Friday, 18 November 2011

Drifting into a certain vein of thought

I’ve always been hostile to what Seamus Heaney, following Wilde and “The Decay of Lying”, calls “the Japanese effect, the evocation of that precise instant of perception” that stands in as the legacy of Imagism in so much contemporary poetry, for which we “are ready to grant such evocation of the instant a self-sufficiency of its own.”

This is what accounts for the ghastliness of so many poetry readings, where you’re expected to keep your features frozen in pretence of rapture as someone offers loving details of their refurbished kitchen, recent meals or other suitably ‘sensitive’ and alive experience. Direct confrontations with Japanese material compounds the situation, and, as I’ve argued elsewhere, poetic responses to Japan have sustained older rhetoric as much as they’ve offered new ways of seeing.

Field of Autumn Leaves

Haiku, responsible for so much of this mess, have irritated me as much for their effects elsewhere as they have for any individualised failing. Besides, don’t those rules – the seasonal word and so on – seem somehow to exclude so much that’s important, and exciting, and true? Why settle for sakura when you’ve got Akihabara?

Frederick Seidel, whose poetry I still remember discovering in the LRB one sweaty morning, crushed in the rush hour of the Tokyu line, captures my desire for Tokyo:

Tokyo is low
And manic as a hive.
For the middle of the night they have silent jackhammers.
Elizabethan London with the sound off. Racially pure with no poor.

Mishima himself designed the stark far-out uniform
His private army wore, madly haute couture. He stabbed the blade in wrong
And was still alive while his aide tried in vain
To cut his head off as required.

Moshi-moshi I can’t hear you. I’m going blind.
Don’t let me abandon you, you’re all I have.
Hello, hello. My Tokyo, hello.
Hang up and I’ll call you back.

What Seidel’s creepy energy points to is the exhaustion and slackness in so many English-language haiku, the ponderous and deadly self-importance that blights even innocuous and inoffensive observation. Where, amidst all these heavy-handed nature poems, is the English equivalent of the senryu (川柳) the short poem with wit or humour?

The pathos of things

Roland Barthes’ lectures on the haiku felt, at first, like they were going to help sustain my antipathy:

Second problem: “poetic” translations of haiku. Some translators have sought to translate the 5-7-5 syllables into (unrhymed) French verse (cf. Etiemble). But to do so makes no sense. Our ability to detect a meter, a beat, a syllabic rhythm is dependent on having already had the metrical formula whispered to us by our poetic culture, on the code functioning like a route, a path, imprinted onto, incised onto our brains that’s then retraced, recognised in the performance of the poem; there is no rhythm as such; all rhythm is cultural; otherwise, the formula falls flat (it isn’t a formula): it doesn’t work, it exerts no fascination, it fails to send us to sleep. What I mean is: the function of all rhythm is either to excite or to calm the body, which, on a certain level, at some, distant, profound, primitive point in the body, amounts to the same thing (25)

The poetic is the enemy of poetry here, as in so many other instances, but Barthes’ case for the haiku has led me back to the form. More than the “Japanese effect” being a case of imagism assimilating to some sort of impressionism, Barthes demands that the haiku be read as “the conjunction of a “truth” (not a conceptual truth, but of the Instant) and a form.” The combination of image and observation, for Barthes, should startle, not settle, a reader: “a good definition of the haiku: it doesn’t stabilize movement; it divides Nature up rather than abstracts it.” (51) To work in languages other than Japanese, this approach demands more than a sing-song stillness.

Dorothy Molloy has composed a haiku that, I suspect, Barthes would have taken great pleasure in reading:

Sunlight in a gutter,
butterbright, apricot, peach,
October, leaf-theif.

Paul Muldooon’s sixty-first “Hopewell Haiku” managed a similar sort of fun and inventiveness:

Bivouac. Billet.
The moon a waning of lard
on a hot skillet.

These two poems are among many delights in Our Shared Japan: an Anthology of Contemporary Irish Poetry put together by Irene De Angelis and Joseph Woods. Irish-Japanese literary engagement has been intense and sustained since the late nineteenth century, and the works in this collection show how much energy and inventiveness contemporary writers – in both English and Irish – are able to take from Japanese literary and social material. Ireland hasn’t the complicated history of racism and violence marking its connections to Japan that still burden imaginative relations in the white settler colonies of New Zealand and Australia so, in some ways, the poets’ tasks are simpler. They go, look, and listen. There is, though, a sophisticated awareness of what to avoid apparent in a number of the poems collected here (Ciaran Carson: “Investing in the Zen is inadvisable”), and a good sense of exploration.

The pleasure of an anthology, too, is that, after a while, it doesn’t matter so much which poet you’re reading; the poems themselves do more of that work of recognition. Barthes linked this sense to the productiveness of the haiku form itself:

in haiku, ownership trembles: the haiku is the subject, a quintessence of subjectivity, but that’s not the same thing as the ‘author.’ Haiku belong to everyone in the sense that it can seem as if everyone’s writing them – in that it’s plausible that everyone could be writing them. That is what convinces me that the haiku is of the order of Desire, in that it circulates: in that ownership – the auctoritas – is passed on, circulates, takes turns, as in Pass-the-Parcel. (33)

In keeping with his own training and outlook, Barthes recognised in the haiku the potential for something like alienation effects, poetic shifts in register that force a new way of seeing from the reader:

Classical schema: perception via one of the senses conveys a generic sensation: a sound conveys music, etc. Now, haiku can reroute these circuits, make “faulty” connections: a sound will convey a tactile sensation (heat, cold); a kind of heterogeneous, “heretic” metonymy.

Here’s Paula Sheehan:

My head in the clouds
in the bowl of Akiko’s
mother’s white miso.

At its best, though, an alienation effect will do more than alter seeing; it will also demand new thinking. Barthes: “Between haiku and narrative, a possible intermediary form: the scene, the little scene. Cf. Brecht, street scenes and the gestus.” (88) The “Japanese effect”, deployed this way, is of use not in its access to prettified description, but in the way it offers short-cuts to representations of History. Tony Curtis manages this in his “Northern Haiku”:

On an Antrim bog
a wall divides the wet land,
planted in the past.

Shot twice in the head.
Once in each astonished eye.
History is blind

Over the dark Foyle
the bark of Kalashnikovs,
an old Derry air.


All quotes I’ve taken from Roland Barthes, The Preparation of the Novel, trans Kate Briggs (NY: Columbia UP, 2011). This is an English translation of notes from his Lecture Courses and Seminars at the College de France 1978 – 79 and 1979-80.

Seamus Heaney’s phrase, and all the poems quoted here, are from Irene De Angelis and Joseph Woods (eds.), Our Shared Japan (Dublin: The Dedalus Press, 2007). You can buy Our Shared Japan here. Wilde’s account of “the Japanese effect” is much cleverer, and funnier, than the use I’ve put it to here: you can read “The Decay of Lying” online.

The editors maintain an extremely useful website documenting Japan in English-language verse: Emerging from Absence.

Fredrick Seidel’s “My Tokyo” I’ve quoted from his Poems 1959 – 2009 (New York: FSG, 2009), p. 350.


  1. Fantastic! Thank you, absorbing reading and pertinent points on a subject that interests me. Some great links too.

  2. Dear Dougal,

    Thanks for your interest in the anthology I co-edited with Joe Woods and for calling to my attention Seidel's poem. The on-line Archive you refer to, however, is the colossal work of David Ewick, whom I only helped for the contemporary section.

    All the best,


  3. Thanks for those kinds words, Kay. The anthology you'd enjoy, I reckon.

    Thanks for your comment, too, Irene. I'll edit the post so the right attribution for the online archive comes through.