oceans beyond monotonous space
selected poems of Kitasono Katue

                                                 by Anny Ballardini

                                                 dedicated to Bill Lavender
                                                                      MFA – UNO
                                                                      Directed Studies


I always felt a distance from ideology. Ideology is a blank sheet of paper. What is important is method.
                                   —from Kitasono Katue’s Sole Interview
                                    In YU #8 (1975), K. Katue 


The present review has been undertaken as a tribute to Karl Young’s dedication to poetry, see his Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry site. I received from him several months ago: OCEANS BEYOND MONOTONOUS SPACE : Selected poems of Kitasono Katue (1902-1979); translated by John Solt with an introduction by Karl Young, editors Karl Young and John Solt. Karl Young’s is a superbly written introduction of twenty-eight pages. His reading of Kitasono Katue’s poetry is made attentive by trying to depict the historical and literary setting through which the various artistic forms that the Poet anticipated in Japan are highlighted, see Visual Art, Concretism, movements like Language Poetry, which took questioning of the nature of referentiality as a basic tenet, and finally Plastic poems with their international connections. Karl Young’s in-depth knowledge of Ezra Pound that has accompanied him for decades, must be added. The present book, thanks to Young’s introduction, becomes an important tool in the comprehension of our recent past history. It might be interesting to notice the series of coincidences that Young wishes to underline. By E-mail, Young speaks of a Conference on Kenneth Rexroth held in October, 2007, at Kanda University, Tokyo. Among the speakers John Solt with copies of Kitasono Katue, and Morgan Gibson


who arranged for Rexroth to do a residency in Milwaukee when I was a student, introduced me to him, and started a process that bore many results. One that might have happened, anyway: I put up at my web site Morgan's book on Rexroth, the first scholarly work published on him as one of the first complete books I did online.

                             — E-mail from Karl Young, 10/22/2007 6:01 PM

Karl Young wrote a poem for the special occasion, with his permission I am reproducing it here below:

  The Good Days
        for Kenneth Rexroth

If all has gone according to
plan, this poem is being read in
public for the first time on
October seventh, two thousand
and seven — my sixtieth birthday.
The reader is Morgan Gibson,
who introduced me to you some
forty years ago. If in no
other way, you hear some of it
through ears you trained to hear
the fluent jazz of verbal
modulation as alternative
to the howls of braggarts, the drones
of trendy fops, and the whimpers
of those who welcome luxurious

I started writing the poem
on Hiroshima Day. There was
no plan in that, just the prompting
of a note received by email.
Yet the timing fits. The "good days"
have not come since you wrote
your memorial to Eli
Jacobson. War has become
more savage and more ridiculous,
and remains the health of the state.
As one result of the worship
of incompetence and waste,
America has thrown away
the sacred city where jazz was
born. Environmental degradation
charges forward at warp speed.

You called for independence
and pluralism - for debate,
diversity, and advance through
interpersonal dialectic,
an individualist communalism,
however rancorous and dark
the process of achieving it
might become, and however
pointlessly antagonistic
you and your example might be.
If nowhere else, your model
of Utopia may have been
fulfilled among your readers.
No other poet of your era
holds a readership as diverse
and inconsistent as yours.
Many of the people in this
room would have nothing to do with
each other if they hadn't heard
the most basic and least easily
defined elements of poetry
in the gracefulness of your lines.

What does that mean?

Well, I ask you, you the heirs
and reincarnations of Kenneth,
assembled in this room, as I ask
myself, sitting in a park on the
other side of the world two months
ago, how important is it
to share a means of speaking that
transcends our differences,
and animosities? If we
cannot achieve that, how can we
hope to connect our cells, reach
beyond our limitations, and
be open to the world outside
our webs of literati? And
if we can't do that, why should we
write at all?

Food tastes better, drink sparkles more
brightly, men and women grow more
beautiful, for those lucky enough
to hear you speaking to us from
what you called alternately the
good days and the bad old days —
and their echoes from those to come.

                                          © Karl Young

Another coincidence that might fit the revolving and spiraling movement of human interactions - or are we to find Walter Pater’s spirit of distinction still alive, or Rudolf Steiner’s fires that attract similar souls - may be the mention that I am writing this paper for my Directed Studies at UNO – University of New Orleans, MFA Low Residency Program, Professor and Director Bill Lavender. I was first introduced to my MFA studies by two people, Barry Alpert and Mary de Rachewiltz. Together with the copy I received of Kitasono Katue, there is also one for Mary, not only because of Ezra Pound’s interest for the Japanese poet, but especially and also because “Pound sent [Kitasono] a school paper written by his 12 year old daughter. Kitasono translated the paper and arranged for its publication in Fujin Gaho, a Japanese magazine for proper teenage girls,” as Karl Young writes in his introduction to the present text, and he continues: “This dispelled difficulties brewing between them and brings some relief into the darkening world events moving in on the two poets.”

On a personal note since I already feel caught into the endless twinkling of coincidences, Ezra Pound, as Young dutifully records, mentions Kitasono on several occasions in his Guide to Kulchur1, text I took from the library in Brunnenburg, Italy - seat of UNO’s summer residency to study Pound - to Venice on the summer semester’s closing tour on Pound’s steps with Professor John Gehry. Text I literally made unusable for the library because of the many notes I scribbled on it. I therefore ordered a new copy for Brunnenburg which finally arrived and is ready to be taken to Mary de Rachewiltz with Kitasono’s OCEANS BEYOND MONOTONOUS SPACE, together with SHOULD SUN FOREVER SHINE2 by the same Karl Young, a series of visual poems I later had the opportunity of translating. Here are Karl Young's words again:

SHOULD SUN FOREVER SHINE was one of many works which her father's ghost haunts and you 'brought home' by translating into modern Italian. SHOULD SUN is based on fragments of old Latin. That's something I picked up from him. In 'bringing the work home' we are translating it back into modern Italian, the language into which old Latin evolved, something of which Pound would have approved. My guess is that of all the strange contacts her father had, Kitasono was the only one who translated one of her grade school papers and published it overseas, and one about whom she hears very little. That school paper may have been her first publication, come to think of it, and that brings another long circuit to a sort of completion. Perhaps a comic one -- though it's curious that if it was her first publication it should appear in what was at the time a strange and exotic place to people in the north Atlantic cultures, but has become much less so over time.

                                  —E-mail from Karl Young, 10/23/2007 10:51 AM

My attempt is only a brief outline to take this particularly noteworthy publication in English to the attention of a wider audience, for those who cannot read Japanese and face Kitasono Katue’s work in its original context.

Our nostalgia mode, to be faithful to Fredric Jameson’s definitions, comes mainly from the fact that “nobody has that kind of unique private world and style to express any longer3,” the one the modernists had. And we are seized from the very first pages by the beauty of the opening poems by Kitasono Katue, and empathically recognize our best moments in the crystal poet of “PORTRAIT OF A MOONLIT NIGHT AND A POET’S TALE,” (1929):

the crystal poet closes his eyes  the crystal poet opens his eyes
the crystal poet talks to the desert’s park
he looks at a pure lady cutting
sublimely celestial vegetables
he sits on a harbor chair in extreme luxury
like a street vendor
he is perfect like the pope in Rome gone broke
you are all idiots

or as in SEMIOTIC THEORY from WHITE ALBUM (Shiro no arubamu), 1929, in John Solt’s extremely refined translation - while we fluctuate from positive vastness to emptiness, to boredom in what I would like to define the ecstatic aesthetics of the perfectly typical Japanese image that colors our imagery –



magic-making noblelady’s magic-making silver boy
magic-making noblelady’s magic-making silver boy
reflected in red mirror
reflected in red mirror
white hands and eyebrows and flowers


The collection in its purity, essentially white, the same design of the book, utterly square, give the idea of space, air, breath; a certain freedom, cleanness, a place where time has stopped, eternal snow in its warmness. It is as if the book distanced you - while reading - from the outside uproar of busy daily activities into its balanced existence. Everything what has to/ or could be said of poetry is contained in it, of the poetry we have closer. As an artist I cannot but enjoy the recurrent meeting with primary colors, and my intuitions are confirmed by the same Kitasono Katue at the end of the book in his SOLE INTERVIEW published in YU #8 (1975). Mention is made to Malevich, Lissitzky, Jean Cocteau, Kandinsky, Klee, Maholy-Nagy, Schlemmer, the Bauhaus: “Most of all, the fundamental consciousness that cultivated my sensibility about objects was the introduction of the Bauhaus to Japan. And my interest continues to remain there.” Finally we meet Pound as the catalyst radar that detects and joins: “Ezra Pound introduced me to them [Gomringer, Maldonado, Kagel, Marvinier, the Campos brothers]. He suggested that Campos and I correspond.” Recorded is his subsequent passage from words to photography: “Yes. It is a liberating method because you cut out a piece of eternal reality consonant with your own poetic imagination.” And that is when we have the Plastic Poems, inserted in Kitasono Katue’s collection, that by comparison lead me to some Italian art. I am not specifically thinking of Spatialism (see Fontana and his various Manifestos: 1946-’47-’54) but of one artist in particular: Fausto Melotti (1901-1986), for the scarcity of the tremulous lines in his sculptures, that particular taking away where even the prevalence of white seems miserable, deprived, and cold. Once again we are connected with Paul Klee. It might be interesting to notice within a literary context that Italo Calvino in his adulthood, met the by then old Melotti.

Ezra Pound maintained a thirty year correspondence with Kitasono Katue, from 1936 to 1966. He praised his poetry as well as the literary activity of the Vou club poets, deeming it would be inevitable for young poets to approach the Japanese language for “all the moss [that] for twenty years we have been trying to scrape off our language—these young men [Kitasono Katue and the Vou club poets] start without it 4

The study of such an enigmatic and complete artist as Kitasono Katue who rewrote his own surreal manifesto since he “didn’t like where Breton and Aragon wanted to take surrealism” - connected with the leading poetic and artistic voices in Japan, editor and designer of VOU, “one of the longest lived avant-garde literary journals of the century 5” - draws severe limitations to any interpretation that might try to embrace the present publication. An edition that spans along the fruitful adult years of Kitasono Katue.

In the background of Kitasono Katue’s life we can picture the great national power over both Russia and China. Bernardo Bertolucci with The Last Emperor offered a vivid picture of Japan’s imperialistic rule that terrified both East and West. WW I brought Japan to the League of Nations which stabilized its position as a leading world power. After the Great Depression and its withdrawal from the League due to a series of accidents, Japan became the ally of Germany and Italy in World War II, and formed with them the Axis Pact on September 27, 1940. The inevitable outbreak of tensions with the U.S. followed, that together with the sadly infamous Najing Massacre in China brought the States to the embargo on oil and iron. The saddest history of the twentieth century continued with sites like Pearl Harbour, Hong Kong, French Indochina, British Malaya, Dutch East Indies that will remain in our memory, while the Nazis were committed in their exterminations defined by them as Blitzkrieg (see Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, the Panzertruppe, their Vernichtungsgedanke, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Belžec, Majdanek, Sobibór, Treblinka, Maly Trostenets, Mauthausen, Dachau, Buchenwald, Belsen, …), all over Europe. The atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two most terrifying landmarks in history, together with the Soviet Union’s declaration of war on Japan brought the Japanese to surrender in 1945. Starting with the ‘50s, Japan’s economy has shown a steady upward trend with its specialization in car manufacturing and electronic goods 6.

The position of Kitasono Katue within his time’s historical facts reminds me of an Italian artist, Giorgio Morandi (July 20, 1890 – June 18, 1964) who witnessed both the First and the Second World War from via Fondazza, 36, in Bologna. Here he lived with his mother and three sisters, sleeping in a room similar to Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles, Saint-Rémy, September 1889. Definitely less sunny, even if just as humble. Morandi’s paintings of bottles became his mute, silenced protest to the events as they were. I can see in Kitasono Katue a concentric leveling while witnessing the protracted mad destruction of power without having written one word on politics. Unless we want to see his “ELECTRICAL ENUNCIATION” dated 1925 as a futurist (in tone and style) political protest with the recurrent line: “───shut up (b)” repeated four times in distinct parts of the poem, and a remarkable list in-between:


Krupphood anti-aircraft guns (100)
Hodgekiss cannons (310)
Vickers rapid-fire guns (300)
automatic battleships (Schuba Dreadnought model) (73,000)
Spod airplane bombers (9,700)
shiny bullets (786,321)
explodable bullets (50,000)

The reader cannot be misled in believing that Kitasono Katue’s philosophy was infatuated by Marinetti’s trumpeting notions of roaring wars and victories. In WHITE ALBUM (Shiro no arubamu), 1929, the poem/play TOBACCO OF THE FUTURE gives the following stage directions:

The stage instantly darkens. The old-fashioned dancer exits. From his left and right hands magnesium shines. A floodlight shines on Serubusuto. He climbs down the ladder.

After which Serubusuto recites the following lines:
It’s wonderful. It’s a dreamlike event. But it’s a dreamlike wonderfulness? What’s the use of a dreamlike wonderfulness? You attach a car to dreamlike wonderfulness. You attach a ribbon. Say you can completely cover your head with it and sing a song.

The passage is very clear since Uinkeru’s words have already prepared the setting for our understanding:

[…] Also, the spot where 10,000,000 silk hats are worn, the clocks insides cannot be eaten. Even such a thing is shameful. It’s boring. I’ll shut up already. Shut up. Silent, I’ll haul a chair over my shoulders. […]

I would like to limit my poetic analysis to one particular poem: MONOTONOUS SPACE from SMOKE’S STRAIGHTLINE (Kemuri no chokusen), 1959. The original is reproduced on Karl Young’s site, as well as my translation into Italian.

The white square depicted in this poem can’t but speak the language of Malevich’s Suprematism. Here is a brief definition:

the rediscovery of pure art that, in the course of time, had become obscured by the accumulation of things.
In his 1918 Suprematist Composition, White on White, a step forward from Yellow Quadrilateral on White painted a year earlier, Malevich attempted to eliminate all superfluous elements, including color; since in 1918 he virtually gave up painting, perhaps these experiments convinced him that he had reached his goal and could not develop his Suprematist ideas any further.
                     Alexander Boguslawski, 1998-2005

What strikes in Kitasono Katue and can be ascribed to his innovation, is his “reverse method” as the same poet says when asked to define his poetry. The white square here gains consistency right for the fact that it englobes other squares. A certain perfection, better a certain visual compactness is conveyed within the straight lines that border and delimit space. The square is a white body, and within it multiplied by eight and to be found are other squares. Each color is repeated in the sequence of two white, two black, two yellow, two white squares.

In the second stanza the same frequency reaches our imagination, but this time the square has been eliminated. If the first stanza was needed to cut out a surface, in the second we have to deal _as by music with the intrinsic – definitely tangible - dimension of sound_ with a color that is primary and imprints its existence without borders.

Three raises a note with its passage to a triangle and to its chattiness (see Wassily Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane). A new color is introduced: blue, together with useless objects. I wonder if by the “star’s handkerchief”, Kitasono Katue wanted to symbolize the States.

Finally the fourth stanza pivots on white embedded into white where any political or existential allusion could feel forced. The perception conveyed to the reader from the initial playfulness gives a double open solution in its strong conclusive moment: maybe an attempt at fixing/fitting oneself in time – of not floating away which in its repetition echoes an hypnotic quality projected ad infinitum; while it might allow for the idea of a protective white that implants ethereal entities.  

oceans beyond monotonous space
selected poems of Kitasono Katue (1902-1978)
Translated by John Solt
Introduction by Karl Young
Edited by Karl Young and John Solt
highmoonoon books 2007


1 - Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur, A New Directions Paperbook, 1970.

2 - Karl Young, SHOULD SUN FOREVER SHINE; Underwhich Editions, 1980.

3- Fredric Jameson, The Death of the Subject, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2001.

4 - See the extremely interesting site maintained by David Ewick and his students at the University Graduate School and Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University, Tokyo: Japonisme, Orientalism, Modernism: A Bibliography of Japan in English-Language Verse of the Early 20th Century; and specifically the page dedicated to Kitasono, Katue, and Vou. 1936-66.

5 - Karl Young, Introduction to oceans beyond monotonous space; selected poems of Kitasono Katue; highmoonoon books; 2007; p. xi.

6 - See Wikipedia under History of Japan.