Hagiwara Sakutaro

Hagiwara Sakutaro (1886-1942) is generally recognized in Japan as the best poet to have emerged since contact was re-established with the outside world. His word represents the astonishing achievement in the poetic field of the general Meji endeavor to blend "Western learning with the Japanese spirit". He perhaps he alone, has successfully combined the lyric intensity characteristic of the short forms of traditional Japanese poetry with that freedom of length, form and rhythm which characterizes the poetry of the West. In him East and West, despite Kipling's dictum, have indeed met: and from him the future poets of both traditions have much to learn.

For all the startling beauty and originality of his work, Hagiwara remains a poet of the dark; a native of that extraordinary world where Dylan Thomas' question ("Isn't life a terrible thing, thank God") really needs no answer. Shiveringly sensitive to loveliness in all its million modes; he finds it not only in its familiar haunts but even in such unexpected subjects as a rotten clam or the dead body of an alcoholic. A man intensely aware that the sun, that symbol of Japan, rises as much to cast shadows as to give lights, his early self-portrait establishes the tonic of all his later work:

Sad in the ailing earth,
Tongue-tender with despair,
Green moves through grief's grimace;
And, sick and lonely, there
In the gloom of the under world,
At the bottom of the world, a face.

Hagiwara hold no mirror up to nature; for mirrors, after all, need light. Instead he turns a radar onto nature's hitherto unpenetrated darknesses, feeling out shapes invisible. The resulting images, shining, golden, in a sense distorted, may seem odd to the unaccustomed eye; but they are authentic versions, visions even, of the truth. For he had the poet's one essential gift: to see first what all can see once it has been shown to them. Readers accustomed to the laconic half-statements of traditional Japanese poems in the three and five-line forms of the Haiku and the tanka will be surprised by the sheer power and the sustained lyricism of Hagiwara's uncompromising statements of the world's truth as he saw it. They well even be shocked by the terrible nature of his vision. But few will be able to deny their recognition of the truth of that vision and of the staggering beauty of his language. For Hagiwara is a poet who can stand comparison with such giants of the world of modern poetry as Rimbaud, Rilke, Eliot and Lorca. If, in the last analysis, he fails to attain major world-status, it is only because the laser-sharpness of his penetration necessarily narrowed the breadth of his vision. The peculiarly piercing quality in his poems has been compared to that in the cry of a babe new-born into this terrible world: but Hagiwara cried for a lifetime with all the irrepressible energy of life itself, and has left for man's enlightenment poems of the dark that will last as long as light and darkness, side by side, endure in the human heart.

Translations of Hagiwara by Graeme Wilson have appeared in many British and American journals including: the Times Literary Supplement, the Spectator, Encounter, Delos and the Yale Review.


Over the evening field
The elephant, long-eared,
Troop slowly into night.

The yellow evening moon
Limps up from afternoon
To stand at last revealed
Clear yellow but yet bleared
By waverings, the slight
Wind-winnowing of the light.

Girl in this evening scenc,
Are you no saddened by
Its seep of loneliness?

Here is a little flute
Whose music is pure green.
Blow on it gently, sigh
A long its hollows. See,
Its quavered cadences,
Its shaky melody,
Call down from that clear sky
A cold, an absolute
Quintessence of distress.

From some far sea of yearning
A ghostliness appears.

With slow appalling pad
It lurks toward us, turning
More nasty as it nears,
Seeming at last to be
A cat without a hear
That staggers in the dead
Black shadows of this sad
Unseemly cemetery.

Girl, I could easily
In such a place concerning
Grief and the end of day,
Grief and the night returning,
To death's menagerie
Stagger away.


Both earth and sky are greennesses,
Greens that explode and expand:
Shoes flash like fish as I tread the seas
And hang like fish when I stand,
And happiness swims in the shadow of trees
As the light blade hangs from my hand.


Things like dogs, by barking; by becoming
Deformed children, things like geese;
Things, by shinning in the night, like foxes;
By congealing as crystal, things like tortoises;
And things like wolves that run as nothing can:
All these do harm to the good health of man.


Holding my cheek with toothache swollen,
I dug beneath a jujube tree,
Grubbying my delicate fingers,
Trying to sow, though seedily,
Some sort of seed.
Ah, I remember
As I was digging the frozen ground,
Cold in the dusk of that chill day,
Movement, slitherings; and I found
There at the bottom of the new-dug hole
An earthworm writhing.
So provoked,
From the low cover of a huddled house
The moon came sliding up. She stroked
The white ear of a woman. She
Came sliding up,


High among twigs, light on their tiny tining,
The small eggs shine, halos on heaven's shelves:
And, looking up, we see the birds' nests shining
And know it time for easters of ourselves.


The heart of this still life is deeply angry,
Its surface grieves too deeply to be told:
Reflected in the white eyes of this vessel,
The cold greens near the window are twice cold.


October, at the fading of the year,
Waits for my prayers and silences.
The birds and fishes disappear
Into their fasting distances
And autumn flowers fade. Their colors seep
To lend the whitening air an opal shine.
Nothing, not even prayer, dare run too deep.
Touch but a Bible, it turns argentine.


From the dead body of the alcoholic
Lying on its back – slack mouth, sharp nose –
Around the area of the dead white stomach
Something unimaginable flows.
With blood congealed, translucent, blue;
Heart warped and many – angled;
With rotten guts and wrists frayed through
Rheumatically; with sticky tangled
Orts spread wetly everywhere;
The shining ground is bright.
The grass is sharp as shattered glass
And everything is shining
With radium's eerie light.
Landscape of despair,
Landscape with the moon declining.
Ah, in such a lonely place
The whitish murderer's hanging face
Laughs like a shimmer in the grass.


Face at the bottom of the world:
A sick, a lonely face,
One invalided out
Of every inner place;
Yet, slowly there uncurled,
Green in the gloom the grasses sprout.
And, as a rat's nest stirs,
Its million tangled hairs
One queasy quivering,
Thinnest of winterers,
The bamboo shoot prepares
Its green grope to the spring.
Sad in the ailing earth,
Tongue-tender with despair,
Green moves through grief's grimace;
And, sick and lonely, there
In the gloom of the under world,
At the bottom of the world, a face.

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