duration press -- international poetry

Nagata Koi

Nagata Koi (1900 - 1997)

Man in summer sees feet in old pond... and dies

Sad the summer ocean - those two feet

[from "Degree Zero", 1970-75]

Born in 1900 in the Kobe area, Nagata Koi began composing haiku at a young age, though his publishing career did not start until much later. Completing the standard public school education of Meiji Period Japan Koi was employed by the Mitsubishi Paper Company at age 18 where he spent much of his adult years as a master paper maker (he was the paper factory manager during the war years). His first book was published in 1930, but his output was sparse until the late 40's. He is best known for the work of his older years (over sixty) which is truly his most creative period. Koi's work is eccentric and difficult, yet once the outer shell of the unusually dense language with its unique character compounds and made-up words is cracked, the poetry is warm, personal, humorous and enlightening. In a period where haiku, even at its best, has usually meant no more than a sophisticated parlor game far from any of the intellectual or social concerns of the modern Japanese novel or experimental poetry, Koi's work is the only modern haikuist which takes up where Basho left off. Koi's haiku explores the human condition from a Zen Buddhist perspective. It sees the humor in the pathetic and the ridiculous, while finding redemption in the experience of the moment, where truth is found in "emptiness". The wording of Koi's haiku itself seems to be influenced by the structures and syntax of Dogen's philosophical works. Koi gives up the seasonal words, precise syllable counts and politenesses of conventional haiku in favor of directness and surprise. The work occasionally shocks or confuses with its dense syntax and odd character compounds, but not only does it surprise, it pleases as well. It has been difficult to gain recognition from the highly conservative haiku world. But Koi has great admirers among this centuries major Modernist and Post-Modernist poets in Japan, as well as artists of other genres. Koi was also an accomplished painter and calligrapher, and he has written several volumes of essays and criticism. Nagata Koi's work is included in the Asahi Bunko Modern Haiku Collection. There is a beautiful collected poems most likely very rare now, a book of his paintings and calligraphy, and a number of websites devoted to his haiku and painting (Japanese operating system required for these websites). The translations appearing here are the only ones in existence as far as I know. Nagata Koi was at home near the beach outside of Kobe asleep in the upstairs bedroom when the Kobe earthquake struck. Despite being well over 90 years old he managed to escape unhurt by jumping out of the second story window. Though he survived, the experience of loosing his home of many years and the necessity of being moved to a nursing home must have weakened him. He died at age 97, having actively produced incredible work up until a few months before his death.

[Note: I use the traditional Japanese order of the name here - last name first, and also follow the haiku tradition of calling the poet affectionately by his first name, which in the haiku world is most often the pen name].

-- Eric Selland



Selected Haiku