Saturday, January 24, 2009

Scenery and a Music Box

'I am prepared to meet my death / In this excessively lucid landscape' wrote Kenji Miyazawa in his poem 'Scenery and a Music Box.' In the notes to his translation of this poem, Roger Pulvers suggests that it beautifully illustrates Kenji's vision. Dated 16 September 1923, the poem describes a walk along the Toyosawa River to cut down trees in the early evening. Kenji ends up imploring the hill to be still, expecting nature to take from him something in return for the trees he has felled.

The poem has landscape motifs that Kenji used repeatedly: the river, the wind, clouds, stars. There is the figure of a farmer fused with the landscape set alongside signs of modernity like the electric wires which whistle in the wind and become a 'music box'. As this wind dies down into a gentle breeze, Kenji sees it as a symbol of eternity (he uses the Buddhist term kalpa). The focus of the poem sometimes zooms in on luminous detail, like the raindrops on the bridge, and includes striking images drawn from science and geology, like the clouds that are 'crystal-rimmed' and then 'chalcedonic'.

Kenji's 'active engagement with nature, and his seeing himself as its faithful chronicler and recorder, was sufficient to set him apart from virtually all other Japanese poets, who tended to use nature as a springboard for their own musings and lamentations.' Roger Pulvers talks about the way Japan's industrialisation overwrote its traditional love of nature. In a passage that reminds me of remarks by Alex Kerr I discussed in an earlier posting here, he says 'most of Kenji's contemporaries would have believed - as Japanese still tend to believe today - that the Japanese love nature virtually more than do the people of any other nation. This belief is held despite the fact that preservation of nature is a very low priority for those people in Japan who hold the future of the country in their hands. Nature itself has become nothing more than a figment of nostalgia to most Japanese people.' In 'Scenery and a Music Box' the poet observes that the bridge over the river provides a view 'seething with nostalgia'. Kenji wanted nature cherished, but he also wanted to promote the science of modern agriculture and reduce rural poverty. Kenji's ideal life is described in his last and best known poem, 'Strong in the Rain': a strong man, free from desire, living in 'a little thatched-roof hut / In a field in the shadows of a pine tree grove.'

It may just be coincidence, because I've been reading both writers recently, but Miyazawa seems to me to share much in common with Henry David Thoreau. They both rejected convention (and their own fathers' lives) in favour of a life lived according to their own beliefs. They shared a poetic vision of nature alongside a practical interest in the process of farming. Miyazawa's desire to live 'Strong in the Rain' reminds me of the kind of life aspired to by Thoreau at Walden Pond. Neither of them married and their asceticism was seen by others as extreme. Neither was as physically robust as they would like to have been: Thoreau died of tuberculosis at the age of 44, Miyazawa of pneumonia at the age of 37 - his last request was for a thousand copies of the Lotus Sutra to be printed and distributed among his friends and acquaintances.

1 comment:

vaubu said...

So it was the Lotus Sutra that Kenji was focusing on. I was thinking it was the Heart Sutra. It's really great to see your post and it's mix of reverence and critique. I'll peek around your blog, fascinating.