Japanese death poems in Stratton Quad

Last week, on March 11th, marked the one-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan. Two SIUE College of Arts and Sciences professors are marking that anniversary with a reading this Wednesday, March 21. At 12:00 in the Stratton Quad, Jeff Skoblow, professor of English language and literature, and Eric Ruckh, associate professor of historical studies, will read 111 poems from a collection of Japanese death poems.

According to Ruckh, the purpose of Japanese death poem tradition stems from a recognition in Japanese culture that every death is individual, even when two, or ten, to ten thousand people die at the same time. Each death is a unique moment.

Skoblow, left, and Ruckh mash-up poetry in Stratton quad in the fall of 2010.

“That’s one of the things the japanese death poem powerfully trying to make manifest–a person’s unique experience of death,” said Ruckh. “So, reading these 111 poems on something like the anniversary of this disaster, in which tens of thousands of people died, is some way to provide people an opportunity to see that shimmering universal yet absolutely unique quality of one’s death and not death itself.”

Ruckh stated that the tradition is not found within western cultures. Typically, western cultures tend to compartmentalize, hide or sometimes outright ignore death.

“What we’re going to read is a very unique form of poetry. I don’t know of a European culture that has the tradition of not just poets or monks or literary elites writing death poetry but, in Japan–they get widespread in the 19th century–and to this day all sorts of people, when they write their will, will write a death poem. Some people will try to wait until they are even sicker to write their death poem, or they will revise their death poem.”

Ruckh and Skoblow hope to bring the scene of the tragedy into focus for the audience that attends the reading. Both professors agreed that major cataclysmic events often become abstract as the numbers are given in traditional media outlets.

“The Tohoku earthquake-tsunami on last March 11, obviously a dramatic event. The images were dramatic. The scale of the destruction–dramatic. When it’s presented in mass media, mass visual media, the images of the destroyed towns, the images of the tsunami, those are powerful. Often, it’s also presented in forms of abstraction, numbers–15,000 people dead; numbers–50,000 people injured; numbers–9.0 earthquake,” said Ruckh. “All of those are important. They’re real, but they are also abstract.

Skoblow echoed Ruckh’s belief about the abstraction of catastrophic events, and how poetry can play a role in making it less abstract.

“If you think about the way we get information and the way we are able to reflect upon events like the earthquake, tsunami, or any other kind of disaster or major event, it’s channelled through commercial, corporate discourse largely. But there are other ways to think about things and poetry creates a kind of space for people to think in a more leisurely way maybe, more openly, more vulnerably, rather than have somebody direct some message at them,” said Skoblow.

Skoblow stated that the reading will also give audience members a look into the culture of Japan and its citizens. The death poems shine a spotlight on Japanese culture in that it makes public, as one approaches death, the experience of death.

“It’s a chance to take in a sense of Japanese culture that we don’t get from the other kinds of images, mostly that we get as visual images,” said Skoblow. “We can see some things but we’re not really directed to think about the culture exactly when we are looking at the audio-visual record. These poems speak deeply to and from a different cultural milieu.”

“And they also speak across it,”said Ruckh. “That’s something very powerful about these poems in particular or the haiku form–most of these poems are in the haiku form, 5-7-5 [syllables] in Japanese, generally 21 syllables. One of the things that a haiku tries to do is somehow collapse the distinction between speaker and listener, between world and self, between nature and culture. Those things get fused or at least pushed so close together because of that sharp constraint of 21 syllables.”

Ruckh and Skoblow will read from Yoel Hoffmann’s translation of Japanese death poems. According to Ruckh, the earliest history of death poems dates back to the 600’s. The earliest poem Ruckh and Skoblow will read dates back to 1200 and as recent as the early 20th century.

Ruckh and Skoblow have been presenting poetry together for more than five years. It began when Ruckh read “Howl” by Allan Ginsberg as part of one of his classes in which jazz pianist Steve Brown, emeritus professor of music, improvised on the piano as Ruckh read. He said he learned quickly how difficult it was to read a major work by himself. Ruckh and Skoblow, along with Allison Funk, professor of English language and literature, also read T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” Ruckh and Skoblow also do mash-ups of various poets on the quad at different points.

Reading “Howl” on the day it was published has become an annual tradition for Ruckh and Skoblow. For both professors, it comes down to an understanding that poetry needs to be read aloud to make it come alive.

“It had something to do, at least for me, it had something to do with the idea that poetry is a public–it should be read aloud, first of all–and that poetry is a piece of work, a work of a sort that is to be shared. And that, somehow, in the speaking of it, it changes, it does things to spaces and people,” said Ruckh

“Poetry is a kind of living, public language,” said Skoblow. “A lot of people around here on this campus know that and they come because they know that. And a lot of people don’t know that and they think of it as something that goes on in English classrooms. So, now that we’ve done this a number of times, it’s just clear to us that it performs a useful function on the campus. It allows people to reflect on things that they don’t have that kind of opportunity to reflect on.”

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