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Category Archives: Japanese Poetry

VOU: Visual Poetry Tokio 1958-1978, ed Taylor Mignon (Isobar Press)

VOU: Visual Poetry Tokio 1958-1978, ed Taylor Mignon (Isobar Press)

This intriguing anthology features the work of nine visual poets active in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s, artists whose work was largely ignored by the mainstream and which, as a consequence, has been little documented. 

The VOU Club, from which the anthology takes its name, was founded by Kitasono Katue in 1935. His pioneering work in abstract and visual poetry influenced the younger generation of poets featured in the anthology. Kitasono maintained links with a wide range of writers, corresponding with Ezra Pound, James Laughlin, Kenneth Rexroth, and the Brazilian concrete poet Haroldo de Campos. He was also involved in Surrealism. 

The poems in the anthology tend to the purely abstract, making little or no use of words and letters, even as graphic elements. Where text is used the artists generally shun Japanese characters, perhaps in reaction to a tendency of Western poets to see Japanese ideograms as exotic. The techniques employed vary from photographic media, to collage, to drawing. Dada and Surrealism are obvious influences. 

There are many delightful images in the book. One of my favourites is ‘two people eating the moon’ by Tsuji Setsuko, whose work has a strong Surrealist style.  She used a camera to create her poems, photographing her own collages. She edited an avant-garde magazine O which featured the work of several of the poets included in this book.

The influence of Surrealism, in this case the paintings of Magritte, is again evident in ‘anti-illusion 2’ by Shimizu Toshihiko. He was a jazz critic who wrote the liner notes for Japanese issues of albums by Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra, and whose collages appear on the covers of albums by the Stan Tracey Sextet and the Masahiko Togashi Trio. The Japanese characters in ‘anti-illusion 2’ include fleeting references to jazz.

Another interesting image is Seki Shiro’s ‘plastic poem: parole sans parole b-2’, part of a series featuring different letters incorporated into abstract visual designs. He was associated with Tsuji Setsuko’s O before founding his own influential magazine δ.

A number of the artists included in this anthology had or have international connections and have shown and published their work in Europe, North America and elsewhere. Seki Shiro, for example has exhibited many times in Europe. Takahashi Shôhachirô, who died in 2014, also exhibited internationally, including a joint show in Los Angeles with Ian Hamilton Finlay, and exhibitions with Fluxus artists Dick Higgins and Shiomi Mieko.

VOU regularly published experimental non-Japanese artists and writers in its journal. This international orientation, suggests Eric Selland in his helpful introduction, may be one of the reasons the Japanese mainstream, preoccupied at the time with defining a new Japanese identity, marginalized these artists. Another contributing factor might be the intermedial nature of the work raising questions about whether this was ‘poetry’ or ‘visual art’. A third reason for the comparative neglect of this group perhaps lies with Western poets being more interested in Zen and haiku than in experimental poetry. 

The anthology has an interesting history which underlines how precarious is the survival of much of this material. The editor, Taylor Migon, began researching Japanese avant-garde visual poetry more than twenty years ago. His desire to put together an anthology led him to the American scholar and publisher Karl Young of Light & Dust, who proposed publishing the work online and as a CD-ROM. A limited selection of work was posted online, but the project did not progress beyond this. 

Young died in 2015 but left instructions for his executors that the planned anthology with Mignon should be published. Funds were supposedly available for this in Japan but never materialized. However, Mignon was able to recover a great deal of material he had sent Young and had feared was lost. Paul Rossiter at Isobar Press then stepped in and VOU: Visual Poetry Tokio, 1958–1978, which is dedicated to Young’s memory, is the result.

An online archive of material published by Karl Young’s Light & Dust, available here, gives a good sense of the wider context within which Japanese avant-garde art was circulating. The website includes a section on Kitasono Katue, but also features a wide array of work from different parts of the world, work by bpNichol, Michael McClure, a Fluxus section, and much more. 

VOU: Visual Poetry Tokio, 1958–1978 is a fascinating addition to a small body of publications in English which document the avant-garde tradition in Japanese poetry and its international links. Mignon provides useful contextual information in an Afterword to the book, as well as including a page of biographical data on each of the poets featured. There is also an excellent Bibliography for anyone wanting to explore further. 

Simon Collings 8th March 2022

Music, Selected Poems of Tarō Naka Translated by Andrew Houwen & Chikako Nihei (Isobar Press)

Music,  Selected Poems of Tarō Naka  Translated by Andrew Houwen & Chikako Nihei (Isobar Press)

In his introduction to this long-overdue translation of one of Japan’s most significant post-war poets Andrew Houwen draws attention to the importance of Buddhism and transience. He suggests that Naka came to realise the importance of the impermanence of all things when he was “confronted with the war’s destruction” and points us towards the 1954 poem ‘Scene II’ with its italicised epigram ‘summer 1945’:

“scabs of black memory tear off
the guillotine river cuts up
the city’s torn skin

pushed along in the flow
countless burnt eyes

An echo here points us of course to Eliot’s ‘The Fire Sermon’ with its focus upon both the river and the burning and to that poet’s use of Henry Clarke Warren’s Buddhism in Translations:

“All things, O priests, are on fire. And what, O priests, are all these things which are on fire?
The eye, O priests, is on fire; forms are on fire; eye-consciousness is on fire; impressions received by the eye are on fire; and whatever sensation, pleasant, unpleasant, or indifferent, originates in dependence on impressions received by the eye, that also is on fire.”

It was a year after the publication of The Waste Land that William Carlos Williams published Spring and All with its emphasis on the “universality of things” and this later fed that central phrase from the first book of Paterson:

“Say it! No ideas but in things”

The impermanence of things haunts the poetry that Naka wrote after he had returned to Hakata at the end of the war, after Hiroshima, to find that his home and his hometown had been devastated. This was a world where “in the distance burnt shrivelled trees / no longer / have any trace of life”. What remains are the “skeletons of apartments // where the smell of the rocky shore drifts / a cavern – / time’s insides / gone”.
Naka’s first mature collection of poems was composed between 1957 and 1964 before being published in 1965 as Ongaku (Music). Introducing the collection with a Note the poet writes

“Mu is not ‘nothing’. It is the mu of existing things, breathing mu, the mu of writhing waves. It is because music sounds in these things, or perhaps in order to make music sound, that people produce words.”

Words, like music, possess an independence from their creator and this in Naka’s words “allows the creation to exist on its own”. Poems, like music, exist in their own world and the last section of this immensely important new book from Isobar Press is given over to Naka’s 1966 prose ‘Notes for a Poetics’:

“The activity of writing is itself, of course, a visible activity. One holds a pen, faces the paper, and in everyday time moves one’s own hand. However, what one’s consciousness works to indicate certainly does not take place in the visible world, but in a separate, unreal one. In this unreal space, through using those unreal ‘things’, words, one acts in order to reach (an indefinable) something.
The activity of creating poetry is always an escape to this unreal space.”

The 1975 collection of poems, Hakata, possesses a haunting sense of unseen tracks:

“the autumn woman’s skin has a trembling lily’s scent
walking through withered leaves in the distance”

and the poet registers “time’s / footfall” and “the thirst for the far shore of the futureless blue sky”. As Houwen puts it in his highly valuable introduction

“A poem, as a product of the combination of words, depends on the words’ interaction with each other, which is something that, as Naka observes in ‘Notes for a Poetics’, ‘always surpasses the writer” (Naka’s emphasis) and, as words’ associations continually shift with new readings, the poem, like all entities, is in constant flux.

To return to William Carlos Williams and 1923:

“Here is a shutter, a bunch of grapes, a sheet of music, a picture of sea and mountains…One thing laps over on the other.”

This first book-length collection of Tarō Naka’s work in English provides an essential addition to the book-shelves of all readers of serious poetry. Thanks again to Paul Rossiter’s fine Isobar Press (

Ian Brinton 17th August 2018

What the Sky Arranges Poems made from the TSUREZUREGUSA of KENKŌ by Andrew Fitzsimons, with drawings by Sergio Maria Calatroni, Isobar Press

What the Sky Arranges  Poems made from the TSUREZUREGUSA of KENKŌ  by Andrew Fitzsimons, with drawings by Sergio Maria Calatroni, Isobar Press

The forthcoming launch of Paul Rossiter’s 2015 programme of books from Isobar Press, details of which can be found at the foot of this blog, has prompted me to recall an Isobar production from last year: the meditative, witty and long-lasting short poems by Andrew Fitzsimons gathered from a reading of Kenkō.

‘Travel. Wherever you go
the world you bring with you
is washed by the world you see.’

There is a refreshing sense of whole attention in these poems and a quietness of reflection that glimmers long after the little book is closed. There is a merging of closely observed detail with a background that offers years of support:

‘What is bad taste?
too many knick-knacks about the place
too many brushes in the ink box
too many Buddhas
too many shrubs and plants in a garden
too many rooms in a house
too many words on meeting someone
a ledger all plus and no minus?

Myths, tales, stories tell us something about who we are and the American poet, Robert Duncan’s autobiographical essay, The Truth & Life of Myth (House of Books Ltd. New York, 1968), referred to a sense of ‘universal humanity’ which is open to being discovered in the ‘mixing-ground of man’s commonality in myth’:

The meaning and intent of what it is to be a man and, among men, to be a poet, I owe to the workings of myth in my spirit, both the increment of associations gathered in my continuing study of mythological lore and my own apprehension of what my life is at work there. The earliest stories heard, nursery rimes and animal tales from childhood, remain today alive in my apprehensions, for there is a ground of man’s imaginations of what he is in which my own nature as a man is planted and grows.

Duncan’s book was subtitled ‘An essay in Essential Autobiography’ and the poet recalled sitting with his sister, ‘my mother between us’, looking at pictures in a book ‘as my mother reads aloud’:

‘The picture I am looking at is of three young men sleeping on a mat. One of them, the poet Basho, has awakened. Their naked feet are uncovered where they have pulled the blankets up around their necks in the cold. There is a poem that goes with that picture on the page. But this is not the poem that comes to mind even as I see the picture. For as I remember that moment, there is another scene superimposed, a double exposure, in which the very plash of a frog jumping into an old pond appears as if from actual life itself, but this vivid impression belongs to one of the most famous of all Japanese hokkus

In the poem ‘WORLDS’ by Fitzsimons the old world is washed by the new as if the lenses of the eye were being cleansed by focussed attention upon the new moment. When J.H. Prynne, at that time Director of Studies at Gonville and Caius, put together some ‘Tips on Practical Criticism for Students of English, 2006’ he associated close and broad reading skills in a way not dissimilar to this image of one world washed by another:

‘In fact, and in practice, however, close and broad reading skills reciprocally energise and complement each other. Regular exercises in close reading both sharpen and deepen accurate response to local texture and also feed into enhanced perception of larger-scale structure, to make us all-round better readers. One hand washes the other. Principles and foundations of a distinctive personal judgement begin to appear, together with increased range of response and cogency of evaluative judgement, supported by explorative argument within awareness of differing views and opinions. Step by step, as a reader, you begin to tune in and wake up.’
Read What the Sky Arranges and dwell for a moment upon ‘DATES:

‘Don’t wait till dotage for your goodness to begin.
Look at the dates on those gravestones.’

Isobar books are published to a very high standard and it would be worth going to this launch just to buy a copy of Andrew Fitzsimons’ poems let alone the new publications which include Peter Robinson’s poems from his time in Japan.
The London launch of Isobar Books takes place this Friday, 3rd July upstairs in the Rugby Tavern, Gt. James St. WC1N 3ES at 7.00.
Ian Brinton 29th June 2015

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