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Winter 2006, vol 4 no 4

Shikishima no Michi: Path of Poetry in these Ancient Islands
by Harold Wright
[Continued from Vol. 4, No. 3]

Part III. Ohio Campus Life.

At the end of my Fulbright and some other grants that lasted for a total of three years (1962-65) I was offered a teaching position at Ohio State University in the fall of 1965. I thought I would try teaching for a while. Ohio was my home and I thought it would be a good place to start offering classes in Japanese language and literature. But I planned to eventually find my way back to live and write in Japan. The path of poetry, however, is quite twisted and unpredictable. I basically remained in Ohio teaching, first at OSU, and then at Antioch College for the next several decades. I was instrumental in helping to create an exchange program with Kyoto Seika University and was able to spend more time in that ancient city. It was in Kyoto that a deep interest in traditional tanka returned. But I move ahead in my story.

It was during my stay at Ohio State that I met the translator of the Lacquer Box, the first volume that inspired me to love ancient Manyoshu tanka poetry. The translator I knew as Shoson Yasuda was then going by the name of Kenneth Yasuda. He was a popular professor of Japanese literature at Indiana University. Our paths crossed often at conferences and the like. He was always embarrassed to remember that my own introduction to Japanese poetry included one of his early attempts at translation. I knew him well, and was able to even tease him a bit, I remember, about using rhyme in his early translations of tanka. But I was reminded of my love of the Manyoshu and I decided to translate and publish my own book: Ten Thousand Leaves. Bonnie R. Crown, of the Asian Literature Program of the Asian Society of New York, was able to place the first edition of the book for me at Shambhala in 1979. A second edition was later published by Overlook Press in 1986.

The last poem in this collection of 136 poems is by Otomo Yakamochi (716-785):

If from your mouth
there hung a hundred year old tongue
and you would babble
I still would not cease to care
but indeed my love would grow.

Soon I returned to Modern Poetry. I translated much Hagiwara Sakutaro and other pre-war modern poets, but I was requested by the Academy of American Poets to find younger Japanese poets to translate. As I read and researched younger and younger contemporary poets, I discovered Tanikawa Shuntaro. All the poets, critics, and scholars I had known in Tokyo suggested that I should look at his work and meet him. On one of my nearly annual visits, I did both and was deeply impressed. I received his permission to translate his poetry. I began work on a book of his work, but before that collection was competed, I received a letter from the Library of Congress saying they were holding an International Poetry Festival and were inviting poets from this country and that as well as their translators. Tanikawa was coming to represent Japan, and he designated me to join him at the Library of Congress festival and reading. Anyway, that led to more publications and more readings at such places as the Asia Society and Japan Society of New York. The Academy of American Poets invited Tanikawa Shuntaro, Tamura Ryuichi, Katagiri Yuzuru, Garry Snyder and me to do a bilingual reading at the Guggenheim.

Tanikawa Shuntaro (1931--)has written dozens and dozens of books of poetry and children's books, but his early work is still popular. One of his free verse sonnets is especially well-known:

When the wind is strong
The earth resembles someone's kite
Even during the full noon hours
People feel that night is already there.

The wind is without words
It merely whirls around and frets
I think of wind on another star
Wondering if they can form a friendship.

On earth there is nighttime and the day
What do other stars do during these times?
How can they bear to spread in silence?

By day the blue sky is telling lies
While night mutters the truth, we sleep
And when morning comes we say we've dreamed.

Some of his poems are pages long, some quite short:

Stone and Light

The stone doesn't repel the light
The stone doesn't absorb the light
On the stone sits a deerfly
The light is radiant on its downy hair.

The light just now arrived on earth.

One thing led to another and eventually Northpoint Press published my Selected Poems of Shuntaro Tanikawa and then, in 1986, I was awarded a National Endowment Translation Grant to go to Japan and translate a second Volume of Tanikawa.

To live in Japan for a year translating Japanese poetry was an exciting thing to do. But I found myself dreading to go back to Tokyo to live. I had been doing that off and on for several years. I wanted a change. I realized that I had never actually lived, for an extended period anyway, in Kyoto. I once thought of it as "old fashioned," but now I found myself yearning for older things. I decided to move to Kyoto and do my translations of my Tokyo poet and friend there in that quiet city. I think Tanikawa was bemused. Not much that Harold ever did was all that predictable. I remember asking him a lot of questions about his poetry. from Kyoto, on the telephone!

The result of that work is the Map of Days. (Katydid Books. 1996.)

One example is the poem he wrote on the Day of Surrender, the day the Emperor of Japan spoke to the people of his country on the radio for the first time.

August 15, 1945.

A duck was walking along
the man said
it cut across a path of dry white sand
a duck was walking
that is all I remember.

I remember the voice
another man said
a voice sounding heartless and strange,
but could you really call it Japanese?
I even talk like that at times.

I was in bed
a woman said
drenched in sweat with a lover
we had a child who is now a gynecologist in Oregon
and has even taken out citizenship.

I found that modern free verse poetry, especially Tanikawa Shuntaro's, perhaps, was exciting and I enjoyed both translating and performing them with Tanikawa at poetry readings. But I began to ask myself questions about lasting values. I found more and more during my visits that the modern poetry sections of the bookstores were less and less interesting for me. I found more and more younger people turning away from poetry. Tanikawa even told me that reading manga comics was replacing the appreciation of real literature. I found myself browsing more in the sections of tanka and older poems. So, while translating some most recent poems by Tanikawa, I was also reading and writing tanka and even some haiku. Somehow I even found time to translate a collection of the poetry of the Shinto mystic, Kurozumi Munetada (1780-1850). Many of the poems were published in The Opening Way. (Univ. Press of America. 1994.) One example:

Ah, such joyfulness
here in the delightfulness
of this world of ours
Who can call this present world
merely a path of suffering?

During my years in Kyoto I even invented a few short English language poetic forms myself, such as the triku and the chonnet.

Part IV. Triku and Chonnets

"Triku" is a type of haiku I invented one day in Japan. I had received an NEA grant to translate contemporary Japanese poetry and decided to live and work in Kyoto. I ended up living in that ancient city for two years in 1987 and 1988. As a break from translating modern poets like TANIKAWA Shuntaro (1931-), I was experimenting with a lot of different fixed verse forms like haiku, tanka, etc. One day while writing conventional haiku in English, I was trying to decide which of the two images that I wanted to come first. I wrote "My legs are asleep" and "A temple bell rings"; then I reversed the lines. Then I realized that if I wrote a poem of three lines, all of equal length, perhaps five syllables each, then I could read the poem in any order. Laughing to myself I called it a "triku" since it resembled a tripod or a three legged stool. My first one was:

My legs are asleep
A temple bells rings
My mind is a well.

Which is, of course, also:

My mind is a well
A temple bell rings
My legs are asleep.


A temple bell rings
My legs are asleep
My mind is a well.

Or whatever.

After returning to the US, I attended the Antioch Writers Workshop and found that these triku were very well received by the poets in the poetry workshop. The whole group then tried their hand at writing them. After that time, I have performed them regularly in my public poetry readings.


Thinking there's a fire
Stepping from my bath
I'm startled by steam

Pines lean to south
Wet with winter rain
On wind twisted trunks

For nearly three days
The winter rains fall
I stare at paper

Memories of home
I sit in Kyoto
Crows caw in the hills

The fan blows hot air
TV machine guns
I lie dead in bed

Big bags of laundry
I long for my truck
Bike and bungee cords

Nineteenth of April
August in Kyoto
Unturned calendar

Saved until bedtime
A long lonely day
Letter from lover

Piles of unread books
Crows caw in the hills
Kyoto hiking trails

Silence of mountains
Dark air is cooler
Midnight in Kyoto

Closer and closer
Night birds are crying
I reach for memories

Night light on in fear
I see my shadow
Six more weeks till dawn

She has gone away
I can hear the fan
For the whole summer

Her kimono hangs
Like a summer ghost
She has gone away

It was during my two years in Kyoto that I also developed one of the main poetry forms I use today. It is an offspring of the Japanese choka from the 8th century (5,7,5,..7,7.) and the sonnet. Let me quote something said about my writing in Tanka in English: In Pursuit of World Tanka. Second edition. (Tokyo New Currents International. 1990.):

"Harold Wright . . . as his academic background and translations show, he is so well-versed in Japanese tanka (waka) that most of his original tanka are naturally influenced by them. Yet, some of his recent modern tanka are impregnated with critical and humorous factors though they are all written in the strict 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern. He is also experimenting with other Japanese classical forms such as renga and choka, Only recently he published a new genre called chonnet-a sonnet which is composed of five and seven syllable lines alternatively placed."

An example of a "chonnet" can be seen in the "Prodigal Son" poem that starts this article. It has actually become the major form for my poetry at the present time. Even my travel and journal writing, that often utilized the tanka form, or even haiku or senryu, in the past, has over the last decade or so come to be written down in the chonnet from. More of these Japan inspired poems can be found on my own CD called Haiku, Triku, Tanka and More. (Available through www.

Part V. A Tanka Teacher in Kyoto

Even though I now write most of my poetry in the chonnet form, I have not ignored tanka. I even started to take lessons in Japanese language tanka writing from a renowned elderly Kyoto poet, Kakegawa Toshio. Oh, he had fun trying to teach me to actually write tanka in classical Japanese! The class was made up of one eighty year old Shinto priest, a few really elderly housewives, and a long retired dyer of kimonos.

One day, Kakegawa Sensei playfully said to me in Japanese, "Wright-san, you must be from a vast country."

I said, "Why is that?"

He replied, "Because your tanka are TOO Big. They reminded me of an over packed suitcase that you are trying to close! Why, there are shirt sleeves and pant legs sticking out all over. Tanka are small! They deal with one image that you carve down smaller and smaller like a sculptor. The whole class of aging poets enjoyed the ribbing.

One of the original tanka Kagawa sensei liked, I remember, was one I wrote standing on a mountain overlooking the Uji Rivers and remembering the final scenes of the Tale of Genji. Now I think it was probably "too big" and I am not sure if I even translated or published it.

One time I found myself getting a bit defensive about Sensei's wanting to change a lovely word I had used in a poem when he said, "In a tanka class once you bring a poem in to the group it is no longer your own tanka! It is the group's poem!" As my own ego involvement over the creative process softened, I chuckled at the prospects of introducing that concept to some of the of ego centric poetry groups I attended back home!

Another time the question came up in class about the value of writing tanka in the first place. I think it was the Shinto priest, Tanaka, who brought up the issue. Kakegawa then told a story that I will never forget.

I will try to tell the story briefly. I later asked him to record his story for me and I have it on tape. Someday I will transcribe the whole three or four hours. And I plan to translate a collection of his poetry someday. Anyway, Kakegawa Sensei told us he was a young man in WWII and had been sent to Manchuria to establish a new city modeled after Kyoto. He was selected as a poet because the new city was to continue the old cultural traditions of the ancient capitol. At the end of the war, his unit waited so that they could be captured. The Russians were coming from one side to accept their surrender. The American from the other. A decision had to be made. Surrender to the Russians or the Americans? One of the officers reasoned that the Americans have been "fighting us all the time. Maybe the Russians will treat us better."

Well, it wasn't long before they realized that that was a mistake. They were sent to a slave labor camp in Siberia. It was awful and it was cold. There was much illness and death. He was there for several years.

Kakegawa Sensei went on to say that since most of the Russian guards were illiterate, no one was trusted with writing instruments; no pens, no brushes, no pencils. But being a tanka poet, he knew he had to keep composing poetry. So after composing a poem in his mind he would go out into the snow and write the poem over and over with a stick. In this way he could commit the poem to memory and later, if he was released, he could write down and publish about his experiences. He then ended his story with the observation: "You ask what is the value of tanka? Well, for one thing, it may some day save your life!"

After hearing that story, I knew that that old Sensei had the right to change any word in any poem I wrote. And what we were doing in class might have real value to someone someday.

So, my own Shikishima no michi was a long labyrinth of love of the sound of language and awe inspiring imagery of an ancient land.

Most of the original poetry I write today is in the choka or my 14 line "chonnet" form. One early Kyoto Chonnet goes:

Were I a building
I would be a little shop
in old Kyoto
maybe selling rice paper
or erotic prints. . .
Or I'd be an ancient inn
built of smoke black wood
or stained gray foundation stones
hauled from burned temples.
I'd prefer not to be tall
like Takashima-ya
or sturdy like the palace
or Nijo castle;
I want to shake in earthquakes
and be rattled by lovers.

As I grope along Shikishima's path, I often still find myself asking "Why" questions, or more precisely in my case, "Why bother?" And then immediately I recall the words of Kakegawa Sensei, my tanka teacher in Kyoto, who said, "It may save your life someday."

I also think that perhaps little poems of all types--haiku, tanka, senryu, even choka--inspired by the Japanese, and now written by many people throughout the world, may be an important piece in the gigantic puzzle we call the earth today. Could there ever be a better tool of communication and understanding, for the peoples of our globe, than a short poem?