Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
Contents Archives About Simply Haiku Submissions Search
Autumn 2007, vol 5 no 3

Snow About To Fall
by John Barlow
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


The "tanka" in this collection are informed by many of the poetic and aesthetic qualities of Japanese tanka. They are, however, essentially modern English poems, short and lyrical, but in no way intentionally imitative of Japanese examples, past or present, or of tanka written by English language contemporaries. John Barlow

To be or not to be a tanka . . . Barlow calls the poems in his book "essentially modern English poems," which contradicts the statement in the last sentence of his biographical sketch: "Snow About To Fall is his first collection of tanka."

Most of the poems are tanka, and good ones at that. A few are too short to be thought of as a tanka, nor would I refer to them as modern English tanka.

away from home . . .
long strands
of your hair
with my belongings

Barlow's poem is only 16 syllables in length and does not adhere to the short/long/short/long/long pattern indigenous to tanka.

away from home, long
strands of your hair tangled
with my belongings

I took the liberty of reformatting Barlow's poem into a three line format. In this format, the poem reads like a senryu. A tanka? I don't think so. A modern English short poem? I don't think so. There seems to be a confusion in English-language Japanese short poetry circles regarding the definitions of the genres represented in the JSFP arena. The number of lines doesn't decide whether or not a poem is a tanka. Tanka was originally called waka, which means Japanese song (also called Yamato, song). Before the term waka originated, all poetry indigenous to Japan and the Japanese language were referred to as uta, to differentiate between shi (Chinese 2 line poetic snippets borrowed from longer Chinese poems) and Japanese poems, since the latter were meant to be sung for a while.

Can the poetry in Barlow's book be sung? Do they have the meter and lyrical quality integral to music and song from a Japanese point of view?

Let us look:

without you
the ragged mountain slopes
so still
I can hear the wing beats
of the passing swifts

Regardless of the label Barlow puts upon this poem, it is a tanka. Notice the short/long/short/long/long format, and the syllable count (22 syllables). When you read this poem, it resonates, catching the lyricism of the tanka genre. It also weaves mono no aware (the pathos of things), yugen (depth and mystery), and makoto (truth and beauty) into the poem's mindscape. Barlow, unlike many English language tanka poets, is unafraid to wax personal and launch into the first person ("I can . . ."); nor is he afraid to share his personal feelings ("Without you the mountain slopes so still . . .").

that look in your eyes . . .
how brilliant
are the stars
seen from the cold side
of the moon

This tanka allows for multiple interpretations, thanks to the author's use of yugen. He creates a complex painting with an economy of words, reminiscent of an Impressionistic painter. Instead of opting for stark "tell all" realism, Barlow paints the seen and the unseen to accomplish what a realist could not accomplish. I see a lonely person who has been without the warmth of human touch and companionship for a long time. Suddenly, someone special to him (or her) appears and his world is transformed into one of elation and relief. Others, of course, could interpret this tanka differently, depending upon their frame of reference and experience.

sick of the sight
of my own face
I watch my piss
bubble over my reflection
in the toilet bowl

Barlow's written a powerful tanka dipping into a richly hued palette of emotions, then layering them delicately, evocatively, to portray what he is projecting for us to read and somehow relate to--anger, disgust, depression, personal dissatisfaction--and doing so within the limitations of minimal syllables and five lines.

I'd never read Barlow's poetry until I picked up this book. He is a good poet with an excellent sense of meter. His is the poetry one will want to read again and again. My only criticism of Snow About to Fall is that there are too few poems, 55 in all.

someone else kissing me . . .
but what of the orchards
we never walked in?
what of the fruit
I cannot taste now?

Snow About To Fall
by John Barlow
Snapshot Press
ISBN 1-903543-09-6