Lafcadio Hearn on ‘Bits of Poetry’

Utamaro Kitagawa

The wonderful thing about having a blog is being able to share what excites you.  Lafcadio Hearn’s writing is remarkable and illuminating, written at a time (somewhere in the 1890’s) when cultural Japan, and Japan itself was barely become ‘known’.  His writing is fresh, startling and provocative.

Hearn was born in Greece, moved to Ireland, the US and then to Japan during the last 14 years of his life.  He was a man of depth, insight, poetic imagination and  and embraced Asian culture with remarkably sympathy.  He acquired the difficult language and married a Japanese woman.  He was respected in Japan and was one of the first great interpreters of Japanese culture for Western readers.  He taught and wrote extensively in Japan until his death in 1904.

I have the greatest sympathy for Hearn and anyone else trying to learn the Japanese language.  For six months I have plowed into this difficult language, set up a daily study, and still I am very poor student.  It will take a long time for me to get my head and mouth around the sounds and the word order.  I do have the bemused sympathy of a Japanese sushi maker at Whole Foods who tolerates and gently corrects my sentences, though my progress is very slow.  “Sumimasen” were the opening words (“Excuse me”) and though that is so elemental, it is hard to mess it up.  Further sentences bring a broad smile to his face, and he is maintaining his gracious humor at my distortion of his beautiful language.

Perhaps being immersed in the daily culture like Hearn makes it faster and easier, but still, Hearn’s sensitivity to the poetic forms make his writing sing and soar for me.  He has made clear in a few pages what the last two years of hunt and peck study hasn’t.

Although he is writing about Japanese culture in the 1890’s my friends in Japan assure me that much of what he says is still true.  At least about poetry, which is the only point of this short entry.  I will quote some of his words from “In Ghostly Japan” because they are so illuminating.

“Poetry in Japan is universal as the air. It is felt by everybody.  It is read by everybody.  It is composed by almost everybody,–irrespective of class and condition.  Nor is it thus ubiquitous in the mental atmosphere only:  it is everywhere to be heard by the ear, and seen by the eye!

As for audible poetry, wherever there is working there is singing.  The toil of the fields and the labor of the streets are performed to the rhythm of chanted verse: and song would seem to be an expression of the life of the people in about the same sense that it is an expression of the life of the cicadae.  As for visible poetry, it appears everywhere, written or graven, as a form of decoration.  In thousands and thousands of dwellings, you might observe that the sliding-screens, separating rooms  have decorative texts upon them and these texts are poems.  In the houses of the upper classes there are usually a number of gaku, or suspended tablets to be seen, each bearing a beautifully written verse.  Poems can be found on almost any kind of domestic utensil; for example upon braziers, iron kettles, vases, wooden trays, lacquer ware, porcelains, chopsticks of the finer sort, even toothpicks!  Poems are painted on shop-signs, panels, screens, and fans.  Poems are printed on towels, draperies, curtains, kerchiefs, silk-linings, and women’s  silk underwearLetterheads, envelopes, purces, traveling bags, cut into bronzes, enameled ware.  Even suspended in blossoming trees during festivals and at more ordinary times.”

(Hearn goes on to something that hits at the kernel of Japanese aesthetic theory.)

“The common art-principle of the class of poems under present consideration is identical with the common principle of Japanese pictorial illustration.  By the use of a few chosen words the composer of a short poem endeavors to do exactly what the painter endeavors to do with a few strokes of the brush–to evoke an image or a mood, to revive a sensation or an emotion.  And the purpose of this- depends altogether upon capacity to suggest and only to suggest.  A Japanese artist would be condemned for attempting elaboration of detail in a sketch intended to recreate the memory of some landscape seen through the blue haze of a spring morning, or under the great blond light of an autumn afternoon.  Not only would he be false to the traditions of his art: he would necessarily defeat his own end.  In the same way a poet would be condemned for attempting any completeness of utterance in a very short poem: his object should be only to stir imagination without satisfy if.  Praise is reserved for compositions that leave in the mind the thrilling of a something unsaid.  Like the single stroke of a temple bell, the perfect short poem should set murmuring and undulating, in the mind of the hearer, many a ghostly aftertone of long duration.”

—–from “In Ghostly Japan”

Ah. What a wonderful explanation which goes in my estimation to the heart of poetry! Not only Japanese, but to our attempts in the West.  I have to confess  intolerance for a lot of what passes for poetry I have read recently: overly long, convoluted word play confusing  and does not haunt.  This last is most important.  Poetry can be best when there is a very light and glancing touch.  Of course, there are wonderful exceptions to this ‘rule’…and I have read some.  But sometimes poetry is just an excuse for rage, for self-display, for reaching beyond something and it becomes a jumble to readers.  I have written lots of such poetry and  am trying to reform.  It will take a long time I think.

Of course, as Hearn says, for the same reason that Japanese short poems may be said to resemble Japanese pictures, a fuller comprehension of them requires an intimate knowledge of the life which they reflect.  In many cases, these would signify almost nothing to the Western mind.  But a little familiarity of Japanese culture, just a bit, will bring the pathos and beauty of these poems to life.  One example is below.

“Oh, body-piercing wind!

That work of little fingers

in the shoji!”

It didn’t mean much to me on first reading until Hearn explained.  It means the sorrowing of a mother for her dead child.  Shoji is the name given to those light white-paper screens which give privacy and stop the wind, but emits light.  Children delight to poke their little fingers through the soft paper: then the wind blows through the holes.  Even though I have read this poem numerous times, it still drives me to tears.

Lady Nyo

“O vapory Spring moon,

rising in a pale, silken sky

shedding upon earth

reclaimed innocence.”

Jane Kohut-Bartels

copyrighted, 2011

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4 Responses to “Lafcadio Hearn on ‘Bits of Poetry’”

  1. Katie Says:

    This appreciation of Nature, and the ability of anyone to create a poem, is one of Japan’s endearing contributions to the rest of the world. Their culture knows where creativity begins.
    Thank you for sharing this man’s existence! I had not heard of him, and now he is another writer, poet, artist that will enrich my own experience.


  2. ladynyo Says:

    Hey Katie~

    I owe you an email…..I’ll answer tomorrow morning…I’m done tonight…burnt out.

    Hearn moved me deeply. I understood things more clearly, things I had an inkling about, in terms of poetry/Japanese culture, but his words cut to the quick, the essence of things for me. This book is far richer than I realized upon first beginning it.

    I don’t think the Japanese are any different than most cultures: poetry, music runs like a deep vein through most, and tapping into it and actualizing it expands and defines the particular culture.

    The almost ‘short handedness’ of Japanese thought/poetry is so emotionally charged. But I think until one understands it in context, it might just be ‘strange’ to us. Hearn wrote so beautifully about the underlying cultural meanings.

    Thank you, Katie….we will talk soon.



  3. River Says:

    Thank you for telling of his life and style. Beautiful work. 🙂

    my post this week
    Oracle of the Feminine


  4. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you for reading, River.

    Though not known as a poet, Hearn certainly has the heart of one.

    Lady Nyo


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