Monday, November 26, 2007

The shortest expression of itself

  • Seamus Heaney reviews a new Penguin collection of Japanese poetry in The Guardian.
I don't know if William Wordsworth was among the Romantic poets translated in those epoch-making anthologies, but Wordsworth is where I want to begin. It seems to me that the scenes which inspired his most characteristic poetry could well have inspired many of the great masters of Japan. The English and Japanese sensibilities respond in similar ways to the natural world, and landscapes which brought out the best in Wordsworth could equally well have provided the setting for a haiku by Basho. Significantly also, the English poet's work abounds in phrases which could be used to describe the general emotional impact of a certain kind of Japanese lyric - as when he speaks of being "an inmate of this active universe", of being taught to feel "the self-sufficing power of solitude" or a something in nature which is "far more deeply interfused", and so on.

What is un-Japanese about Wordsworth, however - and you only need to remember a poem like The Prelude or "Tintern Abbey" to realise it - is the nimbus of introspection and ratiocination which surrounds the physical details of the scene. In this Romantic period, poetry in English typically allows itself greater scope for commentary and elucidation, tending to clarify where Japanese poetry would be content to imply; often eager to point out where Japanese poetry would be happy to sink in; tending to add where the Japanese would subtract.

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