Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of Father Neal Henry Lawrence. He passed away on November 3, 2004.
I have a great admiration for Father Lawrence and his books of tanka. As far as I have been able to determine, Father Lawrence was the first English speaker to compose tanka syllabically. I think of Father Lawrence as breaking new ground for syllabic verse in English. And in a way, I think of Father Lawrence as the Patron Saint of those composing syllabic tanka in English.
I believe Father Lawrence published four books. The first is The Soul’s Inner Sparkle, published in 1978 in Japan by Eichosa Publishing. This first book was reissued in a bilingual edition, Japanese and English, but I am not sure of the date as I cannot find a publisher’s page for this reissue. The used copy I was able to purchase has the signature of Father Lawrence; the writing says ‘To Brother Benedict’, and is dated April 8, 1999. The volume looks to me like it was done for some kind of festival or anniversary, or perhaps as a volume to be made available at Father Lawrence’s Abby in Japan; I’m not sure. But this reissue contains an additional essay by Father Lawrence, ‘Why I Write English Tanka!’ which gives us insight into the poetic world of Father Lawrence and his motivations for adhering to a syllabic count of 5-7-5-7-7.
The second book of Father Lawrence is Rushing Amid Tears, published in 1983, again by Eichosa.
The third is Shining Moments, published by Jane Reichhold’s Aha Books in 1993.
The fourth is Blossoms in Time, published by Suemori in Japan, in 2000. Blossoms is an anthology of the tanka of Father Lawrence, containing selections from his three previous books, plus new tanka that he wrote between 1991 and 1998. The book has an introduction, About the Poet, by Edward G. Seidensticker, the great translator and scholar of Japanese literature. The book is bilingual; all the tanka, as well as the prefatory material, are translated into Japanese. I believe that Father Lawrence was the first English language tanka poet to have his tanka translated into Japanese; both in the reissue of Soul’s Inner Sparkle and for Blossoms of Time.
There is a muted, or rather, quiet quality to the tanka of Father Lawrence. It is rare to find a tanka in his output that uses juxtaposition; most of his tanka follow the single sentence format. And his observations tend to be unspectacular. For this reason, it takes awhile to perceive the lucidity and care that Father Lawrence used in shaping his tanka. We tend to be immediately attracted to the brilliant flash of a surprising metaphor or juxtaposition. So if you are looking for this kind of flash, you will only rarely find it in the output of Father Lawrence.
I believe that behind the tanka Father Lawrence wrote are, primarily, the steady rhythm of the Psalter, the Book of Psalms, which as a Benedictine, Father Lawrence would have recited daily. I sense in his phrasing some of the same usages that appear in the Psalms. Juxtaposition is not a primary tool for the Psalms, but things like parallelism are. It is this kind of shaping that one finds in his tanka. Father Lawrence speaks to this point in his essay, ‘Why I Write English Tanka!’, published in the re-issue of Soul’s Inner Sparkle, “I think another reason why I write tanka in English is that members of the Order of St. Benedict, which is over 1,500 years old and worldwide, are often poets and all living in a poetic atmosphere. Every day, four times a day at prayers, we chant the psalms of the Bible and also hear them at every Mass.” In other words, the tanka of Father Lawrence are embedded in that most influential collection of western poetry, the Book of Psalms and their esthetic is shaped primarily by that collection.
Over the years my appreciation for the tanka of Father Lawrence has increased. They have a way of quietly growing in one’s heart and mind. Seidensticker wrote of these tanka, “His language is graceful and imaginative . . .” I have found this to be true. Most of his books are available as used books online. If you have a chance, and particularly if you are interested in syllabic tanka in English, spend some time with these contemplative gems.