Poetry for Southern California


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Updated: Calendar, Venues (6/18/17)


By Richard Modiano






East Meets West

A specific development in the free verse tradition of Anglo-American modernism is known as composition by field. In field composition, the entire page provides a canvas. Such field composition can involve cascading lines, hyphenated words broken across stanzas, varied margins, font changes, and the insertion of symbols and designs. Free verse and field composition open up the poetic form to the utmost flexibility and variation possible on the printed page. They in turn enable the presentation of differing perceptions of relationships between words, between language and thought, and between words and things than is possible in the traditional fixed forms. Underlying composition by field is the hypothesis that written poetry arises from and continues to be based on oral performance. Field composition, then, is a way of scoring the poem, as in musical composition, for the way it ought to be performed when read or sung aloud. This matter of scoring raises an important source for this particular poetics: orality. There are several different cultural traditions that converge here, among them is the cross cultural shamanistic concept of healing songs, which are not descriptions or representations of experience but are actions. Another communicating vessel is East Asian poetry.

The Asian contribution comes from classical Chinese and Japanese poetics. The specific characteristics of the Chinese and Japanese languages contribute to the differences between these poetics and that of the Anglo-American tradition. Spoken Chinese is a relatively monosyllabic, word-order language, using tones phonemically (the same sound with a different tone means an entirely different word in Chinese.) Written Chinese intensifies that language’s differences from English, because it relies on glyphs rather than on alphabet building individual words. Chinese, then, expresses poetic images in blocks and concise phrases, often without verbs and with no equivalents of English-language prepositions and articles, nor does classical Chinese employ any tenses.

Likewise, the Japanese language has a very different syntax and grammar from English, more similar to Latin or German than any of the Romance languages. Like Chinese it is uninflected so that neither Chinese nor Japanese can be written in the metrical structures that dominated English-language poetry from the time of Chaucer through the nineteenth century. Also in Japanese, sentences can be constructed with no explicit subject and the first person pronoun is rarely used in conversation. The hybrid poetry that derives from this prosody eschews metrics, and in these poems the frequent absence of articles, a and the, stands out along with the frequent absence or lengthy delay of the appearance of pronouns. By often using infinitives or participles, to go and going for example, rather than subject plus verb constructions, the poet can depict actions as occurring with no “I” claiming control. Also, the emphasis is on the action or event rather than on the person witnessing or causing the event.

Another Asian influence is that thematic or emotive points are often made by means of the juxtaposition of two images rather than through metaphor or simile. The poem is characterized by an unadorned, unpretentious simplicity and quick juxtapositions of natural data. Finally, from the Japanese haiku form as well as the classical Chinese poem, the poet writes poems that have no explicitly moral or authorial observation but do have very direct depiction of things and events perceived, and while human beings populate these poems, they are frequently not the center of attention, nor are they the reason for the existence or behavior of other beings.

Many of these hybrid poems require of the reader no special preparation to be enjoyed and appreciated, whether or not all of the nuances are noticed, allusions registered, styles recognized, and a recursive linkage of images accumulates a meaning that is nowhere stated outright.