A Poem Just For You

The artist reminds us that beauty is proprietary solely to God

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Virtue

Kinoshita Tatsuya is a poet. He has published several books and has appeared on a cultural program on NHK radio called “Bungei Senpyō,” where amateur poets from throughout Japan send in their verse to be shared and discussed by literary figures. In January of this year, I read about Kinoshita in the Sankei Shimbun national newspaper. Poets often labor in obscurity, but in a land where artistic and literary creation has long been prized, Kinoshita has achieved a minor prominence which versifiers in other countries would surely envy.

A poet on the radio! A poet in the Japanese version of the Wall Street Journal! Allen Ginsberg was in the audience when Jack Kerouac went on “Firing Line” with Bill Buckley in 1968. Not quite the same level of respect, perhaps. Kinoshita is known as an artist here, not a curiosity. He appears to make a modest living as a practitioner of one of the fine arts — a noble trade indeed.

And yet over the past century, in East and West, many artists have become fantastically rich by selling their pictures or words. Money and ownership have crowded in on beauty in our lifetimes, moreso perhaps than ever before, including when painters worked on royal patronage and poets composed for gods and Olympians. Celebrity seems to be the goal of artistic output these days. And with celebrity comes rolls of dough. Song catalogs regularly sell for hundreds of millions of dollars. British artist David Hockney has luxury villas all around the world.

The drive to monetize the work of dead artists is even more intense. Canvases can fetch outlandish prices. Van Goghs are a sounder investment than bonds. Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi sold in 2017 for nearly a half billion dollars. If you have a torn Picasso sketch in your attic, you might be able to retire early. Baseball cards, comic books, action figures, and now NFTs (for online intangibles) are trading for eye-watering sums of cash.

There are even Marxist theories on “the ownership of the image” and the monetization of aesthetics (at https://openlibrary.org/books/OL4739826M/Ownership_of_the_image). Everything, everything, seems to come down to the material: money, Marxism, who gets what out of what picture or song.

But the poet Kinoshita is different. In 2017, just a couple of months before the da Vinci painting sold for nearly the GDP of Tonga, Kinoshita announced that he would be selling his poems at the rate of his age multiplied by one hundred yen (worth today about 87 cents). He was 29 at the time. He’s 34 as of this January, so that means you can get a poem from Kinoshita Tatsuya for about $29.55 (plus sales tax, I guess, assuming the government taxes poetry, which it surely would like to do if it doesn’t already).

Here’s what’s really remarkable about Kinoshita. He doesn’t sell his poetry en masse. If you send him about 30 bucks and provide him with a theme and some personal details, he will write what’s called an anata no tame no tanka, a poem just for you. Tanka is an ancient verse form in Japan, just 31 syllables long but with perhaps the most extraordinary range of any literary genre. Tanka can be funny, clunky, schmaltzy, austere, elegant, or resigned. Tanka can break your heart or send shivers down your spine in the five seconds or so it takes to read one. Once Kinoshita gets your request, he will take at most two weeks to think about the information you’ve provided him and then send you a one-of-a-kind tanka written especially and only for you. Thirty-one syllables that exist in no other combination anywhere in the universe. Yours and yours alone for the price of a dinner at Applebee’s.

Recently a publisher approached Kinoshita. The publisher had heard of the tanka project and wanted to compile some into a book. Kinoshita balked at first. The poems had all been written for a special reason and for just one person. Besides, Kinoshita revealed, he hadn’t kept copies of any of the 700 or so tanka he’d written for special orders over the years — not a single scrap of paper or a single syllabary character to attest to the existence of those 700 poems. The person who received the poem was free to do with it whatever he or she wanted—share it, publish it, keep it a secret, make it into a song, anything. But Kinoshita had given the tanka away — a thing of particularity and beauty, lofted onto the wind.

Eventually Kinoshita relented and agreed to send a letter to everyone who had a poem from him. He asked if they would want to contribute their poem to a special volume. More than 300 people wrote back and gave his tanka back to him, for free. The book was published—on one condition. Kinoshita refused to accept any royalties. The publisher forwards Kinoshita’s take to bookstores throughout Japan so they can buy more collections of verse by other poets. A poem only for you, working to bring poetry to everyone in Japan. Ownership of artwork is a funny thing; the less you own something, the more it yields.

Kinoshita puts it this way in his Sankei Shimbun piece: “Through tanka, I have been able to turn towards each one-and-only ‘you.’ I have been able to face into the future of tanka. All of this makes me very happy. It’s what has saved me. It’s what gives me a reason to live.”

In his novel The Idiot, the deeply religious Christian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky says beauty will save the world. There is much to unpack in that statement, but I think I catch a glimpse of it in the magnanimity of Kinoshita Tatsuya. He gives away beauty, sets it free and doesn’t begrudge its freedom, and shocks us—as beauty itself does—into realizing that this world, where money rules, is not all for which we might hope. There is much, much more.

When Kinoshita puts the single soul above all the money in the cosmos (apart from the 30 dollars or so which he needs to keep his own soul and body together), he reminds us that beauty is proprietary only to God. In every nation beauty breaks through, and we step back in wonder — as I did when I read about Kinoshita Tatsuya — at Who might be waiting for us in a world where beauty has no price forever.

 

Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.

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