Recalcitrant Words

Notes on Shuntaro Tanikawa

Recalcitrant words
© Nintaro on

In his ‘Self Introduction’ (Poetry International Japan March 2012) Tanikawa lists a number of verifiable facts about himself, and casually says “All the above are facts, but / once I put them down in words like this, somehow they do not ring true.” Even when Tanikawa sets out to present a brutally candid portrait of himself as an aging poet, he cannot help but caution the reader about the subtle yet critical mismatch between his written words and the truth the words are intended to convey. This is a constant theme in his later poetry: his mistrust of words as a medium to convey his inner truths and of poetry as a vehicle of expression.

Tanikawa has often been explicit about his frustration with and mistrust of the very words he needs to write poetry. For example, in ‘At Midnight in the Kitchen I Wanted to Talk to You,’ #14, he confides to Hisao Kanaseki, a friend, writer, and scholar:

I try to open myself up, but
the moment I open up, something else shows up
like a vampire under the sun
The words in my soul seems so unlike words exposed to air

Paradoxically, this deep-seated mistrust of words or language has been a driving force for Tanikawa as a poet. Through words, his recalcitrant medium, he pursues his ultimate goal, truth through poetry.

Recently Tanikawa said, “From the very outset, you see, I never trusted words; for that matter, I never had faith in poetry either. Thinking back, I may have been fortunate because of that.” His remark was in response to my comment on the widely varied styles and modes of his poetry, to the extent that each of the dozens of books of poetry he published has its own unique focus, style and mode. Indeed his mistrust of words has caused him to experiment with the Japanese language in various ways to see how it might accommodate the truth he wants to express.

As a case in point, Tanikawa deliberately published Definitions, a collection of poems in expository prose that purport to define particular objects, and At Midnight in the Kitchen I Wanted to Talk to You, a collection of incidental poems written in casual conversational style, on the same day in 1975, from two different publishers. Clearly he wanted to make a statement on how he could direct the Japanese language in completely different styles.

A brief note on some grammatical characteristics of the Japanese language in conventional usage might be helpful for understanding Tanikawa’s concern with words.

  1. Unlike English, word order does not determine meaning in Japanese (e.g. “A dog bit a cat” can be expressed by “dog-cat-bit” or “cat-dog-bit”)
  2. Instead, parts of speech are indicated mostly by post-positional particles. The verb is normally placed at the end of the sentence. 
  3. The subject, object, and/or verb of a sentence can be omitted when the speaker (writer) assumes they will be understood by the listener (reader), or when the speaker wants to be vague. 
  4. Pronouns are used sparingly. First person singular pronouns (I, my, me) tend to be omitted to avoid an impression of self-assertion.
  5. Definite and indefinite articles (the, a, an) do not exist. The reader/listener has to determine the reference depending on context.
  6. Similarly, singular and plural are ambiguous, except when certain suffixes are used to specify plurality. For example, hana (flower) may be ‘a flower,’ ‘the flower,’ ‘flowers,’ or even ‘cherry blossoms’ depending on context.
  7. A modifier, be it an adjective, a phrase, or the equivalent of a relative clause, precedes the word(s) it modifies. There are no relative pronouns (who, which, etc) in Japanese. 
These characteristics have generally pertained in casual usage, as well as in literary writing, from ancient times to the present. They allow ample room for words and phrases in a sentence to carry extended meanings, and for a speaker or writer to build in ambiguity through intentionally unspecified references. Over many centuries, these elements in part provided traditional Japanese poetry with opportunities for developing elaborate techniques for packing an impressive amount of content within a 17 syllable haiku or a 31 syllable waka. It is important to note, however, that where precision is needed or desired, Japanese grammar also provides the structure for unambiguous sentences.

Given the flexibility made possible by these linguistic devices and the prevalence of their use in literature, the Japanese language provides fertile ground for a poet who chooses to incorporate oblique references to widely shared assumptions into his poetry. It is also a battleground for a poet who wants to create a new construct which is free from what he sees as unwanted socio-cultural and literary clutter. When Tanikawa says he “does not trust words,” he is, in part, looking deep into the complex linguistic, cultural, and literary environment within which his poetry is bound to dwell.


As his motive for writing Definitions, Tanikawa says, “Vermeer’s paintings, the writings of Arimasa Mori [a Japanese philosopher and scholar of French literature], and Alain’s Definitions [translated by Mori] called up in me a seemingly contradictory concept of poetry being latent in precise prose.” Tanikawa challenges himself to write poetry like Vermeer’s paintings as he saw them, using the Japanese language which, as Tanikawa recalls, Professor Mori has characterized as “ambiguous and not necessarily logical.”  Tanikawa spoke with Makoto Ooka, a fellow poet and critic about how these elements converged to urge him to write definitions of objects (Physiology of Criticism, Shicho-sha, 1978).

[. . .] when I was in Europe for the first time, I happened to come upon a retrospective of Vermeer, which gave me a shock [. . .] It is difficult to verbalize what of Vermeers paintings struck me, but simply put, I believe it was the awe-inspiring ability to paint exactly what eyes can see [. . .] If we ask what is exactly what eyes can see, we may get into a philosophical maze, but standing in front of Vermeers work, my first thought was that it depicts truly the way eyes can see. But as I came closer and looked at details, I realized that they were not painted exactly as what eyes could see.  [. . .] So, [. . .] in order to show exactly what eyes can see, a particular definitive technique figures in, [. . .] and imagination must come into play [. . .] Above all I strongly felt that the subject would not matter, if I could paint like Vermeer. Trash, a glass, any and everything in the world would be given eternal existence if Vermeer painted it. That was my intuitive take [. . .] Vermeer defines his subject by means of a medium, that is, painting. For me, it is poetry that looks at an actually existing subject to the ultimate degree. If I can present the subject truly and precisely, then wont the outcome be poetry itself? If I do this with words, wont it take the form of a definition? 
Thus Tanikawa sets out to define what he sees around him using definitively precise language. But he realizes that his effort is somehow being subverted:

[. . .] but after trying, I had to conclude that however I tried I could not possibly achieve an absolutely precise prose piece. This was a significant revelation to me. As I pursued  precise prose, the harder I tried, the funnier it seemed to become. I might say that words betrayed me in this manner, but conversely I could say that I was able to unfurl words in this manner.

So his original concept inspired by Vermeer, Mori, and Alain refused to be executed with words in spite of his best efforts, whatever the reason might have been. Perhaps socio-cultural elements associated with the Japanese language function to subvert such efforts. Or perhaps objects by nature defy such linguistic control. 

But the outcome of his effort is most certainly a fascinating book of prose poems titled Definitions.  In this book Tanikawa explores the possibility of embodying objects or concepts in widely varied prose styles ranging from a quote from a dictionary definition of a term, to legal documents, and even to clever verbal acrobatics, literally “unfurling” words, to borrow Tanikawa’s own phrase. Throughout, his sentences are tightly constructed for clarity. They seriously, somberly, and sometimes pompously defy the conventional lack of specificity in the Japanese language. But, as Tanikawa confides, the more seriously objective the voice tries to be, the more fanciful the outcome becomes.

This paradox is the very charm and strength of these poems. ‘An Impossible Approach to a Glass,’ for example, proposes to define a glass, but the poet draws the reader into a whirlwind of observations and considerations from visual, tactile, aesthetic, and practical angles, and leaves the reader hanging in mid-air with a dismissive statement: “as to what it really is, people may not necessarily have accurate knowledge.” On the other hand, ‘Observation of Play in Water’ seems far from a definition at a first glance, but it deftly constructs a momentary void in a perceived flow of time. A series of seriously stated surreal events surrounds and suggests a momentary lapse of the poet’s attention or consciousness as he observes a little girl playing in water, evoking elements on the canvas of a whimsical modern painting while inviting the reader to share the poet’s experience of a shear in time.

This reminds me of Tanikawa’s remark about narrative and poetry: “While a narrative progresses along the axis of time, poetry slices time and shows us its section, in my view, close to the sense in William Blakes To see a world in a grain of sand [. . .] and eternity in an hour.’”  With his characteristically sardonic humor, Tanikawa is writing a narrative to show a cross-section of time, in this case a void. 

These “definitions” contain an intriguing mixture of objectivity and fancy. Isn’t that what Vermeer did after all, though in a different medium? 
‘Coca-Cola Lesson’

 In 1959 in an essay titled ‘To the World,’ Tanikawa wrote, “I have long held a seemingly strange conviction that the issue I am truly facing in [writing] poetry is not necessarily poetry per se.  The issue I am really grappling with is a relationship between being (life) and words,” What is a word to a poet as a living being? How does a word relate to him and the entity it points to?  ‘Coca-Cola Lesson,’ published in 1980, gives us an insight into what Tanikawa meant by “a relationship between being (life) and a word.” As the sea touches the boy, the sensation causes him to visualize in his mind the word ‘Sea’ and the ‘Me.’ And the physical sea floods into his mind to merge with the word, while ‘Me’ intensifies its presence at the center of his being and stays afloat in the sea.  In other words the word sea in his mind is the real sea itself, not just a symbol to convey a concept as we would generally accept it. So are the cases for all other matter in existence in the whole universe. The boy deals with the terror of being overtaken by the swarming entities by naming each with his words. He thereby creates a barrier between a word and what it represents, and places each in a neatly organized dictionary. The young protagonist simply passes through the experience, unaware of its significance, and slides back into his normal world.

Through this boy’s experience, we understand why Tanikawa is grappling with “the issue” of life, its relationship with words, and with poetry. For a poet who does not allow himself to just return to the conventional world of words, it is precisely those totally uncontrollable swarms inside him that he has to “grapple with.” Through a casually paced narrative about a boy with a Coca-Cola can in his hand, Tanikawa shows us what he has in mind when he says that the “words in [his] soul seem so unlike words exposed to air.”

‘Diary of Auntie’

‘Diary of Auntie’ is written in prose segments which instantly put us in sync with the gentle, loving, and pained feelings of the voice observing Auntie in her state of senility. We meet Auntie, who is “alive, with her pretty silvery hair shining in the sun,” through objective eyes and ears of a poet as an outsider. But very quickly he takes us into a different dimension, by saying “Of course what I see is not all of Auntie. Auntie invades me like a virus. Invisible Auntie is more dangerous than Auntie I see, because I begin to lose the distinction between her and me.”  This “invasion” on one level refers to being part of the human condition, but on another level, points to becoming one with the woman, his mother, in the process of losing her grip on reality.

This reminds me of the terror the boy felt as his mind was invaded by swarms of all matter in ‘Coca-Cola Lesson.’ Unlike the boy who stomped on and walked away from the Coca-Cola can, the source of his dreadful experience, the poet cannot escape from his mother. He has to endure his situation even if he is “barely managing to be me just by being in front of her.” (The ideograms chosen for Auntie also suggest the dual relationship between the poet and the woman. The word ‘Auntie’「小母」in the title is generally used by a younger person, usually unrelated, to refer to or address an older woman. But when we look at each ideogram in this word, 小 means ‘small,’ also used for endearment; and 母 means ‘mother.’)

It would be so much easier if he could simply accept objective reality by saying this is the way it is, like the boy who mumbled, “I see, the sea means the sea,” but the matter at hand is far more nebulous for the poet.  When he confides, “I am left with a feeling that almost chokes me. I cannot name it,” we are drawn into his mind’s depths, sharing the experience of what one cannot name in words in a world filled with words.

Perhaps this explains why Tanikawa talks of how facts “somehow do not ring true” once he puts them down in words.

© Takako Lento

Source: First published on Poetry International, September 2012.

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