Takuboku and Bokusui

First published in Ribbons 16:3, Fall 2020, pages 118 to 122. Originally written in June, August, and October of 2020. +

Takuboku Ishikawa and Bokusui Wakayama in English and Spanish. Translated by Harue Aoki. Tokyo: Gendaitankasha, 2019. ISBN 978-4-86534-265-9. 238 pages, 5 x 7.5 inches, $18.00. For ordering information, please email the translator at mure_bk_kaoha@ybb.ne.jp.

Harue Aoki has done readers of tanka in English a fine service by offering this collection of poems. She has selected one of Japan’s most celebrated modern tanka poets, Takuboku, and one who is lesser known, at least in English, Bokusui. She presents fifty tanka by each poet and has chosen poems from their first (or early) and last collections of tanka. I have enjoyed other translations of Takuboku, mostly by Sanford Goldstein and Carl Sesar, and it is a pleasure to see some of these poems again. I was less familiar with Bokusui, having read only translator H. H. Honda’s The Poetry of Wakayama Bokusui published by Hokuseido Press in 1958 (Honda also published a companion book featuring Takuboku’s tanka, both books using rhyming quatrains). Consequently, Bokusui’s poems seem mostly new to me, as I suspect will be the case with other readers. Even more remarkable, all the poems here are translated not just into English but also Spanish.

Introducing the translations are brief forewords by Isao Ikeda, president of the International Society of Takuboku Studies, and Kazuhiko Ito, president of the Society for the Study of Bokusui. Ikeda reminds us of Donald Keene’s observation that “Takuboku wanted to emphasize truth rather than lyric beauty” (8) and that the poet’s “modern and frank style of writing is the reason for his appeal to people across national boundaries and races.” Ikeda adds that Takuboku “expresses the true feelings of ordinary Japanese real life” (9). Ito notes that Bokusui’s tanka “is rhythmical and has a universality which is readily understood and received by readers” (14), and notes that his poems are often characterized by romanticism and loneliness (15). Ito also says of the first books by Takuboku and Bokusui that “Modern tanka begins with these two collections” and that, through their poems, “we can know the starting point of modern and contemporary tanka poetry in Japan” (15).

The layout of the poems creates a gently paced reading experience. On each pair of facing pages, the left-hand side presents the English and Spanish translations, and the right-hand side shows the original Japanese text (in three lines for Takuboku and one line for Bokusui, both vertically) and a romaji version (in five lines, horizontally). If proficient in Spanish, one could read the book focusing just on that language, or read only the English, as I did. Those who know both English and Spanish may also enjoy comparing the two translations, and further comparing them with the Japanese if they know Japanese. The translations are spare and refined. In her postscript to the poems, Aoki notes that “a tanka in English with 31 syllables makes the poems longer than in Japanese” and that she aims in her translations for “about 21” syllables in five lines, and tries to maintain a short-long-short-long-long pattern (230).

As I read the English translations of both poets, I found myself responding to most poems with a single word or two that captured the essence or thrust of each poem. Takuboku’s poems produced words such as immediate, vulnerable, honest, self-aware, longing, consolation, relief, youthfulness, loneliness, restless contentment, psychologically open, empathetic, sadness, quotidian, self-reflective, imagistic, memory, nostalgic, specific, minimal, withholding, illness (many of these), doubt, iconoclastic, diaristic report, and aging (although he died young). These words apply to specific poems but may also characterize Takuboku’s output in general. Here are the first and last poems from Aoki’s collection as examples, together with their Spanish versions (20, 118):

on the white sand en la arena blanca

of the seashore de la costa

of a small island de la pequeña isla

amused by a crab jugando con un cangrejo

tears run down my cheeks las lágrimas cayendo por mis mejillas

outside the garden fuera del jardín

a white dog passes. un perro blanco

turn to my wife, ha pasado.

ask her if we keep pregunto a mi esposa

such a dog. lo podemos tener.

The period in the second poem mirrors Takuboku’s use of periods in the Japanese, from the second of the two books selected from, which he did not use in the first book. In English, I’m not sure that retaining the periods makes sense without also using initial capital letters to start those phrases. Yet no doubt the translator wanted to honour what the poet had written. On occasion the English elsewhere is puzzling, such as “seeing / soldiers’ party off” (40) and “I am poor / to live” (72), but the great majority of the poems come across clearly and convey well Takuboku’s open and disarming style.

For Bokusui, I produced the following responses to many of the poems: longing, suffering, loneliness, empathy, solitude, beauty, delight, romance, melancholy, contemplative, sadness, sorrow, joy, resolve, defeatist, alienation, surreal, denial, fear, imagery, haunting, loyalty, nostalgia, autumnal, desolation, and stress. I found much repeated longing, sadness, and loneliness in Bokusui, at least in these selections. The similarity of this list of words with Takuboku’s may suggest that they write similar poems. That may well be, but I think the larger point is that tanka itself dwells in these commonalities, not just these two poets. Both, however, died young (at the ages of 26 and 43) and Bokusui was at Takuboku’s deathbed. Here, in fact, is Bokusui’s poem for Takuboku on the latter’s death, translated by H. H. Honda, from The Poetry of Wakayama Bokusui (v, 59):

The cherries bloom beneath the gloom

Of pallid early summer skies,

And oh, how drear they now appear,

Since death has closed my sick friend’s eyes!

Takuboku and Bokusui also share other biographical similarities. They were born one year apart, both as first sons, and moved to Tokyo as young adults (121, 225). Brief chronologies and photographs of both poets are useful additions to the book. Here are the first and last poems by Bokusui from Aoki’s book, both spring mountain tanka (124, 222):

on such an evening en tal tarde

I long for my mother anhelo mi madre

and my home town, y mi pueblo natal,

on that lovely mountain los cerezos florecen

cherry blossoms bloom en el monte tan querido

that clear peak la clara cima

of Mt. Fuji charms me del Monte Fuji me encanta

when I look at it cuando la miro

from the spring field desde el campo de primavera

of this Susono de este Susono

I do not quite understand what “of this Susono” means and wonder if “of Susono” would be sufficient, meaning a field at this location (Susono is a town south of Tokyo that has close views of Mt. Fuji, just ten miles away). As with the Takuboku poems, a few of the Bokusui translations have puzzling presentations, such as “today / long for the scent” (130; perhaps “longing” would be clearer?) and “on swollen river” and “in solitary mood” (176, 216; I would add an article in both cases), but these are rare and slight missteps, and perhaps not missteps at all if they reflect aspects of the original poem that I’m not sensitive to. Beyond this, it’s a pleasure to be more deeply introduced to Bokusui’s poetry, troubled though some of the honest content is, as in these poems (168, 192):

walking in cuando

a silent grove en la arboleda callada

together andamos juntos

at the same time a menudo mi corazón

feel hatred for you siente odio por ti

it is hard es difícil

to accept you admitirte después

after you left me, de abandonarme

I can’t permit no puedo permitir

your change of heart tu cambio de corazón

Harue Aoki offers a reinvigoration of Takuboku with this book’s selections, and a needed introduction to the poetry of Bokusui for most readers. I wholeheartedly recommend Takuboku Ishikawa and Bokusui Wakayama in English and Spanish, and will leave you with one more poem by each poet, both train poems (30, 178):

without a plan sin designio

I get on a train, subo al tren

without a plan sin designio

I get off the train bajo del tren

nowhere to go no voy a ninguna parte

the day we parted el día de la separación

you said nothin tú no dices nada

I said nothing yo no digo nada

at the station en la estación

on a snowy afternoon una tarde nevada