Feature Articles

MUTUALLY INSPIRED: POETRY TOUR OF IRELAND BY JAPANESE POETS by Mitsuko Ohno

(Poetry Ireland News, March/April 2003)

In the calmest morning air, atop the stone stage of Dún Aengus, a Japanese piper begins to play his bamboo flute, facing a broad expanse of blue sky and ocean. Behind him, a small audience gradually forms, at first perhaps puzzled by the unexpected junction of the setting and the music, but soon absorbed in the sheer delight of listening. As the piper finishes, a listener brings out from her bag a tin whistle, and proposes to reciprocate by playing an Irish tune herself. Time seems to have stopped, and the visitors continue to linger, sharing the pleasure of this rare meeting at an ancient border between land and ocean.

This scene on Inishmór, in the Aran islands, epitomises our whole experience in Ireland this summer (2002). Two poets, Mutsuo Takahashi and Mikiro Sasaki, shakuhachi player Masashi Kikuchi, and two scholar-translators, Nobuaki Tochigi and myself, travelled around Ireland from 19th to 30th of August, giving poetry 'concerts' at four different venues in Dublin, Galway, Sligo and Donegal, all organised by Poetry Ireland. Throughout the scheduled tour, Ireland kept surprising us with chance encounters that proved both gratifying and unforgettable.

This year's tour was similar to one four of us - the two poets and the two critics - took three summers ago, again at the invitation of Poetry Ireland and with the support of the Japan Foundation. Poets and readers who live worlds apart met face to face in Ireland for the first time; heard each other's voices sound the poems and listened to the translations; exchanged ideas, as well as their art; and shared their love for words. For the visiting poets, the strong impact of the encounter with the Irish poets in their land immediately bore fruit in the form of poetry, as Takahashi began to write poem after poem during the trip, later collected in the highly acclaimed Beyond the Hedge.

Being guided by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill in Dingle and then by Cathal Ó Searcaigh in Donegal was especially meaningful to the poets this summer, just as it was three years before: Takahashi was inspired by Cathal's own spring well to write a poem entitled 'Uncovering a Well', and Sasaki later wrote a poem on private mythology, 'A Tale of the Sand Garden', dedicated to Nuala. These poems, the products of our previous tour, were translated into English first by myself, and then Frank Sewell refined the Takahashi poems, and Joseph Woods those by Sasaki. When read at concerts this summer, they were highly appreciated by the Irish poets who had inspired them, as well as the listeners.

The idea of bringing a musician was inspired by the reading that took place in Belfast on the earlier tour. Our kind host Michael Longley suggested that the Irish poets read the English translations of the Japanese poems - a gesture of great hospitality, indeed - and Ciaran Carson both surprised and totally charmed us by adding the flute to his reading. To match his flute, we could only think of collaborating with a great shakuhachi master, and were delighted by the reaction of the audience at all concerts, including the impromptu one that morning at Dún Aengus.

It is said that the Irish are the most receptive poetry audience, and certainly our tour offered concrete evidence in support of this. The venue for our first reading, the Pearse Family Home in Dublin, was packed with attentive listeners, which was a very promising sign for the success of the tour. After the readings, Tochigi and I were glad to be kept busy interpreting the audience's compliments and questions for the poets and the musician. The venue outside Galway, at Campbell's, offered a modest but hospitable audience whose gracious reception, in addition to the enthusiasm of the hosts, warmed our hearts.

The third reading, hosted by Yeats Society at the Yeats Memorial Building in Sligo, proved to be the highlight of our tour. Because four of us as poets and scholars had been under the spell of W.B. Yeats in our professional and personal lives (especially Takahashi who had translated At the Hawk's Well into a Japanese Noh play), we wished for, and thought we actually felt, the benevolent presence of the great predecessor as we read there. 'The reciprocity of influence,' was mentioned in the host's speech, and we were delighted to find afterwards that several of the audience had lived in Japan and enjoyed the poems in the original Japanese. The world is certainly much smaller than we think.

Probably the best proof of the Irish being the best listeners when it comes to poetry was given to us at the Ó Searcaigh Theatre the next night. Cathal and his friends took turns reading the English translation of the Japanese poems, and their most sincere rendition and interpretation of the poems offered a multiplicity of voices and styles to the packed and intent audience who listened with quiet encouragement. The concert finished with Takahashi's poem 'Process' - 'Now it's gone quiet; the place is at peace. / This town, the world, is going through a process. / I raise my glass. Here's to the process!' - and everyone raised his/her glass in appreciation... We felt our mission was accomplished.

The tour did not really end when we left Ireland, for the poets continue to write poems out of the experiences of the trip, the musician continues to digest his findings, and Tochigi and I continue to preach the vigorous diversity of contemporary Irish poetry, while busily translating poems into and from English and Japanese. We hope the reciprocity of influence means a 'process' for betterment of art at both ends of the world.

Mitsuko Ohno, Professor of English at Aichi Shukutoku University, Japan, has translated Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland and Paul Muldoon, among others.

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