Wright’s lifelong love for Japanese poetry across the ages
- Published: February 11, 2010
Harold Wright has what is sometimes referred to as a “hard head.” The stubbornness of this 79-year-old retired college professor has been one of few consistencies in a life that has taken him to places as distant as Hawaii, Tokyo and New York City.
The other consistency is Wright’s abiding love for Japanese poetry. It was his unwavering commitment to writing and translating those works that led him to publish his latest project, A Story of Japanese Poetry: 1300 Years of Japanese Poetry.
“It’s a summary of my life’s story,” said Wright. “I’ve been translating for 50-some years and these are my favorites.”
The two-volume set includes audio CDs of Wright reading traditional haiku, senryu and tanka poems as well as modern works. Accompanying booklets give more specific details about the Pacific nation’s long poetic history, as well as Wright’s relationship to the art form. It is a relationship that began shortly after Wright, a U.S. Navy veteran, became stationed in Japan during the 1950s. It was a world away from Dayton’s rural Northridge neighborhood where he grew up, but it offered just the type of adventure that he sought.
“I wanted to see the world,” he said. “They sent me to Japan and I stayed there for three years. I fell in love with the country and the language.”
Although he had nursed an interest in poetry while a student at Northridge High, he knew very little about Japanese poetry. His curiosity compelled him to visit a bookstore in the town of Iwakuni, where he discovered a collection of old Japanese poems. The language used in the poems was so ancient that many of Wright’s Japanese friends had trouble deciphering them, making the objective to understand them even more appealing to the young serviceman.
Fortunately, he was able to devote much time to the task as the base’s librarian.
“That was a neat job. I could read all these books on Japanese poetry during my work hours,” he said.
To say that he was smitten would be an understatement. By the end of his tour, Wright spoke fluent Japanese and had already decided that he would live in Japan for the rest of his life. In fact, he implored his commanding officer to allow him to stay on the island after his discharge, and was nearly obliged until he made a fateful gesture following a meeting.
“When I was leaving, I made a terrible mistake,” he said. “Instead of saluting, I bowed Japanese-style.”
His error was viewed as disrespectful and was enough to convince the Navy to reconsider his request. They sent him back to Ohio. But it would not be long before he would find his way back. After working in Ohio for a summer, Wright bought a Greyhound bus ticket to Seattle, where he boarded a freighter destined for Japan. However, after applying to several Japanese universities, it was discovered that he did not have the prerequisite student visa. By then, Wright had married and had the first of two daughters. Without the funds needed to travel back to the U.S. to secure a visa, the intrepid young man decided to go to Hawaii, where he enrolled at the University of Hawaii under the GI bill.
He would go on to earn a masters degree before receiving a Ford Foundation fellowship to study at Columbia University. After two years in New York, he found the separation from his beloved had become unbearable.
“I decided that I really wanted to get to Japan, so I applied for and won a Fulbright grant,” he said.
This time, Wright stayed for two years. Unsure of what to do afterward, he recalls talking to a former Columbia advisor, who told him about an opening for a Japanese professor at the Ohio State University. However, he recommended that Wright finish his PhD before applying for such a position. In typical form, Wright ignored the advice and sent a resumé to the university anyway. He was hired under the condition that he complete his degree, which he did.
After seven years, however, he was ready to move on again. Having spent a few semesters as an adjunct faculty member in Antioch College’s history department, he saw the possibilities for new adventures.
“I really liked Antioch,” he said. “I liked it a whole lot better than Ohio State University.”
Unfortunately, it was 1973 and Antioch was in the midst of a strike. The history department was being forced to downsize its staff due to an inability to pay salaries. Undeterred, Wright’s solution was to apply for a grant from the Japan Foundation, a public organization that promotes cultural exchange between Japan and other countries. He succeeded and the foundation funded his salary for the next three years.
It was the first of many high achievements during Wright’s Antioch career, which spanned more than three decades. During that time he helped to create an exchange program that became the foundation for the college’s popular Antioch Education Abroad program to Japan, and in 1986 he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Now that he’s retired, Wright’s persistent wanderlust is beginning to ebb, but the twinkle of curiosity remains in his eyes. Over the last few years he and his wife, Jonatha, have delved into the world of storytelling, traveling throughout the country to attend storytelling festivals. The couple, who met at the Antioch Writer’s Workshop, has recorded five storytelling CDs together. From that experience, Wright has recognized the importance of effective oration, which is why he felt he should record A Story of Japanese Poetry now. In it, he reads the translated works with the delight and delicacy of a proud scholar, often showcasing his admiration for the authors with crisp recitations and lively sound effects. He is unsure of how much longer he will be able to convey them with such vigor.
“I love reading poetry and I wanted to get a number of things in my voice while I still had a good one,” he said.
A Story of Japanese Poetry: 1300 Years of Japanese Poetry volumes one and two can be purchased together for $25, or separately for $15 each. For more information call 767-9823 or visit www.jonathaandharold.com.