Picking up on yesterday’s postage: whatever could have provoked an able-minded thinker such as Johannes Speyer to send a seemingly absurd telegram to the equally-significant sage Michael von Stürker? ‘Butter gone rancid. Off to the docks’, read the strange message in question, sent in early 1973 from a personal telegraph machine given to Speyer by a lady who went by the name of Joy (though her actual name was Hephzibah). Oh yes indeed, Speyer personally owned a telegraph machine: on its own an interesting fact, make no bones about it – but, more importantly, why send missives to von Stürker, and why this particular one?
For years it puzzled; and even now sense oozes only slowly from the set of facts we find before us. Speyer and Michael von Stürker were not the best of friends, but for some years (four, to be exact), they did get along relatively well. During these four years they quite often communicated, sometimes by letters, sometimes by the telephone – but most often by telegram. For yes: von Stürker too owned a telegraph machine, which he used for two purposes only – petty flirtation with girls in their early twenties, and messages to Johannes Speyer.
If Speyer’s telegrams tended to lean against the queer cliff of absurdity, the same could certainly be said of von Stürker’s. I will not, can not list them all, but here are a couple of choice examples: ‘Fourteen eagles. I run merrily’ and ‘The egg is canned. Callous jaws collapse’. Intriguing, no? What a weird way for two middle-aged academics to communicate.
Or is it? Not when you realise that Speyer and von Stürker shared a passion for two particular things: early seventeenth century Japanese poetry – and the idea that art should be filtered through unfamiliar mediums (an idea which led Speyer, eventually, to the concept of Active Reading).
Aha. Now it all becomes clear, does it not? These peculiar telegrams are, in fact, poems translated. Or to be more exact, the poems of one Kokimizu Ishu (1681 – 1739), translated into English from the Japanese, by Speyer and von Stürker, friendly competitors in the complex art of Ishu translation. I say competitors: it is interesting to note how many of the telegrams sent between these two appear to represent the same poem. Consider the following from von Stürker: ‘It has become cheese. To the harbour I fly’. Surely a correction of Speyer’s ‘Butter gone rancid. Off to the docks’?
Perhaps this explains why their friendship finally fell apart – and why the ‘Ishu Telegram Project’ never got further than a series of retrospectively curious messages representing a fascinating attempt by two great writers to resurrect interest in a Japanese poet who was, and remains, sadly forgotten. Or perhaps it was something else entirely…