Amy LOWELL and Haiku
It is instructive to contrast
Amy LOWELL (1874 – 1925) was the youngster “postscript” sister of Percival LOWELL (1855 – 1916), and has been known as one of the modern American poets. She wrote a first poem when she was 9 years of age, while she entered the poet world in 1902, and became an iconoclast cigar-smoking poet. Amy was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1926, a year after her sudden death.
name has been known in
The set of
words “pictures of the floating world” is a direct, but commonly accepted
translation of Ukiyo-E, and Amy’s poems in her collection “Pictures of the Floating World” (NY,
Macmillan Co, 1919) are so more or less concerned with Japanese-like images.
Amy did however never come to
The following are from the Pictures of the Floating World:
ONE OF THE "HUNDRED VIEWS OF
I filled a cup with water,
And, behold! Fuji-yama lay upon the water
Like a dropped leaf!
THE EMPEROR’S GARDEN
Once, in the sultry heat of midsummer,
An Emperor caused the miniature mountains in his garden
To be covered with white silk,
That so crowned,
They might cool his eyes
With the sparkle of snow.
A wise man,
Watching the stars pass across the sky,
In the upper air the fireflies move more slowly.
Otherwise, Amy’s Pictures of the Floating World contains a lot of short lyrics that really look like Haiku: For example
Is it a dragon fly or maple leaf
That settles softly down upon the water?
Ezra POUND’s imagism is said to have been influenced by the 17-syllable Haiku, as often pointed out, by a superposition of two images put in a short verse form as seen in the following famous Haiku by Moritaké ARAKIDA (1473 – 1549): The fallen blossom flies back to its branch: A butterfly. (It’s said that some eleven kinds of English translations of the original exist). Amy’s Autumn Haze as above employs dragonfly instead of butterfly, and leaf instead of petal, and gives quite poetically a soft image of landing upon the water. But the image of water is not quite the same as the image that sounds in the well-known Haiku of Basho MATSUO (1644 – 1694):
The ancient pond
A frog leaps in
The sound of the water
The translation here of “Furuike ya …” is the one given by Donald KEENE when he was quite young, and we here want to quote some long passages of KEENE which illustrate the characteristics of Japanese Haiku and at the same time criticise Amy LOWELL’s Haiku.
The images used by Basho in capturing the moment of truth were most often visual, as in the haiku about the frog, or the equally famous:
kareeda ni On the withered branch
karasu no tomarikeri A crow has alighted -----
This verse presents so sharp an image that it has often been painted. But Basho did not rely exclusively on visual images; the moment might equally well be perceived by one of other senses:
shizukasa ya Such stillness -----
iwa ni shimiiru The cries of the cicadas
semi no koe Sink into the rocks.
And sometimes the senses were mingled in a surprising modern way:
umi kurete The sea darkens,
kamo no koe The cries of the seagulls
honoka ni shirosi Are faintly white.
As these examples indicate, the haiku, for all its extreme brevity, must contain two elements, usually divided by a break marked by what the Japanese call a “cutting word” (kireji). One of the elements may be the general condition – the end of autumn, the stillness of the temple grounds, the darkening sea – and the other the momentary perception. The nature of the elements varies, but there should be the two electric poles between which the spark will leap for the haiku to be effective; otherwise it is no more than a brief statement. That is the point which has been missed by such Western imitators of the haiku form as Amy Lowell, who saw in the haiku its brevity and suggestion, but did not understand the methods by which the effects were achieved. Here are two of Miss Lowell’s haiku:
If I could catch the green lantern of firefly
I could see to write you a letter.
To a Husband
Brighter than the fireflies upon the
Are your words in the dark, Beloved.
In these examples the words are poetic, but the verses do not have the quality of a haiku, for the reason I have given. …….
(Donald KEENE, Japanese Literature –
An Introduction for Western Readers, 1955)
Professor KEENE however admits that Miss LOWELL’s best Haiku are found among the ones on modern themes in What’s O’Clock (1925).
We close by remarking two things: First let us recall again that Amy LOWELL was born in 1874, the year the Venus Transit was observed, and hence let us here quote her poem Venus Transiens that was first published in Poetry magazine in 1915:
Was Venus more beautiful
Than you are,
When she topped
The crinkled waves,
On her plaited shell?
Was Botticelli's vision
Fairer than mine;
And were the painted rosebuds
He tossed his lady,
Of better worth
Than the words I blow about you
To cover your too great loveliness
As with a gauze
Of misted silver?
You stand poised
In the blue and buoyant air,
Cinctured by bright winds,
Treading the sunlight.
And the waves which precede you
Ripple and stir
The sands at my feet.
Next, and finally, let us remark that Basho is famous for his round trip of 150 days from Edo (now Tokyo) northward, on foot, and then southward along the rear side travelling a distance of 2,400 km all down to Kwansai in 1689 when he was 46 years old. A number of haiku he produced during the journey are filed in his book called “The Narrow Road to Oku.” On the occasion, he passed through Oya Shiradzu-Ko Shiradzu from north to south just 200 years before the time of Percival LOWELL: A bit after he gave the following famous haiku,
Turbulent the sea -
Across to Sado stretches
The Milky Way,
he lodged on 25 August at No, and on 26 August he walked along the dangerous seashore at Oya Shiradzu and arrived at Ichiburi in the evening.
died at the age of 51 at
Stricken on a journey,
My dreams go wandering round
Masatsugu MINAMI, CMO Fukui