Letters in Time

Michael McClintock: Letters in Time, Sixty Short Poems. Hermitage West 2005. Softbound, 5.25 x 6.75, 78 pages. ISBN:0-9770239-0-X, US$ 10, CAN$ 13.

Ruth Franke: Emotion and Thought

A review of an American author's book from a German perspective may be something of a rarity, but haiku and its related forms express values beyond cultural differences, they can be shared anywhere in the world and are fascinating in their diversity. Personally, I always find it interesting to discover how far a poet's work is influenced by his personal and environmental background.

When I first encountered Michael McClintock's poems and learned something of his poetic journey, I was impressed by the priorities he has set in his life, apparently following the guiding principle: "Whatever you do, do it whole-heartedly." Remarkably, having already made his mark as an author and theoretician, after graduation he quit the haiku scene to get on with his professional life, and didn't come back to it until twenty years later when he had the freedom to immerse himself in poetry as before.

Now he has published the first collection since his return: Letters in Time. The sixty short poems, mainly tanka, feature also eleven haiku, some of them familiar, having already been published in international journals, some award-winning in contests. They are characterized by sensuous imagery which immediately creates pictures in the reader's mind:

letting sand fall
from my hand
countless suns

Some of his more recent nature haiku express a longing for something we don't really possess; they convey feeling of sadness, loss and loneliness. This feeling of loss is implied in a poem that is made available to us both in tanka and in haiku form, and it is rewarding to compare the two:

all the spring day,
the deer cross the high meadow
and into the clouds

through rain
all day in spring,
deer cross the high meadow
      into the clouds, always
      into the clouds ...

In both poems the same image is pictured. In the haiku version, the language is objective, and it is left to the reader to complete the poem with his empathy and imagination. When we look at the tanka version, we see that the observation has been expanded from "all the spring day" to "all day in spring", but the initial unit of three lines is still objective. What makes it a tanka is the additional development in the final two lines that may be more subjective, more lyrical or personal and gives us the poet's response to the previous image. In this example, there is no personal comment, the second component completes the image of the first unit and the subjectivity exists only in the repetition of carefully selected words. We sense the poet's feeling of sadness and irretrievable loss – a continuous loss – stronger than in the haiku version and understand why Michael McClintock is so much attracted by tanka with its larger range of poetic devices.

All the tanka in Letters in Time are in free verse form, divided into five lines, the arrangement is for the most part left-aligned. They vary in style and length, including also minimalist poems, one breath in length, like a haiku. Tumbling structures are also employed, ending with just a single word to highlight the meaning. Some poems are indented after three lines to emphasize the poet's reflections in the final unit. Often the subjective voice is used throughout the poem, and the author's personality shines through; some tanka even read like notes from a diary. We are struck by his reflections, which give us "tanka moments" of insight, warmed by sensitivity and colored with introspection:

between sun and shade
a butterfly pauses
like none I've seen –
who ever falls in love
with someone they know?

The poems reflect a variety of traditional subject matter, but the main topic is love – the story of an intimate loving relationship passing through all its stages: yearning, passion, loneliness and despair, fulfilment. The writer's emotional life correlates and harmonizes with the elements of nature, his lyrical tone and mood show tenderness and imagination so that we are reminded of those old Japanese love songs in which feelings are expressed through the medium of natural images:

our love is a thrush
we carry in a thought
light as air it sings
within the dark

Here the sense of love grows more and more ethereal as it moves through four phases: thrush / air / thought / dark. Light and lyrical, this tanka is an aesthetic whole of pure poetry, leaving deep impressions on both eye and ear.

Though letters play a role in this book – they are burned or the sender's "heart fell out" when being opened – any idea that the title refers to 'love letters' would be a misrepresentation. Rather, Letters in Time is an allusion to the evanescence of time, but even more: it implies McClintock's attitude to time and his theory of subjective realism. The sense and comprehension of our lives are a part of memory, and memories of the past are still significant for us in the present, as subjective modifiers, coloring and shaping our experience of the present.

In tanka - much more than in haiku – a poet is able to relate natural imagery to personal introspection and reflection by taking subjective decisions about subject matter and language, and this is what gives the poems their depth. In the case of Letters in Time, they combine to make a universal love song beyond time and place, with enduring resonance.

The volume is dedicated to Karen Jeanne Harlow, and features her portrait on its cover, a sketch in charcoal by Nancy A. Knight. Reading Michael McClintock's poems, I realized the truth of H.F. Noyes' remark about fine tanka: "... words that both reach the heart and are good for the spirit."


  • This review by Ruth Franke was first published in Frogpond No.2/2006.
  • The haiku "all the spring day": World Haiku Review No. 3, 2002.


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