Tuesday, 25 May 2010


Published by London Magazine Editions in 1971, Afterimages, is a selection of poetry by Shinkichi Takahashi, translated and chosen by Lucien Stryk and Takahashi Ikemoto, each also give insightful forewords to this unique poet. The poet himself has a translated introduction and the volume has a sample of Takahashi's calligraphy, with the title poem Afterimages. Takahashi Ikemoto's foreword gives a biographical background, born in Shikoku in 1901, mainly a self educated man, Takahashi after high school went to Tokyo, although he contracted typhus and as he was poor had to return to his village to recuperate. Whilst he was recovering he read articles on dada, which in turn would influence his early poetry. Ikemoto includes translations of the titles of some of these early works, and mentions that in 1924 that he wrote a novel also entitled, Dada. On his return to Tokyo he took various jobs, in 1928, Shizan Ashikaga a master of the Rinzai Zen sect suggested that he should study at Shogenji, a temple known for it's rigoris discipline, Ikemoto tells us that Takahashi collapsed whilst here, through Shizan's advise Takahashi concentrated on studying the koan. He studied under master Shizan for seventeen years, experiencing many hardships, but in an essay by Takahashi he writes about his experiences of achieving satori, these happening in quite unexceptional surroundings, one time upon hearing a bell, another time bending to pick up a washing pail. Ikemoto says of Takahashi, 'He saw once and for all that nothing existed - no earth,no universe,no God'. The poems collected here, went on to be included in the larger volume published by Grove entitled Triumph of the Sparrow, which has the same editors/translators, but also included in that edition are additional poems and an interview between Stryk and Takahashi. Ikemoto also points to the paradox that Zen is mainly a religion of word-denunciation, but settles the matter by observing that 'Zen scholars found that words and letters can embody elements of Buddhism in themselves'. Takahashi would later abandon dada, finding that it was in essence an inadequate mode.

Although zen like in their simplicity the poems aren't presented in the same style as koans, in them Takahashi expresses the essence of zen observations and learning. Ikemoto in his introduction emphasises the importance of the practice of sitting in zen, which is shown in many of the poems 'Life Infinite' for instance where in Zen sitting Takahashi finds that 'I can see, live anywhere, everywhere'. In the poem 'Paper Door' the simple scene of tea drinking takes on a broader dimension, the torn shoji seen flapping in the wind is focused upon, Takahashi with reference to it's fading frame questions the permanence of the universe. In 'Words', taken from a collection from 1949 Takahashi ponders the purpose of communication, where words are not merely words, 'I listen, To what makes you talk - Whatever that is- And me listen'. Many of the poems are located outside time and place, and simple observations of everyday objects and wildlife take on the themes of zen, the impermanence of time and the senses.

There's many excellent places to read Japanese poetry online, Poetry International Web features poetry and poets from around the globe. Recently featured is the poet Tatsuji Miyoshi, along with two articles by the translators, there are translations by Takako Lento and Jeffrey Angles. Many of the poems reflect on the war years and also look towards recovery, as in the poem After We Were Beaten In The War.

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