Friday, October 4, 2019

Michael Field: The Work and Lives of a Victorian Poet

The poet Michael Field was not actually a man. Or a woman. Michael Field was the pen name of two women who lived in Victorian England, Katharine Bradley (1846–1914) and Edith Cooper (1862–1913). The story is even more complicated than that. Katharine Bradley was Edith Cooper’s aunt, and they were lovers who lived together as a couple. The two were accomplished authors who collaborated to write eight books of poems and numerous verse dramas.

Michael Field: Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper

Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, like many women writers of their time, published under a man’s name as a way to be taken seriously. In fact, once the secret got out that they were really a female writing duo, their work was reviewed less earnestly by critics, as the novelist and critic Emma Donoghue documents in her engaging and beautifully written biography, We Are Michael Field.

In their time, “the Michael Fields,” as they were called by their circle, were befriended and accepted by many of the leading writers of the day, including Robert Browning, Oscar Wilde, and Havelock Ellis. They were true eccentrics who actually wrote a book of love poems to their deceased lap dog. Their work fell out of fashion toward the end of their lives and has only recently received new attention. I’m extremely grateful to Professor Pearl Chaozon Bauer of Notre Dame de Namur University, who acquainted me with their writings and is part of a new wave of scholars reviving the work of Michael Field.

The writers who were Michael Field

The work of Katharine Bradly and Edith Cooper declined in renown partly because of sexism and homophobia. Their poetry also dropped out of favor because the Michael Fields accepted many of the conventions of Victorian style. They preferred “thou” to “you,” “doth” to “does,” and used poetic interjections such as “O!” The pair often wrote in rhyme, meter, and form. Since their careers ended right at the same time that modernism was purging poetry of the cliché language of the nineteenth century, the poetry of the Michael Fields was lost in the tidal wave of new writing that discarded more traditional diction.

Then why is it important to give the work of the Michael Fields another look? Because their poetry still feels contemporary and exciting in many ways. They were clear-sighted writers who saw with a fresh and free-thinking perspective. Here is a poem of theirs I particularly like:

Nests in Elms

The rooks are cawing up and down the trees!
Among their nests they caw. O sound I treasure,
Ripe as old music is, the summer's measure,
Sleep at her gossip, sylvan mysteries,
With prate and clamour to give zest of these—
In rune I trace the ancient law of pleasure,
Of love, of all the busy-ness of leisure,
With dream on dream of never-thwarted ease.
O homely birds, whose cry is harbinger
Of nothing sad, who know not anything
Of sea-birds’ loneliness, of Procne’s strife,
Rock round me when I die! So sweet it were
To die by open doors, with you on wing
Humming the deep security of life.

It’s so unexpected that cawing crows become for the speaker of this poem a reassuring presence, affirming the calm persistence of life. I often think of crows as annoying, noisy, dirty birds, but  Michael Field surprisingly sees their vitality and tenaciousness. The crows stimulate the poets to write in runes of “the ancient law of pleasure,/of love”—a pagan and joyous celebration of the carnal side of life. Not what I think of as Victorian poetry, at all! Even within the confines of this Petrarchan sonnet, Michael Field manages to include thrilling language: “Rock round me when I die!”

Sadly, both Katharine and Edith succumbed to the family illness of cancer, Katharine dying at 67, and her niece Edith at 51, predeceasing her aunt by ten months.

If you don’t know the writing of Michael Field, take the time to seek out their work. They’ll surprise you with the sensuality and depth of their poems.
  
Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other recent posts on writing topics:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Influence of East Asian Literature on Western Poetry: Part 4—Jack Kerouac’s Haiku; and Conclusion

The last poet I’m going to talk about is Jack Kerouac, who lived from 1922 to 1969. Kerouac is better known as a fiction writer, and he was the scribe of the Beat Generation. The Beats were a group of writers and artists who burst on the American scene in the city where I live, San Francisco, in 1955.

Beat Generation writers: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs 

They were rebels who rejected the materialism of the post-World War II era in the West, and favored dropping out of society to experience authentic life through road trips, jazz clubs, altered consciousness, and amorous adventures. The most famous text of the Beat Generation is Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, an account of a car trip through the United States and Mexico.

Manuscript of Jack Kerouac's On the Road

 
Kerouac typed this book on a continuous scroll of paper, unedited. On the surface, this novel is extremely American, but like much in Kerouac’s work, it has East Asian roots.
East Asian literature came to the Beat Generation through a complicated family tree. It’s a lineage that can also be traced back to Judith Gautier’s Le Livre de jade, which was known to the U.S. poet Ezra Pound. Pound created his own anthology of East Asian poetry, which he called Cathay and published in 1915. Cathay was an enormously influential book in the United States, and it profoundly affected the San Francisco poet Kenneth Rexroth, who was the literary mentor of the Beat Generation writers. 

Kenneth Rexroth (1905–1982)

Rexroth created his own anthologies of East Asian writing, which were very popular:
One Hundred Poems from the Japanese, published in 1955, followed the next year by One Hundred Poems from the Chinese; and for good measure, 100 More Poems from the Japanese in 1976, not to mention Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China and The Burning Heart: Women Poets of Japan.
Rexroth’s interest in East Asian poetry also dovetailed with that of Beat Generation writer Gary Snyder, immortalized in The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac’s roman à clef. Gary Snyder not only read Chinese and Japanese, he lived in Japan in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and translated the Cold Mountain Poems of T’ang Dynasty poet Han Shan.
For the Beat Generation writers, it seems to me the quality that they were seeking in East Asian literature was spontaneity. Spontaneous action was something that the materialist culture of shopping mall, yes-man America did not favor. The Beat Generation writers admired that belief in inspiration in the moment in East Asian writing, and the related Buddhist practice of remaining conscious of the present, another alternative to 1950s consumerism.
Jack Kerouac’s persona in The Dharma Bums begins writing haiku under the inspiration of the character based on Gary Snyder. Kerouac was also reading the four-volume translation of haiku by R.H. Blythe, simply titled Haiku.

Jack Kerouac's notebook

According to Regina Weinreich in her introduction to Kerouac’s Book of Haikus, Kerouac scribbled haiku in “small bound notebooks—the kind he would press into his checkered lumberman’s shirt pocket and carry around anywhere for fresh and spontaneous entries.” Weinreich also mentions that Kerouac began writing haiku as a kind of literary sketchbook that he carried with him as he wandered the streets of New York and San Francisco and the highways of the United States.
The spontaneity of haiku seemed to Kerouac a perfect match for the improvisations of jazz.

Al Cohn, Jack Kerouac, Zoot Sims

Kerouac recorded a wonderful album of Blues & Haikus with the celebrated jazz saxophonists Zoot Sims and Al Cohn in 1959. You can hear this album on YouTube. Here are a couple of my favorite Kerouac haiku:

Crossing the football field,
     coming home from work
The lonely businessman

In my medicine cabinet
     the winter fly
Has died of old age

            Wash hung out
     by moonlight
—Friday night in May

Empty baseball field
     —A robin,
Hops along the bench

(haiku copyright © by Jack Kerouac)

What strikes me in listening to all of the haiku that Kerouac recorded on this album—just a fraction of the 1000 haiku he penned in his lifetime—is that these poems do not resemble the Kerouac we tend to think of. The Kerouac of the popular imagination, the Kerouac of On the Road, is an ecstatic adventurer. The haiku of his that I found the most emotionally authentic were the ones that recorded moments of quiet pathos. Maybe my own bias is showing here, but it’s interesting that this East Asian form gave Kerouac permission to show a side of himself that doesn’t emerge much in the pumped-up adventures of his novels.

I’ve chosen these three representative poets from three different regions of the West, who were part of different literary schools, and wrote during different time periods. All three of them were deeply influenced by the writing of East Asia. I call these three writers representative because they are just the tip of the wedge. I could have focused on any number of other poets, from many other countries and literary circles. Countless Western poets have borrowed from the literature of China, Japan, and Korea. By discussing these three writers, I’ve tried to show what an enormous debt the poets of the West owe to the writers of East Asia, and what an essential role East Asian poetry played in the development of literary modernism.

The Influence of East Asian Literature on Western Poetry, Part 1, Introduction
The Influence of East Asian Literature on Western Poetry: Part 3—Less Is More and the Poetry of Jean Follain

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other recent posts on writing topics:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Influence of East Asian Literature on Western Poetry: Part 3—Less Is More and the Poetry of Jean Follain


Western artists and writers have pulled from the tradition of East Asia for another reason: brevity, conciseness, and simplicity.

Mies van der Rohe architecture: “Less is more.”

From the sketches of Pablo Picasso, to the four-word stanzas of William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” to the “Less is more” steel and glass geometry of Mies van der Rohe’s architecture, this aspect of the aesthetic of East Asia has opened up new possibilities in the art of the West. Traditionally, ornateness and opulence were more or less synonymous with artistry in Europe.

Medieval ivory carving, Louvre Museum
Think of the highly populated worlds of medieval ivory carvings, and the intricacies of such forms as the sestina, not to mention Tolstoy’s novels, requiring an index of the myriad of characters.
Enter the purity of East Asian art, influenced by the sensibility of Buddhism, particularly Zen.

Moon jar, South Korea
In poetry, this aesthetic is most pronounced in such forms as the tanka or waka, which creates the fulcrum of a story in only thirty-one syllables. And of course there’s haiku, which gives the readers a moment of heightened awareness in only seventeen syllables.
Even though the initial translations of East Asian poetry into European languages were in French, the aesthetic of East Asian poetry was slower to influence Paris modernism. In France, the new writing of the early twentieth century was closely linked to the subconscious, and the subconscious requires free association. Free association often takes the form of long lines or prose poems that allow for an outpouring of imagery, as in the writing of Guillaume Apollinaire or André Breton. The extended lines of Walt Whitman were more of an influence for the French modernists than the poets of East Asia.
To my mind, the French modernist who shows the greatest influence of East Asian writing is the poet Jean Follain, who lived from 1903 to 1971.

Jean Follain, French poet (1903–1971)

Follain, unlike many of his contemporaries, was not a follower of “isms.” In fact, in contrast to many of the revolutionary French writers of his time, he worked as a lawyer and then as a district judge. Many of the artists of his era flocked to the artistic center of Paris, where the cafes were continually churning out new literary movements. The great urban centers can sometimes be surprisingly provincial in their insistence on embracing the latest avant-garde. But Follain lived much of his life in the provinces, in the little town of Canisy in Normandy, in the north of France.


Canisy, Normandy, France

He was somewhat isolated from other French writers. This may be one of the reasons that he was open to influences outside Europe, particularly East Asian writing.
For Follain, the short line and the poem of few words becomes a way of sketching the fates of living beings, much the same way that a haiku or tanka poem can.

Here, for example, is Follain’s poem “Dog with Schoolboys”:

Dog with Schoolboys

For fun the schoolboys crack the ice
along a path
next to the railroad
they are heavily clothed
in dark old woolens
belted with beat leather
The dog that follows them
no longer has a bowl to eat from
he is old
for he is their age.

(translation copyright © by Keith Waldrop)

This poem is almost a Zen koan. It presents the odd spectacle of schoolboys wandering by themselves, ostensibly having fun, but there is way too much silence and emptiness in this poem for their amusement to be anything but a way to heighten the pathos. Something about the schoolboys “dark old woolens” and “beat leather” suggests anything but a carefree childhood, and may even imply domestic violence.
Follain holds off on introducing the dog until the last four lines. Unlike the boys, the dog is homeless. The last two lines are understated but shot through with emotion: “he is old/for he is their age.” The paradox is that for a dog, the age of twelve or thirteen is past middle age, while the boys are the same age but still young. And yet…we sense that there is something old about these boys, repeating the ageless pranks that schoolboys have always played, in worn-out clothing, like the garb of old men. They are next to a railroad track, but ironically, they are not going anywhere. Their lives, like that of the homeless dog, are laid out before them, and those fates seem anything but promising. “Dog with Schoolboys” is a poem that shifts rapidly in perspective, and opens a sort of bottomless, emotional trapdoor at the end. It reminds me of the very famous Japanese haiku by Ransetsu:

Hattori Ransetsu, Japanese poet (1654–1707)

The childless woman,
How tender she is
To the dolls!

(translated by R.H. Blythe)

In Ransetsu’s haiku, he also sets the scene, and then suddenly pulls the rug out from under the reader, leaving only pathos. Ironically, the non-human world evokes human loneliness.
Follain’s “Dog with Schoolboys” also reminds me of those great tanka poems where there are two separate sections, connected only metaphorically. I’m thinking, for example, of this classic by the 10th century poet Fujiwara no Toshiyuki:

Fujiwara no Toshiyuki, tenth century C.E. Japanese poet

waves crowd the shore
Even at night
by the corridors of dreams
I come to you secretly

(adapted from the translation of Kenneth Rexroth)


The poet allows the reader to make the connection between the waves crowding the shore and the speaker, who is visiting his beloved in a dream. It is only on reflection that we realize that the waves could be a metaphor for the speaker in the dream. That wonderful phrase “crowd the shore” tells us that a love that penetrates even to dreams is a bit overbearing.
Follain draws on this sort of metaphorical tanka in his poetry, often presenting two or three or more elements in his poems that seem unrelated. It’s up to the reader to place these elements in a continuum along an axis, and to figure out what that axis is. Follain borrowed from East Asian poetry to create a poetics where the reader has to solve the puzzle.


Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other recent posts on writing topics:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Influence of East Asian Literature on Western Poetry: Part 2: The Akhmatova Bridge

In the first blog in this series, I talked about the early French translations of anthologies that introduced Western fans of literature to Chinese and Japanese poetry, including Le Livre de jade [The Book of Jade], and the craze for all East Asian art in the West in the late nineteenth century, called Le Japonisme.
Russian poets were well aware of these trends in Parisian culture, and Anna Akhmatova, who lived from 1889 to 1966, was no exception.

Anna Akhmatova, Russian poet, 1889–1966

Anna Akhmatova and her first husband, Nikolai Gumilev, visited Paris on their honeymoon in 1910, and returned to that city the following year.

Nikolai Gumilev, Russian poet, 1886–1921

Clearly they collected all of the available anthologies of East Asian poetry in French, since Gumilev produced a compilation of these anthologies that he translated into Russian. Gumilev called this chapbook of poems Farforovyi Pavilion: Kitaiskie Stikhi [The Porcelain Pavilion: Chinese Poems], which he published in 1918.

The Porcelain Pavilion: Gumilev's anthology of East Asian poetry, 1918

He based the book on four different French anthologies of Chinese classical poetry, including Gautier’s and Saint-Denys’.
At the same time that Akhmatova and Gumilev were visiting Paris and collecting these volumes of translations, Akhmatova was working on the book that would turn Russian poetry upside down, the book that launched modernist poetry in the Russian language. This was her first collection, Vecher [Evening], published in 1912.

Frontispiece of Akhmatova's collection Evening, published 1912

Before Akhmatova’s volume, Russian poetry was dominated by the symbolist movement. Symbolism was a school of poetry that often strove to create crystalline word structures that described an otherworldly reality, often an otherworldly love. One of the most famous symbolist poems is Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” Poe was a symbolist avant la lettre, before the term “symbolism” even existed:

It was many and many a year ago, 
   In a kingdom by the sea, 
That a maiden there lived whom you may know 
   By the name of Annabel Lee; 
And this maiden she lived with no other thought 
   Than to love and be loved by me. 

Where is this kingdom? What sort of relationship is this where lovers think only of one another? What kind of language is this that marches along with a rhythm unlike the phrases that people usually speak? This was not a world or a style that was useful to Anna Akhmatova as a poet.
Instead, Akhmatova tried to find a different model for poetry, one that dealt with real people living in real places who had real experiences and emotions, spoken in a voice not that distant from daily speech. Akhmatova found that model in East Asian poetry.
She was particularly influenced by the traditional topic in East Asian poetry of the woman who waits all night in vain for her lover to arrive. Akhmatova may well have known a poem by the mother of the Commander Michitsuna.

Mother of the Commander Michitsuna, Japanese poet

This Japanese poet wrote in the tenth century C.E. and was married to the Regent Kaneie. The poem appeared in French translation in de Rosny’s 1871 anthology of Japanese verse. Here is the U.S. poet Kenneth Rexroth’s English version:

Have you any idea
How long a night can last, spent
Lying alone and sobbing?

This traditional tanka is a powerful and concise statement of an emotion. It sums up a relationship in just a few lines. The poet emphasizes the length of the night spent waiting for the lover. The speaker of this Japanese tanka never mentions her lover explicitly, but she does address him with a question.
In her poem “White Night” from her first collection, Evening, Akhmatova revived the traditional East Asian theme of the lover who waits in vain all night for her beloved, but she transported it to a modern, Russian setting. The title refers to the long days of the Nordic summer, when the sun barely sets:

White Night

I haven’t locked the door,
Nor lit the candles,
You don’t know, don’t care,
That tired I haven’t the strength

To decide to go to bed.
Seeing the fields fade in
The sunset murk of pine-needles,
And to know all is lost,

That life is a cursed hell:
I’ve got drunk
On your voice in the doorway.
I was sure you’d come back.
                                                            1911, Tsarskoye Selo

(translation copyright © by D.M. Thomas)

The lover in this poem is so distraught that she doesn’t even bother to light the candles once it finally gets dark, or to drag herself to bed when she realizes the man she’s waiting up for is not coming home. She can’t help keeping the door unlocked in the hope that he will still arrive. The daylight that goes on and on mirrors the insomnia and unstoppered pain of the speaker who waits up.
Akhmatova heightens the emotion implied in poems such as the tanka just discussed. She adapts the traditional theme of the jilted lover to her own purposes. As in the 10th century tanka, the speaker addresses her lover directly, but in “White Night” the speaker throws her accusation of callousness right in her lover’s face: “You don’t know, don’t care,/ That tired I haven’t the strength/To decide to go to bed.” Akhmatova made use of the East Asian classical tradition of the lover waiting all night in vain, but she interpreted the tradition in her own empowering way.
This forcefulness in Akhmatova’s work caught the ear of North American women writers when they were looking for their own poetic models during the feminist revival that began in the second half of the twentieth century.
In “White Night” Akhmatova employs another device common in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean verse—she choreographs imagery to embody emotion—the sunset and the fading pine needles represent her waning hope. We have the sense that this is not the first time she’s been disappointed by this man, though the last time is getting close.
Interestingly, Akhmatova ends her poem with the date and place of its composition: “1911, Tsarskoye Selo.”

Tsarskoye Selo

Her use of a time and location represents a significant extension of the East Asian tradition. Every one of Akhmatova’s poems ends with the date below the last line of the poem, a stamp of authenticity indicating that these experiences were not simply invented. Many classical Chinese and Japanese poems feel autobiographical, and Akhmatova again expands on this tradition. Akhmatova uses the date at the end of her poem to indicate that she is bearing witness to the events of her heart, just as she witnessed the horrors of Stalin’s dictatorship later in her life. By making the date the conclusion of all her poems, Akhmatova was turning her verse into an ongoing diary of her personal experience, a stance that became the foundation of much of the poetry written by North American women in the 1970s and 80s.
The addition of the name of the town Tsarskoye Selo gives “White Night” an even more personal identification. Tsarskoye Selo was the Versailles of Russia, the site of the tsar’s summer palace. Significantly, it’s also the town where Akhmatova grew up and where she lived with Gumilev, tying the poem more closely to her first marriage.
In a passage from her memoirs, My Half Century, Akhmatova discusses the importance for her of writing out of her own experience. She contrasts her approach with that of the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning: “I’m somewhat anti-Browning, He always spoke in another character, for another character. I do not let anybody else speak a word (in my poetry, it goes without saying). I speak myself and for myself….” This passage reads like a manifesto for the North American poetry of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, when writers such as Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood, Ntozake Shange, Sharon Olds, Linda McCarriston, and many others used autobiographical material as the source of their poetic inspiration and politics.
This outspokenly autobiographical stance of the Acmeist poets was expressed even more explicitly by Nadezhda Mandelstam. Nadezhda was the the wife of Akhmatova’s friend and closest literary ally, the poet Osip Mandelstam: “In poetry, every word is a confession, every finished work is a part of the poet’s autobiography….” (quoted in Justin Doherty, The Acmeist Movement in Russian Poetry: Culture and the Word).

In short, what Akhmatova found in the East Asian tradition was a poetry of personal narrative. This personal narrative was sorely missing in the European and American poetry of the late nineteenth century, dominated by otherworldly visions of the symbolists, the medieval revivals of the pre-Raphaelites, and the displaced emotions of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues. Why the personal narrative of the East Asian tradition? Personal narrative is a sort of bearing witness, and where there are witnesses, there can be judgments, there can be remedy.


Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other recent posts on writing topics:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry