Every country has its own breed of precocious poet, those who make their debuts in their teens, demonstrating surprising maturity on one hand and a new style or sensitivity on the other. In modern Japanese poetry, the top on the list in this tradition arguably goes to Chuya Nakahara (1907-1937), who, after having rushed through an avant-garde Dadaism period for three years, reached classical perfection at the age of just 19.
Kiji Kutani, born in 1984 in Saitama, Japan and now 23 years-old, certainly belongs to this group of poets. Most of the poems shown here were written when he was a high school student. They were first submitted to poetry magazines, accepted repeatedly, and later compiled into his first (and so far the only) collection Hirumo Yorumo (Day and Night), which won (what else?) the prestigious Nakahara Chuya Prize in 2003.
Kutani’s brilliance in terms of technique is obvious, especially when appreciated through the original Japanese texts, in which one can see how carefully Kutani chooses Hiragana (a Japanese phonetic alphabet), Katakana (another kind of phonetic alphabet), and Kanji (Chinese characters), to provide effectiveness and add subtlety to his expression.
Nevertheless, it is quite difficult to pin down exactly what is so strangely new about his poetry, although one senses it as clearly as one appreciates his technical skill. In this regard, I’m rather tempted to use negative comparisons: he does not write like the politically-oriented Japanese poets of 1950s and 60s, nor like the so-called postmodern, experimental poets of 80s and 90s. Nor does he go back to the traditional lyricism, which was a dominant factor in Japanese free verse before the World War II, although there is some trace of it. Perhaps it may be because Kutani is exploring reality which itself is strange and elusive to us, emerging reality in which things that were once solid and meaningful are melting down. It is the reality one experiences in 21st century Tokyo, in which lines like the following do not sound surrealist or even poetic but rather provide a documentary-like quality:
the moment the train pulled into Koiwa,
she turned soundlessly into a translucent morsel
and came sliding towards my feet
at a snail’s pace.
Or perhaps it is the reality of lunchtime that is familiar to any high school student today whether it be in Japan, in Korea, or in the US:
phrases of poetry I'd yet to read
melted like butter
grew into a creature with no arms or legs
and quietly set about swallowing earth
Kutani’s poetry does not shout or sing, but speaks softly and slowly (sometimes even “at a snail’s pace”) as its tentacles of words feel their way through this reality. Its temperature is not extremely hot or cold, but gently warm like the genitals, which the young poet suddenly realizes “no doubt,/ day and night . . . will stay warm/ forever” as in the title poem ‘Day and Night’.
But all of these discussion are bound to become obsolete before long. After all, Kutani is still a university student, and has just started his career as a serious poet. His second collection is due this fall.
Hirumo Yorumo, midnight press, Tokyo, 2003
Day and Night (Hirumo Yorumo), translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, Yamaguchi City, Yamaguchi, 2005