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Volume 34.1
Spring 2003

book review

Santoka: Grass and Tree Cairn

Taneda Santôka
Translations by Hiroaki Sato


Reviewed by Jon LaCure

Santoka: Grass and Tree Cairn by Taneda Santôka. Translations by Hiroaki Sato; illustrations by Stephen Addiss (Winchester, Va.: Red Moon Press, 2002). xxii + 74 pages, 8.5" x 5.25". ISBN 1-893959-28-7. $14.95 from Red Moon Press, PO Box 2461, Winchester VA 22604-1661.

This attractive volume from Red Moon Press contains translations by Hiroaki Sato of about 230 from the 700-odd poems in Taneda Santôka’s (1882–1940) major collection of poems, Grass and Tree Cairn (Sômokutô). The illustrations by Stephen Addiss are nicely done brush sketches of everyday objects such as a bowl or a hat. On the verso of the title page is a one-paragraph biography of Santôka. Sato has also included a sixteen-page introduction. The translations are divided into several sections following the divisions in the original text. There are from one to six poems per page. The original headnotes have been translated with the poems, and the romanized Japanese is included for each poem.

In order to understand the importance of this new translation it is necessary to look at some of the other translations and articles about Santôka that have appeared in the West. The first serious piece of scholarship on Santôka was a lengthy article by James Abrams that appeared in 1977 in the most important English-language journal on Japanese literature, Monumenta Nipponica. The article places Santôka in a long line of wandering poet-priests. Saigyô (1118–1190) and Bashô (1644–1694) are the obvious predecessors. While Abrams feels that Santôka “certainly did not possess the poetic genius” of these two predecessors, his work does have “an acuteness of expression and at times a striking freshness” (270). Santôka was the son of a wealthy landowner in Yamaguchi, at the southern end of the main island. His mother committed suicide when Santôka was only ten. The reason usually given was Santôka’s father’s profligate life style. Santôka was a college dropout and alcoholic who lost a business and a family to drink. He finally ended up being taken to a Zen monastery after a failed attempt at suicide in 1924. Zen for Santôka seems to have been as much a means of rehabilitation as a path to enlightenment. At least that is the appealing portrait that Abrams paints of a “literate and garrulous man,” who “considered a good conversation and a bottle of sake to be the ultimate source of pleasure.”

This article may have inspired the first book of translations of Santôka’s haiku, John Stevens’s Mountain Tasting: Zen Haiku by Santôka Taneda in 1980. In this book the emphasis is as much on Zen Buddhism as it is on haiku. On the first page of the introduction Stephens states of Santôka that “Whatever the literary merit of his work, far more important are the special Zen qualities of simplicity (wabi), solitude (sabi), and impermanence (mujô) conveyed in a modern setting by his haiku” (9). Stevens places Santôka into the tradition of Zen masters such as Ikkyû (1394–1481) and Hakuin (1685–1768), rather than Saigyô or Bashô. He also mentions the eccentric late Edo poet, Ryôkan (1758–1831). He feels that Santôka’s life “embodies the Zen spirit” (9). This is very different from Abrams’s portrait of Santôka’s later years as a cycle of attempts “to lead a serious life, followed by a drinking and spending spree, deep repentance, and the start of another directionless, soul cleansing journey” (272).

A third and also different portrait of Santôka emerges from Cid Corman’s Walking into the Wind (1990). Corman places him back into the company of vagabond poets but views Santôka as the last in the line. Santôka for Corman becomes a figure of nostalgia for a traditional Japan that is rapidly disappearing. Corman sadly describes a modern Japan where “Roads bearing the load of vehicular traffic—everywhere in the land—they now do, scarcely invite the wanderer on foot.” The translations reflect this sense of nostalgia by preserving terms such waraji (straw sandals) and kasa (straw hat), both of which are seldom seen in contemporary Japan.

saying nothing
today’s waraji
donned (6)

Corman supplies a footnote to explain the Japanese term.

Corman also sees Santôka—and this might be more controversial—as the last in a line of haiku poets who devoted their lives to their art. Corman sees haiku in 1990 as having “lost its point” and become “a toy for the leisured and more polite element.” Thus for him Santôka represents not only the end of the line of priest-poets, but also the end of serious haiku poetry in Japan.

The portrait of Santôka presented by Hiroaki Sato draws from the three previous works to create something that may have benefited from the perspective of time. Sato places Santôka into the literary schools that are so influential in modern Japanese poetry. Zen Buddhism was an important influence on Santôka’s life, but in order to understand Santôka’s poetry it is also important to see his place in the New Trend Haiku Movement (Shin-Keiko Haiku Undo). Sato puts Santôka’s poetry into this context by devoting more than half of the introduction to Santôka’s teacher Ogiwara Seisensui (1884–1976). In terms of literary history Seisensui is the more important figure. In Donald Keene’s history of Japanese literature there is a section on the New Trend Haiku Movement with Seisensui’s poetry receiving the most attention. This is followed by several pages each for his two major students, Santôka and Ozaki Hôsai (1885–1926). A check of Japanese literary histories show the same thing. Hisamatsu Sen’ichi’s authoritative Nihon bungakushi (“History of Japanese Literature”) devotes about half a page to Seisensui. Hôsai gets a paragraph. Santôka is only mentioned with several other names as a contributor to Seisensui’s magazine, Sôun (“Layers of Cloud”).

The New Trend Haiku Movement is of interest to English readers because of its rejection of traditional structural elements, syllable count, and the use of season words. Sato translates a number of Seisensui’s poems in the introduction. Most of them are rendered in one line as is usually the case with Japanese:

Into the evening sky streaks a narrow road (xiv)

The moon bright I go home (xv)

The first poem is sixteen syllables in the original Japanese. The second poem is a scant eleven syllables. Some early poems were done in two lines under the influence of Western couplets. One poem uses a comma:

Morning sparrows, their voices say the snow’s
arrived in the distant mountains (xv)

Sato’s translations of Santôka’s poems are also all on one line. The translations are excellent. This is not easy material to render into English. The syntax and usage can be ambiguous or cryptic. In Sato’s words the poems can be “paraphrased” but it may not be possible to translate them in a form as “compressed as the original” (xix). He gives as an example one of Santôka’s best known poems from Grass and Tree Cairn:

Ushiro sugata no shigurete yukuka

Your back in winter shower you go I see

Sato goes on to explain the problems involved in rendering the poem into English. These are centered around the relation between the winter shower (shigure), the verb at the end (to go), and the final ka which indicates a question. Sato gives two previous translations, one by R.H. Blyth (Blyth, II, 175):

My back view as I go,
Wetted with the winter rain?

The other translation is by Stevens from Mountain Tasting:

From the back,
Walking away soaking wet?

Sato finds fault with both of the translations because they “fail to give the impression that Santôka is describing himself as seen by a third party.” If this is a problem for the translations of Blyth and Stevens, it can also be seen as a problem for Sato’s translation. It seems possible to read the “I see” at the end of the line in Sato’s translation in several different ways. This poem was also translated by Corman and Abrams. Corman’s translation is perhaps the most remarkable because of the way he often plays with the English language. The poem is the first in his collection of Santôka’s verse:

from the rear
the figure of
drenchedness is
going where

The “going where” with no punctuation in Corman’s translation is a nice touch. The question marks in the Stevens and Blyth translations contribute little to the meaning. Sato’s discussion in the introduction suffers because he does not mention the context of the poem in Santôka’s collection or the headnote. In the body of his translation he includes both. This is what most clearly separates Sato’s translation from any of his predecessors. The headnote gives the poems a time and place: “In 1931 I made efforts to settle down in Kumamoto but couldn’t no matter how I tried. Once again I could only travel from journey to journey” (13). The poem is introduced with the phrase: “In Self-Mockery.”

In Grass and Tree Cairn this poem is in a group of poems that have a winter journey as the subject. We have a bare winter branch, Santôka begging in the mountains, a leaking hat, a frosty night, cold and snow, the poem in question, then hail falling into his metal begging bowl. Here are a few of the poems as translated by Sato but without headnotes or the romanized Japanese:

Holding out its branches a winter tree

No more houses to beg at above the mountain clouds

Or I stop begging and am looking at the mountain

Even my hat has started to leak I see

This frosty night’s bed must be somewhere

Sato’s translation has nearly all of the poems in this sequence from Santôka's anthology, and the poems are presented in their proper order. Because Sato’s translation gives the poems in the context that Santôka intended, they create a portrait of the artist in the way that we must assume Santôka wanted to be seen. Since the very beginning of Japanese verse, collections of short poems have often had a flow and a narrative element. This could take the form of tracing the progress of a love affair, a journey, or the changes in the seasons. The basic principles of creating anthologies and personal poetry collections date back to the Heian period (794–1195). If the poet is carefully choosing and arranging the poems, it can be important to translate excerpts rather than picking and choosing poems.

Abrams’ picture of Santôka as an eccentric and drunken poet seems accurate but he does rearrange the poems by subject. The result is the translator placing the emphasis rather than the poet. Both Stevens and Corman have translated and arranged the poems to reflect their own ideas about the poet. While their approaches may be valid, Sato presents Santôka the way the poet wanted to be seen.
I do have one small quibble with Sato’s book. While it is understandable that cuts have to be made in such a large (more than 700 poems) collection, in some cases they are made from within a sequence of poems. For example, in the winter sequence mentioned above one poem is missing. This is the poem just before the famous poem about the drenched figure seen from the rear. Perhaps it was left out because of its strangeness.




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