Melodrama is a word I warm to. I don’t much desire it in life, although it does make itself known there on occasion. I crave it in art.

WordNet calls melodrama “an extravagant comedy in which action is more salient than characterization.”

The 20th century suffered from an absence or denial of melodrama. I think it’s time to bring it back. To what extent, though, is melodrama, with its, as Wayne Turney puts it, “crude colors, violent contrasts, [and]… plethora of exciting events,” tenable in the verbal arts of today?

In what forms is poetic melodrama possible? It is not hard to see aspects of melodrama in 19th century Victorian and Romantic verse. But are there any forms of poetry that are seemingly antithetical to melodrama that are in some instances actually rife with it?

What about a haiku, for example? Aren’t haiku supposed to be serene and placid celebrations of stillness? And if so, how would you describe haiku like these:

Full moon light          the liquid is inhaled

White sadness is          a white beak opening

Canna         already kindled         excape

Tadpoles         clumped         dark time

My isolation’s         unlit warship has escaped

Neckless solitude         the chicken     runs

Black poppy seeds ——-escape in confusion

Inferiority complex———–rain soaked noises

Aesthetics of fire ————– paint out the sun

Inside a zero         on tiptoe screaming

These delicate Molotov cocktails of high impact melodrama were written by Kakio Tomisawa (sometimes spelled Tomizawa) and translated by the poet Steven Forth. They were published in Issue 13 of Joseph Simas’ Moving Letters pamphlet/magazine in 1989. I had nearly forgotten about these poems and how much I like them until Gary and I cleaned out our bookshelves several weeks ago. I set the magazine aside, wanting to write about the poems for Ululations, and then forgot about it for a while in the whirl of the holidays.

Tomizawa Kakio

Every time I read these poems I feel that they are strong, largely because they overstate their case. They don’t entirely break the rules of haiku, though. In most of them, there is some indication of a human being responding to something from the natural world. They are emotional (most theories of haiku say that it should be emotional — although not, perhaps, as in these poems, at the expense of restraint and subtlety). They are epiphanic and compact. I haven’t read them in Japanese, so I’m not sure how traditionally they scan, but in English, rhythmically, they certainly sound like haiku.

Novice haiku readers may be interested to learn that in fact the seventeen-syllable, three-line construct we are accustomed to calling a haiku is in fact a convention of English haiku translation. In Japanese, a haiku is more likely to be only one line, with a built-in semantic turning point or points. These translations are possibly more faithful to the original form of the poems.

The poems are differently energized than a usual haiku, however, with a kind of violence and weirdness that seems to me melodramatic in the way that, say, Artaud is melodramatic.

They demand, or are evidence of, a kind of tortured engagement with the world and with materials.

From a dramatic point of view, sturm und drang is simply more interesting than placidity. I mean, I wouldn’t mind listening to Phillip Glass if I were mellowing out in a sauna somewhere (as if I ever get a chance to do such a thing!) — but as I’m snaking and elbowing my way through the city I’m much more likely to be listening to Najat (also spelled Nagat)– a decidedly melodramatic Egyptian singer — on my IPod. I am better stimulated by, and thus better served by, a kind of melodrama.

Here are some selections from Tomisawa’s comments on poetry, Chronos’ Tongue, also translated by Steven Forth:

A withered branch and a trumpet are not in themselves related. The relationship in this lack-of-relationship makes it possible to construct an intense image; it is necessary to understand what this relationship is.

Poetry is fundamentally ‘obscure,’ Haiku poets who cannot understand this ‘obscurty’ are limited, by force of habit, to ‘persuasion.’


Haiku is not ‘conception’; not more than ‘paroxysm.’


I do not find original theories, nor the theories of haiku poets, nor theories of seasonless haiku, nor social theories of any use. I only pray that one person may, as the fruit of anger, from delusion, through tears, overcoming grief and joy, finally breathe deeply the open reach of the atmosphere, that is all.

Melodramatic statements, perhaps, and even quaintly Dadaist — but I love the ring of them.

A couple of links for the curious:

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