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Metro Lines: Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’ and Its Impact on Contemporary Japanese Senryū

Andrew Houwen and Taira Sosei

 

女棲む胸に地下鉄ぶらさげて

onna sumu mune ni chikatetsu burasagete

in a heart filled with women a metro line dangling

(Aota Senryū, translated by Taira Sōsei and Andrew Houwen)

 

This senryū was composed by Aota Senryū (1928-2018), who at that time wrote under the gō (artistic or literary name) Aota Embi. It was first published in the 31 May 1995 issue of Senryū, the most prestigious magazine dedicated to Japanese senryū poetry. In 2017, he inherited the literary name ‘Senryū,’ the sixteenth to do so in a line of succession going back to the founder of this genre, Karai Senryū (1718-90). 

It was common in Japanese art and literature for such  to be passed down from master to pupil. A famous example is the ukiyoe artist Hiroshige. In contemporary poetry, however, senryū is the only form still to continue this tradition. The sixteenth Senryū, hereafter named Aota for the sake of avoiding confusion even though writers and artists with such  are normally referred to by these rather than their family names, was therefore a highly distinguished contemporary Japanese poet.

            In this senryū, onna can be interpreted as either ‘a woman’ or ‘women’; Japanese often makes no distinction between the singular and the plural. The translation’s choice of a plural is based on an understanding of the context of Aota’s life and other work and that of Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro,’ to which this senryū alludes. More literally, sumu means ‘to live,’ so that the phrase might be read as ‘a heart where women live,’ but this would sound unnatural in a way that Aota’s does not in Japanese. 

The word translated here as ‘heart,’ mune, can also mean ‘chest’ or ‘breast,’ in both a literal and figurative sense as used to be the case in English as well, though this would now sound unduly archaic in English. The particle ni corresponds to the translation’s preposition ‘in.’ Chikatetsu is the word generally used for ‘metro’ in Japanese translations of ‘In a Station of the Metro.’ 

Burasagete can also mean ‘hanging down’ and suggests a loosely swaying movement that might at first seem counter-intuitive for a ‘metro line,’ but Aota’s work frequently employs such surrealist-inspired imagery. The word choice, as unusual in Japanese as it is in English, could suggest some kind of disappointment or catastrophe. In Japanese, senryū, like haiku and tanka, are usually printed vertically in one line down the page, so that this senryū also appears to pun on its visual layout.

            A well-known literary scholar of senryū, Dr Taira Tatsuhiko, who also writes senryū under the literary name Sōsei, is a regular contributor to the magazine Senryū, and has edited an anthology of women’s senryū, Ryōran josei senryū (‘Profusions: Women’s Senryū,’ 1995) and, more recently, a selection of Aota’s senryū, Ushi no mandorin (‘The Cows’ Mandolins,’ 2018), kindly agreed to discuss this senryū and its Poundian inspirations in an interview I conducted with him in Japanese on 25 July 2019. His responses demonstrate the hitherto underexplored extent to which Pound’s ‘hokku-like sentence’ has influenced contemporary Japanese poetry.

Andrew Houwen:Before discussing the Japanese senryū poem that was influenced by Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro,’ perhaps we should start by considering what a senryū is. What is a senryū, and how is it different from haiku?  

Taira Sōsei: A senryū is a popular ‘epigram’ that arose in Edo in the mid-eighteenth century. It’s a one-line poem in seventeen syllables without a season word that employs colloquial language. A haiku, by contrast, is a poem written in more literary language that expresses the movements of the seasons by using kigo (‘season words’) and kireji (‘cutting words’).

          It takes a fragment of ordinary people’s lives and interprets it from a witty or humorous perspective. Through this wit or humour it satirises society and is thus a satirical form of poetry.

          The term ‘senryū’ literally means ‘river willow’ and derives from the literary name of a tenja (a judge of maekuzuke, a linked-verse sequence in which verses are added, zuke, to a ‘previous verse,’ a maeku) named Karai Hachiemon (1718-90) who was based at the Tendai Buddhist temple of Ryūhōji in Asakusa, a part of Edo (present-day Tokyo). Soon his zappai, as they were then called, became a prized popular art form and zappai maekuzuke, distinct from haikai maekuzuke, became fashionable in Edo. 

            On 25 August 1757, Senryū’s reading of Senryū hyō man ku awase (‘Senryū’s Collection of Ten Thousand Verses’) was first given. At that time, verses chosen by him were called Senryū ten (‘Senryū’s choice’), later abbreviated to ‘senryū.’ His adopted literary name has been passed down to this day. In 1765, the verses Senryū selected for his reading were published under the title Haifū yanagidaru (‘The Willow Barrel of Poetic and Ironic Verses’). Even when they were maeku, they were supposed to be ‘easy to understand as a standalone verse.’ In this first edition, the following senryū appears:

            寝ていても団扇のうごく親心

nete ite mo uchiwa no ugoku oyagokoro

            even as she sleeps, it keeps moving the fan – a parent’s heart

This senryū describes how a mother sleeping next to the child she is nursing, exhausted from her chores, falls asleep but the fan keeps moving. In this verse, the writer strongly felt the ‘parent’s heart.’ Within the one-line form of this traditional senryū, there is a question and response. What ‘keeps moving the fan,’ ‘even when asleep,’ is the question given to the reader. The answer is ‘a parent’s heart.’ This kind of structure is called isshō ni mondō (‘a question and an answer in one verse’). It is thought that this separates the senryū from the maeku and allows it to stand as an independent, one-line poem.

            By using this isshō ni mondō structure, even without the ‘cutting word’ of a haiku, two elements – a question and an answer – can be brought together to form a relationship between them. It is senryū with this kind of structure, like haiku and like Pound’s ‘super-position,’ that the sixteenth Senryū, Aota Senryū, used so that he could create contemporary ‘Imagist’ senryū.

            After Karai Senryū’s death, the literary name was inherited for the first three generations by his blood descendants, but in 1824 one of the second Senryū’s disciples, Hitomi Shūsuke (1778-1844), became the fourth Senryū. In his Haifū kyōku ganso (‘The Inventors of Rhetorical and Comic Mad Verses’), the fourth Senryū renamed the poetic form kyōku (‘mad verses’) to distinguish it from hokku (‘starting verses’) and popularised the writing of kyōku through his many adherents. The sixth Senryū, Mizutani Senryū (1814-82), was the first to live into the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

AH: We know about the modernising reforms of haiku and tanka by Masaoka Shiki in the late nineteenth century. What about senryū? How did it develop after the reopening of Japan to the West at that time?

TS: After the period during which the fourth Senryū popularised the term kyōku for what are today called senryū, the period of ‘modern senryū’ was instigated by Inoue Kenkabō (1870-1934) and Sakai Kuraki (1869-1945). The senryū reforms occurred after Masaoka Shiki’s (1867-1902) of hokku and waka in the 1890s. 

            Although the term ‘senryū’ for what was until then more generally known as a kyōku was used by Shiki in comparison with haiku, its widespread adoption as the term for this poetic form arose in around 1903. In that year, an article on ‘The Origins of Maeku’ by Nakane Kōtei in the magazine Bungeikai (‘The Art World’) gave the first published historical overview of senryū until then and became an important theoretical foundation for new senryū. 

            In the same year, Sakai Kuraki brought out Senryū kōgai (‘An Outline of Senryū’), which criticised the kyōku of the then current Senryū and advocated a return to the ‘old senryū’ of the eighteenth century. It demanded the reform of the genre with the slogan ‘return the debt of a century of kyōku.

            Kenkabō was aware of Shiki’s haiku and tanka reform movement and on 3 July 1903 began writing a column in the newspaper Nippon entitled ‘The New Willow Barrel.’ Two years later, he set up the Ryūsonji Senryū Society and founded the magazine Senryū, thus creating much enthusiasm for ‘new senryu.’ 

            In August 1919, Kenkabō published Senryū wo tsukuru hito ni (‘For the Senryū Writer’), which discussed senryū in a global literary context. He saw ‘new senryū’ as ‘a popular art form for the whole world.’ Furthermore, he emphasised that it ‘has to be shi’ (the term used at that time for Western poetry and as a broader category encompassing Western poetry, haiku, tanka, and other forms that had not been considered as a single literary genre until only a few decades before Kenkabō’s book), that it ‘has to live like the life that strikes our hearts,’ that it has to be ‘a poetry of ordinary people,’ and that ‘it has to be free verse.’ Kenkabō’s view of senryū was strongly influenced by the popular poet Walt Whitman, whose work was fashionable in the Japanese poetry world at that time. The year Kenkabō published Senryū wo tsukuru hito ni was also the centenary of Whitman’s birth, when Whitman’s poetry was at the height of a boom in Japan.

AH: What kind of poet was Aota Senryū? How major a figure was he in the world of senryū? What were the major influences on his work, and how would you characterise his approach to writing senryū?

TS: If we were to divide the senryū world broadly in two, senryū could be said to derive either from Sakai Kuraki’s ‘traditional senryū’ or Inoue Kenkabō’s ‘new senryū’ school. The Tokyo Senryū Association used to adhere to the ‘traditional school’ but ten years after the fourteenth Senryū, Negishi Senryū, inherited the Senryū name, the style underwent a significant change from the ‘Ryūfūkai style’ to a much more contemporary one. One of his disciples was Aota, who also changed from the ‘traditional senryū’ to the ‘new senryū’ approach. 

            Aota is a very modern senryū poet.  He is known in the senryū world as a writer of Imagist senryū that employ richly metaphorical expression and complex, concise surrealist imagery with distant imaginary leaps between the senryū’s constituent elements. He has been influenced by the Buddhist philosophy of the Lotus Sutra, surrealism’s spirit of artistic renewal, Negishi Senryū’s emphasis on ‘concision’ (gyōshuku) and distant imaginary leaps (hiyaku), Pound’s Imagism, and constructivist vectorism. Aota developed his own ‘senryū vectorism’ and composed contemporary Imagist senryū such as the one inspired by ‘In a Station of the Metro’ and the surrealism in his book of selected senryū published last year, Ushi no mandorin.

AH: Why do you think Aota became interested in Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’? 

TS: Aota developed Negishi Senryū’s view that ‘senryū have speed and concision’ through his own ‘senryū vectorism.’ He also paid attention the isshō ni mondō structure of senryū. It is thought that he was interested in Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’ because he wanted to create senryū that juxtaposed images in a one-line form using Pound’s method of ‘super-position.’

AH: Let’s look a little more closely at the poem. The ‘heart,’ mune, which is ‘filled with women,’ or more literally ‘where women live,’ appears to resemble Pound’s own description of his composition of the ‘Metro’ poem in his essay ‘Vorticism,’ particularly his seeing of one ‘beautiful woman’s face’ after another. In the context of its first publication as part of the ‘Contemporania’ sequence in Poetry, the feminine aspect of the ‘faces’ also seems to come through. Of course, Pound also had many women in his life. How would you interpret Aota’s choice of the ‘heart filled with women’ in his senryū?

TS: As you say, the various ‘women’s beautiful faces’ appear in Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro.’ The ghostly apparitions of such beautiful women’s faces also appear in Aota’s senryū. 

            In my essay in the most recent issue of Senryū, ‘Aota Senryū’s Senryū and Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,”’ which draws on your essay about Pound’s poem in this year’s Ezra Pound Review, I discuss how the poem expresses the ghostly apparitions of the women in Aota’s heart. I feel the ‘apparitions’ of Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’ are wonderfully expressed in Aota’s ‘women.’ 

AH: After that part of the poem, the metro line is ‘dangling.’ This goes against our expectation, of course, that a metro line is more or less horizontal. Is Aota punning on the visual appearance of Japanese senryū on the printed page, which ‘dangle’ vertically down the page? Do you think there may be other reasons for his word choice?

TS: As you say, it is indeed possible to say that the ‘dangling’ metro line contains the senryū element of okashimi (‘wit’ or ‘humour’). But there are various other possible interpretations in this modern senryū.

            When I read this senryū, I thought of the development of Pound’s ‘super-position’ and Aota’s ‘senryū vectorism.’ In this modern senryū, the horizontality suggested by the ‘metro line’ and the verticality of its ‘dangling’ appear to intersect. It is in the space of their intersection, at the poem’s ‘heart,’ that the phantoms of the women the writer cannot forget appear for a moment reflected in the window of a metro train before vanishing again. That scene seems for me to come to mind.