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Opinion

The Great East Japan Earthquake

Poetry for Japan, and for Now

Jun-ichi Konuma
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

It is 2011; in one week it will be November. Thinking about poetry at this moment in time - or to be more precise, about "what sort of power poetry can have in the modern world as a form of expression," (a quote from the e-mail I received requesting me to write this article) - has to be quite different now from what it would have been, say, this time last year, in 2010, or even 8 months ago.

The reason I am making this sort of comment is not because a Swedish "poet" won the Nobel Prize for Literature on October 6. It is because of Ryoichi Wago, the poet who has been publishing his poems on twitter from 6 days after he was affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11 in Fukushima and continues to stay in there.

"Is the railway station in your town alright? Do the clocks still point their hands to the right time? Goodnight. No night lasts forever. People who leave others, people who send others off, people who meet others, people who come home. Have a safe journey and see you later. Welcome home. Goodnight. Give me back my station, the station of my town."
From Pebbles of Poems [Shi No Tsubute], March 18, 2011.

What is this, that is written here? What has been written here? Is it information? Perhaps it is. But if so, it is information that can pass on a message to the reader, but even if it is then passed on to another person, it will remain without disappearing. There is something here that can be left behind and remain afterwards. Even if one is to call it information, perhaps it is better regarded as in-formation: something that is formed (formation) inside (in-) us.

Poetry has a long history. Poems have been born, heard, recorded all over the world. They have been repeated, and transcribed, and printed, and recited. I do not need to repeat this story here. Words can snuggle up to people anywhere and anytime; words can be directed at and can reach a person who is not here right now. One form of this, one strong form of this, is poetry: the music of words which have sound.

People talk all the time of how nobody reads books anymore. But in reality, people are coming into contact with words more than ever. Even if this may not mean words that have been printed onto paper, but words that are shown on liquid-crystal screens. After all, isn't that what this article is too?

What about poetry?

Many people have never read poetry. Or if they have, they have only skimmed through it in a textbook and quickly turned the page. Professors say they will not use poems in university entrance examination questions; they say they do not understand poetry themselves, and they often skip them. Recitals and the like - I wonder when they existed. If one talks of poetry now, students think of the lyrics of pop songs, or perhaps of a Quote of the Day, on a day-by-day calendar. I am shocked to find that poetry might be being written today and collections of poems might be being published. No one reads it; there is no money in it. It is astounding that it still even exists.

When a poem is read, when it falls under the gaze of a large number of people, perhaps there can a moment of realization; perhaps in the past there has been a moment when we have realized that something had been lost by Japan. Let us try to remember. The moment when the Second World War ended. The moment when people's lives began to change as Japan moved towards recovery after the war.

What I should be writing about here is the new Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Tomas Transtromer. Or perhaps I should have written about the poet, Sakutaro Hagiwara: the 150th Anniversary of his birth is celebrated this year. Or about the poet, Shuntaro Tanigawa, who will be 80 in another month.

I do not know if the poems of Ryoichi Wago, like those of the poets whose names I just listed, will go on to be read, for example, outside of Japan, in some other place, and even at some other time. Rather, I feel that the events of March 11 themselves called into question this idea of things being read forever as something separate from the very place where we are, and left it hanging in the air.

The poems of Ryoichi Wago can be made into the form of a book as collections of poems at some point. More than that, they have been punched into a keyboard, and the enter key has been hit, then they can be read almost in real time on twitter. They have dates and an order. But the fact that they have all had to be less than 140 Japanese characters long, is fixed, and is almost like some sort of poetic format in itself. They arrive in fragments, taking all sorts of forms, including the spaces. Sometimes lines of poetry come before or after notices or updates on the poet Wago himself's recent situation. But my eyes trip over them as I read on irresistibly, thinking about how the parts are connected, which parts are updates and which are poems.

Actual poems are written on paper, and may be revised over and over again. Instead, here, what finally reaches the reader is a fragment, a few lines of poetry, not necessarily something that can easily provide a whole picture as a poetic work. This fragmented something, this unstable stranded something, is passed on to the reader just as it is. But it is far from being the na誰ve work of a child. It contains a masterful rhetoric. However, this rhetoric is, at once, not quite mingled with but also cannot be separated from the raw and naked words that comprise it.

I do not know if it is really appropriate for an article like this, but let me quote another part from what has been continuously written as Pebbles of Poems [Shi No Tsubute], that I also quoted from above.

"We all have our own untamable cat of fear. Once I admit so much in writing, it sends me a postcard. 'As if I'm going to read that.' Humans are cowards, it says. 'What are you talking about, "cowards"?'

You snuggle up when things go wrong, rubbing you chin up against us. And then when it all goes bad, you throw us away with disgust. 'I'm going to rip this up.' Just read it, it says. 'There's no point in reading it.' I rip it up.

Give back the town, give back the village, give back the sea, give back the wind. The sound of chimes, the sound of cell phones ringing, the sound of mail falling in the letterbox. Give back the waves, give back the fish, give back love, give back sunlight. The sound of chimes, the sound of cell phones ringing, the sound of mail falling in the letterbox. Give back toasting, give back grandmother, give back pride, give back Fukushima. The sound of chimes, the sound of cell phones ringing, the sound of mail falling in the letterbox.

If you have a dream, don't give up on it. Don't you give up on it! Don't you give up on me! You shouldn't give up on yourself. You mustn't give up on life. You must not, for us, the so many of us, who had to grudgingly give in to death."

A voice is directed at those nearby and reaches them. That is probably what poems were in the first place. Or else words written on paper. And to reach people, they had to be transcribed again and again. And so printing machines came into being to replace the human hand. And so more time became necessary to get the words to the people.

I do not necessarily feel positive about the appearance of new media. But having said that, something that can be described as poetry has begun to appear and take on a new form due to the media of twitter. Moreover, what made me discover this was a moment when the future of men and this island nation became ripped apart from the past. I wonder what that could mean.

Jun-ichi Konuma
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Born in Tokyo in 1959. Graduated from French Literature Department, Faculty of Letters, Gakushuin University. Music critic and specialist in music culture theory. Was awarded the 8th Idemitsu Music Award (Academic and Research division).
His main publications include, Toru Takemitsu: Sound, Words and Images [Takemitsu Toru Oto Kotoba Imeji], Spellbound Body: The Journeying Musician Colin McPhee and His Times [Miserareta Shintai Tabi Suru Ongakuka Korin Makufui To Sono Jidai], Minimal Music [Minimaru Myujiku], (Seidosha); Bach's 'Goldberg Variations': World, Music and Media [Baha Gorutoberuku Hensokyoku Sekai Ongaku Medeia], (Misuzu Shobo).