Saturday, February 12, 2011

How to be a Poetry Bestseller in Japan

The Short Answer:
1) Don't start writing poetry until you're in your 90s
2) Get on TV as a human interest story

The Long (and less cynical) Answer:

In the world of publishing, poetry I think will always be a hard sell. Because really, "good" poetry requires work on the part of the reader - it's very hard (and not rewarding) to be a passive reader of poetry. By it's very construction poetry requires looking deeply at the very construction of the poem and analyzing it beyond the sum of its parts. Sure, it might take less than a minute to read the lines of a short poem, but how much do you get out of a quick scan of the words on the page? And bad poetry, for instance any and all of the poetry we all wrote as lovesick teenagers, is easy to spot, and easy to dismiss. So in my not at all scientific or even particularly literary theory, bad poetry is obviously bad but figuring out why good poetry is good takes a little extra work.

I'm not saying that prose fiction is totally different either. Good fiction is more rewarding when you can take a closer look at its unique construction, and bad fiction is also just as easy to spot as poetry. For some reason though, bad fiction (and I guess I should point out that "bad,"which is an admittedly vague and poor descriptor to use in a pseudo-literary criticism based theory, in this context is more like "unoriginal" maybe, bringing nothing new to the table) is encouraged in the publishing world. It's comfort food. Sometimes that's exactly what we want - familiar things only dressed up as something slightly new.

I would never say that all bestsellers are bad pieces of fiction, because that would simply be untrue. But bestsellers are bestsellers because they satisfy some literary or emotional need because it targets very base and universal instincts and desires. Again, I don't mean this to be derogatory in any way, but it simply has to play those universal notes, since to reach that many people it has to be able to affect (in some way, intellectually, emotionally, what have you) the widest group of people possible. And recreating that sort of widespread appeal with poetry is difficult, since bad (or "unoriginal") poetry is not tolerated in the same way that bad fiction is. Poetry has to reach a very difficult level of creativity to be popular, I think - not too high as to be off-putting or "difficult," but not too low as to be seen as boring or unoriginal or amateurish.

And all of what I just laid out isn't necessarily true. Sometimes you just need some sort of sensational angle to get people talking.

Phew. Now we turn to Toyo Shibata.

Yes, the latest poetry bestseller in Japan right now is 99-year old Toyo Shibata, who published a collection of 42 poems called くじけないで ( Kujikenaide, "Don't be discouraged") that has now sold 1.5 MILLION copies.


According to Reuters, a collection of poetry in Japan is considered successful in Japan when it sells ten thousand copies. So yes, this is certainly a runaway bestseller. It's got numbers comparable to Murakami's 1Q84. The only other collection of poetry that I know of with sales numbers like this was Machi Tawara's Salad Anniversary almost twenty years ago in the early 1990s.

So is her poetry worth all the fuss? Well, I don't know.

I've mentioned on this blog a few times that poetry is not my strong suit or where my literary interests lie. I think I've got a pretty good critical eye though, even if I'm not as versed (PUN MOST DEFINITELY INTENDED) in the history of great poetry, classical and contemporary, as others. So in my opinion, yes, some of her poems are quite nice. At their best, they're emotionally resonant and the language is pretty, I would say, in lieu of beautiful. At their worst, though, they're cloying, overly sentimental, and somewhat cliche, even of herself: she tends to use a lot of the same motifs and imagery in her poems, especially things dealing with nature: you'll see a lot of "sunshine" and "wind" and "I can hear "X" (as in "the wind" or "the cry of cicadas," etc.). Memory is also a go-to theme.

But oy it breaks my heart to say these things! Obviously memory would play an important role in her poetry - she's almost a hundred years old! She seems like a nice old lady who can't do much in her old age except write poetry. What joy does she have besides a nice sunny day and a hot cup of tea and visits from her son? Who am I to criticize?

Anyway, I thought I'd share with you a handful of the poems that I did enjoy, first in the original, and then in a quick English translation that will won't be very poetic in and of itself.

「溶けてゆく」 Melting

ポットから   Hot water
注がれる    Pouring
お湯は     From the cup
やさしい     Are like
言葉のようだ Kind words

私の      My
心の角砂糖は  Sugar cube heart
カップのなかで Melts
気持ちよく  Gently
溶けてゆく  In my mug

(Things lost in that translation: the nice rhyme and rhythm of the last two lines: kimochi yoku / tokete yuku. Approximated with the slant rhyme of "melt" and "gentle." Also didn't want to end the poem with in my mug, which is the third line in the Japanese, but sounded really bad when I kept it there anyway.)

「返事」      My Reply

風が 耳元で    In my ears    the wind
「もうそろそろ   Invites me
あの世に      In intoxicating tones
行きましょう」   "Shall we go now
なんて 猫撫で声で To the other side?"

だから 私     So,    I
すぐに返事をしたの Quickly replied
「あと少し     "I'll stay here
こっちに居るわ   Just a bit longer
やり残した     There are still some things
事があるから」   Left undone"

風は        The wind
困った顔をして   With a pout on her face
すーっと帰って行った Swiftly returned from whence it came

(Things last in that translation: Possesessive-ized the title - sounded bad as just "Reply" or "The Reply". Lost a line because it was too stilted not putting "Shall we go now" together. Said "Invites me / In intoxicating tones" to get the nice alliteration/assonance of "nante nekonadegoede," since "nekonadegoe" is more like a "coaxing tone"; it's literally "the voice you use to talk to a cat." "Returned from whence it came" is decidedly more flowery than the simple "went back" - WENT BACK WHERE I ASK YOU. Also made the wind feminine, who in the Japanese is more or less neutral.)

「肩叩き券」         A Coupon for a Shoulder Massage

埃にまみれた         Something I pulled out
がまぐちの中から       Covered in dust
出てきた物          From an old coin purse

父ちゃん 母ちゃんへ    To Mommy and Daddy
十五分肩叩き券       15 Minute Shoulder Massage
(三十一年十月まで使えるよ)(Expires 10/1931)
健一                               Kenichi

当時 小学生だった倅が  Back then    my boy was in grade school
わら半紙を小さく切って  He cut out cheap straw paper
作ってくれた券の束    And made us a these bundle of coupons

今でも            I wonder if I could use it
使えるかしら         Even now

 (Hate that I had to invert the last two lines.)

「秘密」        A Secret

私ね 死にたいって   You know,    I've thought
思ったことが      So many times
何度もあったの     That I wanted to die
でも 詩を作り始めて  But     I started writing poetry
多くの人に励まされ And have been encouraged by so many people

今はもう        So now 
泣きごとは言わない   I won't complain anymore  

九十八歳でも       Even at 98
恋はするのよ       I love
夢だってみるの     And I dream
雲にだって乗りたいわ  I want to ride on a cloud  

 (If you're not touched at least a little bit by that last poem then you are more heartless than I. Those four poems are a very small portion of what's found in Kujikenaide, and what I think are overall some of the better ones. But if you decide to check the book out for yourself, be warned: you'll probably find a number of duds. Or maybe you won't. It has sold 1.5 million copies.)

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