Ōoka Makoto: from 'What Is Poetry?'

In 'Beneath the Sleepless Tossing of the Planets: Selected Poems'

Translation from Japanese by Janine Beichman


[The recent publication of Ōoka’s “selected poems” (Kurodahan Press, 2018) is a generous introduction in English to one of the leading figures of the Postwar Japanese Poetry generation. I have long kept in mind and often repeated his observation that “the demand ‘Bring back totality through poetry’ was common to every group and trend in postwar Japan until at least the 1960s.”  And beyond that and elsewhere as well. (J.R.)]


What Is Poetry #1

Shi to wa Nani ka 1


It’s forever coming at me head on

from the opposite direction

but mostly I just step out of its path

and keep straight on



What Is Poetry? #2

Shi to wa Nani ka 2


It is not

child’s play

but   the poet

is a child



What Is Poetry? #3

Shi to wa Nani ka 3


Precisely the process

by which all psychological scenes

proceed to total extinction



What Is Poetry? #4

Shi to wa Nani ka 4


It doesn’t study time

it ignores the colors of the sky

like a new born


it leaps into time-space

the old pond



What Is Poetry? #6

Shi to wa Nani ka 6


Little things

reflected big     eyes


Big things

come out small   lips



What Is Poetry? #8

Shi to wa Nani ka 8


In the hollow of a hand that polishes

blades of grass, a faint light


in pure darkness



What Is Poetry? #10

Shi to wa Nani ka 10


The kitten

sits on a



How deep is the fur

of those who live




What Is Poetry? #12

Shi to wa Nani ka 12


To train a word

you must praise it


Even if praised to the skies

a word almost never sings


Hug the word tightly

stroke it softly


Until it releases two sighs

and long, trailing vowels



What Is Poetry? #15: The Case of a Star

Shi to wa Nani ka 15 — Hoshi no Baai


Heaven and earth are being created

One with the wind

a star’s light

is rubbing the root of a rock

that’s grown crystals

heating itself alone



What Is Poetry? #17: The Case Of Rain

Shi to wa Nani ka 17 — Ame no Baai


The rain —

drop on the leaf’s tip


pulls together

in the shape of a drop and then

as though sucked forth

lengthens out

all its weight

concentrated at

the trembling


it falls

in the shape of firm decision
















What Is Poetry? #21

Shi to wa Nani ka 21


Look at that pregnant puss




fully content

rubbing her belly on bamboo grass

eyes narrowed in ecstasy


The essence of life

conservatism’s pulsating breath


is rubbing her belly on bamboo grass

eyes narrowed

in ecstasy


Ah this!

A wordless song


Shut up behind her eyelids,

penetrating sight


Carried behind in the temperate zone between her legs,

the pink, bad place, softly closed



What Is Poetry? #24: Rules For Its Creation And Interpretation

Shi to wa Nani ka 24 — Shi no Seisaku Kaidoku Kokoroe



Involuntary motions of the heart:

you don’t even know what you dreamed

until you wake up


When we paint   or   write

we never perceive the totality

of our creating    The totality

resides in the future and the unknown

which is to say in dreams


An obscure marker   is all we can see

The marker itself

takes on indeterminate shape

moment by moment

as the task of creation marches on

In one poem

is an irrepressible dream of flying


is the ache at the core of the pistil after fertilization


In one poem

is a dream of a butterfly’s escape   to the blue empyrean

That   is the wish   to drown in scarlet flames

engulfing the body


To write a poem

to draw a picture

to fire clay —

awakening   meditation


The relation of the marker and creative activity

may be compared to the conflict between

technique and air pressure

in trying to unite the head and tail

of an aerial oil pipe line


It was a whirlpool who first called

the straight line a straight line

It was a full circle who first murmured

“My own sweet arc!” to the half-circle



translator’s note. Ōoka Makoto (19312017) was one of the premier poets and critics of his generation in Japan and known abroad as an emissary of Japanese poetry and culture. Born in Mishima, a small city near Mt. Fuji, Ōoka began writing poetry in his teens. By the time he was twenty-five, his first books — one of poems and one of criticism — established him as a spokesman for contemporary poets. He often visited Europe, Asia, and the United States, lecturing and giving readings at the Collège de France, Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton Universities, as well as many literary festivals. His pioneering experiments with renga or linked verse, a traditional form of collaborative poetry, brought him into contact with poets around the world. President of Japan PEN Club from 1989 to 1993, he was also a prolific translator who helped introduce to Japan modern poets such as Paul Éluard, André Breton, and John Ashbery. For almost three decades, Ōoka’s daily column “Poems for All Seasons” ran on the front page of the Asahi newspaper, and through it poetry entered the daily lives of millions of readers in Japan. Ōoka’s works have also been translated into Chinese, Dutch, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Korean, Macedonian, and Spanish.