comscore For poet Tanikawa, it’s fun, not work, at 90 | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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

                                A translator as well as a poet, Shuntaro Tani­kawa has translated Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” strip since the 1970s. He’s also worked on stories by Maurice Sendak and Leo Leonni. He does his writing and translating at a huge desk in his Tokyo home.


    A translator as well as a poet, Shuntaro Tani­kawa has translated Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” strip since the 1970s. He’s also worked on stories by Maurice Sendak and Leo Leonni. He does his writing and translating at a huge desk in his Tokyo home.

TOKYO >> Shuntaro Tanikawa used to think poems descended like an inspiration from the heavens. As he grew older — he is now 90 — he came to see poems as welling up from the ground.

The poems still come to him, a word or fragments of lines, as he wakes up in the morning. What inspires the words comes from outside. The poetry comes from deep within.

“Writing poetry has become really fun these days,” he said recently at his elegant home in the Tokyo suburbs.

Shelves overflow with books. His collection of ancient bronze animal figurines stand in neat rows in a glass box next to stacks of his favorite classical music CDs.

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

Tanikawa is among Japan’s most famous modern poets; he is a master of free verse on the ordinary.

He has published more than 100 poetry books. With titles like “To Live,” “Listen” and “Grass,” his poems are stark, rhythmic but conversational, defying elaborate traditional literary styles.

William Elliott, who has translated Tanikawa for years, compares his place in Japanese poetic history to T. S. Eliot’s mark on the beginning of a new era in English poetry.

Tanikawa is also a respected translator, having translated Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” comic strip into Japanese since the 1970s. He demonstrated his ear for the poetic in the colloquial, choosing “yare yare” for “good grief,” transcending the lifestyle differences of East and West in the universal world of children and animals.

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

Tanikawa has translated many other works, including Mother Goose, and those by authors Maurice Sendak and Leo Lionni. In turn, his works have been widely translated into Chinese and various European languages, among many others.

Tanikawa’s “Two Billion Light-Years of Solitude” catapulted him to stardom in the early 1950s. The poet had his eyes on the cosmos and Earth’s spot in the universe.

Tanikawa was always in demand globally, the rare example of a poet who effortlessly crossed over to commercial work without compromising his art. He considered poetry writing a job — his profession, his daily work.

He married and divorced three times — to a poet, an actress and an illustrator.

Tanikawa is the lyricist behind the Japanese theme song for Osamu Tezuka’s animated series “Astro Boy.” He also wrote the script for the narration of Kon Ichikawa’s documentary of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He is a popular author of children’s picture books and is often featured in textbooks.

He swears he doesn’t have projects anymore because of his age. But in the same breath he says he is collaborating with his musician son, Kensaku Tani­kawa, who lives next door, on what they call “Piano Twitter.”

He has already written dozens of poems to go with the score. They are all short, more abstract than his past work, conjuring surreal images like staircases descending to nowhere, or a caterpillar dancing uncontrollably.

He isn’t sure how the work will be presented, but he speculated it could become a book with a bar code so readers can listen online to the poems being read to music.

Tanikawa is most proud of his 1970s “Kotoba Asobi Uta” (“Word Play Songs”) series, which utilized singsong alliterations and onomatopoeia, as the title implies.

One work, for instance, repeats the phrase “kappa,” a mythical monster, as in: “kappa kapparatta,” which translates to “the kappa took off with something” — a “rappa,” a “trumpet,” as it turns out. The poetry is, both visually and aurally, a sheer celebration of the Japanese language.

“For me, the Japanese language is the ground. Like a plant, I place my roots, drink in the nutrients of the Japanese language, sprouting leaves, flowers and bearing fruit,” he said.

Tanikawa appeared on a recent sunny afternoon totally comfortable with social media and everyday technology, although he used a magnifying glass to make out fine print. He was curious about new movies, including what might be on Netflix.

He usually works at his huge desk in a spacious study, which has a window that lets in the breeze and a fuzzy ray of light. It looks out into a yard with flowers. On the wall hangs a sepia-toned portrait of his mother with his father, Tetsuzo Tanikawa, a philosopher.

While growing up, Tanikawa was most afraid about his mother dying. He remembers seeing corpse upon corpse following the American air raids of Tokyo during World War II.

These days, he said, “Death has become more real. It used to be more conceptual when I was young. But now my body is approaching death.”

He hopes to die as his father did, in his sleep after a night of partying, at 94.

When asked to read his works out loud, he doesn’t hesitate. He read excerpts from his collaboration with his son, then moved on to his debut work that ends with these lines:

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

Comments (0)

By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Terms of Service. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. Report comments if you believe they do not follow our guidelines.

Having trouble with comments? Learn more here.

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

Be the first to know
Get web push notifications from Star-Advertiser when the next breaking story happens — it's FREE! You just need a supported web browser.
Subscribe for this feature

Scroll Up