Poet Alfred Nicol’s translation of French World War One poet Julien Vocance’s haiku was published by Wiseblood Books in late 2022. Responses of early readers were remarkably enthusiastic and indicative of the power of the book. In his preface to the book, Dana Gioia describes the poems as “a major poetic testament of the Great War. Few works of such audacious originality are so accessible and emotionally engaging.” Kirun Kapur called the language “both fresh and timeless,” while Joseph Donahue wrote of Nicol’s “keen eye,” “exacting ear,” and “consummate poetic intelligence.” Rhina P. Espaillat remarked on the book’s imagination, speed, daring imagery, black humor,” while Joshua Mehigan, in his inimitable manner, exclaimed, simply, “holy shit.”
The publisher’s announcement: The “One Hundred Visions of War” of Julien Vocance (1878-1954) comprise some of the first haiku written in the West. Where classical Japanese haiku traditionally speaks of the beauty of Nature, Vocance uses the form to a very different purpose, depicting the horror and brutality of armed conflict, as seen from the trenches during the First World War. Readers get a ground-level view of unimaginable slaughter. The value of Vocance’s poetry lies in its witness to the experience of the human being caught up in a battle which, as Wendell Berry put it, “the machines won.” Only imagine: an obscure soldier-poet pits his human art against overwhelming military technology, and his art survives.
You may order the book from your favorite bookseller or directly from the press, here.
Mr. Nicol gave us permission to reproduce a handful of the poems here, followed by his introduction. The poems capture the terror, tedium, courage, privations, fear, and fortitude of soldiers in modern war.
Two men in a hole
in the ground, at night, facing
a massive army.
When the searchlight falls
on the trench-diggers, they fling
themselves to the ground.
greedily, they gulp
The cannons tonight
shake with such violent coughing
it can’t last. It can’t.
“Shells coming toward us!
Hurry! Hurry! We’ll get buried!”
In the vertebrae
of a horse buried in haste
my foot made a mush.
Read the translator’s introduction.
The “One Hundred Visions of War” of Julien Vocance (1878-1954) comprise some of the first haiku written in the West. Vocance’s haï-kaï, as he called them, break nearly all of the rules of classical Japanese haiku, because of the situation he found himself in when mobilized into the French infantry in 1914. Where classical haiku traditionally speaks of the beauty of Nature, the change of seasons, and, occasionally,
domestic events, Vocance uses the form to depict the horror and brutality of armed conflict, as seen from the trenches during the first world war. Readers get a ground-level view of unimaginable slaughter. The value of his poetry lies not in its adherence to classical rules of composition, but in its witness to the experience of the human being caught up in a battle which, as Wendell Berry put it, “the machines won.”
The tension between the traditional subjects and themes of haiku and the use Vocance makes of it serves to heighten the expressive power of Vocance’s Visions. For that reason, I have chosen to count syllables in making these translations, adhering to the traditional 5-7-5 pattern, as Vocance himself did not, to ensure that these short poems are recognizable to contemporary readers as the haiku he clearly intended them to be—the title of this work itself makes reference to Katshushika Hokusai’s famous series of woodblock prints, “One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji.” Vocance was thirty-six years old when the war began. Like so many of the trench soldiers he wrote about, he lost an eye in battle, but he managed to survive the brutal experience, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his service. Julien Vocance was the pen name taken by Joseph Sequin, who returned to his position in the Ministry of Public Works after the war. This work first appeared in La Grande Revue in 1916, under the title “Cent visions de guerre.” Vocance later published two collections, Le Livre des haïkaï, which included “One Hundred Visions of War,” and
Le Héron Huppé.