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Review of Haiku Poetics in Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde Poetry

Johnson, Jeffrey. Haiku Poetics in Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde Poetry. Lanham, MD: Lexington. 2011. New Studies of Modern Japan Series. 248 pages. $90.

Jeffrey Johnson’s Haiku Poetics in Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde Poetry provides a valuable resource to poetry scholars. For the first time, a full-length study demonstrates the intertextual relationship between haiku and twentieth-century avant-garde poetry. Specifically, Johnson’s project focuses on haiku poetics more than on the traditional haiku form and then examines the impact of haiku poetics on avant-garde poetry. It provides evidence from multiple avant-garde movements including those of Brazil, Britain, France, Mexico, Spain, and the United States, movements that also exerted influence on one another. An overview of the three sections of the book demonstrates the scope of Johnson’s project and the primary support for his claim that haiku poetics had a substantial influence on avant-garde poetry.

The book is organized chronologically and divided into three parts. Part 1: Haiku and Avant-Garde Poetics, clarifies Johnson’s focus. In the Introduction, he explains that his interest is in a poetic mode he terms “synaesthetic,” and it includes poetry that has been influenced by haiku, haiku poetics, and/or variations on haiku. Chapter 1 includes a consideration of haiku terminology, haiku history, traditional Japanese haiku, nineteenth-century translations, and an overview of the impact of haiku poetics on avant-garde poetics throughout the twentieth century. This chapter also presents the important concept of yūgen and argues that yūgen was central to the changes haiku inspired in western poetics. Johnson explains that yūgen

elevates the role of suggestion, shows little but implies a lot, and requires an intuitive leap of imagination on the part of the reader. The yūgen suggestiveness at the core of these poetics serves a dual function, both semiotic and literary. The semiotic function renders this poetic language as index . . . . The literary function of haiku operates allegorically. (16)

This concept surfaces throughout the book, at times in analyses of haiku or haiku-related poems such as those by U.S. poets Ezra Pound and Jack Kerouac. Its most useful application for Johnson’s argument, however, is in considering avant-garde poetry where the connection to formal haiku poetics is not immediately apparent such as the concrete poetry of Brazilian writer, Haroldo de Campos.

Johnson next creates an effective transition from orthodox haiku to the innovative uses of haiku poetics that he addresses in the rest of the book by examining how haiku moved beyond the Japanese literary tradition. He explores early translations of Japanese haiku, including those by George William Aston, Basil Hall Chamberlain, and Paul-Louis Couchoud, and addresses their influence on writers outside of Japan. For example, he notes “the visual aspects of haiku that were of such great importance to Couchoud also helped determine the direction of the future of avant-garde poetry for many years to come” (36). Couchoud focused largely on Buson’s haiku. Johnson suggests that the visual element found in those haiku later appears in poetry by early twentieth-century writers including Amy Lowell and Antonio Machado. By moving from translation to early adaptations of haiku and to innovative poems resulting from an awareness of haiku, Johnson creates the necessary foundation for his consideration of several avant-garde poetic movements.

Part 2: Haiku in the Teens and Twenties Avant-Garde, considers the impact of haiku poetics on avant-garde poetry in four countries. Chapter 2 addresses Imagism and, while drawing on examples from several British and American Imagists, bookends its discussion with sections on Amy Lowell and Ezra Pound. This chapter details the specific contributions Imagist poetry made to later avant-garde movements. For instance, after examining various poems, Johnson concludes that

the major step in these poetics . . . was the employment of paratactic juxtaposition, often images from nature, deployed in lieu of description – part of a non-linear means of organization that also enabled the co-joining of elements that logically would not otherwise be joined. The use of paratactic juxtaposition and lack of connectors was integral to the process of breaking with linear narrative forms. By extension, syntax which has a linear, metonymical, and hierarchical function in language, also came under attack, and that is why Mallarmé’s, the Futurists’, Surrealists’, and other avantgardists’ attitude toward syntax ranged from indifference to hostility. (82-3)

Demonstrating the impact Imagism had on future avant-garde movements helps substantiate Johnson’s claim of haiku’s importance on a century of poetic innovation.

Chapter 3 reveals the significant impact haiku had on French avant-garde poetry. Johnson begins with Mallarmé’s interest in Asian poetic forms and with translations by Paul-Louis Couchoud and Albert de Neuville that raised awareness of classical Japanese haiku. After a consideration of Julien Vocance’s haiku in response to World War I and his efforts to “evoke partly through silence what eloquence could not express,” (103) the chapter concludes with an analysis of the relationship between haiku and Surrealism. Johnson examines work by Paul Eluard and the ways in which his haiku present an insight and “such an insight is (often) framed in juxtaposition, and that is precisely the most important point of articulation between Surrealist practice and haiku poetics . . .” (105). He argues that juxtaposition of images in Eluard’s poems “all move toward the mystery, rupture, and non-dual or united antinomies of Surrealism” (107). The discussion of the relationship between haiku and Surrealism is significant because, prior to this study, little critical attention had been paid to this relationship.

In Chapter 4, Johnson considers Spanish haikai. He explores Antonio Machado’s connection to Japonisme and his early experimentation with haiku and then follows with discussions of work by many Spanish poets including Federico García Lorca’s image-centered poetry and theater. By this point in the book, it is clear that similar influences and trends can be traced in many avant-garde movements’ engagement with haiku poetics; however, two sections of this chapter are distinctive. The first is the section on literary magazines and the recognition of their significant role in circulating haiku and encouraging engagement with haiku poetics. The second is the final section of the chapter. Its analysis of visual experimentation in Guillermo de Torre’s poetry, and his “purely visual analogies inspired by haiku,” lead directly to the ensuing chapter’s discussion of the Latin American vanguard and also establishes de Torre as a predecessor to the Concretists (149).

Part 3: Haiku and Bridging the Historical Avant-Garde to the Fifties and Beyond, contains the two final chapters, one addressing the Latin American Vanguard and the other Beat poetry. Chapter 6 picks up the thread of visual poetry from the preceding chapter in order to demonstrate that avant-garde poetry in Latin America is both related to, and unique from, the poetry of other avant-garde movements. One of the chapter’s strengths is the attention it gives to José Juan Tablada. Tablada is a central figure in the dissemination of haiku outside of Japan and also a key experimenter with haiku and visual poetry; however, there is limited English-language scholarship addressing these aspects of his work. The chapter also takes a long view of haiku experimentation by examining not only work in the early twentieth century but then exploring mid- and late-century interest in haiku. For instance, poets such as Francisco Monterde and Jorge Luis Borges participated in the early years and then re-engaged in the 1950s and ‘60s. Octavio Paz also began working with haiku in the ‘50s, and, like Tablada, was “involved in visual analogy, the optical revolution in poetry … which would lead to Concrete Poetry” (172). The chapter concludes with a section on Concretismo, or Concretism, drawing clear connections to traditional Japanese haiku as well as to the work of poets including Mallarmé and Pound.

The final chapter in the book focuses on Beat poetry. Johnson notes that Beat poetry “fully inherited the avant-garde, Japonisme-haiku aesthetic vein of poetry” discussed in previous chapters but that Beat poetry is also marked by lyricism and informed by Buddhism. He begins with a consideration of work by Kenneth Rexroth. Rexroth’s translations and his poetic adaptations create the foundation upon which the others developed their own approach to haiku, and Johnson acknowledges that Rexroth is “a Beat predecessor and like-minded poet” (195). Rexroth’s translations, which are often of tanka, and his poetry employ juxtaposition consistent with the final-line juxtaposition that is addressed in earlier chapters. This formal technique and “his pointing out the connection of haiku to the avant-garde movements” ranging from Imagism to Surrealism are, Johnson argues, central to the base Rexroth constructs for the Beat poets.

Johnson then goes on to consider poems by three prominent Beat poets: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder. Kerouac’s haiku are discussed both in terms of their humor, which connects them to early Japanese haikai, and in terms of jazz (190), while the analysis of Ginsberg’s longer poetry concerns in part “finding a way to retain the essence of haiku images and thread them through much longer poems,” (204). In the section on Snyder’s poetry, Johnson notes a much stronger connection between haiku and the poet’s overall oeuvre than is found in the work of the other poets. He states, “haiku is connected to or perhaps the foundation of the insights, the nature centered worldview, the disciplines, and many aspects of Snyder’s poetry, and perhaps his life’s work” (210). The Beat poets, as with the mid-century poets Latin American in the previous chapter, contribute to the ongoing interest in haiku poetics after the initial era of experimentation and engagement in the first part of the century.

Haiku Poetics in Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde Poetry takes on a formidable task in tracing the engagement with haiku poetics over a century of work by avant-gardists from several countries and literary traditions. The scope of such a project runs the risk of certain shortcomings, and a few are found in this study. There is at times a tendency toward overstatement and generalization, and in some cases the connection between the examples of avant-garde poems and haiku poetics is tenuous. Additionally, Johnson omits any mention of the English-language haiku movement itself, a movement that begins just past mid-century complete with the creation of national haiku organizations and journals. It would be interesting to know if this movement, and the shift toward mainstreaming haiku, made haiku poetics any more or less appealing to avant-garde movements later in the century.

The above caveats aside, Haiku Poetics in Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde Poetry reveals new insights into the work of individual poets while simultaneously demonstrating the centrality of haiku and haiku poetics in several avant-garde poetry movements of the twentieth century. It is a substantial and welcome addition to haiku scholarship.

— Ce Rosenow

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