Jul 132014

 CaptureSakutarō Hagiwara (1886-1942)

Hagiwara’s poems are urbane, bereft of the naturalism and flora which had so typified Japanese poetry over the centuries, and full of human emotion. What is subtle or implied in earlier or contemporary Japanese poets, through imagery or cadence or tone, is made overt in The Iceland. Hagiwara is at times contemplative, it’s true, but he is more often screaming in frustration, and he is not shy about telling you his reasons. —Patrick O’Reilly


The Iceland
Sakutarō Hagiwara
Translated by Hiroaki Sato
New Directions, Paperback
ISBN 9780811221603


Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” was as self-referential as anything written in the 20th century; Yeats was prone to naming the men and women he had known among Dublin’s “grey 18th century houses”; The prose works of HD are almost completely in the realm of roman à clef. Nonetheless, T.S. Eliot writes “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality,” and Modernism gains a reputation for impersonality. Perhaps impersonality was an ideal, a better idea in theory than in practice; perhaps the personal lives of the Modernist poets remained too integral to their conception of the world to be completely divorced from their art; perhaps a certain amount of leeway is afforded to canonical names.

At any rate, such ideals of impersonality seem not to have reached Japan, where a simultaneous and comparable Modernist movement sought to break away from centuries of Japanese formal tradition through the use of free verse and colloquial diction. Among these Japanese Modernists, who appeared alongside several recent translations of western literature and philosophy, a standout was Sakutarō Hagiwara. No poet, east or west, used his personal life so frankly as Hagiwara did in his 1934 book The Iceland (Hyōtō), newly translated by Hiroaki Sato as part of New Directions’ Poetry Pamphlet series.

It is impossible to separate The Iceland from the context in which it was written. Sato begins his preface with the story: in 1929, five years before the publication of The Iceland, Hagiwara was abandoned by his wife; for whatever reason, he chose to leave the literary centre of Tokyo and return, two young daughters in tow, to his hometown of Maebashi, a small city in Gumman province. To the self-consciously cosmopolitan Hagiwara, Maebashi was an artistically barren backwater, “a shore of despair”. Hagiwara only alludes to the story with the epigraph to the poem “Returning to My Hometown,” where he states blandly “The winter of the fourth year of Shōwa, I separated from my wife and went back to my hometown with my two children.”

Nowhere else does Hagiwara show such restraint: the poems which follow present a complete picture of frustration, humiliation, and bitterness.

The opening poem, “A Drifter’s Song,” is a monologue of admonishment directed at the speaker himself. The speaker (and we might dare to say Hagiwara himself, for the poems are so obviously self-referential, and this poem in particular so alike in imagery and diction to Hagiwara’s preface) is full of melodrama, describing himself “chasing an everlasting nostalgia… more forlorn than Satan,” and accusing himself in a lengthy series of parallel statements:

Never once believing in anything
in what you believed you knew fury.
Never once knowing denial of lust
what you lusted for you indicted…
You’ve never once loved anyone
and no one in turn would have ever loved you.

Constantly inverting his lines, Hagiwara creates a literary mirror, a literal reflection of the speaker’s own angst. The parallel structure culminates with the final lines “but there shouldn’t be any hometown anywhere./ There shouldn’t be any hometown for you!” That closing exclamation only adds to the over-exaggerated emotionality of the poem, but once familiar with Hagiwara’s personal struggles, the reader cannot miss the double meaning: for the returning poet, the traditional connotations of home as a haven and a place of comfort now clash with the idea of home as a place of exile.

“A Drifter’s Song” is both an accusation and a plea, condemnation and self-pity for one who feels no great affection for society, but also feels he does to deserve to be banished from it. Hagiwara takes the idea of pitiable inhumanity even further in poems like “The Nogizaka Club,” “The Tiger,” and “In the Zoo,” where the speaker likens himself to animals, and especially “barn beasts,” a casually brief phrase which reappears throughout the book. In “The Nogizaka Club,” the speaker contrasts his present life with his past, the last year when he “lived on the fifth floor of an apartment building/ in the western-style room.” Now, he states “I’m starved as a barn beast,” and returning to the already familiar pattern declares,  “I haven’t lost anything / and also have lost everything.” In the punk-like“Kill Me! Kill Me!,” the masochistic speaker insists he is “an ugly beast… a barn beast, a slave…I want you to raise your hand with a whip and kill me.”

Throughout the book, Hagiwara’s speaker suffers a too-great empathy with animals, certain he is becoming one himself. This empathy reaches its height with “In the Zoo,” in which every line contains some word which connotes loneliness or suffering or desolation. It begins

Pressed by loneliness as if scorched
I come alone and walk through the trees in the garden
dead leaves all fallen on the ground
ferocious beasts are melancholy asleep in their cages.

Inevitably, he compares his heart to a cage – a facile metaphor which could only work because of the great lengths Hagiwara has gone to turn his speaker into an animal – and announces “A hundred times I’ve gnashed my fangs/ bit into that which I lust after/ battled lonely vengeances!” Having tempered  his human-animal hybridism with a sense of de-socialized confinement, Hagiwara limits the mobility of his speaker even further. The speaker identifies with most animals, especially beasts of burden, but is deprived comparison with birds, universal symbols of freedom, lamenting as the poem ends “but ah still like a bird / I shan’t fly through the boundless desolation.”

The bird, the cage, the sense of confinement all reappear in “The Stand of Trees Behind the Prison,” the penultimate poem in the book and spiritual sequel to “In The Zoo.” Again the speaker is walking, this time watching prisoners. In a sudden moment the perspective changes. For the first time the observer becomes the observed as the prisoners “look at [the speaker] hatefully and walk past.” It is the final moment of the speaker’s humanity and of course he declares “I’d rip and discard my torn clothes/ and sorrow like a beast.” The speaker’s humanity removed totally, he is left a naked animal figure shivering in the cold, fierce wind.

The continuous animal imagery, and the frequent use of parallel structures like those in “A Drifter’s Song” are just examples of the way the poems gesture towards a more formal structure. Sometimes these forms are traditional Japanese (in his preface, seemingly against Japanese Modernist convention, Hagiwara champions haiku and tanka as the future of Japanese poetry), other times they seem eerily western, as in “Fire,” which has the length, address, and characteristic broadening strophe of a sonnet. For the most part, though, these structures appear (in translation) to be entirely original to Hagiwara.

The Iceland does not necessarily contain poems with many forms, but instead may be a single form spreading like kudzu across many poems. Hagiwara frequently relies on repetition, and achieves a variety of effects: the same repetition which gives “Kill Me! Kill Me!” an urgent, insistent energy is also used to create a sense of slow contemplation in the concluding poem,“My Longing Ever More Intense Than Yesterday.” The repetition even crosses poems: the final line of “A Crow of Nihility” also serves as the title and opening line to the poem which follows it, “What I Do Not Have Is Everything,” creating a relationship between the two most stylistically and tonally dissimilar poems in the entire book. The former is a brief flash of a poem which takes advantage of the recurring animal imagery to offer one of the book’s best images; the latter is The latter works as a collage of previously used images and phrases from throughout the book: beggars, animals, stolen pennies. Coming near the end of the collection, the summation prepares the reader for “My Longing Ever More Intense Than Yesterday,” which concludes the book.

All this repetition – the fixation on certain images or phrases – certainly conveys a sense of frustration, of confusion, of walking and walking but not getting anywhere. It also gives the impression of a tonal limitation, a shortage of vocabulary. Any translation, be it better or worse than the original source text, is necessarily different from the original. The Iceland, in essence, is twice-translated, written originally by Hagiwara in kanbun-cho style, the literal translation of Chinese texts, using “as many Chinese words and phrases as is feasible” (Sato, 8). This, and probably not Sato’s translation, accounts for the directness, bluntness of the poems in The Iceland, but it remains a very literal work. I take the philosophy that something is always lost in translation, and that something might be vital to The Iceland, might lift it above distraction and directness and cliche.

Hagiwara works openly with literary diction for the first time in The Iceland, and this might well deepen the sense of retreat, of abandonment, of a rejection from and of the artistic metropolis. In translation this particular advantage is lost, especially since Hagiwara did not expand his efforts to incorporating traditional natural imagery. As it is, The poems lack “the little more that makes the difference,” the nuance that elevates a work from good to great. Even in colloquial poetry, this interplay most often comes from the interplay of the words themselves. This is impossible to reproduce precisely in a second language; no doubt the full effect of the form is lost. The poem “Late Autumn,” for example, is specifically noted as “for recitation.” In English, and perhaps very literal English, it is hard to see just what differentiates this poem from the others, and what would make it more satisfying to read aloud. One must go to Sato’s notes to see that it was written in a 7-5 syllable pattern, the traditional form for Japanese popular poetry.

A confession: I do not speak Japanese. I have had to consider The Iceland twice over, as a text and as a translation. I have no doubt Sato’s translation is skillful, even expert, and I am thankful for it. In his preface, Sato mentions the pains he has taken to maintain Hagiwara’s idiosyncratic punctuation as closely as possible (there is evidence of this in the way certain sentences seem to run together, not separated by punctuation or even, sometimes, by line breaks), and to explain where Hagiwara’s own wordplay is sometimes so awkward Hagiwara himself deemed it necessary to annotate it in the original publication (i.e. the kobito – koibito-o pun of “At the Subway”). It may be because of the translation that The Iceland‘s most surprising, inventive moments appear in the form of similes and metaphors: “melancholy as a clock” (15), “wide and vague as an elephant” (34), “roar like a weathervane” (36), connections which are not immediately clear in English, but nevertheless evoke the sensation of reaching for an ideal and failing.

The Iceland struggles to transcend the skillful weaving and repetition it accomplishes. The criticism that Modern Japanese lyric style was too literal, too similar to prose was one levelled even by Hagiwara’s traditionalist contemporaries.[1] The traditionalists were vexed by Hagiwara’s total departure from more traditional Japanese forms, failing to acknowledge the more adventurous forms attempted in The Iceland, but the accusation that the poetry is overly direct is no less accurate today.

Even among his less-traditional contemporaries, poets like Miki Rofū or Kitahara Hokushū, Hagiwara’s style is distinctly modern, a definite departure. Aside from the aforementioned literalness, and the imperceptible distance between Hagiwara and his speaker, Hagiwara’s poems are urbane, bereft of the naturalism and flora which had so typified Japanese poetry over the centuries, preferring instead to describe buildings, battleships, railways. They continue, however, to be full of human emotion. What is subtle or implied in earlier or contemporary Japanese poets, through imagery or cadence or tone, is blatant in The Iceland. Hagiwara is at times contemplative, it’s true, but he is more often screaming in frustration, and he is never afraid to say why.

—Patrick O’Reilly




Patrick O’Reilly was raised in Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, the son of a mechanic and a shop’s clerk. He is studying English with a Concentration in Creative Writing at St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, and expects to begin work on his MA this coming fall. Twice he has won the Robert Clayton Casto Prize for Poetry, the judges describing his poetry as “appealingly direct and unadorned.”




Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse. Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite. 1970, London: Penguin Books. p.lxxi.

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