Reconsidering the Poetry of Ishikawa Jozan

In 1976, the esteemed scholar, Donald Keene, wrote this about Ishikawa Jozan’s poetry: “There was more than a touch of dilettante to Jozan. His poetry is dotted with self-contented and excessively self-congratulatory references to his withdrawal from the strife and ambitions of the world.”


I don’t know if Keene’s thinking ever changed, but I have never been able to shake the feeling that his opinion was formed based on an unfairly limited selection of Ishikawa’s poems. Granted, Keene had the advantage of reading Ishikawa’s work in its original form whereas I am reading it filtered by translations that might reflect modern sensibilities. On the other hand, Keene was writing a broad survey of Japanese literature, whereas I have had the luxury of focusing on a single artist’s work. Caveats aside, a statement as strong as Keene’s demands a closer examination of Ishikawa’s poetry.

What this examination reveals is the danger of pigeonholing Ishikawa. He was a complex human being and his poetry reveals many facets of his personality. To dismiss his work based on an occasional celebration of his retirement would be to miss a chance to see seventeenth century Japan through the eyes of a man who witnessed one of the greatest transformations in the country’s history. Yet there is also a decidedly modern sensibility in his work that seems admirable today, for it suggests that Ishikawa was searching for a way out of the feudal mindset when it would have been all too easy to enjoy his privileged life outside the Japanese caste system.

Ishikawa’s poetry is more attuned to the modern reader than most of his contemporaries in Japan or abroad. Where his contemporaries were preoccupied with writing about religion (Gensei, John Milton), love (Andrew Marvell, John Donne), or politics (Alexander Pope), Ishikawa was writing inwardly focused poems that if not quite confessional, still anticipated a more personal style of poetry that gained currency in the 20th century and persists today. In the end, whether or not Ishikawa’s poetry anticipates or belongs to one literary tradition or another is irrelevant. The essential appeal of Ishikawa is that he wrote mood poems, describing the world around him to hint at the current state of his inner life. His poems thus invite the reader to identify with him and share a connection that transcends time, language, and culture.

Ishikawa visited the Arima hot springs near Kobe during his final return from Hiroshima to Kyoto in 1635. One poem he wrote about the experience, “Hell Valley,” evokes the mood and atmosphere of the place to great effect. It is also worth noting how even though Ishikawa was no longer a Buddhist, he was more shaken by this evocation of the eighth level of Buddhist hell than most Confucians of the time would have been willing to admit. (All poems translated by Burton Watson and Jonathan Chaves as noted.)

Hell Valley (tr. Watson)

Beyond the village, an unpeopled region--
everyone calls it the citadel of Avichi.
When the sun sets, woodcutters grow fearful;
when clouds rise up the angry thunder growls.
Mountain spirits weep in the gloomy rain,
night monkeys cry to the moon as it shines.
In this lonely, deserted valley
the voice of the cuckoo would frighten your soul.

Some of my favourite Ishikawa poems employ images that would have made 20th century Modernists proud. While Ishikawa did not ruthlessly pare his poems to the point where nothing remained but the image, it is not a stretch to compare them to the work of William Carlos Williams or Ezra Pound (unsurprising perhaps, considering the influence Japanese aesthetics had on Pound).

Thanking Someone for Making Me a Gift of Melon (tr. Chaves)

On its jade skin the dew has not dried:
a melon worthy of the Imperial Carver’s knife!
It can dispel the heat of summer,
the green ice chilly as it touches your teeth.

Homing Crows (tr. Watson)

Day after day with the evening sun
in flocks they wing by, wheeling, turning,
like a go board where white stones have all been defeated,
or a sheet of paper covered with random spatters of ink.

If the dominant mood that pervades his work is melancholy, it by no means prevented Ishikawa from occasionally indulging in more lighthearted fare. In “Sandfly,” Ishikawa berates a blood sucking insect, noting how its bite makes his skin look like embroidery (Watson) or the blood swollen abdomen itself resembles embroidery (Chaves), depending on the translation. He also wasn’t above mocking his own attachment to his nyoi scepters, described by Chaves as “symbols of authority or scholarly and spiritual attainment.”

Inscription for a Fantastic Bamboo Nyoi Scepter (tr. Chaves)

Ah, nyoi of bamboo!
Elephant’s trunk, dragon’s shape
held in the hands of Confucian scholars
also by martial officers
hollow down the center to express
clarity of mind
How could I use you merely to scratch my back?

Perhaps because most of his poetry tends to be inward looking, when he writes about problems in the wider world the impact is heightened.

(Untitled) (tr. Chaves)

Why was this a year of such disaster?
Beggars cry out along the roads.
Autumn downpours fall four months straight;
wind-swept fires raged all three months of spring.
Woodcutters can find no firewood;
farmers have given up their crops.
In the capital, rice sells for thousands:
how can the poor get anything to eat?

If a pattern emerges reading Ishikawa’s poetry, it is his capacity for self-contradiction. For every poem like “Recording My Feelings in Old Age” that claims he has withdrawn from the world (“My Tao-mind has forgotten worldly matters”-Chaves), it is undercut by an empathetic poem like the one shared above. This tendency toward self-contradiction can also be observed in every poem of self-contentment that is answered by a poem of self-castigation. The following two poems represent the extreme example of each tendency.

Self-Eulogy on His Birthday Portrait as Painted by Kanō Tanyū (tr. Chaves)

Nyoi in hand, leaning on an armrest,
wearing dark robe and black cap.
Silent in his noble visage;
brilliant is his spirit.
He communicates with the Creator
and nurtures the Tao within.
A stubborn old man now eighty years old,
a hermit of three-fold yang.
And who is this hermit, you may ask?
The Mountain Man of the Thirty-Six!

Impromptu Feelings (tr. Chaves)

Lazy, living at a time of peace,
I’ve roosted for years in this wooded place.
Life and death I leave to Heaven and Earth;
withdrawal and service?--lethargic as a cow!
My body hidden away, I decline all visitors;
my spirit turned inward, nourish old age and poverty.
Of ten poems I write, eight or nine are clumsy--
I go by feeling and don’t seek perfect form.

Perhaps no poem balances Ishikawa’s sense of contentment living at Shisendo with his self-blame for not writing than “Recording Thoughts.” What distinguishes this poem is that Jozan departs from his usual scapegoat, laziness, to intimate at a gnawing anxiety about mortality.

Recording Thoughts (tr. Watson)

Years ago, I retired to rest,
did some modest building in this crinkle of the mountain.
Here in the woods, no noise, no trash;
in front of my eaves, a stream of pure water.
In the past I hoped to profit by opening books;
now I’m used to playing games in the dirt.
What is there that is not a child’s pastime?
Confucius, Lao Tzu--a handful of sand.

Although “Recording Thoughts” was not the only poem in which he contemplated mortality, I find it reassuring that in his last known poem, Ishikawa found peace.

Leaning on a Cane, Singing (tr. Watson)

Leaning on a cane by the wooded village,
trees rising thick all around:
a dog barks in the wake of a beggar;
in front of the farmer, the ox plowing.
A whole lifetime of cold stream waters,
in age and sickness, the evening sun sky--
I have tasted every pleasure of mist and sunset
in these ten-years-short-of-a-hundred.

Even after reading this small sample of his work, it becomes apparent that Ishikawa was a complex man who explored his contradictions through his writing. To take him at his word in any one poem without considering it in the context of his wider work would be to unfairly oversimplify him. If readers can forgive Ishikawa’s occasional foray into self-congratulation, they will encounter a true individual and a refreshing antidote to the stereotypical image of the conformist samurai.

If you would like to read more about Jozan or his poetry, I would direct you to Further Reading for more detailed bibliographic information. Although both books quoted here are out of print, reasonably priced copies are available on the second hand market.

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