice of one or the other is clearly deliberate.

Poems in classical mode

The lines that use classic diction flow so smoothly and musically in the traditional syllabic patterns that they generate the ambience of grace and elegance of older days. Yet such phrasing does not seem antiquated; rather it sounds fresh and clear to our modern ears. This is one of the distinguishing characteristics of his poetry. The poet and literary critic Makoto Ooka, Tanikawa’s contemporary, writes:

. . . where he clearly maintains the use, sense and rhythms of relatively classic diction, he always respects logical clarity in his use of each and every word, which is attributable to what he absorbed from French literature.

Ooka’s point is important. There is far more to Miyoshi’s poems in classical mode than gentle nostalgia. The elements of his poetry that help conjure a world of the past are also tools to construct “mutually referencing structural elements of an organic entity called the world”, as Tanikawa puts it. In other words, his classic elements are consciously used to make his poetry uniquely modern.

Miyoshi purposefully takes advantage of the ambiguities possible in Japanese grammatical construction, and particularly notable in Japanese classical literature. In Japanese grammar, classic or current, subjects, objects or even predicates can be left out of a sentence where assumptions are expected to be shared. Gender does not have to be specified, and temporal sequence is not as tightly delineated as in English. Interpersonal relationships in a poem can be suggested by the use of honorifics that imply seniority or relative social standing. Miyoshi uses these elements of ambiguity not only to infuse a flavour of the past, but also to introduce universal relevance. This is part of Miyoshi’s art.

When his poems are written in classic mode, they almost always evoke the past or infuse it into the present. The effect can range from generating deep and intense feelings for the treasured past, for example, in ‘Soft hail flutters’, to conjuring a yearning for gracious and peaceful days in ‘May the koto’s resonance soar’. These two poems are written in lines of 5–7 syllables, all in hiragana or phonetic-syllabic script. ‘Verses on a village brew’ is written in the same syllabic pattern but in archaic diction including ideograms. ‘Call my name’ also uses traditional diction but does not use the traditional syllabic verse, generating a sense that the sentiment here is too urgent and intense to fall into any patterned rhythms. ‘In praise of the walnut’ is an incidental verse written in a formal traditional style. ‘The Shore of the Sky’ presents a sensory portrait of the breeze, free and ever-moving, in archaic diction as the poet shifts his eyes from treetops against the oceanic sky to his finger tips.

These stylistic and grammatical elements are hard to transfer into English. For example, it is difficult to preserve subtle ambiguities in the original because an English sentence demands structural clarity. The syllabic patterns are not readily transferable either, as we all know from reading translations of haiku that have attempted to reproduce the form as well as the content. But in spite of all this, Miyoshi’s poems in classical mode can speak to English readers with the intensity and clarity that characterises his work.

Free Verse

When Miyoshi writes free verse in the contemporary vernacular, as in the rest of the poems presented here, his lines flow naturally, and his diction is precise, crisp, clear and grammatically unambiguous. Its pace and tonality are carefully modulated to accommodate the themes and associated details. Some are imagistic, as in ‘Earth’ and ‘Signal’; and some are like thought-provoking paintings. ‘A village’ reminds me of the French painter Corot’s use of light and shadow in his landscape paintings, and ‘The youth’ reminds me of a Japanese watercolour. Some others are deeply thoughtful narrative verses, such as ‘Yet, a stirring in me seems’.

His lyricism

Within these widely varied styles Miyoshi presents a lyricism that is intense yet intriguingly de-personalised. There’s a distilled clarity in his lyricism which seems possible only by merging total immersion with objective detachment. This is supported by the voice of a poem often shifting its point of view. The voice freely moves between internal personal and omniscient viewpoints, as in ‘Yet, a stirring in me seems’, for example.

His concept of time contributes to this. In many of his poems, past and present co-exist as if time is no longer a linear progression, but a convoluted knot. The emotions get trapped in this knot, and increase in intensity.

As a whole, the poem presents a drama that points to a realm beyond the words the voice speaks.

Below are notes on my reading of individual poems.

‘Call my name’

The voice is the first person singular speaking in classic diction. The urgency and the immediacy of the plea are so touching that we are thrown into a drama where a person suffered and has not recovered from a heart-wrenching childhood separation from someone dear to him. A child stood windblown, by tea-bushes, in the light snow, and now as an adult he begs to be called by the same name he was called back then. The past and the present overlap in two transparent layers. In this otherworldly reality, we stand with him feeling his pain as our own, and through it we form a deep connection with all such compelling pleas in the vast world of humanity.

‘Soft hail flutters

‘Soft hail flutters’ also presents a drama of separation. It is written in classic diction and cadence and employs frequent ambiguities. The narrative voice seems to be the poet’s own. He speaks about someone he misses intensely. By the use of honorifics, we gather that the poet loves, adores, admires or looks up to this person. As he walks by the pine grove, across the grassy field, and along the dark valley, his thoughts drift between his past contact with this person and his current painful sense of loss. As the past and the present are juxtaposed in the first two stanzas, we can assume that in the rest of the lines past and present experiences are overlapped. In other words, the withered wintry landscape was probably just like it is now, the sun looking so distant and small. It is interesting to note that the word for the sun is hi, which also means “the day”. If I translate the line as “the winter day seems so distant and small”, it overtly relates to the past. I have a feeling that the ambiguity or double meaning is intentional. I chose “the sun” because it adds depth to the landscape. The wintry landscape is his mindscape, with soft hail fluttering down, like frozen tears.

Here again, an acute and universal sense of loss and desolation rises above the personal pain, involving us in a profound awareness of loss. Incidentally, in the title and the last line, ararefurikeru means “it hails”. But in this poem the hailing is modified in the second-to-last line by an adverb, haraharato, which is used to describe the manner in which tears fall as one cries silently, or in which delicate flower petals ceaselessly flutter down. My hope, as a translator, is that “soft hail flutters” helps communicate at least some of this effect.

‘The Youth’
This is free verse in the vernacular. It has a leisurely movement and dream-like ambience. The lines are evocative, presenting a watercolour in motion. The youth, idealised, is “coming home”, taking his time, tossing a ball high into a sky that flows like dreams. The word for “coming home” anchors two stanzas as if to emphasize the poet is waiting for his homecoming, that is, the poet being his home. I wonder if the youth is the poet’s boyhood past, while the sky represents time that has been and will be flowing on.


This is also free verse in the vernacular. Dad earns his living writing poetry, providing for his family. He concentrated on his writing for some time to provide for his son’s needs as he was to enter the first grade of the People’s School. Now that his fatherly duty is done, he sits listening to birds and the sea, as if he has come back to his primary world of the senses. But languor and resignation seem to take hold of him. This is a poem about life during World War II. The only indication of this is “People’s School”, the name given to elementary school by the military regime to instill a war-time spirit in children.

‘After we were defeated at war’

This is also free verse in the vernacular. A series of couplets moves between past and present. The tone is curiously curt or even angry. So many babies were born after the end of World War II, and the sky and the sea are deep blue again, but I do not sense joy or celebration in these lines. They reflect the confusion and despair of the time, so soon after defeat (published in 1946).

‘Yet, a stirring in me seems’

This is a free verse narrative in the vernacular. This poem illuminates an old man’s mindscape which is as broken and desolate as the postwar landscape. Something that stirs in him brings him a faint recollection of a spring day, to which he feebly clings. But there is nothing in this poem that gives us hope for this old man. When I first read this poem, T.S. Eliot’s first few lines of ‘The Waste Land’ came to my mind: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”

We hear the old man’s own mumblings as well as the omniscient voice telling us what he sees and feels. In a conversational Japanese sentence the first person singular ‘I’ or ‘my’ is often omitted, but Miyoshi makes a point of using it in the old man’s internal monologue to make it clear who is speaking. But at the same time, where the ambience triggers the old man’s thoughts, the transition from the omniscient voice to his own voice is left somewhat vague, blurring the distinction between the external and internal realities of his consciousness. These subtle devices depict a man who mumbles to himself “[o]ut of his obscure mindscape where scant light illuminates his feelings like/ a locust dying of hunger in the sands of a distant desert.” The word I translate as “the stirring (in me)” is jō-cho (情緒 [emotion-trigger]), which is normally translated as emotion(s), feeling(s), an atmosphere, or a mood. I felt I needed to find a word that implies the energy to trigger emotions or feelings inside this man.

© Takako Lento  
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