Books: A kick up the verse

ANGRY WHITE PYJAMAS by Robert Twigger Indigo pounds 6.99
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The Independent Culture
Despite the raised profile of poets as performers it will take more than a handful of white powder thrown over oneself while declaiming about cocaine to move poetry from the realm of words, thoughts and feelings into the parallel world of action.

In Japan there is a tradition for poets to be much more than just poets. The Confucian idea of the six excellences is behind it all - and in the Japanese form of Chu Hsi fathered the proverbial expression ken fu ryo do, or the Dual Way of the Pen and the Sword. To be considered a well- rounded man, you had to be able to fight as well as write.

Robert Twigger came to realise that a fertile mind in a deteriorating body leads to a feeling of overwhelming uneasiness and "an existential value approaching zero". His Newdigate Poetry Prize wasn't going to deter anyone who felt like a bit of performance criticism in the form of a punch in the face. He'd left it a bit late to learn how to fight, but as he was in Japan he might as well go the whole hog and find the nastiest school in town.

Angry White Pyjamas chronicles the year the author spent training five hours a day with the Kidotai, or Tokyo Riot Police, undertaking the toughest martial arts course in the world. A few weeks before putting on his white pyjamas, the training uniform of the Japanese martial arts, Twigger was living off boil-in-the-bag curry, chain smoking and drinking pint after pint of coffee. His only exercise was walking round the corner to buy more fags. Poetry involved a lot of sitting, a lot of smoking, drinking coffee and reflecting. Then he discovered Yamaoke Tesshu: poet, womaniser, imbiber of huge quantities of sake and warrior. Teshhu was Meiji Japan's greatest swordsman, bodyguard to the Emperor and among the most sought- after calligraphers and poets. Why not try to be like Tesshu?

Twigger earned his black belt after suffering the near-medieval tortures of the Yoskinkan Dojo of Tokyo, where punishments included being made to kneel for hours on end or being forced to bunny-hop until you fell unconscious, all designed to test konjo, or guts, and to forge an indomitable spirit. They were teaching the English poet Yamato Damashi, the spirit of Japanese Uniqueness, how to stay in the Jungle for 40 years after the end of the war or how to become the richest country on earth by working 17 hours a day until you die from karoshi, overwork. This book is a peep show into a world of militaristic discipline and anachronistic formality in a direct line from the fascist 1930s, set side by side with the frenzy of today's Tokyo, where identical suburbs are reached by second-perfect trains to reveal pachinko parlours and neon signs selling schoolgirls' used underwear, next to bath houses and Zen temples.

This is a splendidly written adventure, something sane at last on the craziness of the martial arts and a must for anyone as yet unconvinced that the Japanese are different.