For Japan's star poet Tanikawa, it's fun, not work, at 90

Shuntaro Tanikawa used to think poems descended like an inspiration from the heavens

ByYURI KAGEYAMA Associated Press
June 01, 2022, 9:30 PM

TOKYO -- Shuntaro Tanikawa used to think poems descended like an inspiration from the heavens. As he grew older — he is now 90 — Tanikawa sees poems as welling up from the ground.

The poems still come to him, a word or fragments of lines, as he wakes up in the morning. What inspires the words comes from outside. The poetry comes from deep within.

“Writing poetry has become really fun these days,” he said recently in his elegant home in the Tokyo suburbs.

Shelves were overflowing with books. His collection of ancient bronze animal figurines stand in neat rows in a glass box next to stacks of his favorite classical music CDs.

“In the past, there was something about its being a job, being commissioned. Now, I can write as I want,” he said.

Tanikawa is among Japan’s most famous modern poets, and a master of free verse on the everyday.

He has more than a hundred poetry books published. With titles like “To Live,” “Listen” and “Grass,” his poems are stark, rhythmical but conversational, defying elaborate traditional literary styles.

William Elliott, who has translated Tanikawa for years, compares his place in Japanese poetic history to how T. S. Eliot marked the beginning of a new era in English poetry.

Tanikawa is also a reputed translator, having translated Charles Schulz’ “Peanuts” comic strip into Japanese since the 1970s. He demonstrated his ear for the poetic in the colloquial with finesse, choosing “yare yare” for “good grief,” transcending the lifestyle differences of East and West in the universal world of children and animals.

“He was more a poet or a philosopher,” he said of Schulz.

Tanikawa has translated many others' works, including Mother Goose, as well as Maurice Sendak and Leo Lionni. In turn, his works have been widely translated, including into Chinese and European languages.

Tanikawa’s poem “Two Billion Light-Years of Solitude” catapulted him to stardom in the early 1950s. Tanikawa had his eyes on the cosmos and Earth’s spot in the universe, years before Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote the magical realism classic, “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

Tanikawa was always in demand, the darling of poetry readings around the world, a rare example of a poet who effortlessly crossed over to commercialism without compromising his art.

But poetry used to be a job — his profession, his daily work.

Tanikawa is the lyricist for the Japanese theme song for Osamu Tezuka’s TV animated series “Astro Boy.” He also wrote the script for the narration of Kon Ichikawa’s documentary of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

A popular author of children’s picture books, he is often featured in textbooks.

He swears he doesn’t have “projects” anymore because of his age, which has made walking and going out more difficult. But in the same breath he says he is collaborating with his musician son Kensaku Tanikawa, who lives next door, on what they call “Piano Twitter.”

He has already written dozens of poems to go with the score. They are all short, more abstracted than his past work, conjuring surreal images like staircases descending to nowhere, or a caterpillar dancing uncontrollably.

He isn’t sure how the work will be presented, but speculated it could become a book with a barcode so readers can listen to the poems being read with music online.

Among his voluminous output, he is most proud of his 1970s “Kotoba Asobi Uta” series, which utilized singsong alliterations and onomatopoeia, as the title “Word Play Songs” implies.

One repeats the phrase “kappa,” a mythical monster, as in: “kappa kapparatta,” which translates to “the kappa took off with something” — a “rappa,” a “trumpet,” as it turns out in a later line. The poetry is, both visually and aurally, a sheer celebration of the Japanese language.

That was unique, Tanikawa said, and he still likes what he came up with.

“For me, the Japanese language is the ground. Like a plant, I place my roots, drink in the nutrients of the Japanese language, sprouting leaves, flowers and bearing fruit,” he said.

Married and divorced three times — to a poet, an actress and an illustrator — Tanikawa stressed he was changing with age, noting 90 felt much older than 80, and he was getting forgetful.

Yet he appeared on a recent sunny afternoon totally comfortable with social media and everyday technology, although he used a magnifying glass to make out fine print. He was curious about new movies, including what might be on Netflix. He likes eating cookies, he said, looking more like a mischievous child than the great-grandfather that he is.

He usually works at his huge desk in a spacious study, which has a window that lets in the breeze and a fuzzy ray of light. It looks out into a yard with flowers. On the wall hangs a sepia-toned portrait of his mother with his father, Tetsuzo Tanikawa, a philosopher.

While growing up, Tanikawa was more afraid about his mother’s dying than of any other death. He also remembers how he saw corpses upon corpses after the American air raids of Tokyo during World War II.

“Death has become more real. It used to be more conceptual when I was young. But now my body is approaching death,” he said.

He hopes to die as his father did, in his sleep after a night of partying, at 94.

“I am more curious about where I go when I die. It’s a different world, right? Of course, I don’t want pain. I don’t want to die after major surgery or anything. I just want to die, all of a sudden,” he said.

When asked to read his works out loud, he doesn’t hesitate.

He reads excerpts from his latest collaboration with his son. Then he reads his debut work that, translated into English, ends with these lines:

“The universe is twisted, / That is why we try to connect. / The universe keeps expanding, / That is why we are all afraid. / In two billion light-years of solitude / I suddenly sneeze.”

So what does he think?

“It feels like a poem written by someone else,” Tanikawa said.

But it’s a good poem?

He nods with conviction.

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Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter: https://twitter.com/yurikageyama

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