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Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2000

Calm rejoicing in simple, ordinary things

OLD TAOIST: THE LIFE, ART, AND POETRY OF KODOJIN (1865-1944), by Stephen Addiss, with translations of and commentary on Chinese poems by Jonathan Chaves, Columbia University Press, 2000, 173 pp., $27.50.

The photograph of Kodojin inside this book is very much what the title leads us to expect -- an elderly man in a kimono, with snowy white hair, a long straggling beard and a distant look in his eyes. It is the figure of a sage, familiar from Chinese paintings. But what is surprising is that the man himself is of relatively recent vintage.

An interest in Chinese-style painting led Stephen Addiss to the work of Kodojin, whose pen-name means "the old Taoist."

Tao, or "the Way," originated in ancient China and has provided a philosophy of life for centuries of painters and poets, scholars and contemplatives. Kodojin was, in the most traditional manner, all of these rolled into one. Addiss, who teaches Oriental art at a university in the United States, first encountered Kodojin as painter.

It was, as the preface relates, in a shop in Kyoto that the author came across some paintings of remarkable quality by an artist he had never heard of. Further inquiries revealed that the artist was also an accomplished "kanshi" poet, composing poems in the style of traditional literati. More than that, he was also a haiku poet, who had been a disciple of Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), the great haiku critic and reformer.

Although Addiss managed eventually to meet Kodojin's surviving daughter and to locate some of his artwork in museums, his account of the painter-poet's life is somewhat spare.

Born in Wakayama Prefecture, Kodojin went to Kyoto to study, then spent some time in Tokyo, but after a few years accepted an invitation to return to Kyoto, where he lived quietly and unobtrusively until he died.

If Kodojin's life was obscure, it was also sometimes one of poverty and hardship, which he accepted gladly:

   Alone I joy in the Way of the ancients,    Living hidden away, declining the world's fumes.

After the general introduction to "Kodojin's Life and Art," the book unfolds in sections.

The first of these deals with the haiku which, like the Chinese poems, though less didactically, reflect the poet's withdrawn and peaceful existence:

   Over the hedge    a few mountains can be seen --    chrysanthemums    Mail arriving    at the rustic door --    long summer day

There is a calm rejoicing in simple, ordinary things.

It is characteristic of haiku (and perhaps of Zen) that when books appear, they are reduced to silence, and their words denied us:

   Indian summer sunlight    pierces the books on the    bedazzled desk

Is it not also, one wonders, characteristic of Kodojin that when he visits the site of a celebrated verse by Basho, he responds with a rather wordy Chinese poem in the style of Basho's early master?

While Addiss himself translates the haiku, the lengthier Chinese poems have been translated, with an introductory essay, by Jonathan Chaves. "Kodojin was one of the last true masters of kanshi poems," he tells us and also remarks on the "crystalline simplicity" of the poems' diction. He traces the poet's models and exemplars as far back as the fourth century, but to find someone writing in this manner as late as the 1930s is, says Chaves, "extraordinary."

In the middle of the book, some of Kodojin's beautiful paintings have been reproduced in color. That they are traditional in style, Chinese and Japanese by turns, does not diminish their aesthetic worth. In one or two, an obscure and tiny figure can be glimpsed somewhere in the elaborate landscape. This is the same person as the poet, "drinking alone" and asking rhetorically:

   Who understands that this happiness today    lies simply in tranquillity of life?

One inevitably thinks of Wordsworth when he says elsewhere:

   I too am a "free-and-easy wanderer,"    wandering serenely as the clouds.

The poet-painter has so absorbed his natural surroundings, and become at one with them, that the landscape is both within him and outside him:

   When inspiration comes I paint landscapes,    a pure music I alone understand.

He has also become so absorbed in the words and thoughts of ancient Chinese poets that he re-creates himself as one of them.

What are we to make of this? Clearly, to Kodojin himself, his life and "way" were entirely satisfactory. Yet it is equally clear to us that they were deliberately anachronistic.

J. Thomas Rimer provides an afterword that draws a suggestive parallel with two well-known dropout haiku poets. Shall we read Kodojin's determined independence, then, as protest, as a criticism of the age?

It is difficult to think of an equivalent in a Western context. Perhaps a Victorian clergyman, adept at writing sonnets, who could also turn out Horatian odes in Latin, or Pindaric odes in Greek, and painted lovely watercolors too. Withdrawing to cultivate one's garden was an 18th-century ideal, while Latin poetry died off more or less with Milton, the century before.

Kodojin's achievement, although eccentric, was nonetheless remarkable. Its quality and variety are well-represented in this handsome volume, which rescues and revives his work for modern readers.

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