This poem in 60 seconds
In the 1950s, the Japanese artist Seiichi Niikuni laid the foundation for concrete poetry. Here, it was not so much about the meaning of the poem, but about the shape and structure. The shape of his poems could hardly ever be seen separately from the subject. For example, he wrote a poem, Rain, consisting of kanji characters that, together, depict rainfall. River/Sandbank is another example of this shape poetry. The poem represents the water from a river that comes into contact with the shore, the sandbank, in a straight line. It invites spectators to think about borders. For example, how thin is the dividing line between visual art and poetry?
Want to know more? On this website you can listen to the poem, discover its origins and its author and find out what the poem means to the people of Leiden.
Sendai 1925 - Tokyo 1977
Seiichi Niikuni was a well-known Japanese poet and painter. He studied architecture at the Sendai Technical School and English literature at the Tohoku Gakuin University, from which he graduated in 1951. In the 1950s, he also started doing avant-garde experiments. He developed a form of poetry that presented language as both a visual and an auditory phenomenon. He also created his first ‘seeing poems’, in which figures were depicted by using Chinese characters (kanji), and ‘listening poems’, consisting of hiragana, katakana (both are Japanese script types) and numbers.
In 1964, Niikuni joined the E.E. Cummings study group, where he met Yasuo Fujitomi. Together they established the Association of Study of Arts (ASA). Their goal was to further explore visual - or concrete - poetry and to experiment with this. They believed that the typographical effect was more important than conveying the (verbal) meaning and arranged the words, letters and characters in such a way that they represented the subject. From this rose an international avant-garde movement.
Niikuni’s fame grew when he published his collection Zero-on (1963), of which the first half consisted of calligraphic poems and the second half of auditory poems. He moved to Tokyo and exhibited his work all over the world. In his poems, he often used words related to the body (such as ‘lip’ and ‘blood’) and life and death. Also, from a young age, he was fascinated by surrealism and philosophy.
His entire life, Seiichi Niikuni suffered diseases of his chest; he constantly worried about his health. He passed away on 23 August 1977, only 52 years old. His death also meant a quick end for concrete poetry and the familiarity of the public with his work.
What's this poem about?
This poem is one of many typographic, or concrete poems created by Niikuni. The poem literally represents a river and a sandbank, separated by a diagonal ‘line’. The left side of the ‘line’ is the river, and the right side is a sand plain: the beach or the shore. The content or meaning does not matter as much in shape poetry: it is about the structure and the form, how you can portray something with a sign (that means something) and the effect it has on the reader. The reader can draw his or her own conclusion of the poem.
River/Sandbank came into being in the 1960s. The period between 1950 and 1970 is known for the bloom of visual poetry: artists from all over the world ventured towards the thin line between poetry and visual art.
It is a modernist poem too. Modernist artists looked at the visual and phonetic aspects of language, in other words the structure and pronunciation. The actual content of the words was pushed to the background. Niikuni played an important role in the shift from semantics to typography. In his poems, he experimented with the outward appearance of sounds.
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Seiichi Niikuni in Leiden
Photo Anoesjka Minnaard
This poem can be found at Pieterskerkgracht 17 in Leiden since 1996. It is the 39th wall poem realized by the TEGEN-BEELD Foundation.
Seiichi Niikuni and concrete poetry
Seiichi Niikuni was the founder of concrete poetry. He inspired other artists and poets to experiment and play with language. His work shows how to make a painting out of a poem without it having a substantial meaning. Everyone can ponder about the meaning, if any.
Meeting Seiichi was one of the milestones of my life. His first manifestos, the first works, mostly concrete or sound poetry, were like firebrands, circling around the world, enlightening and setting each and every one of us on fire
Artist Pierre Garnier
- Together with the French Pierre Garnier, Niikuni wrote French-Japanese poems. They believed in poetic creativity of written signs and together they published the Third Spatialist Manifesto: For a Supranational Poetry (1966). The idea: concrete poetry cannot be translated into a language and can be understood by people with different language backgrounds (translinguism).
- Besides being famous as a good painter and poet, Seiichi Niikuni was also well-known for his good sense of fashion and his warm personality. He had different hairstyles during his life.
- A video with spoken versions of three of Niikuni’s poems:
- Musical performance of this poem:
The clip Seiichi Niikuni - Kuchibiru To Shitto (Lips And Jealousy), with 3 recitations of Niikuni’s poems.
This entry was written by Het Taalmuseum in collaboration with Anne Wielenga. The translation into English is by Jasmijn van Dongen. The following sources were consulted:
- Alchetron over Seiichi Niikuni
- Tussen Taal en Beeld
- nmao.go.jp over Seiichi Niikuni
- Poëzie in beweging over typografische gedichten
- "World as Images" in Japan Times
- eScholarship.org over Seiichi Niikuni
- Alfons Knauth ed. (2011), Translational & Multilingual Literature
- Google Books over Rivier Zandbank