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Volume 37.1
Winter Spring 2006

book review:

For All My Walking: Free-Verse Haiku of Taneda Santôka
with Excerpts from His Diary

by Taneda Santôka
[translated by Burton Watson]

reviewed by David Burleigh

For All My Walking: Free-Verse Haiku of Taneda Santôka with Excerpts from His Diary. Translated by Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003). viii + 102 pages, 812 x 512 , perfectbound. ISBN 0-231-12517-8. $17.50 at bookstores.

This is the third translation of Santôka to appear in English, a signal honor for a modern haiku poet: so far as I am aware, no other twentieth-century haiku poet has yet been the subject of a second volume, let alone a third. Curiously, though, Santôka is omitted from all the major anthologies of Japanese haiku and poetry in translation, though literary scholars, like R.H. Blyth and Donald Keene, mention him in passing.

The reason for the omission may be historical in part, since the wave of current interest in Taneda Santôka (1882–1940) in Japan essentially began with the seven-volume edition of his works edited by Murakami Mamoru in 1972–73. This would explain his absence from Makoto Ueda’s 1974 volume, Modern Japanese Haiku. Of the twenty poets in that book, only four or five have been retranslated in separate collections. Other anthologies may have been too small or early to incorporate the growing interest in Santôka in the 1970s, but even The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite, revised in 1998, does not contain him. Nor does Hiroaki Sato and Burton Watson’s compendious and prize-winning 1980 volume, From the Country of Eight Islands. It may be that Sato and Watson have recently turned their attention to the poet to remedy this situation.

John Stevens was the first to make use of the volumes of poems and diaries that Murakami edited and the study of the poet he went on to write. The result was Mountain Tasting: Zen Haiku by Taneda Santôka which appeared in 1980. With a declared interest in Zen Buddhism, Stevens emphasized the “walking Zen” aspect of Santôka’s work. He selected 372 verses for translation, and gave the originals in roman letters. The facts of the poet’s life—his birth in Yamaguchi, the trauma of his mother’s suicide when he was ten, his dropping out of Waseda University, then the ruin of the family business and the suicide of his younger brother, alcoholism, marriage and divorce—are given their first airing here. Santôka attempted to resolve his problems by devotion to haiku, and by taking Buddhist vows and becoming a mendicant priest. He continued wandering for most of his later years, settling only once or twice, until he eventually died in Shikoku.

The next important selection was made by Hiroaki Sato, who drew entirely from the book the poet had compiled himself near the end of his life. Sato took the title of this collection for his own 2002 volume, Grass and Tree Cairn, which was reviewed in this journal by Jon LaCure (MH 34:1). In his introduction Sato deals particularly with the background to free-verse haiku, and the influence of Santôka’s teacher, Ogiwara Seisensui (1884–1976). He stresses the liberation that Santôka found when he abandoned the regular form with which he started. The selection of almost 230 poems in Sato’s familiar one-line form offers only part of the original collection, Sômokutô, but follows the original order and includes the headnotes that Stevens overlooked.

Burton Watson’s new collection, For All My Walking, is the fullest representation yet. Though the number of poems, 242, is less than Stevens’s, it draws on the poet’s diaries too and thus presents a fuller picture. We are already accustomed to the terse, broken utterances of this poet. After rehearsing the outline of Santôka’s life, Watson comments: “His poems, for all their naturalistic imagery, are first of all portrayals of the poet’s constantly shifting moods and emotional states.” It is these fluctuating moods that provide the drama and the draw for the reader in a life of torment so nakedly and honestly recounted.

The appeal of Santôka also comes, surely, from the fact that the poetry and the life are really one. There are few literary complexities, and not much development once the style has taken form. “Santôka made little effort to broaden his haiku style,” observes Watson. The use of ellipsis is a regular and constant feature of the poems, “fragmenting the syntax and creating gaps in meaning.” Since Watson’s approach is very similar to Stevens’s, except that he has abandoned initial capitals, it is very admirable that he “has tried as much as possible to avoid duplicating Stevens’s work.” This book enhances, rather than replaces, what has gone before.

There are light and happy moments with the poet on the road:

letting a dragonfly
sit on my hat
walking along

Sometimes we can actually trace the line of his gaze:

one water pipe
leads from the stream
lone house in autumn

But the scene he observes is always about to mean more than it seems:

edge of town
all graveyard
and the sound of waves

Death haunts him: “Death ! Something cold silently enveloping your whole body, a lonely, frightening, indescribable coldness.” Yet his sense of wonder at the simplest things is everywhere present:

my spinach plants
have four leaves now

As we follow the wanderer on his way, there are beautifully frank and innocent encounters, with children, with traveling salesmen (often from other countries), and with prostitutes. He drinks a great deal and is always solitary but has true sympathy for the unalleviated hardships of others’ lives. All this happens, too, on the edge of a changing world, one in which new means of transport will make walking unnecessary, even problematic. In that sense the poet’s experience is now unrepeatable, which may be another part of its appeal.

In an NHK television drama on the poet (starring the late Frankie Sakai) a number of years ago, it was abundantly clear that the governing force of his life was much less Eros than Thanatos. As with the poet Sylvia Plath (“Dying ... I do it exceptionally well”), this can become oppressive. Wisely Watson has been sparing with the later diary entries, where the death-wish is most repeated.

At the end of this attractive and readable volume, we are left with the image of the poet perpetually on his way, black-robed, begging-bowl in hand:

how must I look
from behind
going off in the drizzling rain?

In this verse Santôka sees himself as others might, a perplexing and determined figure, as he walks his own path to its conclusion. His end, when it came, was quite a happy one, for he died in his sleep in a hermitage that had been found for him by friends. That small house, in Matsuyama, has been preserved as a memorial to him, while his work continues to be popular and widely read.

 

 

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