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Sunday, June 17, 2001

Sounds of a poet who writes to live, and lives to write

COLLECTED POEMS OF SHUNTARO TANIKAWA, CD-ROM. Iwanami Shoten Publishers, Tokyo, 2000, 19,000 yen.

It's been a recent trend in the music industry to come out with boxed sets commemorating the work of some of our most celebrated musicians, from John Coltrane to the Beatles. That such a trend has spread to the world of poetry is no small cause for celebration.

Iwanami Shoten has just brought out a groundbreaking CD-ROM that includes 2,000 of Shuntaro Tanikawa's poems from all of his books, 630 of which are also in English, and 70 of which are read by the poet himself. We can now hear a poem in the poet's voice as we read it on the page. It's a poetry lover's feast.

Born in Tokyo in 1931, Tanikawa is one of Japan's most prolific and best-loved poets and writers. His work, written over 40 years, is cut to a universal scale. As a virtual archive, the amount of work on the CD-ROM, ranging from 1952 to 1999, is unsurpassed, including three of Tanikawa's video films, a biography with photographs, selected criticism, short essays and other assorted pieces that compose an impressionistic collage of the imaginative work of this poet's life. But mainly, thousands of poems on everyday events -- both ordinary and transcendent -- are collected here, including some English translations that have not yet been published in book form. This is a title poem from the unpublished translation of "The Naif":

My toe tips look unusually far away. Five toes lie coldly together like five people strangers to one another. There's a telephone beside my bed connected to the world, but there's no one I want to talk to. Since I grew self-conscious my life has been nothing but business, business. Neither of my parents taught me how to make small talk.

I've relied on versification as my only guide for forty years. Strange, but I feel most comfortable saying "A poet" when people ask who I am. Was I a poet when I abandoned that woman? Am I, eating my favorite baked sweet potato, a poet? Am I, grown bald, a poet? There are countless middle-aged men of such kind who are not poets. I'm but a naive child that has just chased the butterflies of beautiful words. This child's soul, approaching 100, remains innocent, unaware that he has hurt people. Poetry is ridiculous.

If poetry is "ridiculous," it is also necessary. Tanikawa's postwar poems first struck a chord with their rejection of nihilism and embrace of an objective sense of cosmic connection. His work continues to explore the metaphysical underpinnings of everyday life. It has been called childlike (not to be confused with childish), for this is a poet who communicates complex thought in simple language. The inquiry into the human condition and all of its pathos, humor and unexpected frailty is also whimsical and steadfast in its refusal to be definitive. If "senryu" had a longer form and was crossed with the Zen koan, Tanikawa might be writing in it.

The three short videos are humorous and impressionistic. "Raindrops" calls to mind Ezra Pound's classic poem "In the Station of Metro." This film is a continual closeup shot of falling rain on a branch, constituting visual poetry. "Interview With a Door" is a filmic commentary on the various people who pass through this entry, from the tofu seller to magazine editors." "Song While Drawing Pictures" focuses on a hand as it creates wordplay through calligraphy, with a punning voice-over.

It's interesting that one of the most humanistic and low-tech of Japan's major poets -- he rarely engages in verbal pyrotechnics -- is the first to come out with a comprehensive CD-ROM, but somehow the contradiction works. "93 Questions" in an "interview" brings out the poet's whimsy (translation mine)

"Q: Why did you begin to write poetry? A: My friend encouraged me. Q: Please name some Japanese poets or poems you like. A: 15246-BH-58 from [241-6790328.11]. Q: Why do you like this poet/work? A: Because it hasn't yet been written."

This type of "dialogue" might be construed as flippant, but it isn't. It's a refusal to nail down experience that can't be nailed down, to box and ribbon life or its reflection in poetry.

William Elliott, Tanikawa's longtime translator, along with Kazuo Kawamura -- the duo responsible for the superb English translations here -- knows the poet and his work well, and it shows. Elliott relayed the fact that for a long time, until about the mid-80's, Tanikawa collected old radios; he apparently had about 75 of them. Tanikawa used to tinker with them and dabble at repairing them, but the hobby lapsed about 15 years ago. It lives on in "A Night Radio" (from "The Naif"):

I'm holding a soldering iron, tinkering with a '49 Philco. Despite warm tubes, the radio is stubbornly silent, but its odor, still fresh, mesmerizes me. Why do ears wish to hear beyond their capacity? I think we hear much too much nowadays and I feel nostalgic over this broken radio's silence. I can't say which is the more important to me, tinkering with a radio or writing a poem. I long for the days when I'd nothing to do with poems and walked those dusty childhood roads. But I've forgotten about women and friends, as though time did not exist. I just wanted to hear, should have heard, something more, my breath held, my ears cocked, in every summer's towering clouds, in the muttering of family get-togethers in an untidy room, Refusing to compress living into a story.

What does it mean to write poetry in an age in which it is useless, or ridiculous? To tinker with radios that are obsolete? The 2,000 poems here give plenty of good answers.

Seeing this prodigious poet's work as a whole, it appears as almost a lifeblood itself that keeps the poet alive. Tanikawa lives to write, and writes to live. His answer to modernity seems to be to keep on unearthing the essence of things -- truth stated unadorned and often humorously, rhetorically. It isn't the radio (poem) that has value so much as the tinkering (exploration). Poetry hasn't helped Tanikawa live a better life, become happier, stop hurting people. It's given the life he has greater depth, and a framework of inquiry that we can all relate to.

This CD-ROM is a comprehensive Tanikawa reader for the 21st century that will keep the work of this poet alive forever. It's a must-have for any poetry lover, library or school poetry archive. The bulk of the work is in Japanese, but there are plenty of English translations to enjoy as well. The accompanying booklet explains how to operate the CD-ROM with either Macintosh or Windows systems, but it's all in Japanese, so it could be difficult to navigate unless you want to practice your technical kanji. When operating, there are adjustments to be made, such as remembering that the works in the CD-ROM appear Japanese-style (right to left). I kept making the mistake of hitting the right arrow to go forward and ended up repeating myself.

Somehow, I think Tanikawa would have liked that.

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