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  • Yoshioka MinoruA Life of Poetry
  • Eric Selland (bio)

Still Life and Monks, published in 1955 and 1958, respectively, contain the poems that launched the career of Yoshioka Minoru, one of Japan's most important and singular poets of the post–World War Two period. Still Life drew the attention and admiration of other poets of his generation, while Monks brought him a major prize for younger poets and the recognition of critics. Yoshioka went on to become the most influential poet of the avant-garde, embraced by countercultural circles in the 1960s, such as the Butoh dance group of Hijikata Tatsumi and figures in the underground theater such as Kara Jūrō and Terayama Shūji; virtually all of the major poets of the following generation were profoundly influenced by both his work and friendship, including Shiraishi Kazuko, Yoshimasu Gōzō, Kawata Ayane, and Hiraide Takashi.

Yoshioka was born in 1919 in the Shitamachi District of Tokyo. Self-taught, he began during his teens by writing in traditional forms of Japanese verse, such as tanka and haiku, then was inspired after reading experimental haiku by Tomisawa Kakio. Later, Yoshioka would be greatly influenced by the early Japanese modernists, and was introduced to Surrealist writing and art through the work of Kitasono Katue and Sagawa Chika. When drafted into the Imperial Army, he carried a number of books with him to the induction center, including a translation of Rilke's writings on Rodin. (The books were promptly confiscated by the military officer in charge, as all foreign literature by this time had been banned by the militarist government.) Yoshioka was sent to Manchuria during the war, and only by chance avoided the fate of other Japanese soldiers sent to prison camps in Siberia after the Imperial Army's surrender. He was transferred to another unit on a small island off the coast of North Korea as punishment for putting on a humorous play for the other soldiers with some friends, a parody of Cyrano de Bergerac with mildly erotic themes, involving word play and cross-dressing.

In Monks, a barely muted violence lies just below the surface absurdity of the poems—the senseless violence of war and the Kafkaesque madness of the society that produces such violence. When Yoshioka's first book, Still Life, [End Page 17] was published, the well-known poet Iijima Kōichi alerted the editor of Eureka magazine to the young poet, and the magazine's editors asked him to write about his war experience in Manchuria and North Korea. The result is the long poem sequence "The Dead Child."

But Yoshioka doesn't write about particular themes. During the years just after the war, there was a backlash against the modernists, who were seen as having been complicit with Japan's Fascism. Yoshioka, however, alone continued to uphold the modernist tradition in its pure form. His approach is what is often referred to as non-mimetic or non-representative. In other words, the poem does not refer to something outside the poem, but instead creates its own internal formal or linguistic space. In an autobiographical essay, Yoshioka wrote that he wanted to make something like a sculpture, something with a geometrical beauty. The poems in Still Life are essentially self-contained aesthetic objects. In fact, Yoshioka originally wanted to become a sculptor, and his early poems after the war were influenced by Rilke's book-length essay on Rodin. This does not mean that there is no meaning in Yoshioka's poems, but that meaning must be organically derived by the reader in an active approach to the reading.

The poems in Monks—Yoshioka's official debut collection (Still Life was self-published)—do not refer directly to war, nor do they explicitly symbolize wartime violence; nevertheless, Yoshioka's editors and many other readers at the time saw a symbolic or metaphoric relationship to Japan's war experience in Yoshioka's suggestive images. The long poem sequence "The Dead Child," for example, provides the reader with plenty of material with which to interpret the work in that way. There is also a rougher edge to the language in this collection than that in Still Life...