Neal Henry Lawrence, Tanka Poet
Born: January 22, 1908
Died: November 3, 2004
A white haired lady,
Bent over, walked with a cane,
A white haired man helped.
Gaily they talked as though cares
Existed not – still in love.
Today is the anniversary of the passing of Neal Henry Lawrence. Lawrence was the first American poet to write a substantial body of Tanka in English. In that sense Lawrence was the pioneer of the form in English.
He was born in Clarksville, Tennessee in 1908. He went to Harvard and Columbia Universities, receiving degrees in Business, Public Law and Government.
During World War II Lawrence served in the Navy. He participated in the invasion of Okinawa, seeing firsthand the terrible destruction that war brings. Later, at the conclusion of the war he became a diplomat. In 1948 he was with the first group of U.S. officials to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In 1960 Lawrence was ordained as a monk in the Order of Saint Benedict at St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota. He then went on to serve at St. Anselm’s Priory in Tokyo, Japan. It was while serving at St. Anselm’s that Lawrence became enamored of Tanka.
The transmission of Japanese poetic forms to the west did not follow the history of those forms in Japan. Tanka is by far the oldest poetic form currently written in Japan. Tanka has a written history of about 1400 years. In contrast, Haiku has a history of about 200 to 300 years.
But it was Haiku that first attracted westerners. Then Renga followed, though the interest in Renga was, and remains, small in comparison to Haiku. Tanka did not gain a following in the west until the late twentieth century.
The reason for this is primarily a belief that Tanka was too intimately intertwined with Japanese culture for westerners to write it. This was sometimes stated explicitly and sometimes simply assumed. Tanka does play a central role in Japanese poetry; it is the root of both Renga and Haiku. Tanka anthologies such as the Kokinshu, and the Tanka found in the earlier collection, Manyoshu, were studied carefully by Japanese poets. The Kokinshu was nearly memorized as it set the standard for how to compose poetry for many centuries. It is still very influential.
Thus one can see how people would consider Tanka to be a kind of quasi-religious following. It didn’t hurt this view that many of the famous Tanka poets were committed religious. Saigyo is a very famous example, as is Sogi. Being a poet in Japan, at a certain level, for many centuries, almost required taking Buddhist orders if one was going to travel, teach, and visit students and patrons.
I think that one of the reasons Lawrence was immune to this attitude is that he was outside of the official poetry organizations in the west that were dedicated to Japanese poetry. As far as I know he had little to no contact with the nascent Haiku Societies just beginning in the west. It seems that Lawrence noted the pervasive cultural presence of Tanka in Japan and while living there for many years, teaching, learning Japanese, he simply became enamored of the tradition.
Lawrence took a syllabic approach to English language Tanka and that makes his contribution particularly valuable. His work demonstrates the efficacy of taking a syllabic approach. When I say Lawrence took a syllabic approach to English language Tanka I mean that he mimicked the syllable count of the Japanese Tanka, applying it to the English language. Just as the Japanese form is in 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, so also the English Tanka of Lawrence are also in 5-7-5-7-7. It works very well. This isn’t really a surprise since Japanese and English share many characteristics, allowing for such a smooth transmission.
Lawrence published four books of Tanka:
Soul’s Inner Sparkle – 1978
Rushing Amid Tears – 1983
Shining Moments – 1993
Blossoms in Time – 2000
In addition, ‘Soul’s Inner Sparkle’ was later republished in an edition with both the original English Tanka and Japanese translation. I believe that this makes Lawrence the first English Tanka poet to have a book of his Tanka translated for a Japanese audience. In this edition there is an essay by Lawrence, ‘Why I Write English Tanka!’ which provides valuable insights into Lawrence’s views. He wrote, “I write English tanka poems, 31 syllables in five segments as in Japanese tanka 5-7-5-7-7, because I discovered for some mysterious reason that it was a compatible way for expressing ideas and experiences of a lifetime. On April 5, 1975, I wrote my first tanka in English riding on a bus on the way to Boeki Daigaku near Mt. Fuji. Being in cherry blossom time, the countryside and mountains were a panorama of magnificence. I have been writing ever since almost daily at times and in spurts when especially inspired.”
Father Lawrence was fortunate in that he was encouraged in his endeavors as a Tanka poet by such people at Atsuo Nakagawa, founder of the Poetry Society of Japan and others. As he continued others noted the quality of his work. In 1985 he represented Japan at the World Congress of Poets which was held on the Isle of Corfu, in Greece, that year.
When I read Father Lawrence’s work I notice a learning curve. Some of his very early work contains ‘Japanisms’, usually they are in the form of an awkward English syntax which mimics Japanese usage. I refer to things like leaving out articles (because Japanese does not use articles) and sometimes a confusion of tenses (because Japanese has a different approach to tense). As Lawrence became more confident, his Tanka become more clearly English and there are less of these grammatical peculiarities. Here is an early example of what I mean from ‘Soul’s Inner Sparkle’:
Carrying broom and bucket,
Each family clean tomb,
Places fresh flowers in honor
Of those who have gone before.
It is an affecting scene and the lack of articles where one would normally expect them does not fatally damage the Tanka. That has been my experience with some of these early efforts; the image and the idea override the eccentric grammar.
One of the refreshing things about Lawrence’s work is the great range of his subject matter. The traditional topics of season, nature (he had a great interest in gingko; there are a lot of Tanka about that particular tree), and love are there; but there are also a surprising number of political Tanka that remark on current events. Some of these are dated, in the sense that the events the Tanka refers to are no longer current. If these books are reprinted, my hope is that the editors will take the time to footnote these Tanka, as it is worth knowing the context.
Naturally, a lot of Father Lawrence’s Tanka reflect his religious commitment:
The church walls echo
Sounds of Gregorian chant
Of the Easter Mass,
Lovingly cling to each note
Then release reluctantly.
Here is a Tanka on a classic nature theme:
Like a bridal veil,
The flower-festooned branches
Of the cherry tree
Flow gracefully in an arc,
Lighted by the morning sun.
This, I think, is particularly well done; the rhythm is natural and the whole Tanka flows effortlessly.
Here is one about the gingko, one of Father Lawrence’s favorite topics:
The sacred gingko,
Its bare branches tapering
Into the heavens,
Traces its own ancestry
To the age of dinosaurs.
It’s a nice touch, adding that dimension of deep time. I sometimes think it would make a nice little collection if all of Father Lawrence’s gingko Tanka were brought together under one volume. Here’s another Tanka on the gingko:
Each so beautiful
I stepped gingerly between
Golden gingko leaves,
Bedecking the frozen ground,
To prolong such gift of grace.
Sometimes Father Lawrence will intermix his favorite themes of nature and religion:
In the soft moonlight
A bank of white iris stands
Behind the chapel,
Ghostly guardians of faith,
Witnesses to God’s grandeur.
I admire the way the Lawrence can see the presence of God in the natural realm. It is one of the aspects of his Tanka that I find particularly appealing.
Here’s a humorous Tanka:
Hop, hop, hop, hop, hop.
The squirrel made his way cross
The blanket of leaves
A ripe acorn in his mouth
Seeking his winter storehouse.
Wouldn’t that be great in a collection of Tanka for children?
Father Lawrence writes eloquently on the topic of love which, I think, contain some of his finest Tanka:
Tread softly my love
The night is clothed in moonlight
With breezes gentle
All the harshness of the day
Is forgotten when you come.
I’ll conclude this series with a contemplative Tanka:
Why do I love you?
Reflecting God’s love.
God loves all He created
And all who will ever be.
Father Lawrence, as you can see, wrote in a traditional style. In addition to the traditional syllabic form he also begins each line with a capital letter; the standard procedure for English language poetry until very recently. His use of punctuation is abundant, especially by current standards, an aspect of his Tanka which I think should be emulated. Each Tanka ends in a period.
I have found reading Lawrence’s Tanka to be a contemplative experience. There is a peacefulness about them which I enjoy. Father Lawrence was not, for the most part, a dramatic poet; that is to say he seems to have enjoyed contemplating the ordinary and the beauty found therein.
The only one of Lawrence’s books currently in print is ‘Shining Moments’ available from the publisher or from Amazon. Used copies of his other work are available online. It is my hope that Father Lawrence’s work will be reprinted as the English language Tanka community would benefit greatly from his steady, classically oriented, command of traditional Tanka. In addition, it is my hope that in the future more of Father Lawrence’s Tanka will be published. What is currently available is only a tiny fraction of what he wrote. It would be a wonderful service to English language Tanka poets to have more available.
I think of Father Lawrence as the Patron Saint of English language Tanka. He demonstrated that a traditional approach to Tanka in English is efficacious and it is with deep gratitude for his efforts, which have made my own so much easier, that I dedicate this day.
In 1993 Father Lawrence received the ‘Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette’ for his teaching at Japanese Universities. He would continue to teach and write Tanka almost to the end of his life. Though he died on November 3, he had stated that he wanted to be buried at sea. So on Saturday, April 8, 2006 the ashes of Father Lawrence were scattered in the East China Sea; 61 years to the week after the invasion of Okinawa.
I want my ashes
Scattered at sea to join all
In peaceful oneness;
To follow the ebb and flow
Of tides for billions of years.