In this chapter I want to illustrate and discuss some of the ways in which Eastern poetry may have influenced Western poetry. As a special case, I want to look at the ways in which Ezra Pound used the Haiku. I also hope to use my own insights into Eastern poetry, derived from my background in Vietnam, to see whether there are any qualities in Pound’s poetry, which are often missed by Western readers. I also want to look at the problematics of such wide cultural interchanges to see if there may be particular aspects of East-West influences which might be indicative of West-East creative practice and critical understanding. Moreover, in some respects, Pound’s Imagist poems might be seen as a suggestion for Vietnamese poets to renew their traditional Haiku poetry.
Haiku was a traditional ancient poetic form which appeared in Japan from 1630 to 1862 and widely influenced Classical Eastern poetry (e.g. Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese poetry). Extraordinarily, in the early years of the twentieth century, it was revised by Ezra Pound as one of the leading trends in modern Western poetry: Imagist poetry. In my view, this transformation could be explained by Hulme’s concept: ‘the revival of Classicism’70. However, instead of concentrating on the similar minimalised form of both Haiku and Imagist poetry as evidence of a Classical revival, this chapter is expected to show how Pound, through his poems, might have understood or misunderstood Haiku and the Eastern spirit and, on the contrary, how modern Haiku was written after the period of Imagist poetry.
A Return to Nature
Ideologically, I suggest that Haiku and Imagist poetry had a common source: a ‘return to nature’. In the modern world, most things could be expressed logically by concept and science. However, the appearance of natural images (e.g. a little butterfly, delicate petals, an autumn mountain, a grey bough and a fan) was supposed to work against rational analysis. Such images seemed to retain pure beauty. Thus, returning to nature could be understood as a way for poets to explore things in their original states, in which they could question their minds’ deep unconscious in order to contemplate and elucidate hidden meanings of living. Haiku was buried under the sediment of Zen (禅)71culture, which had profoundly influenced the way of life, thinking and creativity of the Japanese in particular and Eastern people in general. On the surface of this sediment, Zen upheld the value of meditation and intuition; under the sediment, Zen emphasised nature in silence. For example, when someone saw a beautiful object, the best way to respect it in ‘Zen’ was to observe it in silence. The object itself was beauty expressed nonverbally. From that perspective, I understand Imagist poetry to be a creation taken from normal life with no fussy description or explanation. Imagist poets let images make poems themselves. The relation between ‘Zen’ and Haiku poetry was close; traditional Japanese poets learned and followed ‘Zen’72.
The ‘return to nature’ was marked by the use of a special term (e.g. spring, summer, autumn or winter) in Japanese poems, which was known as a ‘precious term’ (‘kigo’ in Japanese). However, using a ‘precious term’ did not mean that Haiku was traditional poetry with a rigid formula. Instead of using specific terms for the four seasons, Haiku poets tended to turn them into vivid images like cherry, blossom, swallow... (Spring); sun, dragonfly, cicada, grass… (Summer); moon, frost, cricket… (Autumn) and snow, field, mountain, wind, storm… (Winter). The instant sophistication of this approach was to create images which may be themselves in word-form but may not be themselves in understanding. For example, Basho wrote hundreds of poems mentioning ‘rain’ with different visuals:
On the cow shed
In the first poem, ‘rain’ acts as a catalyst. It falls on the cow-shed and makes the cock crow. The cow-shed and the cock might be separate, with no relation to each other. Perhaps the winter rain, like an invisible touch, pulls them closer together. These images create a soothing idyll. Contrast words are used to highlight the silence before the cock crows, then the crow introduces the sound of lively activity. Thus, this poem might imply a message that in wet, cold and sad winter rain, life still rises powerfully and mysteriously in a way that cannot be explained.
In the second poem, the image of rain does not appear directly, but can be recognised through the rain shelter. From the absence of subject, verbs and adjectives in this poem, it could be understood that the time man takes to pass through the world is just as short as a moment when we stand in a rain shelter named Sogi. Here, Basho has used the opposing mechanisms of length and shortness. ‘Passing through the world' could be seen as a great journey that everyone has to confront. It is strange that the poet removed the conventional sense, the familiar thoughts of endless life by narrowing the distance and time into a moment in a rain shelter. As such, life seems to be seen only in a blink of the eye, which is ephemeral. Moreover, the rain shelter could symbolise a station in the whole of life’s journey, which has no starting point or destination. It has become a cycle. The understanding of this cyclical life makes people treasure life’s moments and keep their minds peaceful when facing sudden changes, even if facing death. Here, the rain is a condition, an environment for each person to reflect on his life. It is quite alien from the existing meaning of rain. This philosophy was a common understanding in Eastern culture. This helps to explain why Oriental poets tended to write about fragile and simple things. They are symbols of a short, cyclical life. The movement of ‘passing through’ is frequently used to talk about a specific period of life. This is the death:
moon over this gate through which,
at last, I’m free to pass. 75
The return to nature also made the poetry of Ezra Pound seem explosive. In ‘Vorticism’, in The Fortnightly Review (September 1, 1914), Pound attempted to use a thirty line-poem form to describe the images and faces he was impressed by at the Metro station. However, descriptive words seemed to be useless in this case. In my view, Pound did not turn images into a second intensity – the intensity which is transferred onto paper – because the intense emotion seemed to appear only at the moment the poet saw or felt it. When this intense emotion was described and decorated carefully in poems, it was not as fresh and as true as the original experience. The initial thoughts and flexible meaning might have become lost in words. Thus, I read Pound’s poems with a thought that he pursued Haiku poetry as a pure way of 'preserving' the right image in its state of origin. He recorded images by utilising the maximum length of seventeen syllables in Haiku poetry in order to exploit the space and silence between words and images:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough. 76
In this poem, verbs are hidden and only two adjectives appear, yet throughout the poem, there are continuous images like screens in a film. These are used as an interpretation since the non-logical images received at the same time have no relation to each other. The apparition of faces is also the appearance and disappearance of petals. Moreover, the faces seem to have the characteristics of petals which makes them appear pure. The crowd suggests interlacement like the bough and the words ‘Station of the Metro’ creates the feeling of busy life like a web of branches. The first line symbolises urban life and the second one expresses countryside. These places contain competing ideas: among faces and between petals and bough. The ‘wet, black bough’ makes it seem a challenge for the fragile petals to be alive. However, it is life, and people should learn to face it. In Eastern ideology, this could remind us of the cycle of life which starts with birth, continues with disease and ends with death. Pound could make none of these philosophical reflections either in the thirty-word-poem written at first, or in the fourteen syllables written in haiku style after that. He created this poem just through a non-verbal gap between two lines and his own life experiences. This is appropriate to the spirit of Haiku: ‘What distinguished a haiku is concision, perception and awareness – not a set number of syllables’. 77 2. Haiku Spirit and the Concept of Beauty Selecting a marginal situation and feeling the images as themselves was the way Pound chose to delete the narrator. The poet no longer took the central role in the work, told readers the story in his personal way and prompted them to think what he thought. In my view, Pound refused to be this kind of author, even though it was a useful means of contributing to the structure of poetry, political views, ideology, education and morality. It was no longer a poem if the author deprived the audience of the right to feel and experience, put the natural images into the refrigerator, froze and turned them into a kind of fast food for thoughts. I also think that Pound chose the way that haiku poets had pursued, which was to write images naturally and poetically about eternity, the joy of life, loneliness and fragility.
To achieve that, haiku poetry and the haiku poems of Ezra Pound normally used opposing mechanisms. In this approach, the opposing forces did not cancel or trample each other; they supported each other to create all aspects of life, like the concept of ‘yin yang’78 in the East. There were many parallel pairs of characteristic images in Haiku poetry (e.g. static and dynamic; concrete and abstract; metaphorical and analytical; the nature of the universe and the inner human; the small world (people) and the huge world (nature); the present and the past; ephemeral, tiny and eternal, immense). These pairs connected with each other both invisibly and dialectically. There were also nature and human images in Pound’s poems, which both opposed and complemented each other:
As cool as the pale wet leaves
She lay beside me in the dawn 79 The pairs of images here include:
- The stillness of flowers and the action of humans: ‘lay beside me’;
- The coolness of ‘pale wet leaves’ and the clarity of ‘dawn’;
- ‘Pale wet leaves’, ‘lily-of-the-valley’, ‘she’ and ‘dawn’ seem to merge together, belong and accompany each other.
The girl who appears in the last verse has both the beauty of the morning and the fragility of the ‘lily-of-the-valley’. The beauty described here is real, as she ‘lay beside me’, but is also far away as the ‘pale wet leaves’. In my view, on one hand, she exists; on the other hand, she is as short-lived as a flower’s life. It was accepted that haiku could contain this duality, the idea that ‘life is virtual’ – which was one of the main ideologies of religion in general and ‘Zen’ in particular.
Similar to Basho, Pound often used images like ‘petal’, ‘leaf’, ‘grass-blade’, ‘frost’ and ‘dust’… Firstly, they were symbols of beauty. It might be that from these images, Pound could create many feelings and emotions about nature immediately without adding metaphors or descriptive words. Secondly, however strange it might seem, they could be understood as fragile beauty, early blooming or early fading, which strayed far from Pound’s first perceptions of them. However, it suited the aims of Imagist poetry that images created meanings themselves and the work of poets was to create links between them. This brought Pound close to the ancient Haiku poets accidently.
I thought of a way to analyse one of his poems according to the Haiku spirit:
The petals fall in the fountain,
The orange-coloured rose-leaves,
Their ochre clings to the stone. 80 The journey of the ‘petals’, ‘rose-leaves’ and ‘ochre’ here are placed in contrast to the fountain and stone to survive. One side is fragile beauty; the other is a permanent and tough challenge. However, in any circumstances, despite falling in the fountain, the beauty is still brilliant on the grey of the stone, in cold water. It desires to survive. While on the one hand, this shows a desire to live, on the other, the situation of 'clinging' seems too hard for weakness to exist. However, the more readers find the finiteness of time, the more they appreciate the life. This is also reproduced in other poems by Pound:
The rustling of silk is discontinued,
Dust drifts over the courtyard,
A wet leaf that clings to the threshold 81 The use of opposing mechanisms exists as an immutable principle of haiku. These are some similar examples in poetry of Basho:
Chrysanthemums in bloom
Between the stones
At a stonecutter’s shop82 ***
From all directions
Cherry petals blown in -
Waves of Lake Nio. 83
One thing that both poets, in two different literary periods and two different cultures, focused on was the beauty and purity of nature. However, in my view, while the Western concept tended to explain everything in concrete terms, the Oriental consciousness would hide them. Therefore, Oriental poets described purity through images of ‘girls’, ‘petals’, ‘peach-blossom’, ‘autumn moon’, ‘breeze’ and similar things. They might have brought many different characteristics and feelings, but primarily, they were purity, the beauty that had not been touched by humans. They appeared in front of our eyes and disappeared in a moment. Humans could never keep them. Poets as well as readers could dream of them, but could not own them. They came from nothingness and would return to that nothingness at any time. That was why the images were always tiny and fragile. In my view, it was the hidden charm of purity.
This is a poem written about a fan-piece by Ezra Pound:
O fan of white silk
Clear as frost on the grass-blade
You also are laid aside. 84 I consider the flexibility in the opening and closing of the fan as a symbol for the hidden charm of the girl. Moreover, the beauty of frost on a ‘grass-blade’ with the softness of ‘silk’ contains feelings from many senses, which Pound used to give the impression of a fan beyond its usual beauty.
The fan was also one of the symbols of Japanese culture:
Wind from Mt. Fuji
A souvenir for those in Edo. 85 Mt. Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan. It has been the inspiration for Japanese artists since ancient times because of its beauty. The top of this mountain is covered in snow for the whole year and holding its foothills are five expansive lakes. Seeing Mt. Fuji in spring (when the cherry trees blossom) was regarded as the most precious time in Japan. The pink colour of cherry blossom on the white snow of Fuji, the elegance and fragility on the powerful, imposing mountain, symbolised harmony in life for the Japanese. Mt. Fuji, therefore, used to be called the wonder of Asia. Besides Mt. Fuji, Edo was also considered to be a source of pride for the Japanese because of its sense of tradition. Edo used to be the first kingdom and centre of Japan, with traditional architecture and an agricultural lifestyle. In this poem, the fan as viewed by Basho is not only beautiful in itself, but also contains the majestic beauty and power of Mountain Fuji, the sediment (the matter which has subsided into the bottom of the land) of Edo culture.
Additionally, in another form of poetry, Pound also used opposing mechanisms and an evocative pen when describing the footsteps of the girl in ‘The Garden’. He wrote: 'Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall'. Here, the impression of softness, flexibility and gracefulness is clearly portrayed in the relationship with the rigidity of 'the wall'.
Thus, through the use of Eastern minimised poetry form like Haiku (usually 17 syllables), few verbs or adjectives, predominant use of natural character sketches and outlining of real images, I suppose that Pound paved a different way in approaching Imagism. He seemed to bring contrasts into the use of metaphor from Symbolist poetry, thus, he created more beautiful and expressive images. These contracts were like underground circuits which made associations and connections between things and images in the poem through metaphor. From that perspective, like Haiku poetry, he tended to see withering in freshness, sadness in happiness and tradition in modernity. He regretted faded beauty but always kept mental equanimity, considering the turning of the universe by seizing its rules. It was similar to the hope of early life which was never extinguished in Basho’s poetry:
Spring rain -
Sprouting in twin leaves
Egg plant seeds. 86 In Cathay, a translation collection, Pound showed appreciation of the appearance of ancient Chinese poetry in general and traditional kinds of Eastern poetry. He wrote in the foreword:
Rihaku flourished in the eighth century of our era. The Anglo-Saxon Seafarer is of about this period. The other poems from the Chinese are earlier. 87 Throughout this book, Pound did not give any analysis or evaluation even though he considered the poems as one of the earliest human poetic collections. He explained:
If I give them, with the necessary breaks for explanation, and a tedium of notes, it is quite certain that the personal hatred in which I am held by many, and the invidia which is directed against me because I have dared openly to declare my belief in certain young artists, will be brought to bear first on the flaws of such translation, and will then be merged into depreciation of the whole book of translations. Therefore I give only these unquestionable poems. 88 Furthermore, the way Pound refused to translate the meaning of these poems into his own words was the way he brought their purity to readers’ minds. In this book, there were many short poems appeared like the form of Japanese Haiku:
Light rain is on the light dust
The willow of the inn-yard
Will be going greener and greener
But you, sir, had better take wine ere your departure,
For you will have no friend about you
When you come to the gates of Go. 89
The image of ‘light rain’ on the ‘light dust’, the fragility of ‘willow’, the loneliness of ‘sir’ on his own journey and the ‘gates of Go’ symbolise the life that humans have to enter. To my understanding, Eastern poets usually wrote about rain and dust as the premonition of sadness and coldness.
Ezra Pound brought a new breath to Western modern poetry and one of the main contributions to his achievement was his experimentation with Haiku poetry. However, it should be pointed out that Ezra Pound did not make Haiku poetry with the same form and meaning as Japanese poets did, because the philosophy of Zen culture was basically different and alien to Western thinking. In my own perspective, the Haiku genre and other Oriental forms that appeared in Pound’s poems helped him to overcome Romanticism and create a new way of using metaphors, but the effects that came from Pound’s Haiku poems were far from his initial thoughts. He not only brought a new form to modern poetry and restored a genre of Classicism, but also transferred the Haiku spirit into his own poetry through the effectiveness of evoked images of purity which were close to the mechanisms of Imagism.
As a consequence, it could be said that the concrete form of Haiku and other kinds of short Japanese and Chinese poetry seemed to attract Imagist poets. Such kind of poetry was suited to the aims of creating an Imagist poem:
It is the presentation of such a ‘complex’ instantaneously, which gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.90 Along with this, the goal of images expressed in both Imagist and Haiku poetry seemed to be similar; both reminded readers of the nature of mankind. Pound kept the original intensity of image symbols:
I believe that the proper and perfect symbol is the natural object, that if a man use ‘symbols’ he must so use them that their symbolic function does not obtrude; so that a sense, and the poetic quality of the passage, is not lost to those who do not understand the symbol as such, to whom, for instance, a hawk is a hawk. 91 Haiku poets protected the fresh feelings of images by depicting them in poems:
Haiku helps us to experience the everyday things around us vividly and directly, so we see them as they really are, as bright and fresh as they were when we first saw them as children. Haiku is basically about living with intense awareness, about having openness to the existence around us – a kind of openness that involves seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. 92
Haiku in Pound’s Poetry: Understanding and Misunderstanding
I believe that Pound did not write the poems referred to above as if he was a Japanese monk like Basho. I would like to suggest that my understanding of Pound’s poems in ‘Haiku style’ was created because of the similarity in images and word patterns between his and Basho’s poems, not because Pound intended to write an Eastern poem with Basho’s culture and religious assumptions. Therefore, I would like to use such similarities between Pound’s and Basho’s poetry to point out Pound’s understanding and misunderstanding of the Haiku spirit by reversing his methodology: by reading a Haiku poem from a Western perspective and reading Pound’s poems from the perspective of my own Eastern knowledge.
In my view, there was a considerable distance between the Haiku image and that created by Imagist poetry. Although both were supposed to use ‘precious terms’ that tended to be typical of Japanese poetry, the Haiku image seemed to be permanent and eternal, whereas which the Imagist poet captured was temporary and momentary. This could evoke Wordsworth’s ‘Spots of Time’, which Jonathan Bishop wrote about:
The ‘Spots of Time’ are the two incidents introduced by Wordsworth’s own use of the phrase: “There are in our existence spots of time, / That with distinct pre-eminence retain / A renovating virtue”; that is, the little boy’s encounter with the gibbet and his wait for his father’s horses. Yet the poet’s language implies that there were in fact many such “spots”, from which his mind could draw new strength, and every readers of The Prelude will at once associate with these two those other “passengers of life” which collectively establish the greatness of the poem. 93 Thus, as my interpreting, each of the ‘spots of time’ supplied kaleidoscopic images of things happening in front of our eyes that continuously changed and disappeared as quickly as the moment we saw them. This was shown in one of Ezra Pound’s short poems when he wrote about the sudden appearance of the eyes of a ‘beautiful Normande cocotte’, which reminded him of the eyes of a ‘very learned British Museum assistant’;94 in the moment when the encounter’s eyes ‘explored me’,95 each dream-time took him to various incarnations:
And having dreamed that he was a bird, a bee, and a butterfly,
He was uncertain why he should try to feel like anything else,
Hence his contentment.96
However, it was a deniable dream: ‘Even in my dream you have denied yourself to me’.97 It could be said that the non-repeatable incident, the sole experience and the immediate response of emotions and senses all contributed to the images in Pound’s poems. The personal was supposed to have been living many different lives and experiencing the same events many different times.
In contrast, like Eastern traditional poetry, Japanese Haiku tended to keep the unchangeable moments and beauties of normal life. That was the reason why with a strict short form of 17 syllables that produced thousands of poems, Haiku poets were observed to praise the ‘precious terms’ of seasons as their final aim of composing. Therefore, Haiku poems were usually arranged into four subjects of spring, summer, autumn and winter and, even if some poems were named, they could be blurred easily to become a slice of a huge picture illustrating seasons. An apt example would be three of many cherry blossom poems by Basho:
Clouds of cherry blossoms-
The peal of a bell,
From Ueno or Asakusa?
With cherry blossoms as my inn
From their beginning to the end –
Twenty days or so.
All kinds of things
I recollect –
Cherry blossoms.98 Unlike the images of moments that appeared and disappeared like a flash in Imagist poetry, the case of cherry blossoms in these poems by Basho might include numerous places (‘Ueno’, ‘Asakusa’, ‘my inn’), and time might have passed (‘twenty days or so’) in recollecting memories, but the image left behind at last is the immortality of spring beauty. I think about this beauty as it was interlocked and woven by cherry blossoms like clouds, the beauty that made the monk Basho feel ecstatic, and wonder whether the bell which was vibrating on the clouds of cherry blossoms, was from the pagoda in Asakusa or Ueno. Indeed, this bell should be explored further. In the Edo period, people used bells to recognise time. Living near the riverbank, Basho could, at the same time, hear the sound of the bells in both Asakusa and in Ueno Park. Here, it could be said that the edge of time was blurred by nature. Therefore, the scene of cherry blossom clouds could be a moment or every moment, present, future or the past. This is repeated in the two other poems; while the appearance of cherry blossoms is considered to last ‘twenty days or so’, from the ‘beginning to the end’, it may also be the last thing left after recollecting a whole life. It has been suggested that, in Haiku poetry, temporariness was a symbol for permanence, modification expressed invariance, small things referred to majesty, weak light reflected darkness and insignificant sound was evidence of total silence. This may be derived from the traditional Japanese concept which respected durability, inviolability and stability. It also explains why the image of Mount Fuji, the traditional time of Edo, hallowed places like pagodas, hometowns or objects like bells were mentioned alongside the fragmentary, fragile beauty of cherry blossom, camellia, warblers, summer grasses, evening breezes and so on.
Therefore, as opposed to the idea that ‘A haiku is the expression of a temporary enlightenment’,99 which made it seem to use the same method of creating images that Imagist poets did, in my opinion the images of Haiku were eternal and based on formulae of antithesis. These formulae could be considered as the arrangement of familiar images in contrast, for example, light and dark, power and weakness, movement and silence. However, unlike Western ideology (where these contrary pairings were just written for entertainment), in the Japanese concept, they were supposed to contain poetic, educational and religious meanings.
The second point which helps to distinguish Japanese Haiku from the similar form that Imagist poets used is the use of metaphor. Even though Pound and his colleagues declared the intention to avoid ‘decorative words’ and to replace them by the ‘language of common speech’,100 in fact, they could not totally refuse the attractions of metaphors and comparisons. The first period (pre-Imagism) seemed to contain lots of English traditional characteristics. Ideas were expressed through the common usage of comparison words (like, as, more than), which were symbols of a visual connection between two different objects: ‘she’ is linked with the ‘pale wet leaves’ (‘Alba’ by Pound); ‘her skirt’ with ‘a dark mist from the columns of amethyst’ (‘Images’ by Hulme); ‘a tiny core of stillness in the heart’ with ‘the eye of a violet’ (‘Nothing to Save’ by D. H. Lawrence); ‘a thunder of church bells lies like a bronze roof beneath the sky’ (‘If I were Francesco Guardi’ by Amy Lowell)101. However, this approach probably established an imaginative association model for readers to explore in these poems. As time went on, in the period of Imagism, these comparisons turned into hidden comparisons and metaphors, even hidden metaphors in Imagist poetry. In such poems, the obvious characteristics of images were deleted and each reader was required to find them through their own experience. ‘In a Station of the Metro’, ‘Papyrus’,102 ‘L’Art’103 and ‘A Song of the Degrees’104 were poems written in this trend. Of these, ‘Papyrus’ seems to challenge readers who are just focused on exploring the meaning of poems:
Gongula…105 Gongula could be considered a word created by Ezra Pound. Without romance or any superfluous words, the poem is compacted into four words, six syllables. I questioned whether it was a process of planting in relation to papyrus, a sign of the unexpected length of spring, or just three fragmentary images that glided through the writer’s mind. The same kind of questions could be raised by the word ‘Gongula’. It could be said that the superposition of the sound of words such that each one is longer than the previous one lengthens the rhythm of the poem, as well as the feeling of waiting. That instance shows that the images themselves created poems without any effects of poetic methods. It seemed to be similar to the way Haiku poets did it.
However, there was a total difference between these two kinds of poetry. Haiku poets tried to cut out description words but still retained the relationship of humanity and nature as well as the connection between the present and the past. Thus, it was supposed to be possible to fill the blank spaces in Haiku poems through familiarity with the culture and traditional ideologies, or even by knowledge of Zen. In contrast, it would probably have been impossible to understand Imagist poetry through Haiku ideologies, in my view. This could be because, as Hulme wrote, Imagist poetry was part of the period of Classical revival and the product of modernism.
Haiku and Imagist Poetry in Vietnam
From my knowledge of modern Vietnamese poetry, I recognise that Vietnamese poets might have picked up Imagist methodologies, not particularly from Pound’s poems but from listening to other Americans reading their work from 1954 onwards in South Vietnam. Thus, modern Vietnamese poets learnt about Imagist poetry, which might have been seen as a ‘modern Haiku type’, before they had actually read and followed traditional Japanese Haiku, which was only translated and first published for Vietnamese readers in 1994.106 Thus, the possible understanding of Imagist poems like Pound’s came to Vietnam before Vietnamese poets had actually read Pound’s poetry.
In Vietnam, the early innovation of modern poetry was awoken by Western theories, among which I suppose that Imagist poetry was one of the most important poetic schools for Vietnamese poets to follow. Haiku poetry, from 1994 with the poetry collection of Lê Đạt, was found to be an innovative technical way to express the imaginative characteristics in Vietnamese poems. In Paul de Man’s words, this could be understood due to the fact that:
The appeal of modernity haunts all literature. It is revealed in numberless images and emblems that appear at all periods (…). No true account of literature can bypass this persistent temptation of literature to fulfil itself in a single moment.107 In addition, Pound had experienced translation work from Chinese to English poetry with Cathay108, in which translation was considered to be:
…a similar form of acquisition of stories and histories, again with an inevitable effect of mutilation. On the positive side, however, it connects distant texts (either removed in time or place, i.e. culture and language) and the present in which these texts gain a new, albeit transformed life. 109 In the case of Vietnamese poetry, the lack of awareness about Japanese Haiku did not prevent Vietnamese poets from borrowing this kind of poetry as a new trend of modernisation. The similar conditions of some Asian countries under feudalism in medieval times, and the interactions of religious ideologies including Confucianism, Buddhism and Zen, had made Japanese Haiku in particular and other traditional poetic styles in general lack attraction to Vietnamese poets. Along with the open attitude of Western civilisation, the development of technology and the popularity of language based on Latin words, Vietnamese society welcomed Western theories and lifestyles as a way to close the dolorous past of a thousand years dependent on Chinese feudalism. Therefore, by rejecting the familiar poetry and strongly refusing obedience to the King’s concepts, Vietnamese poets gradually created the ‘ego’, which meant that for the first time, the ‘self’ could raise his own voice in literature. The demand for escape from basic rules and the desire to explore free forms of poetry led to them skipping the Haiku poetry which tried to strictly fix poems in certain amounts of words and ideas. Therefore, after being infatuated with Romanticism, and then with Symbolism and Surrealism at the beginning of the twentieth century, poets in Vietnam caught up with the opposite poetic school, which concreted poems into images like the Imagists did. This became a real trend in Vietnam after 1975. Its incipience had even appeared immediately after 1945, though it was suppressed by wars with the French and Americans. During the half century following 1945, Vietnamese poets continuously created and renewed images.
However, the concept of images in Vietnam related not only to images of objects or nature that should be transferred from real life to poems; as Flint pointed out, it included ‘Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective’.110 As Pound mentioned in a letter to Harriet Monroe, ‘Language is made out of concrete things’,111 and to Vietnamese poets, each image was considered a word, so the way they made images was also the way they created new words: they contributed Vietnamese language. This helped in making the ‘revolution in poetic Language’112 and from this, the image was raised to a higher level in poems. Poets, therefore, tried to turn the image in many directions until they found it was far from the limitations of normal imaginative association and thus difficult to relate to its original meaning. Defamiliarisation was the common approach used to create images.
Undeniably, the requirements of an Imagist poem, as stated by Pound and Flint and shown in the practical experiments of other Imagists, were followed strictly by Vietnamese poets, from the concrete words to the retained rhythm. It could be claimed that these characteristics belonged to Imagist poetry itself and were not borrowed from previous poetic styles, even Haiku poetry. Furthermore, the images in Imagist poetry could be considered as the relationship between ‘persona’ and ‘myth’:
Link draws the connection between persona and myth quite clearly in his discussion of the metamorphic tree-poems ‘The Tree’, ‘La Fraisne’, and ‘A Girl’. In all these cases, he sees a mythological subtext as the point of reference of the poems.113 On the other hand, the Imagists admitted that they had ‘the greatest admiration for the past, and humility towards it’;114 they ‘showed him his own thought already splendidly expressed in some classic’115 . Thus, in my view, from ‘classic’, Pound himself had a special enthusiasm for Chinese and Japanese poetry. Thus, Haiku poetry was one of the indisputable sources that Pound looked to renew. However, perhaps the aim of creating relationships or nonvisual links between images in Imagism, while preventing them from disrupting the initial title of poem, tended to be a limitation:
It remains analogous, i.e. the poetic construction strives towards some kind of mimetic correlative, for instance in its use of the term ‘bough’ for platform, ‘petals’ for faces in ‘In a Station of the Metro’. The image does not alter the role of the creative subject, despite its attempt at impersonality. Nor does it overcome its attachment to history. 116 I think that this approach was a way of using hidden comparisons and metaphors. This had happened in Haiku, when the appearances of images which seemed to be incidental and discrete were connected to each other by the web of ‘Zen’ to inspire a philosophy. In a similar way, in many of Pound’s poems, after faithfully recording initially separate images, Pound led all of them towards one subject or title systematically, for example the girl, the tree, the fan, the station and so on.
This was quite different to what Vietnamese poets had been doing with Imagist poetry. With the appearance of various Western theories at nearly the same time, and with a desire to rapidly change the stagnant and conservative conditions of Vietnamese poetry, most schools were following a mixture of theories. Imagist poetry was an apt example. To make a sketch of Imagist poetry in Vietnam, it had a small number of words like traditional Eastern poetic forms, images built in the spirit of Imagism, and the structure-without-structure of Dadaism. Thus, the images were not created to bring new sense; they aimed to destroy the existent meaning and understanding. Therefore, images in Vietnamese poems rebelled and tried to hide or erase any communication between others in the same poem as far as possible. Besides the experience of renewing images, this could be regarded as ‘playing’ with words like the Dadaists did. This poem by Lê Đạt expresses it clearly:
xanh khúc phố
Nốt chân xuân
đàn cò lạ
Chập chững dương cầm
ngã tương tư117 (Accompanied padding steps
Spring foot notes
Strange stork flock
This seems to be the clutter of a musical sheet (with ‘accompanied’, ‘piano’, ‘notes’, ‘vocal’ and ‘key’) and a remix of normal life (with ‘street’, ‘corner’, ‘love’ and ‘foot’). Each image contains no additional descriptive words, but is defamiliarised from its original meaning by being combined with the others. For example, ‘steps’, ‘love’ and ‘street’ may be easily referred to a specific definition, but when they are put in one sentence: ‘Night steps brings love greens street’, they are perhaps not themselves anymore. Individual images walk silently, step-by-step through the poem, the links between them existing but only slightly appearing. In my view, only the sound and vague vibrations of piano accompaniment might strengthen its appearance. Making poems as ‘play’ like this became a very attractive trend in Vietnam after 1975.
However, like the rapid disappearance of Dadaism, mostly because of its meaningless and nothingness, the collage structure in Vietnamese poetry gradually lost support. It could be assumed that Vietnamese poets, after trying to destroy the past through strong Western techniques and spirit, decided to reconstruct poetry on a more sustainable path. Thus Imagism, with its main ideology of creating images, became the long-term, stable choice for Vietnamese poetry. The demand for innovation in poetic language has always been the leading direction for poets in modern times. As a consequence, from short poems like those in Haiku style, there were also many long poems, epic poems and prose poems in Vietnam. By that time, form and novelty were no longer the main attentions in poems. What Vietnamese poets tended to do was to dig deeply in the word field to create images. This was the most durable influence of Western theories on Vietnamese poetry.