Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Yorifumi Yaguchi: International Mennonite Poet and Prophet of Peace

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Yorifumi Yaguchi: International Mennonite Poet and Prophet of Peace

Article excerpt

Abstract: Yorifumi Yaguchi is a leading Mennonite poet, both in English and Japanese. He is best known in the West for his thirty poems in Three Mennonite Poets (Good Books, 1986), but his published work in English includes nearly 300 poems in five volumes. A child of World War II, he writes poetry that bears witness to the evils of militarism from Shinto nationalism to Hiroshima, then extends to Vietnam and the aftermath of the events of September 11. But his poetry also draws upon Zen Buddhism. He is an international peace activist whose poetic friendships have included William Stafford, R. S. Thomas, Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov. His poetic and prophetic voice extends to his roles as professor, poetry editor and Mennonite pastor in Japan. While the Buddhist temple bell still sounds in his work, his commitment to peace and to the word]Word is personal, global and revolutionary.


Yorifumi Yaguchi, schooled in the Buddhist temple of his grandfather, trained in the Shinto Japanese nationalism of his father, and personal witness to the violations and horrors of World War II as a child in Japan, became an unlikely Mennonite in the 1960s and a pioneering voice in Mennonite poetry. He draws from the wells of Japanese haiku and Zen Buddhist meditation, and to a lesser degree from Shinto animism, but most strikingly from the international peace witness of the Mennonite church. His poems are both deeply religious and very earthy. His faith is expressed in the presence of ambiguity, pain and mystery--personal, national, existential and international. His poetry has borne prophetic witness to the evils of war-starting with the twin evils of Japanese Shinto nationalism and the American nuclear bomb, and extending to Vietnam, the cold war and September 11.

But Yaguchi's work is not necessarily didactic. It ranges from the meditative styles drawn from Zen and the haiku poetic tradition to somewhat metaphysical reflections on biblical stories to biting satire to deeply personal laments. Perhaps the most pervasive characteristic of Yaguchi's poetry is the creation of a personal narrator, usually first person, who bears witness--to deep personal suffering, to the horrors of war felt at the personal level, to vague premonitions of encounter with essences on the other side of the horizon, to sudden flashes of poetic illumination, to biblical ambiguity, to an irrational faith in a compelling but often distant or unreasonable God. But his voice is finally revolutionary, bearing witness to the compelling imperative of the word/Word as peace in a world torn by violence among nations.


Yorifumi Yaguchi's early biographical journey is still represented most graphically in two essays. "The Bible Was Nonsense to Me" (1) was written during the early 1960s while Yaguchi was at Goshen Biblical Seminary. It tells of his radical conversion to Christianity after studying poets such as T. S. Eliot at Tohoku University, and taking graduate studies at International Christian University. Later, in "What the War Did for Me," (2) Yaguchi remembers his childhood and early adolescent encounters with U.S. bombing raids, air-raid shelters, Japanese nationalism, the Hiroshima bomb and the prostitution of some of his friends to American GIs. This poignant essay was later included, slightly revised, in the 1993 poetry collection A Forlorn Dog. (3)

But his story starts well before these dramatic events. Yaguchi was bom Buddhist in 1932--in Yamoto, north of Tokyo and near the Matsushima islands famed for their inspiration of the great Japanese haiku poets. He began writing haiku as a teenager, and while he has broadened his stylistic range extensively, the haiku influence is still evident. Yaguchi's religious history borrows from three primary sources. His grandfather was a dedicated Buddhist priest whose beautiful chanting of the Buddhist scriptures in the temple is a compelling part of Yaguchi's memory, and is still heard in his poetry. …

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