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

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