Misuzu Kaneko: The Sad Life of a Happy Poet

misuzu-kanekoBy Sally Ito, Winnipeg, Canada

When Misuzu Kaneko (1903–1930) started writing poetry, she lived in the town of Senzaki in Yamaguchi prefecture. It is a picturesque place on a finger of land extending into the Sea of Japan. Misuzu would have been in her late teens, just out of high school. An avid reader with ready exposure to books in the family bookstore, she took to writing poetry with natural, unaffected ease. And she was happy then. Or so I would like to think.

Like Yazaki Setsuo who re-discovered Misuzu’s poetry in the sixties, my encounter with Misuzu began first with the poetry which I, too, found startlingly fresh and arresting. The poetry led naturally to the question ‘Who is this Misuzu?’ and much like Yazaki I was drawn to finding out who this voice belonged to. What I discovered was both astonishing and yet somehow predictably tragic. Misuzu had a short life which she ended herself after a terrible arranged marriage that left her physically unable to look after her daughter. For only a brief period in her early twenties did she enjoy literary success before everything came crashing down around her.

As my aunt Michiko and I began translating Misuzu’s poetry together (which eventually resulted in the publication of the book, Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko) we did so with the weight of her sad life on our minds. Her life was incongruous with the poetry, written as it was, for children. Michiko wondered if Misuzu was happy. Some of her poems were dark; Misuzu was mindful of mortality, and she was unafraid of death. However, as we worked through the poems together, Michiko sensed that Misuzu was happy, and happiest when she was writing of the things she observed with the particular child-like vision she had of the world. And this happiness was deep and true and worth recording.

There are some people too gentle for this world, I thought, while working on the translations. Misuzu seemed like one of them. And yet what a treasure she left to the world in her poetry!  Feeling that I had to work out my complicated feelings about Misuzu’s short life and her luminous poems, I wrote this essay, “Forgotten Woman,” recently published in Electric Literature.

Photo Courtesy of Preservation Association of Misuzu Kaneko’s Work.


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