Imbued with an almost disquieting emotional directness, Takuboku’s tanka raised the art form to new levels. Born in 1886 as Ishikawa Hajime, he died from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-six, leaving a wife and daughter.

Though brief, his life was full of shadows. Like most of us will, he suffered much and brought much suffering. He was lost and weak and mad with the pain. And he created beauty. Poems, he said, were his sad toys.

When I read Ryokan or Issa or Basho, I can feel their loneliness, and their acute sensitivity to the sufferings of this world. But I smile, because I also feel the love and absolute peace that is centered in those men.

When I read Takuboku, it’s more akin to a pure, crystalline sadness.

Words like this only do so much. I’ll the man speak for himself.

( These translations come from Poems to Eat. Ishikawa Takuboku. Carl Sesar, Translator. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1966. Sadly out of print. )

on a white strip of sand
on a tiny island
in the eastern sea
drowned in tears
I play with a crab

wrote GREAT
in the sand
a hundred times
forgot about dying
and went on home

I work, work
and still
no joy in my life
I stare
at my hands

at that moment
had you
spoken to me
I might have
had to kill you

thought I'd
stopped telling lies
that was this morning--
just told

doctor says
'Well now,
tired of living?'
I keep my
mouth shut

Besides his famous “Romaji Diary,” his works are rather difficult to find in English. I believe Carl Sesar’s translation to be among the best I’ve seen. The titles of his poetry collections are “Akogare (Longing),” “Ichiaku no suna (A Handful of Sand),” and “Kanashiki gangu (Sad Toys).”

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