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Sunday, March 6, 2005

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

New Western poetry from an old Japanese tradition


THE TANKA ANTHOLOGY, edited by Michael McClintock, Pamela Miller Ness & Jim Kacian. Red Moon Press, 2003, 231 pp., $24.95 (cloth).

EDGE OF LIGHT: The Red Moon Anthology of English Language Haiku, edited by Jim Kacian et al., Red Moon Press, 2004, 175 pp., $16.95 (paper).

The haiku, already well established as a poetic precursor overseas, has now been followed by the tanka. The popularity of one type of short poem from Japan has led to a deepening interest in other forms that the same tradition has to offer.

Historically, of course, the 31-syllable tanka precedes the 17-syllable haiku by more than a thousand years. Michael McClintock's detailed introduction to "The Tanka Anthology" describes the background of the form in early writing, its predominance in the first great anthologies of poetry, and its naturalness and suitability to the rhythms of the Japanese language. From its first appearance in the eighth-century "Man'yoshu" to its best-seller status at the hands of contemporary poets, this form has had an extraordinarily long run by any standards.

Consciously modeled on Cor van den Heuvel's popular volume, "The Haiku Anthology" (3rd edition 1999), "The Tanka Anthology" aims to introduce the work of Western writers in this form. A hundred years ago, when Japanese literature was first translated into English, there was very little understanding of, and almost no differentiation between, these closely related poetic forms. Now all that has changed, and the differences are clear. McClintock's introductory essay describes the slow absorption, and the varied experiments in English, from the cinquain that Adelaide Crapsey invented, to the generally freer forms today.

A survey of the different approaches taken by English writers to the 5-7-5-7-7 syllable original is given before the anthology itself begins. This is a very useful guide, both to enhance the reader's appreciation, and for the intending poet. "Some might say that emotion, not thought, is at the center of tanka," we are told. But on the evidence of the poems, it seems rather that "tanka is poetry of emotion as well as idea, thought and imagination." (The same would seem to be true in Japanese, from Makoto Ueda's fine 1996 anthology of translations, "Modern Japanese Tanka.")

A certain "directness of expression" is one of the special qualities ascribed to tanka, and Fay Aoyagi, a Japanese writer living in California, catches the feeling of this hybrid form:

my father
rolled
his first cigarette
with a page torn
from an English dictionary

Sanford Goldstein, an American living in Japan, has memories that flow a different course:

at times, mother,
with your peripheral vision
you called me by some other name
as if you wanted
twice the love

Quite a large number of the poems deal with personal, and especially family, relations.

Most of the poems that have been selected stand independently, though there are one or two sequences or "strings" that chart the progress of an illness, or a love affair or separation, and thus remind us of the use of tanka as a kind of diary. Multiple similar compositions on a single theme are not unusual in Japanese, and this effect has been picked up in English too. The same use has sometimes been made of the more complicated sonnet. Here we have, not clear images like the haiku, but a record of passing thoughts and feelings.

Tom Clausen has this moment of self-reflection:

the house quiet
and cold
this early morning alone --
saddened to think how much
I desired just this

Christopher Herold finds a shared joy in another moment of pause:

in morning fog
we ship the oars and drift
between loon calls
all that's left of this world
the warmth of our bodies

But Doris Kasson gives voice to a compact observation:

he uses them
over and over
disposable things
I was so sure
he'd hang onto me

The contributors are both male and female, in roughly equal numbers, and most are American, though other English-speaking countries are represented too. One of the editors, Pamela Miller Ness, shows this tender moment, which is both seasonal and quietly domestic:

November chill --
tangles of silver caught
in my brush.
Tell me
I'm still yours.

But another of the editors, McClintock, takes a much more wry approach to intimate involvement:

the poets tell us:
love is painful --
is that what you think?
if I love you, will you suffer
so very much?

The third editor is the publisher as well.

Jim Kacian's Red Moon Press has been one of the leading publishers of English haiku and related literature for the last decade. Since 1997, he has produced an annual anthology that culls good work from the various haiku books and journals published in English around the world the year before. "Edge of Light" was the volume for 2004, and contains a generous selection of haiku poems, haibun (prose with haiku), essays and reviews.

These four haiku, one for each season, show the excellence of the selection:

a cloud
bigger than the sky --
spring longing (Jim Kacian)

jackknifed rig
a trooper waves us into
wildflowers (Robert Gilliland)

losing the string
of the teabag --
autumn dusk (Emily Romano)

snowman
without a word
he's gone (R.A. Stephanac)

What this book reveals, however, is the way in which contemporary haiku, now an English form, both draws on and departs from the Japanese tradition. This anthology is an essential guide to the ongoing debates in this lively and creative field of poetry.

Check the RMP Web site for advanced notice of other volumes, or write to P.O. Box 2461, Winchester VA, 22604-1661 USA, or redmoon@shentel.net.


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