At the age of 95, the celebrated haiku poet Koi Nagata lost his house in the earthquake that devastated Kobe. But he did not lose his life. "Just two minutes before the quake struck at 5.46, I had gone to the toilet, a solid, brick-built refuge that preserved me, like a miracle, when the house collapsed.
"I tried to attract attention by banging the washbasin with a yuzamashi (a copper tea- ceremony utensil). It was quite fun, banging away like that -kankara kan! kankara kan! It sounded like a Buddhist chant - Nammyohorengekkyo - and I was rescued by a delivery boy from the sake shop next door."
The number of people writing haiku in Japan was said to be 10 million. But those numbers are now decreasing rapidly: haiku writers are growing old and dying, and the young now are for the most part more interested in material things than in the evanescent and difficult art of haiku. So Nagata's passing is being regarded as being symbolic of the rapid decline in the "haiku boom" of the last few decades. There are still some ancient haijin, some of them over a hundred years old, but they are no longer practising. Koi Nagata was the oldest poet in activity.
He started writing haiku at the age of 17, but, 80 years later, he said he was still learning: "I never tired of composing haiku, and my work is still not finished. I always feel I have further to go, taking the middle path in life, which allows me to go on burning myself out with poetic energy."
Nagata had lifelong employment at Mitsubishi's Takasago Paper Factory. Before the Second World War, he had belonged to the same haiku group as Hakyo Ishida, known for its poetic research into humanitarian themes. After the war, he joined for a while the Tenro (Sirius) group around the influential poet and critic Seishi Yamaguchi.
But in 1949 he started his own group, with the magazine Rila-za ("Lyra"). Founding his practice on zen thought, he wrestled with the themes of space, religion, philosophy, and established his own unique haiku style, distinguished by its sense of life's all-pervading loneliness, and the desolation of man's fatal decay. His favourite Western poet was W.B. Yeats, whose short poem "After Long Silence" gave him his motto: "Bodily decrepitude is wisdom . . ."
He learned from the great medieval noh dramatist Zeami to appreciate the beauty of decay. Zeami said: "What is interesting is that the flower becomes withered." Nagata said: "That sort of beauty in decline is more interesting to me, because there is energy in that decline. I always have a longing to witness the death of the flowers and plants before my very eyes. Most people try to see flowers blooming in their prime, but I desire to see them at their end."
So his very personal and sometimes obscure style, like no other, is linked to the imagery of decrepitude, loneliness, the frailty of natural things. His aim was to transcend despair by creating vital haiku whose energies sprang from the depths of the poet's solitude.
After the earthquake, he criticised the general lowering of haiku standards: "Most people are content with learning technique, but they are like children splashing around in shallow water. It makes me sad that in general haiku people are so superficial, without zen, without philosophical backbone" - a view shared by our own great haiku scholar R.H. Blyth, but not by most of the British haiku establishment.
Nagata detested the power struggles that go on in the ranks of haiku groups, and always disassociated himself from such intrigues. "Power, fame, riches, a comfortable life are all far removed from the true way of haiku. I admire Basho's haiku because he upholds the principles of detachment from human desires, and respect for the life of the spirit."
After the Kobe earthquake, Nagata wrote a collection about that experience, Jijin, which includes this typical "haiku of the beauty of decay":
The withered grasses -
without a house to live in,
my life burns hotter.
He added: "I have come to understand loneliness from the bottom of my heart." And: "When you really become familiar with loneliness, it becomes its opposite, and is filled with gaiety." He quoted the last lines from Yeats's great poem "From Oedipus at Colonus":
Never to have lived is best, ancient
Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the eye
of the day;
The second best's a gay goodnight
and quickly turn away.
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