Haiku Inspired by Dylan Thomas II

On the 61st anniversary of the poet’s death…

 Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) was a storied drinker. He was one of a long line of great writers who, on any given evening (or day, for that matter!), could be found in the “poet’s corner” of a neighborhood pub agonizing over word choice, or perhaps listening to the local gossip (that is, harvesting material).

So, in 1953 when Thomas went to New York and died suddenly at the age of 39, alcohol was the obvious culprit. Later physicians determined that pneumonia, not over drinking, was the cause of the poet’s untimely demise.

In my mind, Dylan Thomas is the Beat poet who never was. He was a part of the Greenwich Village poetry (and drinking) scene right around the time people like Allen Ginsberg exploded on the scene (who was in San Francisco at the time of Thomas’s death). Ginsberg’s legendary reading of “Howl” would take place just a few years after Thomas’ passing. Certainly other legendary Beats were already occupying The Village while Thomas was there (this was his 4th trip to the States, so presumably he had already forged ties with those whom he found himself with during those last weeks).

And then, the obvious connection with the Beats and The Village—Bob Dylan. It was in 1961, eight years after Thomas’ death, that Bob Dylan arrived on the Greenwich Village scene. Bob Dylan inherited a spirit of writing and composing in the Village that was planted by people like Dylan Thomas and subsequent Beats. Whether or not Bob Dylan really took his name from Dylan Thomas–who really knows. Certainly “borrowing” (and then re-telling) is a part of the writing tradition. I for one would think it would be pretty cool if it were true. And for a young Bob Dylan new to The Village, taking the name of a then relatively uncelebrated, unknown Welsh poet who “died from over drinking while just passing through” would seem harmless enough–so harmless perhaps no one would notice.

(the following are inpsired by “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of of a Child in London”1)

Bird beast and flower

preparing for their slumber.

The sun sets earlier.

(at an Akita coffee shop, 2014.11.9)


Enter again the

cold drafts blowing through my room.

Winter’s insistence.

(at an Akita coffee shop, 2014.11.9)


In silence the last

persimmon falls to the earth.

From fall comes winter.

(at an Akita coffee shop, 2014.11.9)


On my lips and tongue

the sweet taste of persimmon.

an autumn evening.

(at an Akita coffee shop, 2014.11.9)


The last leaf hanging

from a once lovely maple.

Beauty fades with youth.

(at an Akita coffee shop, 2014.11.9)


The last light breaking

over the cold churning sea.

First day of winter.

(at an Akita coffee shop, 2014.11.9)


Winter soon to come–

the the crum’ling decaying leaves

tell me with silence.

(at an Akita coffee shop, 2014.11.9)


With silence the last

branch is left bare of spring’s leaves.

November’s cold wind.

(at an Akita coffee shop, 2014.11.9)

1A poem “stolen from the headlines.” Sound familiar?!


Mishima Yukio and Modern Japanese Literature featured in Grantland

Thank you, Tyler Mahaffey, for sending me this link!

Fans of Yukio Mishima 三島由紀夫 (1925-1970), you should read The Sea of Crisis, by Brian Phillips. This is some really good reading (and writing!), but caution: if you’re just scrolling through while waiting in line at the bank, then you’d better wait until you get home, or at least get someplace comfortable where you can sit and enjoy this piece.

The article interlaces a story about Japanese sumo wrestling with a little bit of mystery that surrounds the life of the post-war writer Mishima.

If you walk into a bookstore, chances are they’ll have some Mishima on the shelves. Despite really being into existentialism, magic-realism, and Beat literature (strange mix?), when I was living in Japan for the first time, I had decided that I would only read Japanese authors. Until that point I had never formally studied anything about Japan, or Asia for that matter. I was a recently graduated English-literature-major living in Osaka and trying to dive headfirst into this new world–so what better way to do it than by exploring the country’s literature?

I did not speak Japanese at all, other than “round-house kick” and “spear-hand thrust,” so when it came to J-lit I was limited by what was printed in English. On one of my day’s off I went to a book store in Namba (Kinokuniya, maybe?) where I had heard they had a large selection of “English books,” which could mean anything from trashy romance novels to Webster dictionaries. Fortunately, they had a lot of J-lit in translation. I had no idea who or what I was looking for, so I went to the far left-end of the shelf where the “A’s” were and took the first book: Abe Kōbō’s 阿部公房 (1924-1993) Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna 砂の女).

The Woman in the Dunes. Publisher: Vintage. ISBN-10: 0679733787.

Choosing this book was a total crap shoot, but I won. I didn’t know this at the time, but Abe was influenced by some of the same philosophers and authors whom I had really liked and enjoyed. The existentialist nature of Woman in the Dunes was immediately obvious to me. I loved this book. So much so that I made my seniors read it when I was teaching World Literature at Monsignor Bonner High School (there’s probably still a box of them in the Language Arts faculty room…)

Anyway, to Mishima…

A co-worker who I had hardly known (I, being new to the country), Julian Ward, asked me about what I was reading. He noticed my new-found enthusiasm for J-lit and recommended Mishima Yukio to me. I went back to the same book store a week later, skipped the books ordered from “B” to “L,” and took the first Mishima book they had, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (Gogo no eikō 午後の曳航).

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is completely different than Woman in the Dunes. Woman in the Dunes: think Kafka meets Sartre. The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea: I don’t know… just think Freud? Oedipus complex? In Mishima’s novel, I kind of enjoyed the child-character’s twisted nature, perhaps only because it had challenged my image of Japanese people…? However, I can’t help but think this novel is only good for it’s shock value, rather than having some profound insight into society. Whereas, Woman in the Dunes really has a profound critique of Japanese post-war society.

1994 First Vintage International Edition paperback cover

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. Publisher: Vintage. ISBN-10: 0679750150.

As I learned more and more about Mishima though, I became more interested in his antics as a “member of society” than as a writer. This is, I think, true for most people. Abe lived what was probably a boring life, whereas Mishima was out there doing all these crazy things like modeling, writing, body building, kendō, hanging out with movie stars, living a secret double life as a homosexual male. Modern day readers newly discovering J-lit hear about all these things about Mishima’s life that draw the attention away from his writing, which, I dare say, is less interesting than his life.

What the article that this post links to talks about is Mishima’s “samurai” like death by self-disembowelment and eventual beheading after he and his mini-militia stormed Japan’s Self-Defense Forces’ headquarters. Intriguing, no? Enjoy the article~

Mishima Yukio 三島由紀夫

“Princess Kaguya” U.S. Release Trailer (English)

My intro to literature class has just finished the Heian era and is moving on to the Kamakura era. However, one of my students passed this English trailer for The Tale of Princess Kaguya to me:

There’s quite an interesting mix of stars (quote-unquote?) voicing the characters. A few who stand out are: James Caan, Lucy Liu, and Beau Bridges. Here’s some more detailed information from IMDB:

The Tale of Princess Kaguya

When it comes to foreign films, voice overs absolutely ruin it for me. As long as I am able to see and am able to read, I will always prefer subtitles. Voice overs are totally ridiculous–and I feel like they dumb it down (English audiences sometimes forget that other languages exist in the world). Also, hearing the script as read in the language the writer wrote it in is really important for a film to resonate with the audience. Dubbing a film into English with “voice actors” really butchers the script. Unless it’s old kung-fu movies–then I think the ridiculous dubbing has actually become ONE with the film! (Looking at you, Shaw Brothers!) I understand, though, that Ghibli & Disney are trying to appeal to a children-audience, so dubbing is pretty much a necessity.

Finally, I am not going to provide a link to Amazon, BUT you can find a paper version of this piece of Classical Japanese Literature pretty much anywhere books are sold. An English version (translated by Donald Keene) was published years ago.

ISBN is 477002329 , Kodansha Press, 1998. What’s cool about this version is that it is bilingual, Japanese/ English. Of course, the Japanese version in this edition is written in Modern Japanese, not  Classical Japanese that the tale was originally written in. So, this version is really accessible to people studying Japanese. Oh yeah, and it’s illustrated!


During the school year, I’m not always in touch with what’s going on in the entertainment world, but just today I cam across this review: ‘Princess Kaguya’ a royal pleasure. This animated full length movie is based on the 10th century Japanese tale Taketori monogatari 竹取物語. Wow! A 1,000-year-old Japanese classical tale has made it’s way to the big screen–not just in Charlotte, NC, but around the globe!* This is just another example of the joy western audiences can discover by exploring Japanese literature and culture.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya Trailor–sorry, no dialogue. Just Japanese singing in the background.

“A Princess’ Crime and Punishment”?? Not sure that was the best choice for a tagline, but…

David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas and subsequent movie adaption is the most prominent example of a recent Hollywood blockbuster that draws directly from Japanese literature. Mithchell’s film (and novel) are based on the 20th century author Mishima Yukio’s (三島由紀夫) tetralogy “Sea of Fertility” (Hōjō no Umi 豊饒の海). Mishima’s works (including the four novels in this tetralogy) can usually be found in English bookstores, so read them! Mishima and other 20th century authors are widely translated into English and other languages for a number of reasons. One practical reason for this is that modern Japanese literature is written in the modern Japanese language. Therefore people studying Japanese can read these works and are more likely to enjoy them. “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” or, Taketori monogatari, is a classical Japanese work, written in classical Japanese. Classical Japanese is a little bit more difficult to read and understand and is not spoken today, so the casual student of Japanese is not likely to hear or come in contact with it unless they really go out of their way to study and enjoy it. So, I am very surprised and happy to see that this new animated movie draws on a classical Japanese literary text as its inspiration! Hopefully it will get people’s interest in Japanese literature beyond modern authors like Mishima and Haruki Murakami and into the foundations of modern Japanese lit.!

Taketori monogatari’s common English title is “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” So, even though Princess Kaguya (Kaguya-hime かぐや姫) is the star of the tale, the title refers to a “bamboo cutter.” The bamboo cutter in the story is a poor old man who lives with his wife in [what I imagine to be] the solitude of the densely forested mountains. A bamboo cutter’s job would have been to perhaps collect bamboo for kindling/ firewood and for building material. The old man and his wife are childless, but one day while collecting bamboo the old man discovers this beautiful, “three-inch tall” girl inside a bamboo stalk. The tale then quickly turns into something reminiscent of a western fairy-tale, with suitors travelling from far and wide to win Kaguya-hime as their bride. What’s kind of far-out about this tale is that Kaguya-hime is an alien! She has been exiled from the Moon to Earth as a punishment, and at the end of the story these aliens come to Earth to retrieve her!!

"The Moon people come to retrieve Kaguya-hime"

“The Moon people come to retrieve Kaguya-hime”

This tale (monogatari 物語) dates back to the 10th century (ca. 909). This was Japan’s Heian 平安 era, typically represented by high aristocrat culture, which was lavish, elite, and very much exclusive, barring the common people from participating in it. Composing poetry and creating poetry anthologies were typical literary pursuits in Japan prior to Taketori monogatari which is not poetry, but rather a lengthy narrative tale. A great deal of quasi-historical literature was also produced at the time. And, I should mention that a lot of formal writing (whether for religion, law, or creative pursuits) was done in Chinese. From a writing point of view, these means that people wrote usually in Chinese characters. From a language point of view, this means that both Chinese AND Japanese sentence syntax were used (and often mixed together). Furthermore, both Chinese-like pronunciations and Japanese pronunciations were used to read the Chinese characters.

Taketori monogatari is written mostly in the homegrown Japanese hiragana characters though, which points to a shift in Japanese literature (and a shift in the sense of literary-self). Hiragana was more easily learned and therefore more accessible to a larger audience, of whom women came to be a larger proportion of, whereas literature thick with Chinese characters was more exclusive–accessible to the highest educated aristocratic men and those in the religious class. The author of Taketori monogatai is unknown, but after it’s publication woman in Japan began to produce literature in a variety of genres and in a number of different contexts. The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari 源氏物語) written in the early 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu 紫式部 is a good example of Japanese literature by women that is probably pretty well known to western readers.

There is so much more that I could get into about the time period (Heian era), the genre (monogatari 物語), and other Taketori monogatari fun facts, but one thing I want to point out is that this movie, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya,” is not  exactly an “adaptation of a Japanese folk tale,” as the author says in the movie review. That is, Taketori monogatari is not a Japanese folk tale–it is most definitely an elaborate piece of classical Japanese literature, which is based on a number of Japanese (and Chinese!) myths. The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter has been translated into a number of languages, so I recommend that fans of this movie get a hold of one! It is not long and is an easy read. English versions of it appear in a number of J-lit anthologies. There is also a bi-lingual, illustrated version that was translated by the great Donald Keene and is the version that I would recommend if you just like the movie and only want to read this story. Getting a J-lit anthology is good, however, if you want to maybe get a taste of other classical Japanese, Heian literature, which ranges from the very funny, to strangely erotic, to depressing, to the deeply moving.

My introduction to Japanese literature class is studying about Heian literature now, so I’m excited to see this movie review online. The students in my class are from all over the world (only 1 Japanese student!) so I’ll have to ask them if “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” has come out in their home countries or not.


*actually, the article doesn’t make it clear if the film has been released in all over America, or if it’s just some special, local showing. After reading the article, I assumed that since it was Studio Ghibli that it was being shown all over the place–this may not be the case though. Sorry!