Stupidity and Poetry
By Ban’ya Natsuishi *
Speech to the World Meeting of Directors of International Poetry Festivals
After Japan’s recent catastrophes of an earthquake, a tsunami, and the consequent nuclear reactor explosion in March of 2011, I find myself thinking of the human condition and its stupidity; first, of Japanese stupidity and then more generally of the stupidity of humanity. I’m obsessed with the idea of human stupidity for these many months.
After the Second World War, French intellectuals, such as Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre, looking upon the devastation and ruins of Europe brought about by the ferocity of total war, designed a philosophy and literature in keeping with the irrationality, the stupidity at the heart of humanity and nature. The philosophy they created was existentialism and the literature the theater of the absurd and novel of the absurd.
One of my early haiku has parallels with the existential position of the absurdity of the human condition.
You must vomit
at full gallop
into a donkey’s ear
(Ban’ya Natsuishi, Shinku-ritsu, 1987, Japan)
After the disasters in Japan in March 2011, though I have not visited the devastated Northeast region of my country, where many cities and villages were simply washed away by the sea’s fury in the tsunami, I cannot forget the riveting images of the tsunami’s catastrophic path of destruction in dirty black and white images broadcast on television. I wrote some haiku based upon my raw response to these events and images.
a giant tongue of waves
by the tsunami
anyone can stare up
(Ginyu No. 50, May 2011, Japan)
The images I viewed of the tsunami confirmed, as if there were any doubt, that nature is immeasurable in expanse compared to humanity and existentially indifferent to humanity. For the multi-cosmoses man is not even an ant. Needless to say, then, our love for nature is extremely unreasonable. It’s a ridiculous or absurd unrequited love.
And, the question poses itself, especially for writers of haiku, can we really say that nature is beautiful? Can we love nature without hesitation? Can we continue to look at nature as “Mother Nature,” as nurturing nature? The answers to these questions can be found, but these answers would require a rethinking of our mediocre and superficial ideas about nature that have abounded in haiku for centuries.
I feel like I am living like a ghost in capital area of Japan, where physical damage from the three-fold catastrophes of March 2011 is minimal. Almost all the buildings are intact. We don’t find rain of glass fallen from buildings, as I imagined we would after a gigantic earthquake. In fact, only the frequency of trains has been reduced, and some lights have disappeared from the streets. Nevertheless, our streets are still much brighter than European streets. Honestly, only some loss of electricity has occurred. I wrote a haiku to highlight these facts:
For a nightless castle in the Far East
tsunami is an anger
of one thousand years
(Ginyu No. 50, May 2011, Japan)
Concerning radioactivity, our situation is without parallel. Scattered radioactivity might surpass Chernobyl. Fukushima is the notorious capital of radioactivity. I feel that I must express a sincere and humble apology for this unbelievable and dishonorable fact.
Japanese people experienced the A-bomb attacks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Sankichi Toge, a Japanese poet and an A-bomb survivor of Hiroshima ended his poem “Flames” (Honoo) with these lines:
1945, Aug. 6
6 August 1945
midnight in high noon
a god was surely burnt at the stake
fires of Hiroshima
reflected on the bed of the human race
then the history
something like all the gods
(Sankichi Toge’s Collected Poems about A-bomb, 2003, Japan)
This “something like all the gods” suggests the end of the world, at least as we previously understood it. Is it found also in Fukushima’s burning nuclear fires? These invisible fires are now the rulers of Japan’s continued history. I will dare to say that ambushing “something like all the gods” is Japan’s stupidity that permitted the placement of nuclear reactors from the United States on its pure land even after twice experiencing the unspeakable horror of A-bomb attacks on our islands. In this case, Japan is both responsible and a victim, having forgotten its horrendous previous nuclear experiences. Oblivion lies at the heart of Japan’s stupidity.
In addition to Japanese stupidity, I cannot exonerate the whole of humanity and its stupidity in relying on potentially uncontrollable nuclear reactor accidents and decisively on nuclear weapons.
What can a single man do in the face of this stupidity, this fearlessness in the face of the ferocious? As a haiku poet, I wrote this haiku as a response:
the tsunami towards
a monster on the seashore
(Ginyu No. 50, May 2011, Japan)
I wonder to myself whether not just the Japanese but are all human beings subject to stupidity? I can answer either yes or no, given the possibility of human wisdom.
In Japan right now, we are experiencing another form of stupidity and that involves Japanese television and newspapers. Japanese coverage of the disasters of March 2011, particularly the Fukushima nuclear reactor breakdown has indulged in misinforming the public. It may be the destiny of any mass media in any country, but since March 11, 2011, Japanese news’ coverage has gone to been engaged in grave excesses to hide the truth, constantly reiterating that “there is no problem, no problem.” This repeated lying to the populace is inexcusable and another example of stupidity.
The consequence of repeatedly lying to the people about the situation in Fukushima’s nuclear reactor has been a complete loss of credibility in the news. People without truth are like ghosts, insubstantial. Contrary to the current situation, Japanese poetry has always believed in the strength and truth of words. At the beginning of the 10th century, a Japanese tanka poet, Tsurayuki Kino, opened his preface of a tanka anthology, compiled by Imperial command, “Kokin-waka-shu,” with quite a confident and suggestive phrase about the nature of language:
The meaning in English of the above quote is that the human heart is the seed of Japanese tanka poetry, and from it sprouts out numerous leaves; every creature with life, why doesn’t it compose a poem?
Tsurayuki Kino expresses here the poetics of animism quite similar in its way to the beliefs held in pre-Colombian South America. For the Japanese, animals, plants, and men were equally creative and vital poets since birth. Japanese poetry had been tightly connected to all of the vivifying powers of the natural world since its beginnings. Japanese poetry as the expression of the truth of the world was always considered one of the most important aspects of the cosmos.
The essence of Japanese poetry is haiku. It’s greatest masterpiece was achieved in 1689 by Matsuo Basho; in the poem Basho sings a dynamic triangle of nature. Here is the poem:
over Sado isle
extends the Milky Way
This poem is not a mere landscape. This short poem creates a verbal nebula composed of three elements: sea, isle, and Milky Way. Men reside on the isle. For Basho, the nature involving men is the source of poetical and vital power, even if nature shows man no hospitality. Basho was not a simple ecologist; he was an animist with a deep understanding of the unstable and dynamic cosmos.
It’s very easy to say now that Japan’s current stupidity came from a loss of the consciousness of its animistic background. This loss, which highlights human nature at the expense of nature itself, actually levels human activity and leaves it insubstantial and lacking relationship.
On the other hand, what is the main reason for the stupidity of the whole of humanity? Human ego-centrism? Human greed? Human jealousy? Mere ignorance?
After attending many international poetry festivals, I found that so-called human civilization and developed nations had lost the need for poetry and its power. Needless to say, I’m not coming to the defense of communism as an alternative, because it is so often related to suppression and deception.
But, in so-called civilized and developed “free” countries, people seem to be separated from the totality and plenitude of nature, both human and non-human.
On the occasion of guest lectures delivered at Meiji University in Tokyo in 2007, one of my best overseas’ friends, one of the most excellent of Lithuanian poets, Kornelijus Platelis, mentioned a most interesting observation. He said that during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, poetry was everything for people who had to endure the occupation. Of course, poetry was many things to the people: it was poetry, it was journalism, it was joy, it was challenge, it was tearful. Books of poetry sold very well at that time.
After the independence of his country from Soviet domination, this independence that triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union, poetry has diminished in importance; it is viewed as it is in the West, in general.
The above example shows us that poetry is the essential core of a culture, and westernization and capitalism make poetry minor and secondary in culture.
Platelis wrote a haiku that is very instructive in this regard:
Miškas skendi savy,
tik po storu ledu
upokšnis be garso alma.
A forest has sunk into itself
while under a thick ice
a river trickles.
(Ginyu No. 31, July 2006, Japan)
Poetry, of course, including haiku, may be “a river” under “a thick ice.” Our stupidities: personal, regional, international are the “thick ice.” Poetry cannot resolve our stupidities, but poetry continues to live nonetheless.
Any poet of excellence might not escape from stupidities, but he or she can give birth to poetry like a groundwater. A groundwater might dry up, but it continues to stream, even if the ground becomes desert.
In my youth, when I had a promising future, I wrote the following haiku:
From the future
a wind arrives
that blows the waterfall apart
Desde el futuro
Llega un viento
Que desparrama la cascada
(Ban’ya Natsuishi, Métroplitique, 1985, Japan)
Poetry as a groundwater can become such a cosmogonic waterfall.
* International Poetry Festival Tokio´s Director
July 1º, 2011