For Japan’s star poet Tanikawa, it’s fun, not work, at 90

TOKYO, June 2, 9 Report): Shuntaro Tanekawa used to think that poems came down like inspiration from heaven. As he gets older – he’s now 90 – Tanekawa sees poems as coming off the ground.

And poems still reach him, word or fragments of lines, as he wakes up in the morning. What inspires words comes from the outside. Hair comes from deep within.

“Writing poetry is really fun these days,” he said recently in his elegant home on the outskirts of Tokyo.

The shelves were overflowing with books. His collection of ancient bronze animal figurines stands in neat rows in a glass case next to stacks of his favorite classic music CDs, the AP reports.

“In the past, there was just something about it being a job, being commissioned. Now, I can write as much as I want,” he said.

Tanekawa is among Japan’s most famous modern poets, and a master of free poetry in everyday life.

He has more than a hundred poetry books. With titles like “To Live,” “Listen,” and “Herb,” his poems are stark, rhythmic yet dialogic, and challenge traditional, elaborate literary patterns.

William Eliot, who has translated Tanekawa for years, compares his place in the history of Japanese poetry with the way T.S. Eliot marked the beginning of a new era in English poetry.

Tanekawa is also a popular translator, having translated Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” comics into Japanese since the 1970s. He showed his ear for poetic in the vernacular subtly, choosing “yare yare” for “good sadness,” bypassing the differences in lifestyle between East and West in the cosmic world of children and animals.

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“He was more a poet or a philosopher,” he said of Schulze.

Tanekawa has translated the works of many others, including Mother Goose, as well as Maurice Sendak and Leo Leoni. In turn, his works have been widely translated, including into Chinese and European languages.

Tanekawa’s poem “Two Billion Light Years of Solitude” propelled him to stardom in the early 1950s. Tanekawa had his eyes set on the universe and Earth’s position in the cosmos, years before Gabriel García Márquez wrote the classic magical realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Always in demand, a darling of poetry readings around the world, Tanekawa is a rare example of a poet who easily moved into business without compromising his art.

But poetry was work – his profession, his day job.

Tanekawa is the songwriter for the Japanese theme song for Osamu Tezuka’s animated TV series “Astro Boy”. He also wrote the script for the novel by Kon Ichikawa’s documentary about the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

He is a well-known author of children’s picture books, often appearing in textbooks.

He swears he doesn’t have “projects” anymore due to his advanced age, which has made walking in and out more difficult. But at the same time, he says, he’s collaborating with his son, musician Kinsaku Tanekawa, who lives nearby, on what they call a “Twitter piano.”

He has already written dozens of poems to go along with the score. They are all short, and more abstract than his earlier work, conjuring up surreal images like ladders descending into nowhere, or caterpillars dancing uncontrollably.

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He’s not sure how the work will be presented, but he predicted that it could become a book with a barcode so that readers can listen to poems read with music online.

Among his mass productions, he is most proud of his 1970s series “Kotoba Asobi Uta”, in which he used alliteration and onomatopoeia, as the title suggests, “Word Play Songs”.

One repeats the phrase “kappa”, a mythical beast, as in: “kappa kapparatta”, which translates as “kappa takes off something” – “rappa”, “trumpet”, as evidenced in a later line. Poetry, both visually and aurally, is a purely Japanese language celebration.

That was unique, Tanekawa said, and he still loves what he came up with.

“For me, Japanese is the foundation. Like a plant, I put my roots down, I drink Japanese nutrients, I grow leaves, flowers, and fruits.”

Married and divorced three times – to a poet, actress, and painter – Tanekawa confirmed that it changes with age, noting that 90 feels much older than 80, and he forgets.

However, on a recent sunny afternoon he showed up quite comfortable with social media and everyday technology, even though he used a magnifying glass to make good print. He was curious about new movies, including what might be on Netflix.

He said he loves to eat biscuits, and looks more like a mischievous child than his grandfather.

He usually works in his huge office in a spacious office, with a window that lets in the breeze and a mysterious beam of light. Seen in a yard with flowers. Hanging on the wall is a dark-colored picture of his mother with his father, Tetsuzu Tanekawa, a philosopher.

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Growing up, Tanekawa was more afraid of his mother’s death than any other. He also remembers how he saw corpses upon corpses after the US air raids on Tokyo during World War II.

“Death became more real. It used to be more conceptual when I was young. But now my body is close to death.”

He hopes to die as his father did, sleeping after a night of partying, at the age of 94.

“I’m more curious about where I go when I die. It’s a different world, isn’t it? Of course I don’t want pain. I don’t want to die after major surgery or anything. I just want to die suddenly.”

When asked to read his works aloud, he did not hesitate.

He reads excerpts from his latest collaboration with his son. Then he reads his first works translated into English and ends with these lines:

“The universe is twisted, / That’s why we try to connect. / The universe is constantly expanding, / That’s why we’re all afraid. / In two billion light-years of solitude / I suddenly sneeze.”

So what does he think?

“It feels like a poem written by someone else,” Tanekawa said.

But is it a good poem?

I nodded with conviction.

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