For poetry month in April, The Princeton Festival reached out to a dozen poets around the world for readings of their poems. Please enjoy the compiled video of these readings below.
We are also glad to bring you a special feature on one of our readers: renowned Japanese poet Shuntaro Tanikawa.
This is an opportunity to learn more about one of Japan’s most well-established and highly regarded living poets. Tanikawa’s translator, Takako Lento, has given us permission to publish an excerpt from her introduction to Tanikawa’s work in The Art of Being Alone: Poems 1952-2009.
Tanikawa himself has recorded two more readings for us, and the excellent music trio DiVa—led by his son, Kensaku Tanikawa—has provided us with video performances of music set to Tanikawa’s poetry.
We hope you enjoy this feature. If you are interested in reading more of Tanikawa’s work, copies of Lento’s book can be ordered from our favorite local bookstore, Labyrinth Books.
Tanikawa’s poetry has received a number of prestigious awards in Japan. He was awarded (but he declined) the Sixth Takami Jun Award for Definitions and At Midnight in the Kitchen I Wanted to Talk to You. Other honors include the 34th Yomiuri Literature Award for The Map of Days, the 26th Noma Children’s Literature Award for Naked, the first Maruyama Yutaka Memorial Modern Poetry Award for To a Woman, the first Hagiwara Sakutarō Award for Clueless, and the first Ayukawa Nobuo Award for Tromsф Collage.
He is an active participant in international poetry festivals and events, leaving his footprints on every inhabited continent. His poetry has been widely translated into English and many other European, Middle Eastern, and Asian languages, including Bulgarian, Hebrew, Macedonian, Mongolian, Nepalese, and Chinese.
Tanikawa Shuntarō was born in 1931 in Tokyo, the only child of intellectual and well-to-do parents. His father, Tanikawa Tetsuzō, was a distinguished philosopher, critic, and educator who later served as president of Hōsei University. He was particularly interested in the confluence of philosophy, literature and the arts. Tanikawa’s mother, Takiko, was a trained pianist with modern tastes. Growing up in a sophisticated and nurturing family atmosphere, he acquired his father’s philosophical habit of mind and his mother’s affection for the new and love of music.
From his earliest childhood, he and his family spent summers in their villa in the mountains of Kita-Karuizawa, northwest of Tokyo. As a youth, Tanikawa recalls, he would immerse himself in Nature there, contemplating his status as part of an orderly cosmos. This experience was to have a profound effect on his thought and writing.
[. . .]
By his own account, Tanikawa felt so close to his mother that he experienced separation anxiety whenever they were apart, fearing he might lose her. This might be because he was the only child of the family, but it might also have been an effect of growing up during the war and witnessing some of its horrors. He speaks of the time he and his playmate bicycled by “burned bodies like charred logs” the day after a bombing in Tokyo. In such an environment, it is not surprising that a sensitive young mind would be riddled with the fear of separation and death, and an awareness of the transience of life. [. . .]
In July 1945, he and his mother took shelter from the Tokyo air raids at his grandfather’s house in Kyoto. He attended a local school, but he felt isolated in that unfamiliar environment. After WWII ended he and his family went back to their home, which had been spared by the bombs. He returned to his old middle school in Tokyo in 1946. There he found that the pre-war and war-time totalitarian educational system had been totally revamped under Occupation guidelines. For children the change must have been simply confusing. Tanikawa later spoke of his shock and disbelief at the way his teachers abruptly negated the imperial discipline they had rigorously tried to instill in children as absolute truth. He later said, “The teachers lost all credibility with me to the extent that I lost interest in school altogether.”
Tanikawa had started writing poetry while in middle school, influenced by a poetry-minded classmate. He described his interest in poetry then as “toying with poetry as one would play Ping-Pong with one’s friend,” and continued writing poetry through his high school years. He submitted his poetry to magazines for students, often receiving awards and recognition. The poetry he kept writing in his notebooks turned out to be “helpful,” as Tanikawa put it later, in launching his career as a poet.
Upon Tanikawa’s declaration that he wanted to become a poet, his father consulted his friend Miyoshi Tatsuji, a renowned poet, and asked him to read some of the poems in his son’s notebooks. Miyoshi was so impressed with them that he visited Tanikawa to congratulate him, and introduced him to the literary magazine Bungaku-kai (Literary World), which published “Nero and five poems” in 1950. In 1951, he was named as one of the notable poets by Poetics. In 1952, Sōgensha of Tokyo published his first book of poetry, Alone in Two Billion Light Years.
Unlike poets just a few years older, Tanikawa is of the generation that was spared the psychological torment and despair of living under a repressive regime and experiencing the privations of war. As a result, his outlook in general is more positive and expansive. That was one of the elements that quickly made his poetry popular when Japan was in recovery mode.
But what has sustained his popularity and quality of his poetry over the years is his focus on his art. Above all he is a conscious artist. Tanikawa has made it clear that, to him, poetry is not a direct outpouring of the poet’s own emotions, as many of his fellow poets and readers might assume. He talks about his “non-self” and references it to Keats, who espoused the “negative capability” of a poet, that is, the poet’s ability to impartially create an independent voice that mirrors humanity, including the negative, undesirable aspects of existence. Also like Keats, Tanikawa creates and speaks through an alter ego, a poetic voice distinct from his own. His essays often assert the independence of a creation from its author, and he makes a point of distancing himself from his creation.
Excerpted with permission from The Art of Being Alone: Poems 1952-2009. Trans. Takako Lento. Cornell University Press, 2011.