Feeling the Power of Poetry in Japanese and English

February 6, 2013
Photo of two students reading poetry
Students paired up to read each poem in both English and Japanese.

By reading to one another in Japanese and English, a group of San Francisco State University students discovered the the emotional power and depth of the Japanese tanka poems contained in the Dilena Takeyama Center's "Voices from Japan: Tanka--After the Tsunami."
The poems, exhibited in the Art Gallery in the Cesar Chavez Student Center, were written by survivors of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant disaster that devastated northeastern Japan in 2011. They carry messages of despair, sorrow, hope and perseverance. Tanka is a revered form of short poetry that dates back 1,400 years or more. The exhibit, which also includes photography, video and calligraphy, is on view through Feb. 14.
Prof. Steven Dickison, director of the Poetry Center, and Prof. Midori McKeon, of the Japanese Language and Literature Program, asked their students to participate in a unique poetry exchange. The students were organized in pairs, with one student reading a poem and Japanese, and the other in English.
Many of the students commented on how the experience of reading the poems out loud made them feel much closer to the souls of the original authors. Some talked about how the English translations slightly altered the meanings of the poems and how certain Japanese words and phrases carried meanings specific to the Japanese culture.
"My students and I felt the poets' words powerfully resonate in us as we read them aloud and became one with us: we have touched their soul," said Prof. McKeon.