Now there’s someone
I can take off my hat to!
When Makoto Ōoka died in 2017, Japan mourned the passing of one of its best modern poets. Now Kurodahan, that worthy publisher of Japanese literature, has brought us a new and updated edition of Janine Beichman's fine translations of his poetry, Beneath the Sleepless Tossing of the Planets: Selected Poems (originally published in 1992), so that English-speaking readers can savor some of the qualities that made Ōoka’s poetry so widely recognized in Japan.
Born in 1931 into a literary family (his father wrote tanka, a traditional Japanese verse form), Ōoka leapt to early prominence as an exciting new poet in the post-war literary generation. The poems in this book reveal his impressive trajectory as a poet, from the early collection A Perspective Diagram of Summer (1972) through selections from nine volumes of poetry to the final Messages to the Waters of My Hometown (1989). The second work translated here, a prose poem rendition of a dream, hints at Ōoka’s restlessly experimental approach to poetry as well as the surrealist influences on his earlier work. Suitably, the book ends with another prose work that lies somewhere on the spectrum between prose poem and essay, “Such Women Where Are You?”, a beautiful meditation on the colors green and blue that combines the scholarly and the poetic as only Ōoka could.
The eclectic range of his poetic tone is one of the challenges that a translator faces in bringing his work across to another language. In her introduction, Beichman writes “The most difficult part of translating these poems was to find a diction and tone as colloquial and yet as sparse and elegant as the originals”, and goes on to point out that Ōoka “wrote in the presence of the entire Japanese language, past and present”. More than perhaps any other poet of his generation and later, Ōoka was steeped in Japan’s classical language and poetry – his daily newspaper column Poems for All Seasons, which ran for an astonishing 19 years and educated a generation of readers (including myself) in the joys of Japan's classical poetry, is testimony to the depth of his knowledge. His poetry wears this influence lightly but it strengthens his sense of language at every turn, and Beichman has done an admirable job of allowing the beauty of the poems to emerge while conveying the colloquial tone of many of them. Such translation is not easy. A single example will serve here to suggest some of the strategies she uses.
The Tale of a Star #1
A star is
My favorite star
all over the sky and
never bothers to
read them back
Now there's someone
I can take off my hat to!
The original poem consists of six lines, whose divisions follow natural grammatical pauses. Beichman has not only made the poem more interesting in English by breaking up the lines to add tension to the flow, but has thereby drawn out their poetic quality, where the lovely swaying elegance of the first line of the original (difficult to reproduce) is given a different kind of beauty in the slow drip of words that embodies their meaning. The contrasting slight shock of Ōoka's colloquial final line, roughly translatable as “what a wonderful fellow!”, is nicely caught in Beichman’s choice of the equally colloquial and humorous English expression of her last two lines, which both catches the tone and adds a smile to it that is entirely in keeping with the feel of the original poem.
We can imagine that a translation such as this would have made Ōoka very happy. Beichman, a friend of the poet, relates that all these translations were read and approved by Ōoka, whose eye for nuance had been honed by years of reading poetry in English, and adds that he occasionally adjusted a poem in line with the needs of its translation. Translators must sigh to read of this degree of collaboration with a writer, recalling their long struggles to win real poetry out of lines or whole poems that sing in the original language but lose all poetic life when brought across.
But ultimately it is Beichman’s own skill that makes so many of these translations successful. Just one among many examples is the little poem ‘What is Poetry #8’, one of a long and fascinating series of poetic meditations on the nature of poetry.
In the hollow of a hand that polishes
blades of grass, a faint light
in pure darkness
Not only does the translation capture the haiku-like elegance and held breath of the original poem, it brings to the poem added beauty in the sound patterns created with ‘h’, ‘o’ and ‘l’ in the first line and the repeated ‘a’ of the second, and goes on in the final line to effectively draw out the nuance of the Japanese word for ‘total darkness’ (makkura, literally ‘true darkness’) with the word ‘pure’. Only a translator finely tuned to her own language could produce something as successful as this with a poem that in lesser hands might easily become merely banal and puzzling in translation.
This new edition reproduces samples of Ōoka's calligraphy from the earlier book, and comes with the addition of illustrations, handwritten drafts of poems, and a selection of photographs spanning from the mid-1960s (Ōoka as the handsome young man who first made his name as a poet, an air of youthful arrogance in his direct unsmiling gaze) to 2000 (elderly, wry and kindly). It also has the added advantage of being a bilingual publication, with the Japanese poems read forward from the “back” of the book in the style commonly used in Japan, the page of their translation helpfully noted.
Kurodahan and Beichman have combined to bring us a book worthy of this important poet.