Academic Experience Day Lecture

[Katsushika Hokusai: The Great Wave (1823)]

Creative Writing & Modernism
Albany Campus, Massey University
(Thursday, 3 June, 2010)

Extract from a report on the Expressive Arts Major
(Bachelor of Communications):

The Expressive Arts are the applied branch of literary and media studies ... That students perform plays, make videos, or write creative texts as vocational preparation is no more surprising than that students taking a drafting qualification build a house as part of their training.

[Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977)]

Let me submit the following practical suggestion. Literature, real literature, must not be gulped down like some potion which may be good for the heart or good for the brain ... Literature must be taken and broken to bits, pulled apart, squashed - then its lovely reek will be smelt in the hollow of the palm, it will be munched and rolled upon the tongue with relish; then, and only then, its rare flavour will be appreciated at its true worth and the broken and crushed parts will again come together in your mind and disclose the beauty of a unity to which you have contributed something of your own blood.

- Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature

These are our two starting points.

First of all, it makes perfect sense to understand the practical, nuts-and-bolts details of any field you want to specialise in. Whether you want to focus on writing or simply on literary appreciation, there's no substitute for actually trying it out yourself. Every writer is a reader sometimes, and every reader is a writer sometimes. The only question, then, is which you decide to concentrate on and emphasise.

Secondly, writing is about communication. There's a kind of writing (private diaries, secret poems) which is meant for no-one else's eyes, and which therefore doesn't have to accommodate itself to an audience. That's not the kind of writing we're interested in here. The writing we'll be studying and practising is the kind that looks beyond the self to the world outside. It has to be robust enough to deal with the rough and tumble of different ways of life and different opinions. And that's one area where we all have a lot to learn by listening to our predecessors.

I know it's tempting to think that everyone in the world except you and your close friends is an imbecile, that they just don't get it ... But I'm afraid that isn't so. The more you examine the artists and writers of the past, the more (I'd suggest) you'll find to be learnt from them.

So I'm going to start off by talking about an artistic movement which still has a lot to say to us today: Modernism. And that's despite the fact that most of its most important discoveries were made before any of us was born.

Art Movements
(late 19th Century / early 20th century)

1880 – post-impressionism

1905 – fauvism

1905 – expressionism

1907 – Pablo Picasso: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

1908 – cubism

1909 – futurism

1909 – Henri Matisse: La danse

1910 – Roger Fry: Post-impressionist exhibition, London

1910 – Frank Lloyd Wright: Robie House, Chicago

1912 – vorticism

1913 – Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

1914 – Wyndham Lewis: BLAST (Issue I)

1915 – Ezra Pound begins The Cantos

1916 – dada

1917 – Marcel Duchamp: Fountain

1918 – Tristan Tzara: Dadaist manifesto

1919 – bauhaus

1920s – art deco

1920s – magic realism

1920s – constructivism

1922 – T. S. Eliot: The Waste Land

1922 – James Joyce: Ulysses

1924 – surrealism

1924 – André Breton: Surrealist manifesto

The Rise of Modernism

It's impossible to exaggerate the importance of the (re)discovery of Japanese and Chinese art to writers and artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Japanese prints led the way. Post-impressionist painters such as Gauguin and Van Gogh were heavily influenced by the subtle yet direct colours and outlines of Japanese print-makers.

The most famous example is probably Hokusai's Great Wave (1823), which I've put up above. Here are some from a bit later in the century, though:

[Hyakurin Sori: A Beach at Sunrise]

[Hashimoto Sadahide: Western Traders at Yokohama (1861)]

One can see that this way of seeing Westerners has influenced (for instance) Van Gogh in the 1880s.

[Vincent Van Gogh: Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin (1888)]

Similarly, the subject-matter of many of these prints: the "Floating World", the area of gamblers, brothels and illicit drinking houses, inspired painters such as Gauguin not to be afraid of the (so-called) primitive and savage in their own work.

[Okumura Masanobu: The New Yoshiwara (1745)]

[Japanese Bathhouse]

[Paul Gauguin: Siesta (1894)]

[Paul Gauguin: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? (1897-98)]

It isn't so much whether they got it right or not - whether their interpretations of one of the most ancient and subtle cultures in the world were technically correct. From our point of view, what matters is how inspiring this new and radically simplified vision of the world was to Western artists. The Japanese artist's eye seemed (at any rate) frank, objective, and non-judgemental.

And that turned out to be the case with Japanese poetry, also. Which brings us to haiku, one of the standard Japanese types of verse: 3-line poems designed to crystallise a great deal of experience in miniature:

5 syllables: The first cold shower
7 syllables: & even the monkey wants
5 syllables: a little straw coat

However, do remember that Bashō himself said: "One or two extra syllables in a line don't make a difference as long as the heart is there." Modern haiku poets in English seldom try to observe a strict syllable count (which in the original Japanese verse-form includes punctuation, in any case).

There's also tanka (or waka), a more ancient form, which actually gave rise to haiku in the first place:

5 syllables: Although I am sure
7 syllables: that he will not be coming
5 syllables: in the evening
7 syllables: when the locusts shrilly call
7 syllables: I go to the door and wait

Then there's renga, or linked verse, and haibun: a mixture between verse and prose.

There are two main techniques at work in traditional haiku:
  1. two objects or things should be contrasted or set side-by-side
  2. there should be a seasonal word or reference somewhere in the poem

Let's have a look at some of the results:

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