Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Spring 2006, vol 4 no 1

Kitahara Hakushu: His Life and Poetry
by Margaret Benton Fukasawa
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


Kitahara Hakushu is one of Japan's top five modern tanka poets, yet little has been written about him or his tanka in English language journals and books. Most of the tanka English language poets are exposed to today are written by occidental poets. Read the well known on and off-line literary journals showcasing Japanese short form poetry. Japanese authors are rarely featured. The few that are, are featured over and over again. Tanka is not new. Waka, also called Uta, before it became known as tanka, came to us from Japan originally via oral transmission, probably around the 6th or 7th century. It is the mother of all Japanese poetry. And without a thorough understanding of the genre--it's history, composition, and spirit--English speaking poets will crank out sophomoric verse passed off as tanka or, as one poet has labeled it, modern waka. Much has been written about early waka poetry. And several excellent English translations of waka are available for purchase. Direly needed, however, are English language translations of tanka poetry penned by modern Japanese tanka masters.

Tsume no urumi ni
Ochishi miruku mo
Natsukashi to minu
  The drop of milk
Which had fallen
On the light red polish
Of her nails
Made me yearn for the past

Margaret Benton Fukasawa, in her book, Kitahara Hakushu: His Life and Poetry, introduces us to the life and poetry of a Japanese poet who, in the beginning of the 20th century, with Masoaki Shiki, Yosano Tekkan, and Akiko Yosano, did much to revitalize a genre that had gone, for lack of a better word, stale. Waka, the 31 syllable (5-7-5-7-7) poetic genre had, as Professor Makoto Ueda points out in the book Modern Japanese Tanka, fallen "into steady decline . . . the vast majority of poems composed by reputed waka masters were little more than lifeless imitations of what had been written before."

Since Hakushu played a major role in reviving the genre and bringing it back into literary favor, a serious student of the genre will want to familiarize himself with the poet and his poetic output. Remarks Fukasawa, "He founded a large number of poetry groups, and ten poetry journals. He exerted a major influence not only on the poets of his time, but also on the next generation of modern poets, many who . . . began their careers under his tutelage." Ironically, however, until Fukasawa's book, non-Japanese speaking poets and scholars had almost zero access to Hakushu's poetry and teachings. This is due in part to disputes over publication rights. "This is the first full-length work in English about Kitahara Hakushu," says the book's editor, Janine Beichman.

Who was Kitahara Hakushu? And what role did he play in the transition of waka? How was his writing different from what was written before? And why should his work be studied today?

Hakushu made his poetic debut in 1902 at the age of 17 and continued to write and grow as a poet until his death in 1942 during the height of World War II. A brilliant student, he excelled in school and was at the head of his class until a series of events rocked his secure world, including a falling out with his father over his desire to become a poet instead of going into the family business, the loss of his parent's family business (a brewery ), his best friend's suicide, and his imprisonment for having an affair with a married woman which was unlawful at the time and considered scandalous.

How sad is
The road man must take.
The road to prison.
The pebbled road down which
a police wagon creaks.

He started to question life, feel emotions he'd not experienced, and to look for answers outside the world he'd become accustomed to. Poetry became his obsession, his life, his impetus for living . . . a path to search for the answers he wanted.

High-strung by nature, Hakusha was emotionally sensitive, perhaps in part because he was frail physically and suffered from cholera at the age of two.

. . . it was me. in a small green urn,
I saw myself,
Sobbing and spitting black blood.
I knew for a moment, the fear of hell.

Or as Fukasawa asserts, "Hakushu's poetic sensitivity was fostered by his upbringing in Yanagawa. His early impressions became the subject matter of some of his most important poems. Throughout his life, Hakushu cherished these memories. . . . The sensitivity to sense perceptions learned in his youth in Yanagawa remained the most important characteristic of his poetry throughout his life."

I can hear so faintly
My mother and father
Dawn after a snowfall

His sensitivity lent itself well to poetic expression. This and Hakusha's ardent desire to read books, especially those from Europe. After graduating from high school he set his sights on becoming a professional poet. He was not interested in pursuing the family business, much to his father's disappointment. Hakusha traveled to Tokyo to attend Waseda College. In Tokyo, he met Tekkan and Akiko Yosano, two of Japan's most influential and outspoken poets. Tekkan was the leader of a school of poetry and Akiko was a female in a man's world writing about subjects that were considered shocking at the time. As Fukasawa points out, Tekkan openly "criticized contemporary tanka poetry for being ineffectual and effeminate. He felt that the tanka was doomed to extinction unless younger poets of his generation wrote bolder, more forceful poems, poems which would speak to a wide audience on topics of universal importance. His call for a revolution in the tanka market marked the beginning of modern verse in this form." Hakusha had a tumultuous relationship with Tekkan and his wife, and eventually disassociated himself from them. The time spent with the two poets and those they shepherded, however, strongly affected Hakusha's outlook, output, and poetic vision.

Hakusha was an original thinker who was unafraid of going against the accepted norm. He had little patience for rules and dictates that would negatively affect a poem's metre and substance.

Wrote Hakusha, "A colloquial tanka will not necessarily conform to the thirty-one syllables of a traditional tanka; the majority of colloquial tanka contain too many syllables. This is because modern language is not as concise as literary language, in essence making extra syllables inevitable. To force the language to conform to thirty-one syllables kills the rhythm. The form of a poem necessarily grows out of its content. Most contemporary poets of colloquial tanka ignore this and instead try to bend the colloquial language to fit into a traditional form. This is pure ignorance. Those who assert that modern tanka must be written in the colloquial but do not understand the importance of this fact seem to be racking their brains over a task which, contrary to their expectations, can only damage the colloquial language."

Hakusha did not limit himself to tanka and was accomplished in every genre of Japanese poetry including choka, and shi (modern style poetry). Says Fukasawa, "Histories of modern Japanese literature tend to separate his achievements in the shi (modern poetry) from those in the tanka. In Japan, where most poets concentrate on one or the other of these forms, this approach is inevitable. Hakushu, however, wrote with equally facility in both forms; he also composed folk songs, children's poetry, haiku, choka, and colloquial tanka. Because he believed that the experience gained in one verse form should be brought to one's other work, cross influences constitute an important theme in his poetry."

He was also obsessive compulsive, and quite possibly suffered from manic depression, with its highs and lows. Take for instance this postscript by Hakushu in his 5th collection of poetry, Platinum Top, published in December 1914, where he speaks of having a religious experience: "I have spent the last three days and nights in extreme ecstasy. Everything is bright; my spirit rejoices in the infinite world of sentient beings which manifest the buddha. I have not been able to eat or drink. This feeling is neither anguish nor joy --- but rather, complete ecstasy."

As Fukasawa points out, "Nearly all of the ninety-seven poems contained in Platinum Top were written during those three days."

My tears fall in gratitude. I merge into Buddha.
A top revolves on my fingertips.

Glistening fingertips point to heaven.
Never ending, the top spins unseen.

Smoothly spinning in a world of impassivity.
The platinum top whirs clearly

Hakushu's poetry could also be serene and focused:

I climb a hill
With a fish over my shoulder
The purple flowers
In the potato fields
Are now in full bloom.

Even more poignant and touching are the poems he wrote after he'd lost his sight. For example:

We are well into spring
And I have thought of peonies
For several days now.
How many years have passed
Since my eyesight failed?

Fukasawa is an excellent writer. Through her we learn who Hakusha was, how he became the poet he became, and what he thought, in a manner that is palatable, easy to read, and cognitively stimulating. Unfortunately, she passed away from a brain tumor before her book was published. Janine Beichman, the book's editor, had the vision to guide Fukasawa's book through the final stage, believing in its importance. "It has been my pleasure and honor to shepherd this manuscript through the publication process. Early on, in accord with Margaret's wishes and my own instincts, the decision was made not to try to bring the manuscript up to date. Hakushu's disciples, Kimata Osamu (1906-1983) and Yabuta Yoshio (1902-1984), who were so helpful to Margaret, walk through these pages alive, and the close reader will sense how important they were to Margaret in reaching backward to Hakushu. In going over the manuscript, I made virtually no changes in content and only limited ones in style for the sake of consistency and clarity."

His hind legs bent high,
A cricket walks across
The tatami floor
On which crystals of sugar
Sparkle in the lamplight

The blue froth
On surging water
Quickly disappears from sight.
For a moment, a wagtail's long
Touch the foam.

Yamato, where I was born,
Is a fine place. The clouds soar on south winds.
I should fly there once more.

Tsukushi. That name
Brings back memories of tidal changes,
Of the flush of sunset over the bay.

But my eyes are blind,
Too blind to discern the new shoots in the reeds,
Or the fish traps, the sun glimmering on the water.

Yes, I will return. For the magpies,
That sky, and the sumac grove
Await me. Once more.

Yanagawa. Your children
Have aged, left for distant places.
What draws this childlike heart of mine to you?