In Praise of Japanese Love Poems
First published in Woodnotes #23, Winter 1994, page 53. See also the new postscript at the end.
In Praise of Japanese Love Poems introduced by Regina Sara Ryan. Hohm Press, 76 pages, paperback, 5½ by 8½ inches. $10.00 in book- stores. This book is enigmatic. No editor is cited for this anthology of English-language haiku, tanka, and other short poems on the theme of love, and the various poets are not identified. Only the introduction, by Regina Sara Ryan, is given a byline, and she indicates that the poems are presented anonymously, because “the mood of love is easily shattered by the intrusion of the analytical mind which is fascinated and thus distracted by dates and names and places.” The only other source of these poems is the title page indication that Hohm Press is based in Prescott, Arizona (hear that, Hank [Dunlap]?), and that the poems are by “Lee Lozowick et al.” The titillating mystery of authorship aside, this book presents 171 poems mixed with Japanese calligraphy by Denise Puck Wong. By the omission of poets’ names, we are afforded the luxury of sinking deeply into the emotions of love gained and love lost. Two selections from the book’s many strong poems that are sometime haiku or tanka, but are often vibrantly free of form as well:
And slowly fills the tracks
Of your leaving
Sleeping alone last night
How to explain
Of my bed
I have written about the value of haiku’s “fourth line,” or the name under the poem, even if its’ not a three-liner (see “On a First-Name Basis: Deepening Haiku with its ‘Fourth Line’” and “Knowing the Poet”), giving readers useful information such as gender, biographical and geographical associations, brand expectations, and other contextualizations that can only deepen our appreciation of the poem. In Praise of Japanese Love Poems gives readers the opportunity to apprehend an extended set of poems without any indication of authorship. Ultimately, I find the book weakened as a result. The introduction explains that “the mood of love is easily shattered by the intrusion of the analytical mind which is fascinated and thus distracted by dates and names and places,” but who’s to say a name after a poem is a distraction? For me it’s an enhancement to know this information, and more of a distraction not to know. How fascinating it would be to learn that one particular poem, for example, might be written for another poet in the book, if one could happen to know based on our knowing the poets? How telling it might be to learn the gender of each poem’s author, or to otherwise contextualize poems with biographical details about particular poets if one knows them? We routinely appreciate haiku by the Japanese masters by knowing, for example, about Issa’s hard-luck life, that Buson was a painter, or that Shiki died young of tuberculosis. Even for lesser-known poets, in Japan or anywhere, it’s useful to apply whatever we do know to gain a broader appreciation for the poem. I am glad this book experimented with the withholding of authors’ names, but to me it demonstrates that the experiment failed. Or, to be more fair, the book does not fail, but I think it could have been better if names had been associated with each of the book’s poems. I wish this book had been published with names, without the tantalizing distraction of wondering who wrote them.
And that’s not all. An additional distraction is the possibility that these poems are all by a single person, with the possible deception of implying that they are by many different people, and perhaps even to imply that the poets are Japanese rather than, say, American. Is there therefore a hint of cultural appropriation in this stance? The book’s title is “Japanese Love Poems,” but does that mean to imply that the writers are Japanese or just that the genre of poems they use is of Japanese origin? The application of names after each poem would likely clear up that uncertainty.
If names had been used throughout this book, I wouldn’t have had any of the preceding questions, so indeed, which is the greater distraction, to include the names or not? My feeling is that the poems would have benefited more if author names had been included for each of the poems.
—20 December 2022