Wednesday, March 20, 2013

To the Lighthouse: Ishikawa Takuboku's Conception of "Poems to Eat"

                                                                 pulsating saliva
                                                                 stands at the corners
                                                                 of my mouth --
                                                                 no happiness like mine
                                                                 I have been eating poems
                                                                 (for Ishikawa Takuboku)

Since arriving in Canada, I was frustrated by my learning experience in terms of the depth and scope of the classroom discussions as well as stressed by the financial burden. So, I quit my studies and wrote essays in my adopted language, English. After two years of endeavor, I published three essays (“Disrupting Imperial Linear Time: Virginia Woolf’s Temporal Perception in ‘To the Lighthouse’”, “On Gibsonian Cyberspace in ‘Neuromancer’”, and “Cops: Packing and Policing the Real”) in Cultural Studies, but got almost no attention from the scholars in the related fields. Furthermore, I was frustrated by my incapacity to mastering English quickly, and also struggled with my newly-racialized identities. My pent-up emotions began spilling over onto pieces of scrap paper in the form of free verse, later of tanka and haiku, and the more I wrote, the more I thought about becoming a poet...

After almost a year of striving to write so-called free verse poetry without much success, I came across a book of tanka poetry, Sad Toys, written by Ishikawa Takuboku and translated by Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda. In the introduction, Takuboku emphasized that

My mind, which was yearning after some indescribable thing from morning to night, could find an outlet to some extent only by making poems. And I had absolutely nothing except that mind… I want to say this: a very complicated process was needed to turn actual feelings into poetry… Poetry must not be what is usually called poetry. It must be an exact report, an honest diary, of the changes in a man’s emotional life. Accordingly, it must be fragmentary; it must not have organization… Each second is one which never comes back in our life. I hold it dear. I don’t want to let it pass without doing anything for it. To express that moment, tanka, which is short and takes not much time to compose, is most convenient…

Sad Toys is full of simple, plain, detailed description of Takuboku’s social and inner life. The emotional power, socio-political sensibilities and colloquial language of his tanka, a kind of poetry in the moment and for the moment, appealed to me, and I came to view tanka as a poetic diary that recorded the changes in the emotional life of the poet. I went on to read Carl Sesar’s Takuboku: Poems to Eat, and got a deeper understanding of Takuboku’s conception of a new kind of poetry, “poems to eat:”
The name means poems made with both feet upon the ground. It means poems written without putting any distance from actual life. They are not delicacies, or dainty dishes, but food indispensable for us in our daily meal. To define poetry in this way may be to pull it down from its established position, but to me it means to make poetry, which has added nothing or detracted nothing from actual life, into something which cannot be dispensed with.

In some aspects, Takuboku’s view on poetry is similar to that of Dionne Brand: “Poetry is here, just here. Something wrestling with how we live… something dangerous, something honest (Bread Out of Stone, p. 183).” (an excerpt from my Simply Haiku Interview with Robert D. Wilson) As Donald Keene emphasizes in Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era : Poetry, Drama, Criticism, “Takuboku's tanka share little with the traditional tanka in diction, mood, or subject. When they succeed it is not because of their evocative charm but they hit us with both fists (p. 45).

Selected Tanka Translated by Carl Sesar

never forget
that man, tears
running down his face
a handful of sand
held out to show me

wrote GREAT
in the sand
a hundred times
forgot about dying
and went on home

like being
stoned out of town
I left --
the hurt of that
won't go away

give me
the creeps
some memories
like putting on
dirty socks

just staring
at that
cloudy sky
I feel like
killing someone

got five blocks
that's all –
tried walking
like someone
with something to do


The following is Makoto Ueda's review of  Takuboku’s most celebrated writing, "Poems to Eat," a short autobiographical essay published in 1090 that traces his growth as a poet (Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature, pp. 104-5)

Its opening section is filled with negative rhetoric, vehemently rejecting the stance of Takuboku’s younger days… the latter part of the essay is an exposition of his newly discovered poetic, whose essence can be seen in the excerpts below:

At this stage in his life, Takuboku defined the poet as follows:

A true poet must be as resolute as a statesman in reforming himself and in putting his philosophy into practice. He must be as singleminded as a businessman in giving a focus to his life. He must be as clearheaded as a scientist, and as straightforward as a primitive. He must have all these qualities and thereby make a clam, honest report on the changes of his psyche as they happen from one moment to the next, describing them without a word of adornment or falsehood.

In a corollary to the first definition, he defined poetry:

Poetry must not be the so-called poetry. It must be a detailed report of changes that take place in a man’s emotional life (I cannot think of a better word); it must be an honest diary. Hence, it must be fragmentary – it must not have unity (Poetry with unity, namely philosophical literature, will turn into prose fiction when it takes an inductive form; into drama when it takes a deductive form. True poetry is related to fiction and drama in the same way daily reports of receipts and disbursements are related to a monthly or yearly balance sheet of accounts). Furthermore, unlike a minister gathering material for his sermon or a streetwalker looking for a certain  kind of man , a poet must never have a preconceived purpose.

In a sense, “Poems to Eat,” expresses an idea of poetry to which Takuboku had unconsciously subscribed from the beginning, for if the essay’s central thesis is an equation of poem and diary, he had been a diarist all along…


  1. Below is an excerpt from Ruth Linhart's A Writer´s "Sad Toys,"

    The Japanese poet Ishikawa Takuboku (1886-1912) started his literary career as a tanka poet, and it is this literary genre which made him popular in Japan. Yet the poet´s attitude towards this literary form was rather ambivalent, and it is one of the tragic aspects of his life that, judging from his letters and diaries, he despised the genre in which he was so gifted.

    In his essay Jidai Heisoku no Genjô (The Stagnation of the Times) he appeals: "What I demand from literature is criticism!" As lyric poetry seemed inappropriate to him as a means for "criticism of our times" and not to answer the need for social reform, he thought little of it. Nevertheless, at the same time, he was emotionally very much inclined towards tanka poetry. In his essay Uta no Iroiro (Aspects of the Tanka) he states: "Tanka are my sad toys." His poems, he explains, are but a means of self-expression, like a diary, "sad" because he wrote them when unhappy, and "sad" because of their uselessness to society. Moreover, there existed a conflict between his goal to become a successful writer of novels, which he could not achieve, and his inconsistent and immature character, which made him more suited for the little form of tanka.

  2. Thankyou for all your information on tanka, haiku and also their translation. into Chinese. It motivates and encourages me. Best of days. Lisbeth Ho (Blue Verandah)