BH. John Gould Fletcher


7. Japanese Prints. Boston: Four Seas, 1918.

A collection entirely set in Japan, in description of ukiyoe, that consciously attempts incorporation of Japanese poetics. Fletcher’s own account of the background of the poems in an autobiography published nineteen years later (13) is worth noting. In January or February 1915 he spent several days viewing the Clarence Buckingham collection of ukiyoe at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he was ‘stirred to make a new experiment’ using the prints as a ‘pretext’. In the galleries, ‘facing the actual prints themselves’, he wrote no fewer than fifty ‘epigrams’, concentrating on ‘earlier specimens’ of ukiyoe, particularly prints by Sharaku, in preference to the ‘later masterpieces’ of Hokusai and Hiroshige. What he intended was a ‘brief commentary on life and . . . manners, a kind of “Spoon River” á la Japonaise’, but more ‘compressed’ and ‘decorative’, for ‘poetry of this sort should be concentrated, suggestive, [and] brief, much as the Japanese poetry itself had been’. After a week and ‘in weariness’ he concluded his ‘task’, believing that he ‘need not . . . feel ashamed’ of the work, for if ‘any imagist’ were to ‘comment on life, this was the way . . . the comment should be made’. The results of Fletcher’s ‘experiment’ have elicited considerable comment themselves, both laudatory and dismissive, in both contemporary and later scholarship. Regarding the former, see 25. Regarding the latter, consider Hughes (A19), who finds a ‘resemblance to Japanese poems’ in Fletcher’s ‘brevity’ and ‘stage properties’, the ‘paraphernalia of swords, cherry blossoms, palace gardens, jewel trees, and the like’; or Stephens (27), who believes the poems ‘reflect the spirit of the haiku, and . . . Zen Buddhism’ and make conscious use of season words (kigo); or de Chasca (29), who agrees that they ‘capture the spirit of the Far East’ in their brevity, concentration, and ‘delicate emotion behind universal natural facts’. Typically, however, it is Miner (A25) who offers the most perceptive comment on the work. While in these poems Fletcher’s ‘chief interest in Japan’ has ‘shifted from its art and philosophy to haiku’, the poems are ‘disappointing’ in their use of ‘natural images or objects associated with Japanese poetry or prints’ in ‘a conventionally exotic way or in settings which make the images dissonant by both Japanese and Western standards’. Fletcher’s dedication to his wife, ‘Granted this dew-drop world be but a dew-drop world, / This granted, yet—’, is not acknowledged, but is a translation of Issa (Ap) on the death of his last surviving son. Only those poems with explicit internal connection to Japanese subjects are noted below, though others derive imagery from traditional motifs, cherry blossoms, the colour of autumn maples, and the like. Reprints 6. See also 3 for earlier Fletcher Japanese Prints not incorporated here, Harmer (A51) for argument that the work is a source for Lowell’s Twenty-Four Hokku on a Modern Theme (BI11), and BA4, BH14, 15, 19, 22a-b, 23b, 26, 32, BI6, 7a3, and 19.

a. Preface. As in Goblins and Pagodas (4) Fletcher’s preface to his poems is considerably more interesting than the poems themselves. Here he offers a brief history of Japanese poetry that is more accurate than not, and calls particular attention to Bashô (Ap), ‘the greatest epigrammatist of any time’, and that poet’s affiliation with Zen Buddhism, which according to Fletcher ‘may be called religion under the forms of nature’. Using as an example a translation of Bashô’s famous furuike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto (An old pond . . . ), he describes ‘three meanings’ he believes are found in all of Bashô’s poems, a ‘statement of fact’, ‘an emotion deduced from that’, and ‘a sort of spiritual allegory’. From this Fletcher derives the proposition that ‘if poetry in the English tongue is ever to attain again to the vitality and strength of its beginnings’, English-language poets must ‘sit once more at the feet of the Orient’, to ‘learn . . . how little words can express, how sparingly they should be used, and how much is contained in the meanest natural object’. If Western writers are to prevent their art from ‘disappear[ing] under the froth of shallow egotism’, they ‘must learn the lesson Bashô can teach’, that ‘language is only a means and never an end’. Fletcher insists that he does not advocate mere imitation, for ‘good hokkus cannot be written in English’, and his own poems ‘are in some cases not Japanese at all’, but ‘unless we set ourselves seriously to the task of understanding’ the lessons of Bashô, poetry in English ‘will be dead in fifty years’ from a ‘surfeit of superficial cleverness and devitalized realism’. Miner (A25) writes of these seven pages that ‘probably none of the Imagists ever came closer . . . to describing the meaning of Japanese poetry for those of their poems which were not specifically Japanese in subject matter or technique’. Surely none delved more honestly into the spiritual underpinnings of Japanese poetics, and surely Fletcher’s understanding of Zen and Taoist principles have developed since his assertion two years earlier that he hoped from natural objects ‘to evoke [something] . . . friendly’ that ‘responds to’ his ‘mood’ (see 4). If only the poems that follow were more closely allied with the sensibilities set forth in his description of their aims . . . .

b. A Picnic Under the Cherry Trees. Description of the picnic of the title, which takes place on a boat on a lake. Refers to the sounds of a shakuhachi and a shamisen or koto, though none of the instruments is named.

c. Court Lady Standing Under Cherry Tree. Description of the lady. Includes reference to the two swords of a samurai and to the tatami mats of the palace. Reprinted in 20.

d. Court Lady Standing Under a Plum Tree. One wonders if this is among the few poems in the collection not derived from an actual print, since the court woman of the title wears a kimono decorated with autumn scenes while she herself stands under the blossoming plum of spring, a situation inconceivable either in a Japanese print or in the Japanese court of any period. See also 6a.

e. A Beautiful Woman. Description of the woman of the title; her name in the poem, ‘iris-amid-clouds’, is not likely to have been used in Japan, in any combination of characters or pronunciation.

f. A Reading. A man who hears a woman’s voice intoning a passage imagines that her words are ‘distant wave-caps breaking / Upon [a] painted screen’; the quotation that opens the poem is probably a translation from Genji monogatari (see D26c), which perhaps accompanied the print as it hung at the Art Institute.

g. An Actor as a Dancing Girl. Description of the dancer of the title; focuses again on the beauty of kimono (see 6a); closes with lines reminiscent of English-language translations of hokku: ‘Heavy blooms / Breaking and spilling fiery cups / Drowsily.’

h. Josan No Miya. The title could mean ‘the temple of young women’, though would not be used in such a way in Japanese, or could be related to a particularly obscure term in esoteric Buddhism, but neither reading helps make sense of the poem, which is about a ‘she’ who is both ‘a fierce kitten’ and a ‘gust of wind’.

i. An Oiran and Her Kamuso. A kamuso is a kind of fish. Given that neither fish nor anything related to them appear in the poem, probably either Fletcher or the curator supplying notes for the prints intended kaburo, a young girl in service to and in apprenticeship with an oiran, a veteran geisha in the Kansai district. Reprinted in 20.

j. Kurenai-ye or ‘Red Picture’. Kurenai-e means deep red or crimson picture. A woman waits expectantly for her lover beneath the cherry blossoms.

k. Scene from a Drama. Describes actors portraying a daimyô and a courtesan in the scene of the title. Reprinted in 20.

l. A Woman in Winter Costume. Another admiration of kimono (see 6a).

m. Kiyonobu and Kiyomasu [Ap] CONTRASTED. The contrast is presented in metaphors of a long bright summer and a brief stormy autumn, and indeed Kiyonobu lived a long and illustrious life while his eldest son, or perhaps younger brother, Kiyomasu, died in or around his twentieth year.

n. An Actor. Description of a kabuki actor posturing and grimacing, though kabuki is not specifically mentioned.

o. Memory and Forgetting. The image of the leaf falling to earth recalls a number of hokku.

p. Pillar-Print, Masonobu [sic] —Early. No Japanese artist has been known as Mosonobu, but Kitao Masanobu (Ap) produced ‘pillar prints’ (hashirae) of the sort described here. Fletcher has the same name wrong in a different way in a later poem (r).

q. The Young Daimyo. A young woman complains that the young daimyô of the title is so taken with the swords he has been presented that he does not compare her kisses to cherry blossoms. Miner (A25), correctly and in words that could be applied to much of the collection, notes that the poem ‘rings false . . . because it pretends to be so much more Japanese than it is’, and he echoes Schwartz (BI28) in calling attention to the facts that ‘kisses are not compared to cherry blossoms in Japan, kissing in public is frowned upon, a boy was given his swords at an age when he would find even his mother’s caresses tedious, and the last thought of a samurai would be to leave the company of men after receiving such an honor’.

r. Masonubu [sic] —Early. ‘Masonobu’ (see p) has become ‘Masonubu’, but still would have to be Kitao Masanobu. Nine lines about swords and temple bells and butterflies.

s. Disappointment. Brief lines that include reference to the Yoshiwara.

t. In Exile. The opening triplet more than most of the verse in the volume captures a mood not unusual in classical Japanese verse, similar to the beauty-in-loneliness to which the word sabi applies: ‘My heart is mournful as thunder moving / Through distant hills / Late on a long still night of autumn’. Seven following lines dilute the effect.

u. The Endless Lament. Each of four stanzas describes rain falling in a different season, with imagery drawn from common Japanese seasonal associations and kigo, cherry blossoms, willows, maple leaves, and snow.

v. Toyonobu: Exile’s Return. Description of a print by Ishikawa Toyonobu (1711-85).

w. A Night Festival. Fletcher’s description of the festival of the title includes reference to the shôji, paper windows, of a traditional house.

x. Moods. Perhaps Fletcher imagined these two lines with their Poundian super-position (see BK12) were like hokku, but no poet in Japanese tradition would have compared his own moods to ‘fluttering butterflies in the rain’.

y. Grass. Neither would a classical Japanese poet compare his ‘soul’ to grass moving in the wind (see ac).

z. Terror. More in keeping with a mood and attitude common to many hokku than most of the short poems in the volume, in that the natural image, in this case ‘pallid petals of white chrysanthemums / Waving to and fro’ in the wind, is set against and thereby illuminates a stance of the speaker about a seemingly unrelated construct, in this case foreboding about going to a place unnamed in the poem.

aa. Mid-Summer Dusk. Miner (A25) finds this seasonal description ‘the happier for not striving too hard to be Japanese’, and notes that it is ‘so Japanese in spirit that it almost seems to be modeled upon a specific haiku’.

ab. Evening Bell from a Distant Temple. Miner (A25) demonstrates a source in a translation of Buson’s (Ap) Suzushisa ya / kane o hanaruru / kane no oto (How cool in the evening / the reverberations of / the temple bell).

ac. Japan. Description of ‘an old courtyard’ with ‘mossy stones’ marking a path through it, and the ‘copper carp swimming lazily’ in a pond, while ‘a faint toneless . . . echo of rain / . . . tears at [the speaker’s] heart’. See also y.

ad. Leaves. Pseudo-hokku. Like several poems in the volume, looks on the surface like a translation of hokku, but includes imagery and diction that would not be found in classical Japanese tradition.





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