Spontaneity and a strange sense of freedom:
early modernist women poets and Kitasono Katue

Arai Toyomi


translated by Janine Beichman


First published as “Kuttaku no nasa to fushigi no jiyϋkan,” Gendaishi techτ [Contemporary Poetry Notebook], 45:11, November 2002


In reading the works of women in the modernist poetry movement, I often find myself thinking that they expressed themselves with a cheerfulness and spontaneity surprising in women of the early Shôwa period. I am thinking principally of Sagawa Chika, Ema Shôko, Nakamura Chio, and Yamanaka Tomiko. From the late 1920s to the early 1930s, when they were entering poetry circles with new poetic sensibilities, Kitasono Katue published three collections of free verse that heralded the beginnings of Surrealism in Japan — Shiro no Arubamu (1929), Wakai Koronii (1932), and Ensui (1933) — and with Iwamoto Shûzô began the magazine Hakushi (later MADAME BLANCHE ). During this period, when modernist poetry began to develop in earnest, Kitasono helped these new women poets (except for Yamanaka Tomiko, who throughout was in Kyushu) to establish themselves as poets in various ways. Momota Sôji, editor of the magazines Shii no ki [The chinquapin tree] and Konnichi no shi , also praised their poetry and supported their talent. Neither man discriminated between the sexes in the domain of art, and this must have given the young women confidence in themselves. Albeit within a limited sphere, their spontaneity suggests an atmosphere of freedom among a modest community of poets who acknowledged the avant-garde.

Take, for example, Sagawa Chika — even among the early modernist women poets, she stood out for the pristine newness of her sensual expression. Hagiwara Sakutarô eulogized her on her premature death, as “ A woman poet in recent literary circles who occupied a position like Venus, the Morning Star. ” Her beginnings as a poet were made under the influence and protection of the intimate literary community created by her older brother Kawasaki Noboru and his friend, Itô Sei. The earliest outsiders to recognize her talent and lend a hand were Momota Sôji and Kitasono Katue. Sagawa Chika's poetic activities lasted a mere six years, from 1929 to 1935, but she left over eighty poems as well as translations of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and others, which were, except for a few that were published in Shi to Shiron [Poetry and poetics], with which Itô was involved, and Bungei Rebyû [The literary review], which Kawasaki and Itô co-edited, virtually all published in Shii no ki and MADAME BLANCHE .

Kitasono Katue described his first meeting with Sagawa Chika like this: “ The best poets often have their own complete identity from their first poem. Sagawa Chika was such a poet. We met in 1929, in the offices of Bungei Rebyû , one of the leading voices in the new literary movement then. Her older brother, Kawasaki Noboru, who was the real editor of the magazine, introduced us. Soon after that I encountered her luminous poetry. It was exceedingly simple in form and structure, but I immediately understood its value. I published it in Hakushi , our own group's magazine at the time, and she became one of us. From then on, she embarked on the life of a solid and valuable poet. She walked a path from a happy morning to an uneasy afternoon and then to a night full of pain. The heroic path that unique poets walk and have walked, in ages past and now, East and West — that path she travelled. ” ( Sagawa Chika Zenshishû [Complete poetic works of Sagawa Chika], “ Tsuitôroku ” [Eulogy records])

The first poem Sagawa published in Hakushi was “ Aoi Uma ” (The Blue Horse), which appeared in No. 10, August 1930. (It was reprinted the next year, in the June issue, No. 12, of Shi to Shiron ):

The horse raced down the mountain and went mad. From that day to this she eats blue
            food. Summer, having dyed
the women's eyes and sleeves blue, whirls merrily in the town square.
The terrace customers smoke so many cigarettes that the tinplate
sky scribbles loops in the noblewomen's hair.
Sad memories — I'll throw them out like a hanky. If only I could for-
get all the love and regret and patent leather shoes!
I managed not to jump from the second floor.
The sea rises to heaven.

One of the points that Kitasono's poetry and Sagawa's poetry have in common is that both are visual and full of color. In Sagawa's case, one can read consistent suggestions of life in green, sadness in blue, a sense of non-existence in white, and death in black. And yet, the poet wrote the words for green, blue, white, and black as signs by which to express colors, and did not intend them to carry meanings beyond that. If the aim of poetry is to eliminate meaning from words and negate the romanesque, to gather the code called words and use it to create non-realistic beauty — then the value of a poem comes from how modern and surreal its beauty is. Thus the reader does not need to wonder why the poet wants to forget “ love and regret ” or whether she jumped “ from the second floor. ”

Kitasono grounded the philosophy of the new art of the twentieth century in material existence, and insisted on the objectification of poetic language in these words: “ As if I were making a painting with a brush on a new canvas, I chose letters which had an uncomplicated and fresh image on the paper and wrote poems which had the simplicity of, for example, a painting by Paul Klee. In other words, I ignored the usual content and logic of words, and used them as, so to speak, symbols of colors, lines, and points. ” ( “ Shi ni okeru watakushi no jikken ” [My experiments in poetry])

Kitasono's predecessor, Nishiwaki Junzaburô, had spoken rather abstractly of his own poetics in his PROFANUS , saying: “ The technique of making this kind of metaphor and association consists of yoking together things which are scientifically different. It also consists of yoking together things which are extremely far apart in time or space. ” But Kitasono, coming afterwards, suggested a figurative method based more directly on painting. This poetic method, which appealed to intuition and the visual sense, was more concrete and easy to understand, and must have struck a chord with Sagawa Chika and the other women poets mentioned at the beginning of this article. Sagawa became a member of Arukuiyu no kurabu (the Arcueil Club), the group of avant-garde poets centered around Kitasono, and published in their journal MADAME BLANCHE such poems as “ Shiro to kuro ” (White and black):

A white arrow whizzes through. A nightbird, shot down,
plunges into the pupil of my eye.
It won't let the fig sleep.
Silence likes to settle down inside my room.
They were candle light, a pot of plucked primula blooms, a mahogany chair. I
           watched as time and the flames in-
tertwined, gliding around the window frame.
Oh the black-faced man came again today in the rain,
beat the flower garden of my heart to a pulp then fled.
You, booted rain!
Will you trample the earth all the night long?

In the poems Sagawa Chika published in the premier issue of MADAME BLANCHE in 1932, Kitasono's theory of modernist poetry is brilliantly realized. The “ nightbird ” that is shot down by “ a white arrow, ” “ the pupil of my eye ” that is wide open, the flickering “ candlelight, ” “ the pot of primula flowers, ” and the “ mahogany chair ” in the room, the bright flames “ gliding around the window frame”…. They are metaphors and yet in spite of that, to eyes that reject the intrusion of meaning it is all an “ objet d'art ” made out of words, constructed by the layering of images as if making a painting, so that there is no reason to ask who the “ black-faced man ” who came in the rain and beat the speaker's heart to a pulp really is. It is as if she said, “ Here, you can put this in a frame and hang it on the wall. ”

And yet one cannot say that Sagawa Chika's poetry was written under the influence of Kitasono. Kitasono writes that the first time he read her work in the editorial offices of Kawasaki Noboru's Bungei Rebyû , “ I at once understood the value of her work, ” and invited her to join Hakushi . Sagawa already had her own poetic method by then, so that even if we cannot say that Kitasono learned from her, she must have inspired him. If compelled to say who influenced her, it would be Itô Sei in her early period, and later on through translating them, she learned directly from Joyce and Woolf. Compared to the imagery of the other modernist woman poets, which was all surface, Sagawa's poetry was more metaphorical and in its visions, there was a kind of localized reality. From first to last her words were her own and no one else's.

The women poets of early modernism all wrote poems whose strong point was their colorful imagery. They were filled with fragile dreams and freedom without responsibilities. Their relation to Kitasono Katue is unclear, but the poetry of Yamanaka Tomiko, who was a contributing member of Shii no ki and also published in Shi to shiron and Konnichi no shi [Today's poetry]; of Ema Shôko, who was a contributing member of the second Shii no ki and of MADAME BLANCHE , and also published in Bungaku [Literature], and whose first collection of poetry, Haru e no shôtai [Invitation to spring] was published by VOU Kurabu [VOU club]; and of Nakamura Chio, who was an original contributing member of VOU — in their poetry they vie with each other in rich, Western-style visionary imagery and unusually sensuous language. Inclined to dreams of beauty as they were, for them it was all, one feels, a kind of joyous play, full of adventure.

Regardless of the graceful decision and sorrow on right and left,
midnight has visited one side and no longer makes
prophecy its life.                       Oh, this room,
the meaningless glow, the drooping myth of glass
or the cold-blooded silence has already told us
of the clock's dream on its deathbed,
and a partial tale.
Wonderful midnight thoughts, images pulsating, purple marble,
virgin confession – these do not know how to fully defend spooks and oracles.
Brilliant and heavy, for one instant the flowers light up the truth they have made their
            own — make eternal innocence tell them its name !

( “ Yoru no hana ” [Evening flowers], excerpt)

The above work by Yamanaka Tomiko appeared in the 1931, no. 12 issue of Shi to Shiron along with Sagawa Chika's “ The Blue Horse. ” With its variety of images and gothic construction, it has a sense of beauty unusual even in the context of early modernism. According to Ema Shôko's Umoreshi no homura (Flames of buried poems), Yamanaka Tomiko was from Kyushu and seems to have been a mysterious figure who was rumored to be so unfree that not only was she “ unable to come to Tokyo but even in Kyushu she was unable to go out. ” Perhaps this is why except for Ema's essay there is, unfortunately, no concrete information about this poet. Her poem is brilliant; the words have a rugged, heavy feel, a substantiality that reminds one of a marble sculpture. No point of contact with Kitasono is apparent, perhaps because the heaviness is so unlike his sense of lightness, with its quest for a fresh, pure, abstract world. Certainly in its gothic darkness and weight one feels something closer to mysticism than modernism.

In Konnichi no shi , edited by Momota Sôji, one gets an extremely interesting bird's eye view of the overall situation of the world of Japanese poetry in the early 1930s. This poetry magazine was founded with the aim of actively introducing the most advanced poetic theories of Europe and America, and thus stimulating the then still-undeveloped critical foundations of colloquial free verse. The entire magazine was given over to the introduction of modernism; with Kitasono Katue, Haruyama Yukio, Ueda Toshio, and others at the center, it developed an intellectual poetry and poetics. Several women, seeming compatriots of Sagawa Chika and Yamanaka Tomiko appeared here, apparently unaffiliated poets; some of their work was very boldly experimental. Momota, said to be of the “ Human Life School ” ( jinseiha ), seems to have been a liberal who was sensitive to new trends and took an impressively unprejudiced view towards women. Among the contributors, the poems of the unknown Hino Chiyo stand out, including her “ Raumu jinne ” (Space sensation):


Space Sensation


[The coronation site's artificial flowers
[The masses amorphous
[Up and down move the heart's petals
[Green color color blindness's wall cloth
[One gram of violet wine's
[skyward expansion
[truth soaring
[on radial rays


I do not know what kind of person the author was, but could she have continued, it would certainly have been interesting.

Kitasono Katue's theory and practice, which linked painting and the plastic arts to a poetic method that realized a non-realistic beauty, was carried on to the last, even postwar, when he wrote:

The relation between ‘line' and ‘stanza' can be explained by invoking the relation between color and pattern in abstract painting. For example, a poem in four stanzas can be said to be composed of four colors and four patterns which have the same sort of tone. In this case, the ‘line' is color and ‘stanza' corresponds to pattern. Even when stanzas of four lines and one line are intermingled, the metaphor does not change. ( “ POETICA, ” VOU, no. 80, 1961).

As is well known, “ Kigôsetsu ” (Theory of signs) in Shiro no arubamu [The white album], Kitasono's first collection of poetry, was the memorable point of departure for his poetic experiments. Ideas of white permeate the poems there: “ White dishes/flowers/spoons/Three p.m. in spring/white /white/red, ” “ white boy/distant sky/hyacinth/sky/white landscape. ” “ Memories of the blue past/I shut away in an ink pot.” Kitasono's thought rejected the heavy sentimental conventionality that fettered traditional Japanese poetry. Instead, it began from pure “ white. ” For young intellectual women seeking freedom, it must have been inspirational.

In 1935, Kitasono formed VOU Club and began the poetry magazine VOU . Nakamura Chio, who had been in Arukuiyu no kurabu, became a founding contributor. Barafujin [Mme. Rose], her first poetry collection, was published in 1935. It included “ Poésie, ” of which this is part:

Sensibilité glistens like candy
Wanting to show off its Mexican currency
it's grown bright as a star-colored violet

On its ochre head has bloomed a single match
which is an acrobat, a dancing girl who winds her way around
a sleepy asparagus field

Beneath my open skirt morning glories bloom like jack-in-the-boxes
I'll scramble up the Eiffel Tower and
then float down with my clumsy parasol

Flash! Flash!
What an uproar in the newspapers
Nothing rare about a row of lilies in flower

Akiyama Kôtoko had this to say of Nakamura Chio: “ She was a Parnassian who by means of her innate personality and rich environment brought forth, with a technique of beautiful imagery and Western words, a poetic world in which reality almost did not figure. To me she is like a radiance that shone briefly just before all Japan plunged into a dark age. ” ( “ Sono hito jishin ga shi datta Nakamura Chio” [She herself was poetry: Nakamura Chio])

The poet Chio decorates her sweet feelings as if they were “ candy, ” whips out from her pocket, like a magician showing off, rare “ Mexican currency, ” dances gently, like “ an acrobat, a dancing girl, ” and then floats down “ with my clumsy parasol ” from “ the Eiffel Tower. ” This bright fantastical poetic style with its simple linking of surreal images is a kind of prototype of what must have been the common understanding of the surrealist style at the time. In the preface to the collection, Iwamoto Shûzô paid the poet homage: “ It goes without saying that here a female sensibility has created fresh poetic beauty by means of an exceedingly refined technique and method.” And Kihara Kôichi wrote: “ It is enough if you feel from the images the movement of a spirit that resembles things of light, things of color. The poems are written at an absolute remove from the self, from society. At that time, there was considerable meaning in that, but reading the poems now, one realizes that the images are completely lacking in any sense of subjecthood. Even among modernist female poets such as Ema Shôko, Shôbara Teruko, and Itô Masako, Chio was remarkable for her luminosity; and the way, in terms of form, she rejected any unnecessary elements made this characteristic all the more pronounced. ” ( “ Nakamura Chio no tame no shûsai ” [A celebration for Nakamura Chio]).

Be that as it may, when one touches her collection now, objects that were new then have acquired a tint of nostalgia with the passage of time while preserving a refinement like the top clear layer floating on a jug of home-brewed wine. According to the previously cited article by Akiyama, Nakamura Chio was tempered by the trials of her later years and those experiences changed her poetry and led to the full blossoming of her talent. These words of Akiyama left a strong impression on me: “ Her blossoming was made possible by the training she had undergone while creating poetry during the modernist period. ”

Ema Shôko's first poetry collection, Haru e no shôtai (Invitation to spring) was published by the Tokyo VOU Club in 1937. One of its poems was “ Sunahama no jôo ” (The Empress of the Dunes):

Dimly white garden feathers little by little fly by. Its exactly as if we were living in the shadow of a fan. An angels strolls in, whipping away from her eyes the multi-layered waves of her veil, which make everything invisible. A slanted stage of crystal. Costumed in night, the flowers drown in the gloom of our moving hands. In the houses where they hold these concerts there are stairways unknown to each and every one who lives there and angels go up and down them holding all kinds of musical instruments in their hands, hands which dye the stairs the color of pearls  .....Today too the Empress of the Dunes buries her ears in soft feathers. Left behind alone an angel sweeps and sweeps the garden until the long rainy day is over.  By the next morning, we are used to the waves. Holding up their heavy celestial flower crowns, both hands trembling, here are the angels who forgot yesterday.

One after another the poem's speaker unrolls fantasies that remind one of the life of European nobility as seen in the movies, and intoxicated with the poetic world she herself has drawn, enters ever deeper into a dreamlike world. This is the momentary world that was created by the poetic ideals of the so-called belle époque period, during which modernist poetry was born — it was a world of beautiful visions in which the angels of poetry were allowed to “ forget yesterday ” and had no need to worry about tomorrow. Reminiscing about this time later on, in The flames of buried poems Ema Shôko wrote:

There was a time when if I used the word ‘Empress' in a poem, I was able to write as many poems as I pleased. An empress of uncertain country and locality, who did not really exist anywhere may, surprisingly enough, have been a synonym for the word ‘woman.' For when I wrote ‘Empress,' my heart opened wide and I was happy.

A poetic community existed where a woman's words were valued and in her own colorful poetic world she was permitted to be an “ Empress. ” Reading Ema Shôko's words, I thought how fitting it had been that I began writing this article from the spontaneous, carefree mood of the modernist women poets and the strange sense of freedom that they evoke.

BIOS: Arai Toyomi , a leading critic of contemporary Japanese poetry, has published two collections of essays exclusively about women's poetry, Joseishi jijô (Shichosha, 1994) and Joseishi wo yomu (Shichosha, 2000), as well as numerous essays. She is also a poet in her own right, and her poetry collection, Yoru no kudamono , won the 1993 Takami Jun Prize.

Janine Beichman teaches Japanese literature at Daito Bunka University, and translates and writes about Japanese poetry. Her latest book, Embracing the Firebird: Yosano Akiko and the Birth of the Female Voice in Modern Japanese Poetry (University of Hawaii Press, 2002), is the first full-length study in English of the early life and works of Yosano Akiko.

A few notes from the translator: 

Although Kitasono's first name is often romanized as Katsue, I have used Katue here. In doing so, I am following John Solt, who bases his case on the fact that Katue was the spelling that Kitasono himself preferred. Those interested in more about Kitasono and surrealism should consult Solt's authoritative study Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning: The Poetry and Poetics of Kitasono Katue (1902-1978), Harvard East Asian Monographs No. 178, 1999. Two other important books in this area are Miryam Sas, Fault Lines: Cultural Memory and Japanese Surrealism, Stanford University Press, 2001 and Hosea Hirata, The Poetry and Poetics of Nishiwaki Junzaburô , Princeton University Press, 1993.

Many thanks to Sawako Nakayasu for sharing her translations of Sagawa Chika's “ Aoi Uma ” and “ Shiro to kuro ” with me.

translation index

table of contents