A bamboo-hauling expedition with my friend L. on Saturday prompted me to dig up a couple of Japanese poems by Hagiwara Sakutarô that I translated 20 years ago when I was in college. I couldn’t find the translations I did back then, so I worked from my old notes in the margins of my copy of Tsuki ni hoeru, “Howling at the Moon” (1917), Hagiwara’s first and best-known collection of poems. He’s considered Japan’s first truly modern poet, in part because of the obsessive, neorotic tone on display here. These poems, both entitled “Take” (Bamboo), are the second and third poems in the collection and echo imagery also found in the lead poem, so they were presumably meant to showcase a brand new way of looking at a traditionally poetic thing. While modernism in the West had little over a century of Romantic traditions about nature to contend with, in Japanese poetry, an immense and intricate set of correspondences between natural phenomena and expected emotional reactions made innovation daunting, to say the least.
Out of the ground a straight thing grows,
out of the ground a blue-green pointed thing grows,
piercing the frozen winter,
glimmering green in the morning’s empty road
bringing tears to the eyes,
tears falling even now
from above shoulders swollen with regret,
hazy, the bamboo roots spreading, spreading,
as out of the ground a blue-green blade comes up.
In the shining earth the bamboo grows,
the blue-green bamboo grows,
underground the roots of bamboo grow,
roots that gradually taper off
with fine hairs sprouting from their tips,
hazy fine hairs faintly growing,
In the adversarial earth the bamboo grows,
aboveground the sharp bamboo grows,
perfectly straight bamboo grows,
with its rigid joints going rin, rin,
at the base of the blue sky bamboo grows,
bamboo, bamboo, bamboo grows.