Against wordiness

Shuntarô Tanikawa’s “minimal” teaches about poetry, linguistic reduction, and why Japanese poetry remains readable

Tanikawa Minimal Book Cover
Takinawa Shuntaro: minimal. 30 Gedichte. Deutsch und Japanisch. Übersetzt aus dem Japanischen von Eduard Klopfenstein. Secession Verlag für Literatur, Zürich 2015. 100 Seiten, 42,00 EUR. ISBN-13: 9783905951226

The number of Japanese writers of the present, who have made a name for themselves in the international literary landscape, can still be regarded as rather small despite the growing number of translations. A brief glance at the work and person of Shuntarô Tanikawa is enough To arrive at this assessment. In the reading of the canon of the works in German translation, from the aesthetic-modernist designs of a Yukio Mishima or Yasunari Kawabata to the ego-novel-like permanent burners of a Kenzaburô Ôe to the “postmodern” bestsellers of a Haruki Murakami is the Japanese Literature interested readers that there is a regular dominance of the prose against which the present lyrical from Japan can scarcely raise their compelling word.

Or maybe yes? The curious look at the contemporary Japanese lyric may be worthwhile if one of the Tanikawas poems, which have become more numerous in recent times, as well as especially the poem anthology published at the Swiss Secession Verlag für Literatur in May of this year, In short, the picture of the Japanese literature of the last decades would not only be incomplete without the work of Tanikawa, but also a whole lot poorer in language, intelligence and humor. Tanikawa does not have to hide, even behind literary figures like Mishima, Ôe or Haruki Murakami.

The 30 poems in minm are varied in their content and motivational range and are characterized by short-cut language images: descriptive, impressionistic and “honest”. Tanikawa’s verses can skilfully escape a hermetic and overloaded metaphor. This “open” kind of poetry is paired in three coherent thematic blocks of ten poems each, but with a strict formal design in four to five verses of three lines each, which makes Tanikawa’s self-assertion as a poet of the modern school with the classic Japanese short poetry Haiku), as the latter in the short afterword itself. The result, however, is not lacking in art, despite its brevity. The poem “Lumpen”, for example, which opens the volume, describes in a concise, almost “minimal” way, poetry itself as a fleeting, never-ending activity . Putting into the linguistic form of ragweed, Tanikawa gives insights into his musical relationship to lyric poetry, his long and almost devouring love for poetry and sets the tone for the entire band.

The rag of the seal

Before dawn
the poem

In shabby

there is nothing
What I could give him
Is only given to itself

His naked body
Through the torn seam

again and again
I replied
On his ragweed

In many language images, Tanikawa’s ability as a poet shows, often his poetics is self-referential and is sometimes itself the theme in his poems. For example, in “Refusing to deny” that the reader wants to teach that it is not the things that deny lyric poetry, but the man himself. Anonymous and unspecific, the lyric ego rarely occurs at all, and yet The poet Tanikawa always present, by restraining himself.

They are the unspoken, the absentminded, the small nuances and hints that set the melancholic basic mood and passivity of the observer. “Before the day came the poem”, and yet there is nothing “what I could give him,” it says there. Tanikawa skillfully plays by not being much more than a listener given by poetry. Lyrical modesty, which carries a rarity in 2015.

The poem album minmal appeared in 2002 in Japanese first publication at the poetry Shichôsha and is certainly not the only notable lyrical contribution Shuntarô Tanikawas, who was born in Japan in 1931 as the son of the philosopher Tetsuzô Tanikawa. Already in his – to a large extent immature – childhood, he devoted himself to lyricism. Beginning with his now well-known poem and first work Nijûoku kônen no kodoku (the “loneliness of two billion light years”) succeeded the young Tanikawa early breakthrough. What followed was a success story of the Japanese post-war literature with now more than 100 publications in the form of poetry books, children’s books, prose, discussions and translations. But the now 83-year-old still does not think of ceasing. I

It is precisely Tanikawa’s changeability, which makes him today a productive and important figure of Japanese contemporary literature. More recently, he has increasingly devoted himself to the modern Japanese ketweed renshi (luckily also available in German language: Spokeneswasser, Secession Verlag 2012, almost always a wind, Wolfbach 2015). In the epilogue of minimal, Tanikawa quotes John Keats and ponders whether the poet is a chameleon, a “non-self”. Either way you can hope for more translations of Tanikawas, no matter what form.

The fact that Shuntarô Tanikawa has found his way into the German book shelves is mainly thanks to the Japaneseologist Eduard Klopfenstein (University of Zurich), who is responsible for the German-language translations Tanikawas, also for minimal. From long-standing personal contact with the poet, research and the organization of events for the kettendichting, Klopfenstein has gained unique insight into the work and work of Tanikawas outside Japan, which is reflected in the precise translations of his linguistic work. Anyone who still wants to take a look at the original texts, can do so in the beautifully designed, multiple foldable bound edition of minimal.

What remains, then, is another poem of the later period of the most famous and most important Japanese lyricist of the present in German. Minimal not only creates a masterly performance between traditional and modern Japanese poetry, but also shows that modern Japanese lyricism – especially by its brevity – can also “function” in German. To the next translation of the Grand Master Tanikawa, one can definitely be more than just ‘minimal’.


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