Lecture 9

[Matsuo Bashō]

Week 9:

Lecture 9

Poetry: Imagery


... ut pictura poesis
[... as in painting, so in poetry]

– Quintus Horatius Flaccus [Horace] (65-8 BC):
"De Arte Poetica" [On the Art of Poetry]

We talked a little bit last week about the revolution in poetic thinking which can be roughly dated to the early part of the twentieth century: the rise of Modernism.

It's impossible to exaggerate the importance of the (re)discovery of Japanese and Chinese culture to the writers of this period.

Japanese prints led the way. Post-impressionist painters such as Gauguin and Van Gogh were heavily influenced by the bold yet subtle colours and clear outlines of Japanese print-makers.

The most famous example is probably Hokusai's Great Wave (1823), which I've put up on the cover page of this website. Here is one from a bit earlier:

[Hyakurin Sori: A Beach at Sunrise (late 18th century)]

And one from a bit later, after Commodore Perry's infamous "opening" of Japan to the West in the early 1850s:

[Hashimoto Sadahide: Western Traders at Yokohama (1861)]

One can see that this way of seeing Westerners has influenced (for instance) Van Gogh in the 1880s.

[Vincent Van Gogh: Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin (1888)]

Similarly, the subject-matter of many of these prints: the "Floating World", the area of gamblers, brothels and illicit drinking houses, inspired painters such as Gauguin not to be afraid of the (so-called) primitive and savage in their own work.

[Okumura Masanobu: The New Yoshiwara (1745)]

[Japanese Bathhouse]

[Paul Gauguin: Siesta (1894)]

[Paul Gauguin: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? (1897-98)]

It isn't so much whether they got it right or not - whether their interpretations of one of the most ancient and subtle cultures in the world were technically correct. From our point of view, what matters is how inspiring this new and radically simplified vision of the world was to Western artists. The japanese artist's eye seemed (at any rate) frank, objective, and non-judgemental.

And that turned out to be the case with Japanese poetry, also.

Which brings us to haiku, the standard Japanese form of verse. These are three-line poems designed to crystallise a great deal of experience in miniature:

5 syllables: The first cold shower
7 syllables: and even the monkey wants
5 syllables: a little straw coat

There's also tanka (or waka), a more ancient form, which actually gave rise to haiku in the first place:

5 syllables: Although I am sure
7 syllables: that he will not be coming
5 syllables: in the evening
7 syllables: when the locusts shrilly call
7 syllables: I go to the door and wait

Then there's renga, or linked verse, and haibun: a mixture between verse and prose.

There are two main techniques at work in traditional haiku:
  1. two objects or things should be contrasted or set side-by-side
  2. there should be a seasonal word or reference somewhere in the poem

So, to conclude, there's always been a strong connection between pictures and poetry. I began this section with a quote from the Latin poet Horace's treatise on the Art of Poetry. English poetry, too, began with a strong visual component in the form of kennings - a set of codified riddles intended to make one visualise one thing in terms of another.






Slaughter-dew worm-dance
Spear-din dancer

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