Our big secret, our unspoken literary scandal, is the near-total ignorance
by our writers, editors and academics of literature being written elsewhere
in the world. There was a time in the 50s and 60s when this was not quite
so. It was not unusual to find a new novel by Robbe-Grillet or Witold Gombrowicz
or even an anthology of Spanish poetry on somebody's coffee table. With the
rise of literary theory in the last 20 years and the quick turnover of critical
approaches, not only American but world literature lost out. Hardly anybody
reads it anymore as the sales figures of publishers who still bring out a
few foreign works testify. Only in a country where confident provincialism
reigns supreme can the claim that a Japanese poet was reading Paul Celan in
the 1930s pass unnoticed. It's as if somebody said that Lorca was reading
John Ashbery in Madrid cafs in the days before the Spanish Revolution.
If only the poems of Araki Yasusada were better. The ones I read in APR
and in Marjorie Perloff's piece are not very good. Invention of separate poetic
identities (in the manner of Fernando Pessoa), as she reminds us, has a long
tradition and is perfectly permissible. Poetry is the only place where a liar
can have an honest existence, providing his lies make memorable poems. Unfortunately,
not in this case. I know at least a dozen young poets in this country who
can write circles around him, and a couple of them have even read Jack Spicer
and Roland Barthes. I'm sure the same is true of Japan.
Yes, of course, the poems were published because the poet was a Japanese
with a heart-breaking life story worthy of afternoon TV. If a Frank Kowalski,
a retired milkman in Milwaukee, submitted something like the following to
a literary journal, does anyone really think he would seriously have a chance?
I have waited all week, you quietly said,
to be with you here in this magical place,
and to tell you something beautiful.
(It was your sentimental heart
that always made me laugh
and this stain on the page is spilt tea.)
Nothing here to make you flip out, eh? Perhaps it may be the fault of the
translation, you wonder? The sublime lyricism of the Japanese original just
doesn't come across into English. Believe me, as a lifelong translator of
poetry from three languages, who by now has a nose for this sort of thing,
I don't think anything was lost in this "translation."
I've got to admit, though, that the literary executors of Yasusada have a
sense of humor and know their customers. The way you pump up the intellectual
rubes about far-away cultures is you package what's exotic with what's familiar
to them. So we get "morning kimono" with Barthes, and an "ancient dog-shooting
range" with Spicer. The verse itself is a bit hermetic, a bit stark and brutal
but with a few haiku-like clichs thrown in from time to time. In short, our
American version of what a Japanese experimental poet and Hiroshima survivor
is supposed to sound like. If Yasusada had been a guard in a Japanese prisoner-of-war
camp and was reading instead Helmut Heissenbuttel, Daniil Kharms, and Felisberto
Hernández--a far more interesting concoction, I think--it wouldn't
work. His credentials as a victim would not have been in order, and not many
of our editors would recognize the names of these writers.
Perloff is correct that this affair tells us something about ourselves. Everybody
who reads poetry knows that worthless books and poems are published and anthologized
merely to fulfill various fashionable quotas. Cowardice, hypocrisy and not-so-subtle
condescension are frequently the rule of conduct in the publishing world.
"Do you know any contemporary American-Eskimo poets?" a textbook editor asked
me on the phone a couple of years ago. I was too surprised by the question
to make a crack in reply and merely said that I honestly did not know any.
Our literary politics being what they are, we can expect more hoaxes. I have
no objection to them whatsoever. If the poems are first-rate, I'll bow down
to them in deepest reverence even if the claim is being made that they were
composed by a left-behind space alien or a love-starved orangutan in the San
Diego Zoo. No matter what anyone tells you, as in music, carpentry and all
the other ancient arts and true crafts, it always comes down to the work itself.
Only in our academic circles is the claim being made that it's philosophically
impossible, even for an experienced cook, to judge whether the meal prepared
by someone else was cooked badly or not.