Yosuke Tanaka was born in Tokyo in 1969 and made his debut as a poet in the prestigious literary magazine Eureka at the age of 19. So far, he has published two poetry books, A Day When the Mountains are Visible in 1999, and Sweet Ultramarine Dreams in 2008. Though he is certainly not prolific, the poems he has written over the past twenty years are rich in stylistic diversity and unique in his sense of humour, sensitivity to nature and awareness of the legacy of the Japanese literary tradition. Yosuke Tanaka has emerged as the new poetic sensitivity in Japan, and is sure to remain one of the most important figures in 21st-century Japanese poetry.
So-called modern Japanese poetry was created some 120 years ago as an antithesis to traditional, fixed-form poetry. In other words, it has defined itself through its rejection of the literary legacy prior to its inception. Moreover, in the aftermath of the Second World War, lyricism and musicality were altogether rejected by socially engaged poets, who believed that those ‘emotional’ elements in poetry were partly responsible for Japanese military aggression. As a result, many Japanese poets tend to write, even today, with a fairly limited range of expression; while some occasionally make a Don Quixote-esque attempt to return to the past.
Yosuke Tanaka does not belong to either group of poets. Rather, he casually introduces elements from the past or from other poetic forms such as tanka, combining them with a 21st-century sensitivity to create something extraordinary which is simultaneously old and new, traditional and experimental, lyrical and critical. In his work, one sees a rare example of what T. S. Eliot discussed in his ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ applied to Japanese literature.
Take ‘Summer of Konbu Candy’ as an example. While choosing candy (and something as novel and commercial as “Plum Konbu candy” at that) as the main subject of a poem in a dry, American-pop fashion, Yosuke Tanaka follows the association from ‘plum’ to ‘spring’ and from ‘konbu’ (kelp) to ‘sea’ in a manner almost reminiscent of tenth-century Japanese court poetry:
Next, you get wrapped up in the Konbu candy
As graceful as a spring sea . . .
As we passed through the tunnel between the boulders
The south sea lay before us.
Yosuke Tanaka writes about climbing mountains, riding a bicycle in a city while singing “Rally-ho” and of feeling the moist air in the anticipation of summer rain. He also writes about food and of the sensation of tasting it. All of these materials are to him nature, which seems to be the main source of his creativity. And in his day job, he continues to deal with nature in the same way as in his poems by mixing old and new: he is a scientist specialised in the field of molecular cell biology.
Yama ga mieru hini (A Day When the Mountains are Visible), Shichosha, Tokyo, 1999
Sweet na gunjyo no yume (Sweet Ultramarine Dreams), Michitani, Tokyo, 2008