I have been reading the poetry of Tamura Ryuichi (1923-1998) recently, and it is a delight. It oscillates between surprisingly dark aphorisms and light, conversational maliciousness like this:

I read a boy’s poem called
“Every Morning after Killing Thousands of Angels”
I forget the poem, but the title won’t leave me
I drink some coffee
read a paper read by millions
all the misery
all the destruction in the world
herded into headlines and catch phrases
the only part I trust
is the financial page
a completely blank space governed
by the mechanics of capital and pure speculation

Ryuichi is no apologist of modern money markets, and he regularly needles modern consumerism, but it is those “catch phrases” that, well, really rub him the wrong way.

Born in Tokyo, Ryuichi served in World War II as an artillery gunman northwest of Kyoto but didn’t see combat. Influenced by the poetry of T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden and by his experience of propaganda during and after the war, Ryuichi came to understand poetry, against ideology, as a temporal expression of the passions and will of individuals in concrete and evocative language. In “The House of Man,” he writes that he longs for the “verbs” of the “present” instead of the “frothing language, information from the language, information from the information” of the public square:

adjectives: every possible empty adjective
adverbs: coarse and unsightly adverbs
nouns: boring boring nouns are in abundance but
there are no verbs whichever way I turn
all I want is verbs

I am sick and tired of a society made solely of future and past tenses
what I want is the present tense

Ideology pre-packages life in super-imposed concepts (“concepts,” Ryuichi writes, “make people need forks and chopsticks”), but poetry—real poetry—touches our present lives,  raises the dead. “Perhaps a great poem,” Ryuichi writes,

travels faster than the speed of light
forcing humans
to invade the present from the future
and the past from the present—
a dead man steps out of the ground,
returns to the hands of those who buried him,
then, moving backwards, continues on
to the flesh-colored ark that bore him,
the original birthing spring

Of course, Ryuichi is aware that poems, like ideologies, are abstracted from particular experiences and events and can be just as deadly to the things we associate with life. In “Water,” he writes that “poetry is in essence a fixed form,” and in “Four Thousand Days and Nights,” one of Ryuichi’s most famous poems, he writes:

In order for a poem to be born
we must kill
we must kill many
we shoot down, assassinate, poison many we love

* * *

In order to give birth to a poem
we must kill those we love
that is the only way to resurrect the dead
it is the path we must take

In other words, poets use experience and memories to build poems, transforming those experiences into something else and, therefore, though I am not sure I entirely agree with Ryuichi on this, killing the original significance.

The difference between the language of poetry and the language of ideology, at least in principle, is found in poetry’s commitment to the passions, the hungers, the pain and suffering, the real nitty-gritty details of life first rather than beginning with an idea, a “concept,” and applying that one idea to all phenomena, which is the way of ideologies. In “The Thin Line,” for example, Ryuichi imagines the poet as a blind but starving hunter who tries “to close in on a single heart,” and in a poem on the day he met Auden, “The Day the Mercury Sank,”   he writes, perhaps thinking of Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”: “A deer at bay will fall from the cliff, / but for a human being to fall, / there has to be a poem.”

There’s death in art but also life, while in ideology there is just death and sex, “destruction and reproduction”:

The path of death and sex
path of small animals and insects
a band of bees bends and breaks away
thousands of needles lying in ambush
path without judgments and counter-judgments
without the meaning of meaning
without judgments of judgments
path  without empty structures, minor desires
without metaphors, symbols, all imagination
only destruction and reproduction

In short, ideology transforms us into animals—never completely, of course, because we remain human despite everything—by making our thinking, our moral reasoning and our imagination superfluous.