BH. John Gould Fletcher


4. Goblins and Pagodas. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1916. Reprint, New York: AMS, 1981.

In a preface dated January 1916 Fletcher outlines the ‘method’ by which he has composed the poems collected here, and which is closely connected with Japanese subjects. Unlike a Victorian poet who writes ‘about’ objects and states at length how they affect him, or a ‘realist poet’ who strives to ‘expatiate’ on the ‘external appearance’ of objects, Fletcher attempts to select from his life important events connected with the object of composition, and to write of them ‘in terms of’ that object, so that his personality and the ‘personality’ of the object merge. He hopes thereby ‘to evoke a soul’ from ‘inanimate matter’, something ‘characteristic . . . in inorganic form’ that is ‘friendly’ to him and ‘responds to’ his mood. The method ‘is not new’, Fletcher notes, but ‘has not often been used in Occidental countries’. For its antecedent he cites ‘the cardinal doctrine of Zen Buddhism’, the ‘interdependence of man and inanimate nature’, which he has learned of in Fenollosa’s ‘book on Chinese and Japanese Art’ (D10c). We have here, then, the first of many instances in American poetry of a verse consciously indebted to Zen, or at any rate an American understanding of Zen. Before one makes too much of this, though, two points are important. First, Fletcher’s poems fail to live up to the promise of the preface and do not vary appreciably from his earlier work. Second, while the attempt to incorporate method derived from Zen understanding is in itself interesting, and in keeping with the spirit of the times—Pound had recently derived the technique of super-position from the hokku (see BK12), he and Lowell were soon to derive poetic form from the ‘ideogram’ (see BK32 and BI10)—Fletcher only vaguely understands the principles to which Fenollosa refers. Chinese and Japanese artists—most notably for present purposes early modern poets of the Bashô (Ap) school—have made frequent use of the Mahayana doctrine of the interdependence and interpenetration of subject and object (Jpn.: jishin sokubutsu), but Fletcher’s idea that the object itself is ‘inanimate’, or that it could be ‘friendly’ to him or has anything to do with his ‘mood’, is alien to the Buddhist concept, as Fenollosa would have been aware. Earlier poets in the English tradition who knew nothing of Japanese poetry or religion—Coleridge, for example, in his attempt to fuse subject and object in an act of ‘primary imagination’—and later poets—Robert Bly, for instance, drawing from Bashô and Mahayana tradition (see CA14)—have understood the mystical and dynamic interpenetration to which the concept refers. Fletcher did not. He stands apart from the object, his separate identity separated from it, and strives to ‘evoke a soul’ from what he is sure has none. Both the concept itself and the poetry that follows from it are static. The attempt to bring Buddhist principles into the mainstream of poetry in English is admirable, and the fact of an American poetics first attempting to draw life from Zen Buddhism is of historical importance, but Fletcher in 1916 misunderstood the principles he thought he was putting into practice. Later attempts to trace Zen concepts either in this volume or in Fletcher’s work in general (see 27 and 28) miss this fundamental point (though see reviews of the preface at 24). The volume is reprinted in 9 and excerpts of both parts appear in 20; the preface is reprinted in 21. See also BA4, BH2, 5, 7a, 17, and 33.

a. The Ghosts of an Old House. A twenty-two page poem in which according to the preface Fletcher has ‘followed the method already described’, taken from his understanding of Zen Buddhism as he had received it from Fenollosa (see above). The imagery is more sharply drawn than in most of Fletcher’s earlier work, and so perhaps the method was not altogether without result. Durnell (A55) suggests plausibly that the lines opening and closing the ‘Bedroom’ section, ‘The clump of jessamine / Softly beneath the rain / Rocks its golden flowers’, are indebted to Fletcher’s knowledge of haiku. Fletcher himself in ‘The Orient and Contemporary Poetry’ (15) notes that sections of the poem were written in 1915, after he had completed the ‘symphonies’, and that he had Japanese poetry in mind: ‘I turned back along the lines already marked out by Pound’s Vorticism [see especially BK12], and became again attracted to the possibilities of Japanese, rather than Chinese poetry. The poems [were] . . . written under what might be called the tanka influence.’ Sections had appeared earlier in the Egoist, 1 September, 1 October, and 1 November 1915.

b. Symphonies. Eleven ‘symphonies’, each named after a colour, constitute the last seventy pages of the volume, and rely heavily on the literary Impressionism Miner so convincingly traces to the nineteenth-century European discovery of ukiyoe (A25, pp. 66-96). Fletcher notes in his autobiography (13) that the third section of White Symphony ‘came by contemplation of some snow scene prints by Hiroshige’ (Ap), and in a letter to Noguchi (18) that Blue Symphony was ‘suggested’ by that poet’s Pilgrimage (D15e4). Miner finds that Green Symphony was ‘probably inspired by’ the Ogata Kôrin (Ap) screen-painting of ‘Waves at Matsushima’ in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, a suggestion given credence by Fenollosa’s discussion of the Kôrin screen in the work Fletcher acknowledges in the preface, Fletcher’s familiarity with the collection at the Boston Museum, and his later prose appreciation of another seascape by Kôrin (see 12). Regarding influences from East-Asian poetry, however, in ‘The Orient and Contemporary Poetry’ (15) Fletcher writes that the symphonies were composed in 1914 and early 1915 under the influence mainly of Chinese verse. He ‘was content to abide by the Chinese influences’ he had ‘found accessible’ in English translation, and ‘was prepared to resist Pound’s Vorticism’ (see BK10-12), which he believed ‘point[ed] in the direction of Japanese tanka and hokku’. Green Symphony appeared first in Little Review in February 1915. Excerpts from several of the symphonies appear in 9. Compare to Fletcher’s earlier ‘symphony’, and others written from 1915 to 1917 by Aiken and Ficke (see 2b).





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