Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Summer 2007, vol 5 no 2


Tanka, Imagism and War,
by John Gilliver

The exchange of ideas between different cultures can be a fitful process. In Spain in the Middle Ages the conjunction of Islam with Christianity brought considerable interaction, especially in the C10th. Both troubadours and French chivalry gained much from their Arab counterparts; Spanish Jews spread the writing of Ibn-Roschid to many parts of Europe (indeed such was his influence on Christian thought that Ibn-Roschid was better known, as Averroes, in circles outside his own tradition). And yet Averroes' C12th argument for the emancipation of women was only taken up, by Dubois and Ockham, in the C14th. Japanese tanka came into the English literary culture early in the 1900s amid a general reaction against the C19th poetic, and was both well received and, yet again, was regarded somewhat neglectfully.

Two movements in particular led the reaction against the rhetoric and didacticism of the Victorians. The more popular movement was the Georgian, and the more rarefied or theorised was the Imagist which wished not only to break loose from the drowsy, dream-world escapism of the long, narrative C19th poem, but was also reacting against Georgian poetry itself. Both concurred in the search for economy, perhaps with an intuitive understanding that the short poem was better suited, more likely to be read, in the hurry-up world of the new century. Individual poets too sat in both camps: D.H.Lawrence for example, though not a Georgian, appeared in all but one of the Georgian anthologies, and several- Blunden, Owen, Sassoon, Thomas, Sorley- who would be better known as war poets, also appeared. But the romantic, miniaturist lyrics of the Georgians, with their unsophisticated (innocent even) simplicity did not satisfy the tougher, cleaner sweep sought by the Imagists. They saw the Georgians' nostalgic, emotional warmth as a soft emotionalism, ultimately pedestrian in its imprecision and all too prone to be written to a recipe. Rural and English, accessible and pleasant (just as unpleasant was to become fashionable) it was not difficult to see the Georgians as watered-down romantics, backwater provincials- even allowing for the kind of patriotic nostalgia for the quiet English countryside that the war would engender. By 1961 the Georgians were being looked back upon with contempt: "Fortunately there is no need to describe again in detail the characteristic insipidities of the Georgian poets with their cult of respectability…and their pastoral week-end England…oblivion has been too kind to the Georgians in enabling us to forget how limply they wrote and how fondly they were addicted to fakes and stereotypes of feeling" (Kenneth Allott).

The Imagists, led by Pound, wanted a style altogether harder (in several senses). Clarity, precision, brevity were what they emphasised, and an astringent directness that could face the urban. They seized upon vers libre, haiku and tanka as brusque, unconventional forms, with metaphor- the concentrating, focussing lens of a concrete image- as the primary vehicle of expression. Coming from a faster-paced, "shove-or-be-shoved" America, as most of the Imagists did, they turned away from a soft England to the intellectually harder-edged French, and to what they saw as a clearer-eyed Japan. They wanted an intellectual hardness that could engage the modern, an emotional hardness that could look upon the ugly, and a sophisticated, stylistic hardness that could capture both a brilliant visual reality and an inner reality or idea. Eliot declared, in 1921, that "poets must be difficult…to force, to dislocate, if necessary, language into meaning".

John Gould Fletcher and Amy Lowell urged for writing "in the spirit of the refined concentration of the hokku and tanka". The tanka offered models of compression, in which the central image is left to do the work of the poem without the aid of a supporting discursiveness or explanatory narrative. It was the absences that mattered here, the clearing out of metronomic rhythms, rhyme, the conscious chain of sequential logical links. Such cutting out - Pound's consistently insistent advice to young poets, and to Eliot- produced poetry disorientatingly (and pleasingly to the Imagists) unlike the old poetic and its reassuring creamy sound. It approached the anti-romantic, "dislocated" discourse that was to be aimed at. In tanka, according to Yasunari Kawabata, the 1968 Nobel Prize-Winning writer, truth lies "in the discarding of words" and "outside words". This pared-down, depersonalised style, effected by a concentrating image and the tension of the position of a decontextualised word on the page, could enable the Imagists to get closer to a tanka logic, as they saw it, a logic beyond the logic of abstract reason. It attempted intuitive apprehension of innate reality by the contemplative immersion of self in the concrete object. As opposed to the French notion of a "juxtapositon of ideas", this represented a "superposition of ideas", in Pound's words, whereby meanings were fused, establishing both the essence of a thing- its physical sensuousness and its metaphysical supersensuousness- and the sensibility to apprehend it. Apprehension of essence is achieved, in tanka (as in tea ceremony or flower arrangement), not through the persuasive ideas in the reasoned argument of intellect, but through an intense quality of experience which can cultivate feeling or sensibility sufficiently to refine the intuition, and so " awaken the eye inwardly". Tanka is thus a culture, an informing power of art, which can help heal us of the modern "dissolution of attention" and evoke a renewed quality of attentiveness. It was this concentrated essence that the Imagists pursued: to observe the essence of a thing with essence of feeling in essential writing, only absolutely necessary words being used.

But the essence of tanka proved elusive. Certainly it offered economy, exactness, rhythmic tact and a powerful concrete image at its centre, but it could work without elaboration partly because of its deeply conventional nature. A word or phrase (such as "cicada", " blossom", "harvest moon") resonates in Japan, because of its conventional connotations, as it does not in England. English convention, of course, the Imagists were committed to oppose, and this perhaps made it impossible for the Imagists to fully grasp or attain the tanka in English. Indeed it could lead them to render a tanka into the ornamentalism they so fiercely intended to subvert. Certainly at times their poetry took on merely the superficial stage-properties, the outward form or paraphernalia, of Japan- palace gardens, lanterns, jewel trees, cherry blossom and moon- and then confused it all with China. It could make their much sought-for hardness and straightness into something disappointingly blurred and soft; Pound himself called some of it "custard". This was to move simply from C19th deep slumber to light snooze, from occidental "crepuscular spirit" to vaguely oriental cherry blossom spirit. It was no better, and in some ways worse, or less useful, than using the tall nettles, elm trees, village inns, apple orchards, and rose-covered country cottages of the Georgians. These at least had a resonance in English culture which had the potential to be used in the style of an anglicised tanka.

There were other contradictions too for the Imagists. Vers libre and tanka, which the Imagists often spoke of in the same breath, or sentence, are not natural bedfellows. In speaking of handling Chinese poetry into English, Arthur Waley said: "What is generally known as "blank verse" is the worst medium for translating Chinese poetry, because the essence of blank verse is that it varies the position of its pauses, whereas in Chinese the stop always comes at the end of the couplet". Similarly the discipline of tanka is lost in vers libre. Moreover, the austere, depersonalised exactness and restraint of a tanka relies upon its extremely "located" discourse, within linguistic and cultural conventions, to manoeuvre the reader through a field of absences. Romantic, rural, nostalgic, innocent, popular and Japanese, the tanka might be seen as closer to the field of reference and tone of the Georgian poet than the Imagist. Indeed the urban focus, the disruptive unconventionality, and the sophisticated or dislocated discourse of the Imagist, which disdained the poetic taste of the popular audience, would have been alien to the tradition (and longevity) of the tanka. Ironically, elements in the Georgian poem might have better transferred the tanka tradition into English.

It might be said then that the tanka could not quite get into the right hands, and so could not be sufficiently assimilated for a counterpart in the English tradition to be produced. It might also be said that by 1918 the tanka's moment in English poetry had passed. After the First World War the poets were writing longer poems again, and their concern was to offer a discursive analysis of the social condition. The new requirement was the topical; a poet needed to be engaged with the politically and socially relevant. Louis MacNeice was to say, in 1938, "I would have a poet able-bodied…a reader of newspapers…informed in economics…actively interested in politics…" The form and tone of the tanka seemed to have receded from view. However, something had been assimilated of the tanka, and not necessarily consciously or deliberately. Richard Aldington actually denied the influence of oriental models despite his significant position in Imagism and despite his reference to "Making for myself hokku" in his poem Living Sepulchres. In its excisions, in its attentiveness (like the woodcut) to the low-life ordinary particular and in its centring emphasis on sharpness of image, which the Imagists derived from tanka, a potential change of poetic was being shaped. A startling directness or short-cutting was ready to infuse the modern idiom that the war, in particular, was to demand.

By 1919 Imagism was running out, and the war had killed Georgian poetry. It had literally killed T.E.Hulme who died in action in 1917. Other key members of Imagism were profoundly affected. Aldington, who had been badly gassed during his 1916-18 infantry service, returned shell-shocked and deeply damaged. Hilda Doolittle, married to Aldington, had her own breakdown in 1920- apart from the damage to her husband, her brother had been killed in France in 1918 and her father had died in 1919. F.S.Flint, who saw army service between 1918-19, lost his poetic impulse after 1920 (and the publication that year of his Otherworld: Cadences). Amy Lowell herself died in 1925. Imagism, and its bold talk of new form, of tanka and haiku, was over. Yet, perhaps even in the war poetry, fragments of ideas from tanka remained vital and alive.

Aldington makes a bitter contrast, in Living Sepulchres, between the mental world of a hokku (with its innocent, romantic and pure, key words "of the moon and flowers and of the snow") and the flesh-crawling, bodily fears of the ugly landscape of war (with its "rats" "flesh" "dread"). Yet the virtues which Pound insisted upon, and derived in part from tanka and haiku, serve Aldington well where he can achieve them. Most of Aldington's war poems have a tanka-like brevity and sharp visual clarity:

"The wind is piercing chill
And blows fine grains of snow
Over this shell-rent ground;" (Battlefield)

They eschew loose, removed and bland, rhetoric and adopt a language more closely feeling of ordinary, physical and emotional reality. Although the vocabulary may be tortured, it can also attain an impersonal simplicity in which, without discussion or narrative, the image is left to do its work:

"And the wind
Blowing over London from Flanders
Has a bitter taste." (Sunsets)

At times a poem can be reduced to a poignant bareness, whose stark picture of simple contrasts is expressed almost entirely in words of one or two syllables:

"Three soldiers huddled on a bench
Over a red-hot brazier,
And a fourth who stands apart
Watching the cold rainy dawn." (Picket)

This combination of physical sensuousness with the metaphysical idea, or the supersensuous, in an essentially simple form approaches the spirit of tanka that cuts away the irrelevant so that a thing and its idea can be laid bare in all its tension before us. It is apparent too in the five-lined poem Insouciance in which Aldington describes himself "in the dreary trenches" making poems "Delicate as a flock of doves". The image- poems as delicate, dove-like messengers- has a delicacy all of its own, combining the natural with the man-made, the inward with the outward, sadness with hopefulness, and the visually concrete with the cerebral. It is an intellectual and emotional complex in a fleeting instant of time. For all the war, the death of Imagism, Aldington's own demurring, there are traces of tanka here. Though indeed the form of tanka was still to be explored and was laid aside to await a further cultural exchange.

John Gilliver

Originally published by the Anglo-Japanese Tanka Society at:

Used by permission.