Portrait of a poet: A translator’s notes

On Shuntaro Tanikawa’s Journey (1968) to I Myself (2007)


Tanikawa believes poetry should speak for itself. I share his belief. I admire the type of poetry which speaks to me in a way that touches profound depths of my psyche, independent of its author’s physical, mental or socio-political environment. When that happens, I feel its voice is freed from elements of time and space, reaching the essence of humanity. Isn’t this quality a requisite for great poetry? And such great poetry can speak to the hearts and minds of its readers, in different languages, at a level where cultural affiliations no longer matter. Tanikawa’s poetry stands tall in this category.

When I translate a poem, however, I try to make sense of what moves me, surveying the elements that may possibly be relevant to the work at hand. I try to examine whatever comes to my mind, including my own free associations, and look for sources of deeper understanding. Its author may have spoken of the piece. Other people may have discussed it or written about it. What were the times like when the poem was written? Even though these things may have little bearing on the central concerns of the poem itself, generally this effort proves rewarding. 

Here are some elements I find interesting about the two Shuntaro Tanikawa books featured in the 1 March 2012 issue.


The poems in Journey began appearing in the poetry magazine Gendai-shi Techo (Modern Poetry Notebook) in 1965. The collection Journey, with illustrative art, was published in 1968. Tanikawa added two poems and published an expanded and complete edition in 1995. The book contains 27 fourteen-liners, divided into three sections: ‘Toba’ 1–10 and addendum, ‘Trip’ 1–8 and ‘Anonym’ 1–8. 

Toba is the home of pearl fishers. It is a town on the Eastern coast of Japan, on an inlet of the Pacific Ocean, with an idyllic view of intricate shorelines and small islands perfectly poised on emerald water. The Tanikawas vacationed there. In ‘Toba 1’, the poet is bare-chested on the shore, soaking in the full sun. He is at his prime, satisfied with himself and with his beautiful family, yet there are some shadows lurking. The radiance of the sun makes the sea darker, and he is aware someone may be “bleeding” somewhere across the sea. But he dismisses all that and immerses himself in “this everlasting radiance”, at least for the moment. 

In terms of free association, this poem reminded me of the last scene of a French movie, Plein Soleil (1960), in which the protagonist, played by Alain Delon, is bathing in the radiant sun on the idyllic beach, in complete satisfaction and ennui, as his murderous duplicity is about to catch up with him.
In the mid to late 1960s, Japan saw rapid economic growth with increasing affluence accompanied with apathy toward social inequity, while the escalating Vietnam War was generating uneasiness among those who opposed the war. These poems were written against the background of such socio-political realities in Japan in the 1960s. Tanikawa talks about the socio-cultural aspects of the era:

For a time after the end of World War Two, when goods were lacking, everyone, in modern poetry, that is, was writing about all the gripes and pains they had. But around this time [the mid 1960s], [Japanese society] was becoming saturated with material things . . . and it saw an emergence of a feeling that there was no need to write anything any more. My line, “I have nothing to write about,” may have reflected that aspect of those times, as I think back.

But of course that is not all there is to this book. Journey presents us the journey of a man as a poet. The poet is isolated in Nature, which touches him with its radiance. The poet is in his prime, embarked on his mission to create poetry. But words betray him. As we see in ‘Toba 6’, the poet is painfully aware of the discrepancy between the word he uses to describe the sea and the actual presence that is undulating, roaring, menacing and refusing to be captured by his words. The poet tries to find refuge in his wife’s arms, but in vain, and the recalcitrant sea does not let him go. Time and again in Tanikawa’s poetry the image of the sea appears in relation to words, in the sense of poetic diction. The poet can be hopelessly lost in the massive unyielding sea of words. 

The poet knows what Poetry is when he sees it: that which renders him speechless as he shows us in ‘Trip 7’. An inability to fully capture in words his target, this silence, haunts him and torments him. Still, the poet is resolved to keep on pursuing it with words (‘Anonym 1’), even though the non-verbal world of Music seduces him (‘Anonym 4’). 

Yet sharing this silence with a reader through words is the poet’s ultimate purpose. Tanikawa hopes to engage with his reader not on the verbal level, but at a more profound and intuitive level. Tanikawa speaks of Journey as “a turning point in [his] career” in the postscript of its 1995 edition. He elaborates this point in his dialogue with Kaoru Yamada in This is how I have been writing poetry 1942–2009 (Nanaroku-sha, Tokyo, 2010).

You know, there’s this “collective unconscious” Jung talks about. Perhaps I had come to believe that all of us would be connected at the level of such a collective unconscious. If so, I thought to myself, I would be able to connect with others, or would want to connect to others, to the extent that I could touch upon the depths far below my consciousness . . . And, in terms of my relationships with readers, I probably thought that I would or should be able to engage with them, not at a conscious level, or through the left brain, but through the right brain . . . you see, the left brain controls reason and intellect, right? Generally people form relationships with others through it, I mean, in day-to-day reality. But my thinking was, “Couldn’t we make a profound connection, in poetry, through the right brain, that is, in the realm that acts for the amorphous and the intuitive?” So from around this time, probably, I was beginning to think along the line of Jung’s collective unconscious. 

When poetry communicates on this level, it creates a universal platform to stand on, distinct from an outpouring of personal emotions and feelings shared by a culturally bound group, long the focus of Japanese poetry. Such poetry then becomes free from socio-cultural and temporal confines. This is consistent with his assertion in ‘To the Cosmos: An Agitation’ (1959), in which he wrote, “Isn’t it the case that desiring to make a poem is the same as letting a tree grow? It is as natural as our receiving life, being born.” Poetry  would thenbecome a product in Nature, rooted in the human psyche, which defies boundaries on earth.

I Myself

Watashi (I Myself) was published in 2007, 40 years after Journey. The poems selected for Poetry International are taken from the group entitled ‘Watashi’. In terms of the point of view of the author, there is a distinct difference between these two books. In Journey, the poet’s eyes are intently focused on his internalised perceptions and inner creative struggles throughout the book. On the other hand, in the poems of I Myself, the poet’s views are from the vantage point of an omniscient eye, with a peculiar detachment, as if he is seeing himself from the outside the way we sometimes see ourselves in a dream. Asked recently about the differences between these two books, Tanikawa said, “I have become more honest here, I mean, I as the poet . . . In Journey, I, the poet, was more affected, striking a pose, so to speak, trying to make a poem appear stylish. I wouldn’t have been able, then, to say something like ‘I am an old man, short and bald’ [as in ‘Self Introduction’].” 

His words reveal the subtle distinction he insists on making between Tanikawa the author and his creation, the “poet” who is the voice in his poetry. So, when Tanikawa speaks of these two books as being “based on [his] own personal life, in terms of their similarities”, he is referring to materials taken from the physical or worldly details of his life, which he uses in his poetry, but not to himself “as a whole,” as he carefully qualifies it. Thus the poet in Tanikawa’s poetry is conceived to be distinct and separable from his author, even when the two share a close resemblance. 

Tanikawa’s concept of this distinction between the poet and his creation is the very theme of ‘To Meet “Me”’, in which the poet drives some distance to visit “Me”, his creation. The poet tells us, “‘Me’ lives there / It’s a ‘Me’ that is not myself.” To the poet “I”,’ “Me” is an independent personality, even though the poet refers to both in the first person singular. Over a cup of tea, facing “Me” who complains bitterly of how the personal experiences of “I” have limited the existential significance of “Me” , the poet slowly comes to realise that “the beginning and the end go farther than that”. In other words, the truth about their existential issues lies somewhere far beyond this physical world. In the end, the poet and his creation become the “sparkling dust of the universe”, which seems to suggest a cosmic resolution in their relationship, as together they shoot into galactic depths as sparkling particles. This phrase is an allusion to a poem by Kenji Miyazawa (1896–1933; poet, writer of children’s stories):

. . . oh, my friends
shall we join our just forces and pull together
all of our pastures and
all of our living
to create a gigantic
four dimensional art . . .
To start, shall we, all together, become the sparkling dust of the universe
and scatter away into the fathomless sky

These last two lines of Miyazawa’s poem touched Tanikawa deeply, in terms of his views on life and death, as he explains here:

For a certain period in my life, I believed that there would be complete nothingness after death. But as I began to practise qigong [a traditional Chinese breathing exercise], I have come to realise that fellow practitioners believe in something that is invisible, a certain force that is inherent in Nature or energy. And in casual conversations too they speak of “souls”, and even transmigration of souls. And my belief has gone through gradual changes to the point that there might be something that stays on after my body perishes, although I don’t know what it might be that remains after death. Along with this, my concept of “I” has been changing. I have come to wonder if there might not be a sort of “I” as an invisible wave. If so, on that plane, “I in reality” and “‘Me’ created with words” may share a fundamental base. This idea might be reflected in this poem . . .

. . . [regarding the concept of a wave] In the dialogue between Makoto Ooka and me (Dialogues on Poetry, Tokyo, 1975), Ooka talked about “wavicles”, a coined word combining particle and wave.[According to the theory of wavicles, all particles also have a wave nature and vice versa.] Ooka maintains that language is also a wavicle . . . Since then I have felt comfortable about the idea of the dual property of wave and particle. And I can fully accept [Ooka’s] idea of language having a wave nature, particularly as I practice qigong. So when I say “to become the sparkling dust of the universe” I feel inside me a sympathetic vibration to the wave inherent to these words . . . From ancient times, the Japanese have spoken of the mysterious power of words. That is perhaps referring to the wave nature inherent in words . . . So when I read my poems at a poetry reading, I believe such waves are being transmitted, along with the meanings, you see . . . I like to believe [my reading of a poem is going] through ears, maybe reaching souls.

(from This is how I have been writing poetry 1942–2009)

‘I Am Me, Myself’ picks up from where ‘To Meet “Me”’ leaves off. The poet is now free from existential questions, and is sure of his own footing. He declares that “I am me, myself,” and knows he also partakes of the nature of animals, plants and minerals, as well as being “almost you” – the reader (or everyone). As “a rhythm in a refrain” and “a subtle wave and a particle”, the poet and his creation are equal and interchangeable in a timeless state. This is what the poet had come to realise when he said “the beginning and the end go farther than that”:

Because I cannot disappear after being forgotten
I am a rhythm in a refrain
I am a subtle wave and a particle
having arrived, if I may be so conceited,
riding on your heart’s beating rhythm
from the light years of distance

We see a being, a spirit, or a soul, totally liberated from the confines of time and space. This is written in a light-footed rhythm that transmits almost a manic state, projecting the image of the poet as “sparkling dust in the universe”. And this state must be the “bright” future the poet envisions as he takes leave of his organs when facing death in ‘Goodbye’. Death means liberation, as he says to his organs: “once I part from you I will also be free / I will be just my soul, naked.” Stripped of physical mechanical attributes, he has had as a “miniscule power plant” (‘It’s Morning’), and liberated from a depressive state burdened by worldly doubts and uncertainty, as in ‘Continuing to Write’, the poet will be or aspires to be a naked soul, a wave and a particle, dust in the galaxy, along with his creation and everyone else’s, each separable yet in communion with each other. 

In other words, even though this book purports to be a portrait of a poet as an old man, we do not get to meet Tanikawa the author in flesh and blood; rather, the “I” in this book takes us far beyond the realm of a simple portrait of a poet.

© Takako Lento  
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