On John Barlow

Today is the 50th birthday of John Barlow, who as a perfectionist editor–publisher and, moreover, as a writer of the highest-quality haiku and tanka, has done as much as anyone to give respectability and proper attention to those forms within the Anglophone poetry world.

It is often the way that the individual writing achievements of an individual whose gifts as an editor–publisher are second to none get subsumed. In Barlow’s case, in the last 20-odd years many hundreds of his haiku and tanka have been published and they’ve won countless competitions. Yet, in all that time, his poems haven’t been collected since his last haiku collection, Waiting for the Seventh Wave (2006). It is high time that situation were rectified, not least because in the intervening period so very few consistently excellent collections of English-language haiku have been published and fewer still which could hold a candle to Barlow’s. A collection by Barlow now would, in many ways, be richer and more measured than Waiting for the Seventh Wave, not because of any real weakness with the latter but because Barlow has matured as a poet since then to the point where the artistry and subtlety of his haiku are head and shoulders above those of his peers.

Let’s compare examples from Waiting for the Seventh Wave and the latest edition (#65, November 2019) of Presence (edited by Ian Storr, Alison Williams and Judy Kendall):

 March squall                                                   evening sunlight
 the yolk sac spills                                           reed shadows reach
 from a song thrush egg                                 the flanks of the hinds

‘March squall’ is a haiku of real delicacy, exhibiting Barlow’s trademark tremendous eye for detail. As so often happens, an early-spring ‘squall’ has, it seems, caused the thrush’s egg to fall from the nest so that the yolk ‘spills’. As with ‘evening sunlight’, the reader mentally places a colon at the end of the first line. The specificity of Barlow’s word-choices is a quality which has marked him out from other haiku poets since his first published haiku; here, the naming of the month (as opposed to merely stating ‘spring’ or ‘early spring’), the inclusion of the word ‘sac’, the identification of the thrush as a song thrush and the rhyme between ‘squall’ and ‘spills’ all add to the coherence and sonic balance of the poem as a whole. The wording invites the reader to enunciate each word carefully in their head. For all that, though, one might be tempted to say that the haiku is almost too precisely worded, as if the poet has allowed his artistic sense and naturalist’s observational skill to dominate, perhaps at the expense of a certain naturalness of language and spirit.

In ‘evening sunlight’, there is less overt attention to detail than in ‘March squall’, but it is there all the same. Who else but a poet of the highest order would notice and celebrate the stretch of shadows, that they are the shadows of reeds and, furthermore, that they reach the deer’s ‘flanks’? Without explicitly saying so, this crepuscular haiku has a feeling of September about it, when late-summer is becoming autumn. The presence of the reeds indicates that the deer are by a river, lake or pond, presumably to drink. For me, the haiku captures the fleeting moment when the glow of the evening sun seems to grow in size and strength immediately before disappearing. The similarity of the two words at either end of the middle line augments the sense of serenity and beauty of the scene. But there is no showiness to the wording, no foregrounded artistry; just natural word-choices, as if the poem wrote itself. That’s not to say, though, that the haiku has no art to it; on the contrary, like ‘March squall’ it sounds as wonderful to the ear as it looks on the page, but it is arguably even more imbued with the close affinity which marks Barlow out as an outstanding nature poet; what Allan Burns, in his seminal Where the River Goes (2013), called “a sense of the poet suddenly being pulled out of himself into an appreciation of, and a sense of oneness with, his surroundings”.

One thought on “On John Barlow

  1. Whenever I read a poem of John’s I find myself looking up from the page, off into the somewhere, as if I’m expecting the scene to appear before me. It happens almost every time.

    It’s an interesting exercise to compare a poems written some distance apart and to note the development and growth (hopefully!) of the writing.

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