Killing the Poet, Saving the Poetry

The Long Silence of Shuntaro Tanikawa

Killing the Poet, Saving the Poetry: The Long Silence of Shuntaro Tanikawa
© Justin Ficklin on

Shuntaro Tanikawa stopped writing poetry around 1996. He continued to write light verses for children, and toured around the country for readings with his son Kensaku’s music band ‘Diva’. Poems by Tanikawa in the so-called ‘Gendai-shi’ (modern poetry) category, however, ceased to appear in literary magazines. For a poet as prolific as Tanikawa, who had been constantly feeding the media with his latest works for over 40 years, it was an unusual, even scandalous, situation. Tanikawa remained silent until the spring of 2002, when he published the first batches of extremely short poems (titled ‘minimal’) in a poetry magazine.

In the postscript of the book version of ‘minimal’, also published in 2002, Shuntaro describes his dry period as follows: “Some years ago, for a time, I wanted to be away from writing poetry. It was not because I had come to an impasse, but rather that I came to feel it somewhat distasteful to see myself writing poetry with such ease, and looking at things only through the eyes of poetry. This might be an occupational hazard for those who have continued to write poetry for many years.”

‘Somewhat distasteful’ is a rather mild way of putting it. A collection of Tanikawa’s poems published as The Naif display much harsher criticism, even hostility, towards poetry, and inevitably against himself as poet:

Im but a naive child 
that has just chased the butterflies of beautiful words.
This childs soul, approaching one hundred,
remains innocent,
unaware that he has hurt people
Poetry is
Excerpt from ‘The Naif’ (translated by William I. Elliott and Kazuo Kawamura)
A woman who divorced recently told me in bed that
Poetry is just the scum of life with its lye removed.
I switched off the word processor and the words were gone.
I wish poetry would vanish, too.
Excerpt from ‘An Axe’ (translated by William I. Elliott and Kazuo Kawamura)
The grounds of Tanikawa’s reproach towards poetry is an ethical one: to Tanikawa, during this period poetry and poet were not capable of engaging with real life, and as a result hurt the real people around them.  It was a sin of detachment, a trait of immorality typical of a Keats-like ‘non-self’ poet, which is essentially the same blame given by the girl in ‘Poet’s Tomb’ when she shouts at the poet “You have nothing to say, do you? / You are just hollow / All things simply pass through you” and demands that he “Tell me something that is not a poem— / Anything will do, just say it to me!”.

To this challenge, the poet replies “I live only now in this space [...] I have no yesterday or tomorrow / I dream of a place void of everything / Because this world is too bountiful and too beautiful!”. The poet in ‘Poet’s Tomb’ is in this sense a self-portrait of Tanikawa as a poet, whom Tanikawa as a man tries to punish or even terminate through the sanction of silence. Incidentally, the ‘woman who divorced recently’ in the above-quoted poem ‘The Naif’ refers to Tanikawa’s second wife, and their marriage which ended in divorce in 1989.  In the next year, Tanikawa married Yoko Sano, a prominent novelist and essayist, but this marriage also failed, in 1996.  That his silence started at the same time is not a coincidence.

The opening lines of ‘minimal’ were as abrupt and sensational as the arrival of the preceding silence:
before daybreak
came to me
As we read, the poem came to him rather discreetly, and in tatters, but Tanikawa was ready to let it in, and even willing to mend its broken seams. The silence must have functioned as a process of healing and regeneration. In fact, it seems to have triggered a creative burst, continuing throughout his 70s to this day. Since breaking his silence, Tanikawa has produced such books as Micky Mouse at Night in 2003, The Chagall and Leaf in 2005, Watashi (I myself) in 2007, and Tromso Collage in 2009, to name just a few.  He recently had to force himself to slow down, as his blood pressure rose after completing a four-book volume of works all at the same time. Looking at Tanikawa today, one cannot help but think that the solitary days he spent in silence between The Naif and minimal have turned out to be an endless source of creative energy.

© Yasuhiro Yotsumoto  
• Japan
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