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The Poetry and Poetics of Nishiwaki Junzaburo: Modernism in Translation

The Poetry and Poetics of Nishiwaki Junzaburo: Modernism in Translation

by Hosea Hirata

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This book offers an in-depth investigation into the writings of one of modern Japan's most gifted poet-scholars, Nishiwaki Junzaburo (1894-1982), who has been compared to T. S. Eliot, R. M. Rilke, and Paul Valry. Exploring both his poetry and theoretical writings, Hosea Hirata describes how Nishiwaki, who wrote his first poems in English and French, shaped a highly


This book offers an in-depth investigation into the writings of one of modern Japan's most gifted poet-scholars, Nishiwaki Junzaburo (1894-1982), who has been compared to T. S. Eliot, R. M. Rilke, and Paul Valry. Exploring both his poetry and theoretical writings, Hosea Hirata describes how Nishiwaki, who wrote his first poems in English and French, shaped a highly influential poetic modernism in Japan while elevating the artistic status of translation. This volume includes Nishiwaki's highly original essays on the nature of poetry, his first two collections of Japanese poems, and a poem meditating on the annihilation of symbolism.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Finalist for the 1994 Koizumi Yakurro Prize

"In addition to being a well-balanced study of one of twentieth-century Japan's most important poets, Hirata also pioneers possibilities in areas of criticism heretofore often neglected in studies of Japanese literature."The Journal of Asian Studies

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Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Studies of the East Asian Institute Series
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

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The Poetry and Poetics of Nishiwaki Junzaburo

Modernism in Translation

By Hosea Hirata


Copyright © 1993 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06981-4




To discourse upon poetry is as dangerous as to discourse upon God. All poetic theory is dogma. Even that famous lecture Mallarmé delivered to some English students has become another trifling dogma now.

The reality of human existence itself is banal. To sense this fundamental yet supreme banality constitutes the motivation for poetry. Poetry is a method of calling one's attention to this banal reality by means of a certain unique interest (a mysterious sense of exaltation). An everyday name for this is art.

Custom dulls the awareness of reality. Conventions let this awareness slip into hibernation. Thus our reality becomes banal. Then it follows that the break with custom makes reality exciting, for our awareness is refreshed. What we must note here, however, is that the bonds of habits and conventions are to be broken down not for the sake of destruction itself but for the sake of poetic expression. In other words, this act of destruction, with its consequential process of making reality exciting, must be committed in order to fulfill the aim of poetry. Yet poetry will not appear if in fact one breaks with custom and tradition in actuality. Such an act would belong to the field of ethics, of philosophy. Our habitual way of recognizing reality is through our ordinary feelings and reason. When we break down this ordinary order of feelings and intellect, our consciousness, sloughing off custom and tradition, succeeds in recognizing reality on a totally new plane. We all know that many critics have criticized this attitude, saying that modern poetry is keen only on destruction and never on construction of poetry. However, this destruction is in fact poetic construction. Without its destructiveness poetry would not gain creativity. Intellect recognizes reality through reason, whereas poetry recognizes reality by transgressing reason or even by disdaining it.

Pascal remarked that the one who despises philosophy is the true philosopher. Nietzsche also thought in the same vein. Nietzsche believed that any tradition, no matter what great authority it may hold, should not be accepted. Poetic form is also a tradition.

In the nineteenth century, modern consciousness witnessed a conspicuous dissolution of poetic traditions. Baudelaire despised even ordinary people's sense of beauty or morality.

I get feverishly intoxicated
With the confused odors of coconut oil, musk, and tar.

Such an expression used to astonish ordinary readers. But today an ordinary poet could easily come up with such an expression. Heine's poetry has become mere children's songs. Similarly, Verlaine's "II pleure dans mon coeur" has come to represent a banal sensibility.

Human emotions possess a power to harmonize themselves. They move and act like weather. Then they vanish into nothingness. They harmonize with the existence of God. "God is the only being that does not require to be in order to reign." We may discern here two types of harmonizing movement. At times one type moves centrifugally. It becomes scattered like autumn leaves, tattered like wastepaper, and finally returns to nothingness. At times the other type moves centripetally. Like a lens, it gathers the sunlight on a focal point and burns itself out. The former type can be seen in decadent poetry. The latter type is exemplified in King Lear or in what Baudelaire expresses as the explosion of the soul. In short, this explosion is what Baudelaire calls l'émotion.

"Thus, strictly yet simply put, the principle of poetry is man's aspiration toward superior beauty. And the manifestation of this principle can be seen in a certain enthusiasm, excitement of the soul." What is meant by this "superior beauty" is a certain state that absolutely satisfies the human soul. Thus, it indicates a different notion of beauty from that which la passion seeks. It is different from Catullus's outburst, "Vivamus, mea Lesbia!" Baudelaire says that l'amour is a taste for prostitution. He also writes: "For passion is natural, too natural not to introduce a broken, discordant tone into the domain of pure beauty, and is too ordinary and too violent not to shock the pure Desires, graceful Melancholies and the noble Despairs that inhabit the supernatural regions of poetry." "One must always be drunk. That's it. Nothing else matters.... But with what? With wine, with poetry or with virtue, whatever you like." Baudelaire knew that poetry had already lost its primitive significance, which was merely to sing out thoughts and feelings. This awareness marks the spirit of modern poetry.

One may claim that poetry is primitive. The nature of primitive languages was poetic. Humboldt says, "[Man] is a singing creature." This notion of poetry may be useful in discussing the origin of language but it is not the most distinguished idea where poetry is concerned. This notion of poetry could also be seen in what Lessing meant by Liebhaber. Mr. Garrod, professor of poetry at Oxford, once said, "It has become extremely difficult to compose a poem. A long time ago, when people wore their hair long, any utterance became poetry immediately."

One may say, then, to represent life is poetry. Plato argued against this notion in the Republic. In terms of the expression of human nature, the first naturalist may well have been Homer: his heroes wail in the sand; the hairy Odysseus weeps on an isolated island, longing for his homeland. But this type of poetry, which is a mere copy of human life, did not please Plato. In all likelihood, it was as an attack on Plato's attitude toward poetry that Aristotle wrote the Poetics.

Aristotle argued that poetry is not merely a copy of human life, but rather that it expresses man's universal characteristics and tendencies. This theory delimits the mimesis of human nature and emphasizes human "probability," or "necessity."

Plato complained about the lack of critical function in poetry. Baudelaire, who later said "all great poets become, naturally and inevitably, critics. I pity those poets who are guided solely by instincts," was a moraliste like Plato. In general, Aristotle can be regarded as an instinctivist, who shared similar ideas with the Italian Renaissance thinkers and even with the naturalists of nineteenth-century France.

Aristotle located the origin of poetry in man's natural propensity toward imitation and the pleasure he takes in imitated products. This theory of poetic origin encompasses a field too broad to elucidate the characteristics unique to poetry. Other forms of art can easily be subsumed under it. His theory merely shows that poetry is a part of art.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Francis Bacon wrote "The Two Bookes of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, Divine and Hvmane" and offered it to the king. We find some elements of poetics in it. It is truly bizarre that his simple theory of poetry is perfectly represented in modern (twentieth-century) poetry (dada or surrealism). To be sure, his was a theory that was also evident in the metaphysical poets (to use Dr. Johnson's phrase) of the seventeenth century or even in Shakespeare.

Bacon was a poet. If not, he would never have been able to say such insightful things concerning poetry. It is true, as Poe said, that only poets can write poetics. Bacon himself was a poet. By the way, I would like to support the theory that conjectures that Bacon was in fact Shakespeare. As a writer of theoretical prose, Bacon—more than Montaigne—was thoroughly logical, and there was nothing poetic about him. It is, however, impossible even to imagine an age in which Bacon's work will be forgotten.

Poetry belongs to a mental process called imagination. This classification made by a Spaniard, Huarte, has been recognized as valid since antiquity. But before Bacon, imagination was regarded as representing the abnormal side of poetry. Bacon, however, recognized it as the creative force of poetry. In this sense, he was a modern thinker. The same force was recognized by Coleridge and Baudelaire, as well as by Max Jacob.

Jacob states, "Imagination is nothing but the association of idées." This is also noted in Dr. Johnson's criticism of "metaphysical poets": "the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together." Fundamentally, therefore, imagination opposes what is called le bon sens or "common sense." The figure of conceit that appears in Shakespeare, Marvell, or Donne is the manifestation of a certain disdain for a logical manner of thinking. In the old days, imagination was called madness. Recent French poetry by Tristan Tzara, Jean Cocteau, and Yvan Goll demonstrates this technique of imagination. In order to create a metaphor or an association through this kind of imagination, a poet must join elements that are scientifically different in nature, or elements that are usually placed at the greatest distance from each other, temporally as well as spatially. Thus what he produces is an association absolutely impossible in terms of common sense. What Gourmont means by "dissociation" is this type of "association." Such eighteenth-century English poets as Dryden and Pope, who valued the common man, as well as poets like Horace and Boileau, taught ordinary folks to select and join images that are similar in nature in order to write poetry.

Although Dr. Johnson's words "the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together" were ironically directed against some seventeenth-century poets, they now appear to describe well the dominant technique of modern poetry. This very "violence" was what nineteenth-century poets called l'émotion or la passion, and it became an important element in the creation of poetry. Mr. Garrod called the mood of this type of poetic creation "a storm of association."

Coleridge, influenced by the philosopher of association, Hartley, clearly regarded the act of imagination as the logic of poetry. In short, the force of poetic creation manifests itself at the point where two opposing images are juxtaposed, harmonized, and balanced. It is like the similar balanced against the dissimilar, the general against the particular, image against matter, the new against the old, ordinary reason against profound passion. After Coleridge, Shelley wrote, "[Poetry] makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar." For example, a familiar reality such as the mere sight of water flowing through a fountain is rendered by Marvell:

... a fountaines liquid Bell
Tinkles within the concave Shell.

Similarly, Cocteau writes of the banal existence of the human ear:

My ear is a shell
That loves the sound of the sea.

Presently in France there is a movement called surréalisme. This rather inclusive name subsumes members of what used to be called cubism or dada, who are now content to be under this name. Also there seem to be subdivisions within the group. Andre Breton, representing one faction, makes a remark about Pierre Reverdy, who belongs to another faction, with a touch of sarcasm. He claims that Reverdy's imagination is a posteriori. In other words, Reverdy's poetry is formed by associations of still homogeneous images. Of course, as a matter of theory, Reverdy writes:

The image is a pure creation of the mind.

It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities.

The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true [juste], the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality.

What Reverdy means by juste and what Coleridge means by "balance" are the same. Breton is more radical than Reverdy. He does not think much about balance. Consequently, his poetic effects are indeed destructive.

In short, this idea of supernaturalist poetry has always been present in the works of great poets since antiquity and in fact is not particularly a new mode of poetry.

Imagination, however, is not poetry itself, but only a means to create poetry. People like Baudelaire assert that the aim of poetry is poetry itself. A British writer, Wilde, propagating the poetry of l'art pour l'art handed down from Gautier, actually believed in it until he died. "Poetry is art" simply means that poetry possesses a means to achieve its own end, and this means is commonly called art.

The previously mentioned importance of imagination for poetry similarly indicates that poetry needs imagination as a means to attain its own end.

What is the aim of poetry, then?

First, in primitive times, it was to express human thoughts and feelings through a "singing mode." Even now, some amateur poets believe this to be the aim of poetry. Aristotle thought that poetry must contain human universalities. It will not be poetry, then, if a doctor writes his medical journal in a "singing mode." At that rate, Lucretius could probably not have been called a poet. Theodore de Banville says that there is neither poésie nor vers except in singing, and emphasizes the importance of metrical composition. It was Aristotle who judged the appropriateness of poetry in terms of the material represented. These traditions still linger on whenever we attempt to discuss poetry today. In short, the purpose of primitive poetry is to express human thoughts and feelings.

Second, there are points on which Francis Bacon's ideas on poetry coincide with those of modern poets. He writes: "The vse of this FAINED HISTORIE hath beene to giue some shadowe of satisfaction to the minde of man in those points wherein the Nature of things doth denie it, the world being in proportion inferior to the soule; by reason whereof there is agreeable to the spirit of Man a more ample Greatnesse, a more exact Goodnesse, and a more absolute varietie than can bee found in the Nature of things." And poetry's method is to submit "the shewes of things to the desires of the Mind." To translate the above into modern terms, poetry is the desire of man, dissatisfied with actual life, the desire "to transmute [reality] into forms more satisfactory to the mind." This poetic spirit is well elucidated in the works of Rimbaud, who is regarded as the legitimate ancestor of the present-day surrealists. His poetry lacks the sense of actual things. Only a certain desire hovers over his texts. Compared with this idea of poetry, Aristotle's theory seems like a photographic technique. Laocöon by Lessing likewise expresses a theory of artistic photography: "Je näher der Schauspieler der Natur kömmt, desto empfindlicher müssen unsere Augen und Ohren beleidigt werden." What he says is that it is better to be a little blurred.

Rimbaud is now called by surrealist poets apôtre or ange. It is truly a curious phenomenon that Bacon's theory is explicated in Paris today.

This kind of desire is poetry.

Bacon's words "[to submit] the shewes of things to the desires of the Mind" point to the previously mentioned process of "imagination." In short, it is the conjoining of idées. To imagine is not merely to fantasize or to dream; rather, the act of imagination must be performed by force of intellect.

The majority of commentators on Rimbaud insist that his poetry is born from the unconscious or from dreams. I believe, however, that they are grossly mistaken. It is true that the surrealist technique of the joining of idées creates the extraordinary and projects oneiric forms of the unconscious. But poetry is not a dream. It is the joining of utterly conscious images. It has been said that poetry is thinking with l'esprit.


Poetry must be founded in reality. But it is also necessary to feel the banality of reality. Why does the human spirit feel the banality of reality? Human existence itself is desolate. I wonder if those dogs running around over there are feeling this banality. As one dissects the human spirit and reaches its very bottom, one finds the essential existence of this desolate feeling. We suffer, for we think.

With imagination poetry somehow transforms the banal reality for us. But in fact it is a very passive act, merely make-believe. There is no truly active being except God. Religion postulates a happiness of afterlife in order to console us for the banality of reality. This, however, is not poetry. Death or sleep would eliminate reality from our minds. But again this is not poetry. It is pleasant to immerse oneself in the world of ideas as Plato suggested. But neither is this poetry. Like some poets of the past, who indulged in alcohol or in opium, we may elude reality. But this is merely a matter of physics, not of poetry. Like Petrarch, we may grow peaches in the mountains and enjoy natural beauties. But that sort of life itself is reality and does not constitute poetry. Also poetry is not created by rebelling against reality, or conversely, by being enslaved and exhausted by reality. The consequence of this sort of act is, like Baudelaire, to end up being unable to escape from ennui, or, like a very lethargic dyspeptic, to end up announcing one's own end listlessly. These acts do not constitute poetry. After all, poetry appears only when we transform reality with our imaginations and, as Bacon wrote, receive some "shadow of satisfaction."


Excerpted from The Poetry and Poetics of Nishiwaki Junzaburo by Hosea Hirata. Copyright © 1993 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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