Japanese poet Nanao Sakaki.
What a pleasure to receive this update in the mail from Taylor Mignon, editor of Tokyo Poetry Journal. The latest edition, devoted to Japan and the Beats, is large at more than 200 pages and well worth your time. This issue delineates a long history that begins somewhat nebulously as multiple poets in the 1950s and 60s were beginning to become aware of the Beats and American Kenneth Rexroth brought Japanese art to American poets and audiences. Nanao Sakaki by most accounts was Japan’s first prominent Beat writer and he proceeded to translate the work of American poet Gary Snyder into Japanese. Also, it should be noted that Rexroth did a huge service to Japanese poets in diligently translating their work into English. It should be remembered that Rexroth spoke and wrote fluent Japanese and Chinese (unlike Ezra Pound).
This issue of Tokyo Poetry Journal contains much new and also some republished seminal works of Japanese writing translated into English and also the work of some fellow Anglo outriders who exerted their energies in a similar direction. As a bit of context the preface sets up the work wonderfully by mentioning that Katagiri Yuzuru was the first Japanese to produce a Beat anthology in Japan “with Objectivist poets, as well as Denise Levertov.” I was glad to see Levertov’s name mentioned as an exemplar of American Beat poets because her important work certainly serves as some of the best Beat writing.
Japanese poet Shiraishi Kazuko.
Another early Japanese journal that published American poets was VOU, which published Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg, as well as Ezra Pound, Henry Miller, and others. Another journal named TRAP was edited by poet Torii Shozo and published Japanese surrealists such as Kitasono Katue and Yamamoto Kansuke. (I had received permission in 2004 to publish a large installation of the work of Yamamoto Kansuke from the Kansuke estate in my poetry journal milkmag.org and was also glad to see a mention of Nexus magazine, which I also used to edit, in regard to Japanese Beat poetry. In Nexus I published, with Taylor Mignon’s assistance as translator, the poet Torii Shozo.)
American poet, traveler, and photographer Ira Cohen also was published numerous times in latter day Beat-related Japanese journals. Cohen’s poetic style, influenced heavily by Beat prosody and approach, found a perfect home alongside the work of a now older Nanao Sakaki. Still other journals such as Printed Matter and Blue Beat Jacket published many Japanese Beat poets as well as post-Beat poets such as New Yorker Steve Dalachinsky. The American poets most associated with Japanese poetry nameley Kenneth Rextroth, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Cid Corman, Allen Ginsberg, and Joanne Kyger were a gateway to another world. Entrance to that world was a revolving door, however. American poets gained much from their Japanese counterparts and vice versa.
American poet Kenneth Rexroth.
Importantly, American poet and scholar John Solt continues to this day to bridge America and Japan with bi-lingual events, readings, as poet and translator of Japanese poetry, and art curator. He is a prime force that serves as art conduit showing that the original nexus between the two countries and simpatico aesthetics indeed still exist and even thrive.
Delving into some of the poetry contained in the pages of this issue of Tokyo Poetry Journal, however, would best illustrate the wide range of work practiced by these poets.
Fitting that the issue starts with very visual work by Shiraishi Kazuko with a poetic portrait of Tokyo followed by one of America. We view the world through nearly filmic lens, as the poet’s Beat style jump cuts through the dark images of her day with violence and tenderness and some irony.
from “My Tokyo” [excerpts, translator/Kenneth Rexroth]
… like two young leopards in the deep woods of their yearning
In each other’s secret rooms
The ravishing monkey women
Balance rainbows of caresses like
The glow of morning
…Forced through a fog of foreboding
I could barely hear God’s pain
Then it reached agony
Now for the first time I behold
God entire, falling in a thunderbolt, roaring
from “My America” [excerpt, translator/Kenneth Rexroth]
…On Saturday night glued to TV
Dying to make an American million
Your bare teeth shining
Nobody ever calls the American gentle anymore
They figure he’s had it in Hollywood
Handsome, young, and loaded
Nevertheless heading over the hill
Suffering from three kinds of cancer
You only call hippies gentle these days
So you’re called America
You glittering, nameless
My private, custom-made America…
Now in her mid-eighties, Shiraishi Kazuko, was once called “the Allen Ginsberg” of Japan by Kenneth Rexroth and in the essay “Japan Beat: Kazuko Shiraishi” A. Robert Lee writes that Ginsberg once ironically said of Shiraishi “we may as well be husband and wife.”
In her excellent poem “Indigo, for Nanao Sakaki” American poet Anne Waldman writes:
on planet Earth
syndicates of samsara
the New Weathers
& a revolution
that turns many ways
But you never
divided the sky
You never took
You were the
hero in the forest…
Linda Russo writes in “Considering Joanne Kyger in Kyoto”:
[A poem of Kyger’s] largest fragment tells of a trip, presumably on Snyder’s motorcycle:
We took the left fork
up into Yase valley at the rise of the hill, used only
by woodsmen, charcoal makers
and farther back into the valley burning trees as they go
Situated on near inaccessible
hillsides and their families, smoking out wood.
American poet Joanne Kyger lived with Gary Snyder outside of Kyoto as he practiced a “monkish” Buddhist existence. One can see why the Beats were fascinated with Kyoto. It provided relatively cheap, rustic living, in absolutely beautiful surroundings that allowed one to meditate and focus on art. It’s not a mystery why the Japanese poets were interested in American Beat writing, it was indeed a breath of fresh air in its honesty, sexuality, and even violence but it’s not as easy to determine why Japanese poets would interested in America itself, frought as it was (and is) with problems and division.
Between the pages of this issue are numerous poems, photographs, and drawings that tell a fantastic tale of a band of like-minded souls that yearned for liberation and peace in the world. I can certainly say we are much like them right now as the world experiences a new set of problems for new generations. The Beat current still travels through it …
“Must” by Kizuki Mihiro
“Do you like Ginsberg, Kerouac, or Burroughs?”
An old hippie man asks. I didn’t know any of them when I
started reading poems.
“Which do like the most among the Beat generation works?”
An intelligent university student asked. I had never read their works
when I became a performance poet.
“Did you watch ‘Naked Lunch’, ‘The Last Time I Committed Suicide,’ or ‘Beatnik’?” Ask a world-wide senior poet.
It’s like Led Zeppelin for rock kids.
The way that Beat writing and culture permeated world culture spreading from North Beach, San Francisco and Los Angeles and New York City to Europe and also Japan before becoming embedded as it is now in American culture–a background music or eternal cosmic mosaic that mapped the madness of American life in the 50s, 60s, and 70s as consumer capitalism reared its head in the form of Vietnam and (and now in the ugliness of the Trump presidency).
As early as 1953 Jack Kerouac was studying Zen Buddhism to some degree and when he met and spent time with Gary Snyder in 1955 more seriously, as they hung out in San Francisco together carousing and then got high on the “mountain trails of the High Sierras.” Some of which Kerouac immortalized in his book The Dharma Bums. Snyder then famously left for Japan in 1956 and it had an enduring effect on his life and art.
As Kizuki Mihiro writes in his poem “Beatific” ecstatically “I can hear the howl of celebration for this beatific world” ….we are drawn in as observers but also become participants in the poetry in this issue of Tokyo Poetry Journal. Even the old mirrors our present concerns.
It’s a celebration of the variousness of the world, a call for sanity, a Dionysian bacchanalia, and also a prescient warning about the precariousness of life on earth. I enjoyed these poems of joy, death, and romance. As the Beats relied on imagery, confession, and a tinge of surrealism, those poets here also present an assault on the senses that awakens and instills wonder but also reminds us to practice enduring patience and to realize our connection with the natural world. As in “Gathering Shellfish” by Yamao Sansei (translation by Scott Watson):
Beat by sun’s blaze
this blue-purple sea breeze caresses coolly.
One rock at a step
through spray from waves.
On this shore where no one is
silence is mesolithic, is wealth.
without transmission. Body is aware,
quiet, rich, mesolithic.