Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Hiroshima-Nagasaki Feature—Issue 56, August 2015)

Jeffrey Angles
On Hiromi Itō’s “Cooking, Writing Poetry”

The original for this poem was first included in a special collection of poetry published in the Asahi Shimbun on the one-year anniversary of 3.11, then reprinted in the March 2012 issue of Gendai shi techō (Handbook of Contemporary Poetry). In this poem, Itō recounts her complicated feelings after the quake. She begins with her admiration for her friend “Neko,” the celebrity chef Edamoto Nahomi, who started bringing food to the earthquake victims in Tōhoku, then expanded her involvement by transporting food prepared in the disaster zone back to Tokyo, thus providing work to women in the evacuation shelters and fighting the fear that things from the region were contaminated with radiation. Because she was so compelled to help, “Neko” comes to represents an almost bodhisattva-like figure to Itō, who found herself not knowing how to respond to the disasters, especially considering that she lives so far away from the disaster zone.

In the days immediately after the 2011 disasters, almost all advertising was pulled from Japanese television because no companies were willing to put their advertisements, especially ones showing conspicuous consumption, in front of the shocked and grieving Japanese public. The Advertising Council Japan quickly stepped in to run public service announcements, including one that quoted a simplistic, repetitive poem by the modernist poet Kaneko Misuzu (1903-1930) called “An Echo Perhaps?” (Kodama deshō ka). The following is the text of the poem, which was quoted in its entirety in the ad.

An Echo Perhaps?
Kaneko Misuzu

One of us says, “Let’s play,”

And one of us says, “Let’s play.”

One of us says, “Dummy,”

And one of us says, “Dummy.”

One of us says, “I won’t play anymore,”

And one of us says, “I won’t either.”

And then later

One of us becomes sad

One of us says, “Sorry,”

And one of us says, “Sorry.”

An echo perhaps?

No, happens to everyone.1

The text of Kaneko’s poem was followed by words on the screen stating, “If you speak kindly to others, others will respond to you kindly.”2 With so many companies pulling their advertisements, this public service announcement appeared so often that for the many people who were glued to their television sets, the announcement became one enduring memory of March 2011. At the same time, this commercial helped to demonstrate to the Japanese population the power of poetry, suggesting to them that language could help with the work of healing and maintaining civility in the face of terrible odds.

Kaneko’s poem makes an important appearance in Itō’s poem. She writes that she felt useless and unsure how she as poet might contribute to relief efforts. These feelings were only complicated by the fact that simplistic poems, like the often repeated one by Kaneko Misuzu, seemed to be cropping up everywhere after 3.11. In particular, Itō mentions a poem by an American poet, namely J.D. McClatchy’s poem “One Year Later,” published in March Was Made of Yarn (Vintage International, 2012). Jeffrey Angles rendered McClatchy’s poem into Japanese for inclusion in a Japanese-language edition of the same collection, and showed it to Itō in order to get her opinion. Her reaction is clearly visible in this poem.

Itō has commented that when the editor Kameoka Daisuke asked her to write for the one-year anniversary of the disasters in the Asahi shimbun, she had already read so many dull, straightforward poems about the disasters like McClatchy’s that she found herself resisting the idea that she should add her voice to them.3 How was she supposed to write about a subject so big? What modes of expression could she use to say something that might stand apart from the cacophony of clichés? Writing poetry might represent a means of relating to a subject for the poet, but what does that mean to other ordinary people? Isn’t writing about subjects so big little more than an act of ego?

Itō decided that instead of writing an ordinary poem, in which the experiences of the earthquake would be described, contained within, and perhaps even trivialized by the niceties of poetic language, she decided to write an “anti-poem.” The result was “Cooking, Writing Poetry,” penned in language as prosaic as possible.4 In it, she captures her own experiences with the disaster while scrupulously avoiding the clichés that she had seen in other works. In the poem, Itō criticizes those poets who wrote simply because they felt the need to respond to what one commentator has called the “over-determined mandate” to write about the disasters.5 Still, she adds that she does harbor some small bit of admiration even for the most cliché-ridden of writers, considering that she personally had not had any idea how to respond.

Rather than searching across space to come to grips with the tragedy, she turned across time, re-reading and translating the classic piece of literature Account of My Ten-Foot Square Hut (Hōjōki), in which the twelfth-century author Kamo no Chōmei describes the earthquakes and disasters of his own age. In other words, Itō differs from her contemporaries who use original textual production as a way of grappling with the disasters; instead, she reworks someone else’s words to relate to the experience and make it real for her.

In fact, Itō’s poem suggests that creating relationships represents the only meaningful way to deal with the disaster. Itō calls for a revival of humanism that puts Buddhist principles into work and urges people to realize their interconnectedness. In her estimation, the need for connection, selfless dedication, and action trumps other artistic concerns. If poetry is to have a place in the aftermath of a disaster, it is as a means to further that humanitarian mission.


1AC Japan 2011. The translation is my own.
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2AC Japan 2011.
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3Angles and Itō 2014.
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4Angles and Itō 2014.
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5Fowler 2013.
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