A Hundred Gourds 3:2 March 2014

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Review of Jeffrey Woodward’s Another Garden: Tanka Writings

reviewed by Bob Lucky

book cover

Another Garden: Tanka Writings
by Jeffrey Woodward
Tournesol Books, PO Box 441152,
Detroit MI, 48244-1152, USA
p.b., 180 pp., US$12.95 / UK£8.50 / 10 Euros

Readers familiar with Jeffrey Woodward’s work will not be surprised that 40% of Another Garden: Tanka Writings is two articles and an interview on the history of tanka prose and its development in English. Woodward has been at the forefront of promoting tanka prose, both as historian/theoretician and practitioner. Broadly speaking, one of his focuses has been the relationship of prose to tanka in tanka prose. Related to that is the question of parallels with or divergences from haibun. These issues are discussed in detail in the two essays ‘The Road Ahead for Tanka in English’ and ‘The Elements of Tanka Prose’. ‘Tanka Prose, Tanka Tradition’, Claire Everett’s interview with Woodward, further explores issues discussed in the essays.

Readers unfamiliar with Woodward’s work or with tanka in general may wish to start with the essays and interview and then proceed to the tanka, tanka sequences, and tanka prose in the first part of Another Garden. From that coign of vantage it is easier to observe how Woodward plays with the form of tanka prose, how he expands in numerous ways the block of prose plus one tanka that is the base form.

But as a writer, Woodward is not a poet who simply manipulates form to prove a point. Among tanka and tanka prose writers he may be one of the most poetical, in the Western sense of that term. This is as true of the prose, which often can read like prose poems, as of the tanka. Whereas most tanka writers eschew many of the poetical devices of Western literature, favoring a plainer, natural diction and phrasing, Woodward embraces them. This is what drew him to tanka prose in the first place. As a haibun writer, he was trying to take the prose part “closer to poetry and farther from journalism” (148) and felt that “the sketchy, fragmentary nature of haiku” (148) might be a liability, especially in longer compositions. He turned to tanka, which he sees as having greater definition as a form, and tanka prose (though he continues to write haibun).

James Wood once referred to the late W.G. Sebald’s voice as “sly faux antiquarianism” (Murray 35). In the tanka world such a description fits Woodward’s voice. His work is distinctive, an echo of neo-formalist poetry. And depending on how one feels about Formalism may determine largely how one feels about Woodward’s tanka. The diction can seem old-fashioned:

I’m immured tonight
in my arid study with
divers brittle books
and every text I lift
exhales its share of dust (32)

Many of his tanka rhyme and often have a pronounced rhythm (perhaps even meter). The title piece, a tanka sequence, has a regular rhyme scheme of abcdc for each of the tanka. And you can’t get much more iambic than this tanka.

there is that place
where one may go
and deep within a garden
peacefully abide and watch
an apple harden (57)

In contrast to the two previous examples, Woodward does write plain-spoken tanka, but they are rare in this selection.

From another angle, Woodward’s work is more aligned with contemporary poets outside of the tanka world who write hybrid poetry. His tanka prose will often include the tanka as a grammatical part of the prose or use the tanka as integral part of the narrative. ‘Souvenir’ and ‘Leaning Back’ incorporate the tanka grammatically, and both are pieces devoid of any punctuation. Here is an example from ‘Leaning Back’, which also ends with a well-crafted tanka connecting the image of a tire factory and the open road beyond, both venues of a life going nowhere in different ways.

father who is momentarily free of eking a living

out of a long gray
shift of confinement
at the tire plant
the sunny and beautiful
road going nowhere (97)

It is possible to read this tanka as separate from the prose, as a tanka that can stand alone, but the placement of “out” is so crucial to the reading as it semantically as well as grammatically ties the tanka to the prose. The prose could have easily ended “eking out a living” and the tanka begun “the long gray”. Such a variation would have severed the two much more clearly.

‘Drifter’ is a good example of a piece in which the tanka are an essential part of the narrative, as well as grammatically connected to the prose, as in this extract.

and praying for rain in the heat of the day, for a vacant foyer or underpass in the rain, for another packing box

like the scrap
of brown paper
lifted up
from that foul gutter
on the evening wind

you too rise
from where lately
you loitered
driven now drifting now
hither now thither (35)

Neither of the two ending tanka could stand alone, steadily. They need the support of the prose, and the latter would be incomplete without the tanka. Of course, this is a general requirement of all tanka prose and haibun; however, the tanka (or haiku) should echo the prose or somehow deepen it, not carry the narrative or complete the image – so the dictum runs. As mentioned, what Woodward is doing in these pieces is more aligned with what mainstream, for a lack of a better word, hybrid poets are doing. A glance at John Ashbery’s ‘haibun’ or Eugene Gloria’s poetry will confirm that.

Another Garden is a collection that deserves a careful reading. Woodward is a writer steeped in the history of tanka, and respectful of it, but also attuned to Western literary practices. Excuse the cliché, but it will be interesting to see where the row he is hoeing goes.

Works Cited

Murray, Sabina. “After Sebald.” The Writer’s Chronicle 46.1, September 2013. 32-39.

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