On Dover Beach

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

In 1928, the Japanese-American artist and poet Lilian May Miller produced a wonderfully gloomy image of Rain Blossoms, kimono-clad figures sprouting umbrellas in a sudden squall. The figures are shown crossing a classical wooden bridge beneath willow trees, and the rain falls, in the Edo woodblock tradition, as a series of diagonal black lines. It’s an image mirrored in the haiku:

A spring squall surprises

In an instant, flowers bloom

Each its own colour

The painting and the poem celebrate a moment glimpsed – a point that was very succinctly made by Patrice during our latest Zoom conference. He had proposed that we use both on the cover of our next issue, which will be devoted to the spirit of place.

‘You are reading too much into the lines,’ Marianne said. ‘It’s in the nature of the form to eschew a broader philosophical meaning.’

‘Surely, it’s not about eschewing philosophy,’ Dimitri said. ‘It’s about offering the reader a blank page – to choose how much or how little they wish to read into the poem!’

Dimitri would have made the opposite point, I think, if he’d thought it would rile Marianne – this inclination to tease reflects an increasingly harmonious (I shudder to use the word ‘amorous’) relationship between two formerly more pointedly adversarial colleagues.

I like Rain Blossoms but for the sheer wonder of atmospheric gloom on a rainy afternoon I prefer Fudo Ritsuzan’s Squall. Painted in 1930, it is one of the glories of the Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo. The rain is miasmic rather than linear; in the distance there’s nothing but light, and the sodden serried rooftops have a dull grandeur that is quintessentially Japanese. Unfortunately, there’s just one umbrella in Ritsuzan’s melancholy masterpiece, so the poem’s riot of sudden blossoms is rendered somewhat nugatory.

Exploring the spirit of place is our response to the present global unpleasantness. We thought a meditation on geographical diversity, on interesting corners of the world, might offer some respite from the sameness of staying indoors.

‘There are different haiku traditions,’ Kim said. ‘In one tradition, Marianne’s point would be valid. In another, Dimitri would tend to be closer to the accepted convention.’ Then she added, ‘but that’s as much as I know: Japanese literature isn’t my field.’

Marianne agreed, rather vehemently. ‘I know what you mean! If I had a Euro for every time someone assumed I knew all about Rimbaud, I’d be . . . better off than I am.’

‘It’s the same for us in the Balkans,’ Dimitri said. ‘People imagine our literary tastes are defined by our place of birth!’

‘Well, surely they’re defined to some extent by where we choose to live?’ I said. (I live in Madrid and my field of literary investigation is Iberian.)

‘No, no!’ Kim said. ‘That’s precisely the trap we should avoid falling into! The essence of the poetic sensibility is universal. It’s not about where you’re born or where you live. It’s about – as Patrice put it – the moment glimpsed.  The poet sees with a distinctive eye: the spirit of place is not about portraits but about self-portraits.’

‘Like Matthew Arnold on his honeymoon?’ I said, aspiring perhaps to emulate Dimitri’s easy-going and entertaining aptitude for contrary eccentricity. I felt the spirit of place was becoming rather more contentious than anticipated – though this is not necessarily a bad thing.

‘That was a terrible choice for a wedding night,’ Dimitri said. ‘I’ve been to Dover!’

‘The poem’s not about the ferry terminal,’ Kim said, ‘It’s about the beach.’

‘Well, actually, it’s about the end of belief and the frightening prospect of humanity abandoned to the elements,’ I said, ‘illustrating rather neatly, I think, your observation about the subjective rather than the objective view.’

‘Which brings us back to the haiku!’ Patrice said. ‘We are not entirely vulnerable: we have umbrellas!’

‘. . . we are here as on a darkling plain,’

Marianne said. Marianne has an encyclopaedic memory for gloomy lines.

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

‘Can’t help feeling you’d want more than an umbrella,’ Kim said.

‘Or indeed a slightly lighter mood for seaside bliss,’ Dimitri added.

‘Two poems!’ Patrice said. ‘Two responses! Two places! It proves my point!’

And I think it does.