Paul Archer - photo Paul Archer - poet, translator



Kotaro Takamura and the Chieko Poems

The Chieko Poems by Kotaro Takamura, published in 1941, have historical significance as they are regarded as some of the first Japanese poems to successfully break free from the conventional moulds of the haiku or tanka forms and embrace a free verse form where neither the content, vocabulary and expressions or syllabic count was fixed and formalised.

They draw on Takamura's own life: they tell the story of a relationship, the initial attraction, the hurdles overcome, physical love, marriage, the facing up to illness and separation, the death of the loved one, the aftermath.

They show Takamura's development as a poet, as they move from wordy prosaic efforts and youthful self-absorption into the poems of the later years that filter the poet's feelings through a mature objectivity.

Takamura was born in 1883, his father was a famous sculptor employed by the Meiji court. Following in his father's footsteps, Takamura studied for eight years at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. He then went abroad to further his studies.

At the age of 23 in February 1906 he was in New York, in June 1907 he moved to London and, most importantly, from June to May 1909 he lived in Paris. It was there that Takamura became influenced by Rodin. Takamura found in Rodin's work an expression that was so naturalistic it seemed as if the bronze was alive. It made him realise that the conventional work of his father, or indeed Takamura's own previous work, was merely well-made craftsmanship. He began to experiment, both in his sculpture and his poetry, with a freer style that aimed to express the inner depths of its subject.

On his return to Japan, Takamura promoted Western art and poetry. He wrote about Rodin, Van Gogh, Walt Whitman and Emile Verhaeren. He was a member of the Pan Club, a group of decadent artists and writers. At this time he met Chieko Naganuma. She had the reputation of being a rebellious artist and was a member of the Seitosha, a group of women campaigning for women's liberation. Their marriage, in 1914, was founded on the principle of sexual equality with both partners pursuing their own artistic careers. How successfully they were able to keep to this principle has been subject to debate, but there is no doubt that their type of relationship was unconventional and advanced for their time.

The Chieko Poems have, as their background, the wider cultural issues besetting Japan at this time. Japan had begun a process of importing Western ideas and values following the Meiji restoration of 1868, but this Westernisation was not an easy transition. Takamura felt, along with many others then and later - perhaps Mishima most notably - that the modernisation was occurring not by organic evolution but almost by imposition and something valuable and quintessentially Japanese was being lost in the process. This ambivalence is perhaps understandable as the new Western culture was so different in almost every respect that it created a feeling of dislocation that can still be felt in contemporary Japan.

Nevertheless one introduction from the West that Takamura embraced was the concept of personal freedom. It cannot be overestimated how this put him at odds with the rest of a still rule-bound society. The conflict between individual freedom and its implicit reproach to those more concerned with social conventions and customs is expressed clearly in the early poems. Takamura was aware that he had persuaded Chieko away from a typical social marriage - "You with your rounded handwriting/Taking an old square for a husband" - into a more free-wheeling artistic life. And that she would be subject to dismay, bewilderment and outright opposition from those who felt that she was behaving strangely and felt threatened by it. He exhorts her to stay the course:

This is how the world is,
A group of nasty callous people
Gripped by the superficial and nothing else.
That's why those who try to be true to themselves
Whether in past times, today, or in the future,
Are judged perversely as not being 'serious'
And suffer the persecution you suffered...

It should be despised, this world,
They're the ones who should be ashamed
These little people caught up in its void.
We must do what we have to do,
Follow the road we have to follow,
Respecting who we are...
Early Evening

Takamura saw social conventions as unnatural "like standing rigidly to attention", he wanted to be true to himself and believed in "living naturally and freely/Like the blowing of the winds, like the flying of the clouds". Nature was seen as a moral positive - even though it could mean exposing oneself to loneliness cut off from the rest of society:

I'm on my own path,
I have no friends to take me by the hand,
Only friends who understand little of me and I of them...
The Fountains Of Humanity

As in his life, so in his poetry, he was concerned with the natural. He endeavoured to explore the depths of his own psychology in order to uncover the unvarnished truth, and then express it in vernacular language. This parallel between his life and his work is one of the driving currents behind the poems.

The poems have a restless searching, an elemental flow. Their structure is organic, as far removed as possible from the rigid linguistic and structural forms of traditional verse. He tried to make them seem almost like a spontaneous emanation - of life, of energy.

They mimic the natural forces they describe. When they express the tranquility of communing with Nature, they also express its fragility. They celebrate the wildness of Nature and the wildness within us, but they also show how this untamed savagery can be something to be feared until reconciliation can be tentatively reached:

The world has turned a fresh green
And the rain falls again,
The noise of the rain
As it stirs swarms of creatures into life
Always fills me with terror,
My seething soul
Bursts out, breaking loose
To make me anew, again and again,
Now I die, now I am re-born...
The Fountains Of Humanity

Ah, you were so scared
By what you saw, weren't you?
Like bandits they thundered
Through the black pines on this mountainside
Setting off an avalanche in the wilderness
And now already somewhere else,
The herd of cattle running wild.
Cattle Running Wild

This close-knit interaction with Nature is combined with the poet's personal interaction with Chieko. He felt he had found someone whose natural honesty could accept him without any negative critical appraisal:

With your child's honesty
You discerned a nobler self
Inside the endless squalour of my life.
To A Woman In The Suburbs

He saw in her a true kindred spirit. Her childlike innocence made it possible for her to ignore what Takamura saw as the false demands of adult society and remain close to her elemental nature:

I am as honest as the grass and trees,
Ah, how well you saw this!
You are truly alive,
You are like a surging, swelling sea...
The Fountains Of Humanity

In the same way as Nature itself, Chieko offered him a way to live outside the normal constraints and problems of life:

Exorcising the aching of my desire
Pouring a fountain of refreshing youthfulness
Into my body racked by the troubles of life...
Two People Under A Tree

This close association of Chieko with Nature in the early poems becomes even more explicit in the later ones as she gradually succumbs to schizophrenia and becomes withdrawn not only from the human world but also from what it means to be a human in that world. She seems to become literally part of nature itself. In Chieko Plays With Plovers she is pictured on the beach, becoming so close to a flock of plovers, and being accepted by them, that their calls seem to be an abbreviation of her name, like a nickname:

Chieko sits in the sand and plays.
Countless friends call her name:
Chi, chi, chi, chi, chi...
Leaving tiny footprints in the sand,
Plovers come to gather round Chieko.
Mumbling away to herself,
Chieko beckons them with her hands.
Chieko Plays With Plovers

In A Couple Below A Mountain, the forked peak of the mountain seems to represent Chieko's impending schizophrenia and the wind-rustled grass at its foot seems to seethe with madness. The couple become intertwined with the landscape:

My half-mad wife sprawls in the grass,
Leaning heavily on my arm,
Sobbing like an inconsolable girl.
It won't be long now, I'm cracking up...

...I gaze at my wife without speaking.
She looks back for the last time from the edge of consciousness
And clings to me.
Nothing now can bring my wife back to me.
My heart cracks in two, slips away
And becomes one with the world which silently surrounds us.
A Couple Below A Mountain

And in Extraordinary Chieko her withdrawal becomes complete:

I hear her voice calling over and over to me
But Chieko no longer has a ticket to the human world.
Extraordinary Chieko

Her mental illness was certainly agonising. Takamura was losing the Chieko he knew while she was still there. In 1932 she attempted suicide. She became impossible for Takamura to take care of - violent, swearing, suffering from hallucinations and deep despair. She was hospitalised in 1935 and died from pulmonary pneumonia in 1938.

Her death bed scene demonstrates the objectivity that Takamura had now achieved. Here again it is nature, in the form of the sharp tasting lemon, that seems to bring Chieko back to who she really is:

You had been so waiting for a lemon
In your sad and white and bright deathbed,
Your perfect teeth bit with a crunch
Into the lemon you took from my hand.
A topaz coloured scent arose.
Those few drops of heavenly lemon juice
Suddenly made you normal again.
Your shining lucid eyes smiled gently,
You gripped my hand with such a healthy strength!
Though there was a storm in your throat,
In these last moments of your life
You became the old Chieko again...
Lemon Elegy

The Chieko Poems were first published in 1941 and immediately became the best seller that they remain today.

During the Second World War, Takamura's studio in Tokyo was destroyed by fire and he spent the last years of his life in Iwate Prefecture. He died in 1956.

> Translations of the Chieko Poems

The Chieko
by Kotaro
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