sexta-feira, 12 de junho de 2009

Tanka and Imagination: Terayama’s Toybox

By Michael McClintock

I saw the angel in the marble

and carved until I set him free.


It’s not what you look at that matters,

it’s what you see.

~Henry David Thoreau

Some stories are true that never happened.

~Elie Weisel

* * *

All three statements, above, impart something true and observable about the “real” world. If understood and applied with sympathy to the life and works of Shuji Terayama (1935-1983), they may afford us an expanded appreciation for his accomplishments in tanka.

When poets throw images like this against the wall, what are they trying to do?

my father

then came home alone

with a drenched hat

and a sodden skylark

In Terayama’s case, I think he is playing. It is play that takes him out of himself and back again, little by little building upon his understanding about where and how he fits into the world, how he relates to and feels about it, trying always to get the measurements right in his language. Imagination is his vehicle, the power of the mind to create its own reality out of the stuff of events, objects, and people. He becomes the creator and master, and the senses do his bidding and submit to his choreography: a process of discovery, a game of identities, masks, and metamorphosis.

And since he’s writing it all down, he invites us to join in. We get to experience the world through his imagination, through the poetry that comes out of it. It may not be—to a certainty never can be—the same as being there, in his mind, but it is very close. In the nearness, there is much power and beauty, casting its glow like lamplight on our faces:

inside of me

there is a dark house

where a boy sleeps

with bent knees,

when I polish the lamp

Most readers in English got their first look at Shuji Terayama’s tanka in Ferris Wheel: 101 Modern and Contemporary Tanka (Boston:Cheng & Tsui, 2006), where five of his poems appeared. [1] Who was this evidently brilliant poet, about whom we had heard virtually nothing? His work makes no appearance in Makoto Ueda’s Modern Japanese Tanka (Columbia University Press, 1996), an anthology that generously samples the work of twenty of Japan’s most highly regarded tanka poets, from Yosano Tekkan (1873-1935) to Tawara Michi (b. 1962). He is nowhere to be found in any of the other major anthologies of modern Japanese literature published in English over the last thirty years.

Thanks to Uzawa and Fielden, at last some correction and rehabilitation is possible with the appearance of their new title this past summer from Hokuseido Press, Kaleidoscope: Selected Tanka of Shuji Terayama. [2] The book includes 201 tanka from the four collections Terayama published before he reached the age of thirty: A Book in the Sky (1958), Blood and Wheat (1962), Wasteland on the Table (1962), and Death in the Countryside (1964). “Kaleidoscope” is not a title Terayama himself ever used. I wonder if he would have liked it for this book of his selected poems, meant for reading on shores outside Japan. I think a good poet like Terayama does exactly what a kaleidoscope does not do : puts things into focus, especially in relation to ourselves. It’s a small quibble, and a personal one, but I wish they’d chosen something else.

A section titled “Early Tanka” at the beginning of the book includes over fifty poems written by Terayama during his high school days, before 1957. These tanka make evident what a fast-study Terayama was. With tremendous energy and enthusiasm, and plenty of hubris, too, it appears, he launched himself into creating a unique tanka aesthetic that dumped most of the strictures and constraints of autobiographical, diarist composition and subject matter, placing instead at the center of his work the creations of imaginative expression—what some would assert is the poet’s real work in the first place. Let the diarists and personal journal-keepers attend to making tanka verse— Terayama appears to have wanted no part of that kind of platform for his work.

Finished with tanka before the age of thirty, Terayama’s relatively small oeuvre of poems has made him “. . . still one of the most popular tanka poets in Japan . . .” according to Uzawa in her introductory “The Life of Shuji Terayama.” Is he really that popular? The thickets of Japanese waka and tanka politics and rivalries can be impenetrable to an outsider; here we’ll have to accept the translator’s statement and hope that it is no exaggeration. At least I’m right there beside Uzawa in thinking that Terayama ought to be that popular.

Uzawa and Fielden have worked hard to bring forward a collection of poetry that is intriguing, engaging, frequently amazing. Uzawa continues: “Most tanka poets write tanka based on their own experiences. However, Terayama wrote tanka as fiction. His poems read like scenes from a movie, stage play, or short story. The stories he writes in his tanka are quite different from his real life.” Here is an example of what Uzawa has noted:

my aunt may be

a supporting actor in my life,

the handkerchief

on her palm is pooling

summer rain

This tender and loving portrait of the woman , the aunt, comes entirely out of the summer rain pooling in the handkerchief on her palm. Through imaginative use of language, and through imaginative seeing of correspondences, Terayama’s feelings are objectified so that they might be experienced and understood better, as form and substance, by himself and his readers, rather than encountered as idea or psychological concept. It is an old trick that the greatest poets have long played, and is what sets them apart from makers of mere verse amusements.

Certainly that observable divide—between a poet’s art and that same poet’s life—has validity, in a literal sense, when observed by an objective outsider who stands a few decades away in time and looks from a distance to see what a poet is doing. On the other hand, I think Terayama himself might tell us that the imagination was his real life— and that the life of the imagination, wherein by choice his real self and consciousness existed, is reflected in his tanka, and in his later artistic pursuits as playwright, film-maker, and photographer. I think it’s probable that, for Terayama, almost everything else was uninteresting dross or background noise: it bored him.

This poem, from among his early tanka, reveals the poet’s orientation and attitude:

birds banished

from the sky,

time, beasts

all collected here

in my ark-like toybox

Already dominant here are the associative, Symbolist tendencies of his rapidly maturing work, particularly his use of animals and their imagery as stand-ins for the feelings and passions of his emotional life. The “ark-like” toybox in which this menagerie found life can be interpreted as meaning his own physical body, the birds and beasts therein being representations of his own states of mind-and-heart.

Life was a toybox, and imagination was the key he would use to open it up and express what he found there throughout his brief tanka career. The image of the toybox as being “ark-like” is important, conveying his intention as artist to take refuge in a vessel of his own creation (a most unlikely Noah) and to safely transfer to another place, through art, all that he wanted to take with him from time and life—his experience “all collected here.” Not God in Heaven but his own imagination told him why and how.

His attitude toward poetry is even more explicit in this later poem, from A Book in the Sky :

lying down

in the attic,

where angry waves

sound very close,

I make poetry my power

His location “in the attic” expresses his sense of isolation and apartness, the attic being a simple yet powerful metaphor for the confinements the artistic consciousness must be aware of and deal with every day, relegated to living in a space probably not meant for habitation, above and apart from the common living areas of the house. Both worlds are side-by-side, yet apart. Out of the tension between them, out of those angry waves to which he listens “very close”, Terayama draws his power and his reason for being. There is no bitterness here, but a kind of secret glee, all the more believable because the circumstances in which he places his Poet as Creator (himself) are so plain and un-extraordinary: after all, literally, he is a young man living in an attic. The poem begs the question, at that literal level, “What power could he be talking about?” The glee I sense here is in the secret knowledge Terayama has of himself, as the poet-creator, using that power within the same world that asks that question of him. He answers that question in his own way: with a poem.

Significantly—for no word is wasted, and none are used as filler to flesh out a line—“time” is mentioned on the list of things in his toybox. Here is an example of how he uses and regards time:

inside the orchard

there is tomorrow

I draw it

pressing my chest hard

against the wooden fence

The temporal is also a dimension with which Terayama plays, along with geography and place, the view from the window, the food on the plate, the street into town, and all the impediments of earthly life that we mortals, made of lesser tissue, accept as givens and just deal with. Memories of the past are embodied in the present, in tropes that permit us to see, hear, and smell them:

in my receding


towns and days are


like flower petals

Such poems annihilate time, turning it into flower petals. This is what Emerson was talking about when he wrote that “All thinking is analogizing . . . the endless passing of one element into new forms, the incessant metamorphosis” which “explains the rank the imagination holds in our catalogue of mental powers . . . the poet accounts all productions and changes of Nature as the nouns of language, uses them representationally . . . “ [3]

Terayama’s many poems about his father are especially moving and, I think, offer multi-leveled examples of how he made imagination the engine of his art—the source and substance of his diary notes, so to speak. Here are a few:

this lamp is

the only thing

my dead father left ---

a winter fly rests

on my cheek


as part of my father’s estate

this wintry sunset

is visible

from every ridge

an apparition

when I’m napping

in my overcoat ---

I can only think

it’s my father’s spirit

When we encounter spirit and coat again, later, can it possibly be the same spirit, the same coat?

whose evil spirit?

suddenly I feel cold

when I pass

in front of

a hung coat

Terayama’s feelings toward his father are often ambiguous, and sometimes fearful, uncertain, uncomfortable. Yet there is powerful beauty and expressiveness in the emptiness, the literal dispossession, of that hanging coat. He has many poems featuring his father, including the first poem cited in this essay; he did not bury his father and, actually, barely knew him. His father was killed in combat in Indonesia in World War Two, when Shuji was very young. The moody, somewhat recessive tones of these poems are among Terayama’s most distinctive trademarks. Here are two more, on different subjects:

behind a dog

going to hide

his bone

I walk in

the dead grass

let’s reflect

my dead spirit

in the winter well

since I have nothing

to throw there

Terayama wrote poems about being saddened by the thought of his dead mother while she remained quite alive in a nearby town:

I gently comb

the turtledove

with my dead mother’s

scarlet comb ---

its down keeps falling out

Such a poem would have interested William Empson, who labored so long and hard to explain how the best poetry maximizes—he called it “a multiplicity of associations”—the denotative and connotative meanings of words, which meanings the poet holds in tension, careful not to go too far in either direction, but occupying the entire scale of possibilities. [4]

Sure, poetry is one thing, life is another. But about making things up, this poem summarizes in vivid concreteness his untroubled point of view:

while an ant

toiled from the dahlia

to the ash tray

I was forming

a beautiful lie

He is being ironic, and sounding over-confident here, perhaps, but we get the point. In beauty so formed, there is no lie.

Terayama is a poet capable of showing us the overlapping of things outside with ideas and emotions inside. Even such abstractions as “freedom” he handles with ease:

it’s written

on the dirty wall

of the subway,

it’s forgotten, like an old wound:


the house mouse

has ten metres

of freedom —

I commune with

its wild eyes

Terayama’s poetry is not, of course, a purely invented reality. After all, he draws all his material from human experience. He practiced a deep and abiding empathy, about which he wrote often:

this wind

carrying carrot seeds


the orphan,

sunset, and me

Ordinary life is still the subject matter but imagination of Terayama’s calibre, combined with and enabled by his natural empathic powers, is needed to make it soar, fully-winged, into the human record as literature.

After reading his poems in this marvelous, fascinating book, it’s perhaps easier to understand how, at about age 30, Terayama left tanka and devoted the remainder of his short life to pursuing and seducing the wild and often chaotic world of surrealist and noir film-making, directing, and scripting. He involved himself deeply in the punk- and acid- rock popular subcultures of 60s and 70s urban Japan, and never emerged a poet again. He died at age 47 of cirrhosis of the liver, a degenerative illness that appears to have plagued him for most of his adult life, requiring long periods of hospitalization. There’s plenty of reason to wish that he’d somehow continued to write tanka up to the last.

Hokuseido Press is to be congratulated for this commemorative edition on the 25 th anniversary of Shuji Terayama’s death. The English translations are accompanied by the original Japanese, which permits careful scrutiny of the translators’ versions. The poems are presented one, two or three to a page on heavy, glossy paper, festooned with a tsunami of what appears to be clip-art images and a miscellany of photographs and engraved images, ranging in subject from grim urban scenes to recumbent, half-naked Victorian ladies. The multifarious wildness and incoherence of it all is something, I think, Terayama would have liked very much, even though sometimes it can be distracting, or feel out of key with the poetry on the page. I got used to it . . . and began to appreciate the sly humor.

For Shuji Terayama, poetry was a young man’s passion, apparently, and he burned out on it. Or perhaps the passion endured and Terayama merely chose different venues to exercise and express it. The book’s last poem, from his last collection, Death in the Countryside , is this one:

at the dark side

of the globe

am I,


and pale of face

In poetry, as Terayama practiced it, the work of the imagination is not to give a dweeb the idea he is Superman, but to lead a person to understand one’s self and the world better, practically and spiritually, and to take delight in the knowledge when conveyed by language in poetic form.

The early death we have to live with and regret; it is the life that is really commemorated here, and it comes with Terayama’s own last self-portrait in tanka. Haunting, isn’t it?

in Modern English Tanka, Volume III, Nº 1

September 2008


1. Ferris Wheel earned for its translators, Kozue Uzawa and Amelia Fielden, the 2007 Donald Keene Translation Award for Japanese Literature.

2. Kaleidoscope: Selected Tanka of Shuji Terayama , translated by Kozue Uzawa and Amelia Fielden. (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 2008). 144 pages, 6” x 8”, hardcover; glossy, thick paper, heavily illustrated; ISBN 978-4-590-01241-4, $20 US plus postage. Available through any Kinokuniya bookstore; in North America through Kozue Uzawa at, and in Australia/New Zealand through Amelia Fielden at

3. From “Poetry and Imagination” by Ralph Waldo Emerson [essay, 1872].

4. For a classic, exhaustive study of this topic, see Seven Types of Ambiguity by William Empson (1930) or, in briefer treatment, Allen Tate’s essay “Tension in Poetry.”

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