Sunday, November 12, 2017

haiku commentary - Kaneko Tohta


     a wild boar
     comes and eats air
     spring mountain path

          — Kaneko Tohta, Selected Haiku With Notes and Commentary Part 2:1961-2012, translated by the Kon Nichi Translation Group (Red Moon Press, 2012)

The translation of poetry has to be one of the most challenging arts. How can someone translate words, syntax, sound, rhythm and connotation from one language to another and be sure of achieving something comparable to the original author’s intention? How does the translator balance commitment to the original text with the necessity of creating poetic effect in the translated one?

I am not a translator. And while my reasonable grasp of French and Spanish might help me produce a passable English translation of a short poem in either of those languages, all other languages are beyond my reach. So it’s the translation of Kaneko Tohta’s haiku that I must respond to.

I appreciate the overall scene the haiku conjures but I’m less satisfied with a close reading: the word choice and syntax.

The second line is staccato: it lacks the more natural rhythm of, say, ‘comes and eats the air’. Although ‘comes and eats’ feels rather prosaic too: is the addition of ‘comes’ adding anything? Would a different verb more effectively communicate the writer’s intention?

And ‘spring mountain path’ feels overly compressed. I appreciate that haiku is a poetry of distillation but, for me, the last line attempts to pack in too much of a seasonal punch and I find myself struggling to ‘imagine’ that mountain path in spring. What’s the weather like? What plants might be there? Is it warm/chilly?

So please forgive me for what I’m about to do, Kaneto Tohta and the Kon Nichi Translation Group.

mountain path
a wild boar eats
the spring air

But now I can taste the air with the wild boar on the side of that mountain. And isn’t that what we all want to do? Enter a poem and be a part of it? 

Monday, October 30, 2017

Haiku Rebellion Studio

Plan your writing time for Spring 2018 with The Poetry School's new list of courses. I'll be leading Haiku Rebellion Studio again, an online course that runs over three to four weeks next April with lots of opportunity to practice and receive feedback on your own haiku. It sold out last time so book early!

In the meantime, here's some background to my haiku practice and the course.

Small is the New Big

I started this blogpost with the question, How do you write a poem like a haiku? And then really wished I hadn’t. Because the next question that popped out of my brain was, How do you catch a moment on the page? No? Nothing? I’ll give you a clue: ¯¯How do you solve a problem like Maria? ¯¯ Apologies for the ear-worm.

Our minds are full of patterns. Habits, even. And while habits and repeated actions can be comforting, like reading the Sunday papers in bed or summer sunsets, the unconscious repetition of habits in our writing, a continued reliance on what’s familiar, what we know or what we think we know, can lead to stasis, inertia, a lack of growth for us as writers and a bit of a big yawn for readers.

My discovery of contemporary English language haiku happened at a time when I was reflecting on my own writing practice. It was after my first collection of poetry, Learning How to Fall, was published in 2005 and there’s nothing more effective at highlighting writing patterns than trapping poems between the cover of a book. Not just favourite (over-used?) words, or images (I loved water, a lot!) but approaches too. And I was very (overly?) fond of an extended metaphor.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t embarrassed or disappointed by the collection. I was proud of it, and still am. They’re well-crafted, image driven poems with sharp attention to line-break. But the recognition of my reliance on extended metaphor made me question my practice. And haiku provided one of the answers.

There is no space for extrapolation within a haiku. Rich figurative language risks showing off rather than the illumination of an idea. Haiku force you towards economy, straightforwardness: the bare, but shining, bones of your language.

bare bones

Unfortunately, the (deceptive) simplicity of haiku combined with Twitter’s 140 character limit has given rise to a whole new form on the net that people refer to has haiku and I‘m tempted to call shit-ku but that would be insensitive to the people who tweet them sincerely, and not so sincerely. So I’ll call them no-ku, as they are devoid of any poetry.

Segue into a paper I delivered a couple of years ago at the PALA (Poetics & Linguistics Association) Conference in Canterbury, entitled, Haiku: A Poetry of Absence or An Absence of Poetry? Because, how do you manage to make a little clutch of words read, and feel, like poetry?

Haiku Rebellion Studio will prove to you that this short form can contain all the poetry you need to make you feel and think. Both in the published work of current haiku practitioners and in the haiku you’ll write during the course. It will be challenging and thought provoking. And at times frustrating. But mostly enjoyable as we discuss English language haiku by poets in the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand, and share our own work too.

And in the spirit of wonderful coincidence, as I come to the end of this blogpost, the postman has just delivered my copy of The WonderCode, Discover the Way of Haiku by Scott Mason (Girasole Press, Chappaqua, New York 2017) who opens Chapter 1 with a quote from Virginia Woolf:

Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.

ant shadows

Friday, October 20, 2017

haiku commentary ~ Paul Miller

spring foghorn . . . 
cormorants spilling 
from an over-crowded ledge  

Paul Miller, Called Home (2006)

Sound, sight and movement, and texture. These are the explicit physical senses through which the haiku speaks to me. But there must be more haunting the images and the spaces between the lines to produce an element of unease in me.

There’s warning in the sound of the foghorn. Spring tides (despite the natural response of ‘joy’ that we have to the idea of Spring) can be dangerous and have stronger than usual rip currents. The company of black birds spills into the air like a ragged cloak of wing and cry. There’s a sense of danger, or risk, implicit in an overcrowded ledge. 

The ellipsis at the end of line 1 indicates hesitation and uncertainty. spilling/ at the end of line 2 also allows the reader to experience that sense of falling into the white space on the page. Line 3 ends gruffly with the definite thump of a single syllable: ledge,

Twice in the last two days I have read the closing line from e.e. cummings’ poem, ‘maggie and milly and molly and may’: it’s always ourselves we find in the sea. And the sea envelops this haiku. But while cormorants are creatures of
the sea, mostly able to withstand its capricious character, the fate of human beings is less certain.

If I am honest I do not want to face what this haiku has engendered in me: people spilling into a dangerous sea from an overcrowded raft, their (Spring?) hopes drowned. But at the same time I am unable to turn away from it. it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

Of course my interpretation may not be remotely close to what Paul Miller had in mind when he wrote this poem. But all the proof is on the page to assure me that my response is valid. 

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Review ~ Paul Chambers

This Single Thread
Paul Chambers

£10 available from the author and Alba Publishing 

things I have witnessed/ but failed to notice until/ this moment, here, now

I have seen them in the orchard’s long grass – contour, flight, down – from magpies or wood pigeons, and once, the tawny remains of a buzzard. I have slipped them in my pocket or frozen them in a photograph. But now I am watching them move in my memory as dusk begins to shift towards night:

evening wind
a feather trembles
in the grass 

And on those late train journeys home from London, lights from the back windows of terraced houses glittering past, wafers of smoky clouds shifting across the night sky: 

overnight train
a handprint
smears the moon

Paul Chambers talks about haiku as ‘the art of noticing’ and each haiku in this collection is a quiet and precise record of the small moments that are common to us all. Or, if not common, convincingly true:  

pylon hum
the twitch of fibres
in a horse’s shoulder

Our lives are, naturally, a tangle of threads. We are all pulled in multiple directions: work and family, obligations and responsibilities. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by complications, contradictions and challenges. Sometimes it’s difficult to find a level terrain, one that makes sense, provides a plateau of calm. But moments of smooth connection do exist; moments when we feel the beauty of travelling along a single harmonious thread. This collection reminds me of that. Reminds me too, to quote another poet:

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

(William Wordsworth, from ‘Leisure’.)

My life is richer for Paul Chambers noticing:

white mist
the wing and the wave
almost touching

Friday, September 29, 2017

haiku commentary: Ajaya Mahala

mosquito wings —
the colour of evening 
so thin

          — Ajaya Mahala (First Place, Shiki Monthly Kukai, May 2014)

It’s probably a default approach to use visual images when writing poetry and I know I consciously nudge myself now and then to consider the senses of smell, sound, touch and taste too. And, sometimes taking it a step further, to consider if synaesthesia ~ when the sensory stimulus from one sense is mixed up with another sense ~ might also be effective with the material I’m working with.

The use of metaphor, in any form of poetry, needs a light touch, and even more so in haiku where the minimal form has no space for a grandstanding author to hide. I want my haiku to encourage a reader to reflect on their own experiences, through the filter of mine, and not reflect on how clever with language I might think I am!

‘mosquito wings’ is written with an incredibly light touch, subtly using synaesthesia to blend visual and textural qualities. We automatically associate mosquitoes with evening so the scene is set by the end of the first line. But ‘the colour of evening’ is something that’s likely to differ between readers. Darkness, sunset, dusk – they all have their own identities as well as our own interpretations. Yet when I read the third line ~ ‘so thin’ ~ any depth of colour falls away and I’m left with a feeling of fragility that evokes a paleness and translucence. A feeling that I might test the evening air between my fingers, like the finest sheet of rice paper. Which, of course, takes me back to the ‘wings’ in the first line.

For me, the best haiku make me think and feel. This one does. It enters my mind and my body and makes its mark.

Review: cylymau tywod ~ knots of sands

cylymau tywod ~ knots of sand
John Rowlands

£12 from Alba Publishing

This week a friend on Facebook shared an old photograph of us, standing together on the shore of the Atlantic on Florida's east coast, and I felt homesick for the sensation of damp sand under my feet, for the scent of salt on the breeze.  

I was born next to the sea in South Wales. The beach and sand dunes were our playground as children. The sound of breaking waves became so familiar I had to focus intently to hear them at night before I fell asleep.

roaring sea
tongues of foam
silenced in sand (p.32)

The knots of sand in the title of Rowlands' haiku collection are the ropey-looking burrowings that lugworm leave on the surface of the sand. My dad used to dig for lugworm, to use as fishing bait, on the beach at low-tide. 

cylymau tywod in Welsh, my mother's first language, the language we were not taught growing up in Port Talbot (for outdated reasons about learning) but one that still formed a natural part of my life: spoken during family visits in Llanelli, my parents' hometown, used in Welsh school plays on St David's Day, in the hymns and songs we learnt for assemblies and concerts, for the 'O' and then 'A' level I took at Sandfields Comprehensive School.  

cleber nefolaidd                    they talk of heaven
llenwaf fy llygaid                   I fill my eyes
â sylwedd y sêr                     with skies and stars (p.5) 

So many of the haiku in this book bring me back to myself through the sea and through language. Rowlands' experiences and responses are transposed through emotional engagement and acts of imagination into my own.

oedi                              stopping
i                                   to
wrando                         listen
ar                                to
dawelwch                     the silence
yr                                of
eira'n                           falling
disgyn                         snow (p.97)

... a memory from February 1963 of my four year old self leaning over the back of a deep red Rexine settee watching the streets and roads blanketed with heavy snow.  

I enter his house of words and find the gift of myself at home. 

trwy heddiw
i arogl doeau
llifio coed

through today
to the scent of yesterdays
sawing logs (p.42)

We are all connected through our common sensory experiences, by the way we see, hear, taste, smell and touch the world. And by what we feel for each other too.

you say yes
sleet softens
to snow (p.103) 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017


When in doubt say ‘yes’ 

November: a month that begins with a syllable of prohibition then slowly denies us colour and warmth. My father's brother has died at 91. This morning’s frost refuses to melt. I watch a day moon swallowed by smoky clouds; leaves shroud the bare earth beneath the apple trees.

But tonight, as if his age and health are no more than a random number, a misconception, my father's voice on the phone so clear, so bright. And the sky beyond the orchard fired by sunset. Yes. Oh yes.

I try
not to

First published in CHO July 2017

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Haiku Rebellion Studio

I'll be running the following online course in October 2016 with The Poetry School, suitable for UK and international students.  

Book here.

Three lines, syllable counting, nature, Zen. Now we’ve got those crusty preconceptions and outdated rules out of the way we can take a fresh look at English language haiku in the light of contemporary Western practice. On this intensive 3 week writing course we will re-visit the most misunderstood of all the poetic forms – the haiku – looking at work by experienced practitioners in the UK and USA. We will then practice some techniques that contribute towards making the ordinary extraordinary, writing our own small epiphanies, tiny elegies and snapshots from our daily lives that are charged with clarity, emotion and humour. We will also be setting both our pens and as well as our bodies in motion, as we follow in the footsteps of Basho and compose our haiku while walking, taking advantage of the dramatic changes of the autumn season.

all the times 
I have been wrong 
fresh paint

Friday, January 01, 2016

What Feeds Us: a review of Harriot West's 'Into the Light'

Harriot West, Into the Light,
Mountains & Rivers Press, 2014, 48 pages, 5-1/2 x 8-1/2, perfect bound, $15.00

Let’s start with ‘scrapple, cornmeal mush with … sausage’, follow it with Thanksgiving turkey with ‘cranberry jelly and the sweetness of honey-flavoured yams’, then ‘raspberries … with clotted cream’. Except these dishes fail in their intrinsic capability to feed or nourish, laced as they are with conflict, anger and grief in the early haibun of Harriot West’s collection Into the Light.

The ‘scrapple’ becomes a battleground for a child’s love in 'Empty Spaces'. The turkey cannot mask an almost unbearable despair in ‘Abundant Blessings’. The raspberries, ‘the seeds cracking’, foreshadow the death of a grandmother and the failure of adults in a child’s life to explain and comfort (‘The Day Grandma Died’).

Into the Light is divided into three sections. The 17 haibun in ‘Sepia Shadows’ explore, in a compressed chronology, the narrator’s childhood, youth and adulthood up to the death of her parents. The middle section of 10 haiku act like stepping stones from emotional hesitancy (‘Auld Lang Syne / a desire to straighten / the stranger’s tie’) to the suggestion of sensual intimacy (‘the gate latch / clicks into place / night-blooming jasmine’). The final 12 haibun in ‘The Pinwheel’s Colors’ are resonant with the lust, expectation, romance, fantasy, sex and companionship of a new relationship, which, after the emotional chill of relationships in the first section has me, the reader, whooping in the margins, ‘You deserve this, girl. Enjoy!’

Me, the reviewer, is taking a more clinical approach. How are these haibun managing to make me think and feel? What decisions has the writer made about structure? How are the haiku functioning in relation to the prose?

West’s language is exact and evocative, her imagery rich with meaning and emotion. When we read, at the end of the first haibun, ‘Stories I Might Tell’, about a child who always said, ‘yes please, no thank-you’, of her first day at school wearing ‘thick brown socks and sturdy brown oxfords’ we have a precise idea of the order and control that surrounds her. The unapologetic, stark description of her mother being bathed in a nursing home in ‘Sometimes I Have to Look Away’ – ‘naked, strapped into a chair … her dimpled flesh exposed’ feels like a raw welt across our skin, a feeling reinforced by the concluding haiku:
winter sunset
the sky so red
it hurts
Structurally, the haibun utilise a number of different techniques to strengthen their influence on us. In ‘Neverland’, West exploits the effect of anaphora (1) as she recounts the close friendship of two little girls: ‘We were seekers … We were dreamers … We lived … We whispered … We trudged … we were young…’ and then deepens that unification by extending it to the closing line of the haiku: ‘we knew the way’.

Parallelism and repetition are employed to a similar end in ‘His Story My Story’ where a sister and brother’s alternate memories illustrate the subjectivity of experience:

‘He remembers father saying mother needs a vacation. I remember mother saying all those empty hangers made me weep. … He remembers mother kissing him when she came home. I remember her saying don’t worry—what I have isn’t catching. …’

And in ‘Eulogy For My Father’, West’s syntax alludes to the comforting rhythm and structure of nursery rhyme as a way to contain grief:
he was so nice
said the clerk
always smiling
said the secretary 
I really liked him
said the waiter
me too
said the child
But my most satisfying discovery, as a reviewer and writer (and one I just had to confirm by email with Harriot West), was not only the relationship that exists between all three parts of the haibun (title, prose, haiku), a relationship we expect to find in well-conceived haibun, but the specific rapport between individual titles and their concluding haiku. Take a look at these:
Still Life 
in a shallow Steuben bowl

Upon A Time 
bedtime story
I cover the moon
with my thumb

deep winter
I hold a pomegranate seed
to the light

I could go on. I could enumerate nearly every title/haiku in the collection. But buy the book and play this rewarding game yourself. And learn from it too. I will.

To return to the theme of food, I suppose the titles could be seen as appetisers and the haiku as the sweet closure of dessert. That makes the intervening prose passages the main course, the real reason we are present at this literary meal. And it’s a meal (‘…potatoes caramelised to perfection, kale mixed with almonds grated parmesan and pomegranate seeds, shredded chicken braised with rosemary, green olives, capers and wine …’) followed by a hike at dawn, followed by another meal (‘… pizza … sprinkled [with] more cheese, olive oil and pepper flakes …’) in the penultimate haibun, ‘New Year’s Resolution’, that is a complete contrast to the food that opened this review: undeniably nurturing, a shared celebration of life’s gifts in the present. ‘When asked, say yes’, the narrator entreats us. ‘Say yes to it all.’

And I cannot imagine anyone disagreeing with her.

After the heightened emotion of this haibun the one that completes the book shifts down a gear. The first two parts of the triptych, ‘Suppositions’, rely on extended metaphors to suggest meaning rather than directly state it. And West’s quiet and expert touch is illustrated in the second part, 2. Love is a door leading into the next room. It begins, ‘Sometimes the door squeaks. Sometimes it sags. Sometimes a gust of wind bangs it shut, startling you from dreams.’ and builds on the same imagery to, ‘But it’s the door that matters most. I found it ajar, the knob slightly warm to my touch.’

West trusts herself, as a writer, to say just enough in this collection. The door has been left ajar for her readers to step into the events and memories of a particular life and extract the meanings that make sense to us, that make sense in our lives.
blue sky
maybe I don’t need
to be right (2)

1. A rhetorical figure of repetition in which the same word or phrase is repeated in (and usually at the beginning of) successive lines, clauses or sentences. Baldick, Chris, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, OUP Oxford & New York 1990.
2. Into the Light, p. 24

This review was first published in Contemporary Haibun Online January 2016 vol 12 no 4

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


a tray of eggs
homesick now
for middle age

Modern Haiku 46.3 Autumn 2015

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Remembering Ken Jones 1930 - 2015

Startling and pleasing to come across the blessed genre so unexpectedly in Planet! 

They were the first words Ken Jones said to me, by email in 2007, after he'd read two of my early haibun in Planet, the Welsh based journal of literature, history and contemporary journalism. I was writing haibun in a vacuum at that time, unaware of the network of other haibun writers in the UK in general, and in Wales in particular, but I'd already taken Ken's advice, from one of his articles published in CHO, about writing the haiku before writing the prose part of the haibun. This approach was working well for me so I was glad to have the opportunity to thank him personally.

Startling, pleasing, blessed. Those words conjure him for me now he's no longer at the other end of an email, or at a reading we've both been invited to or at a workshop we've been asked to lead. He was always, in different degrees, enthusiastic, confrontational, mischievous even. We didn't always agree about haiku writing but always found a middle ground of compromise born out of respect: a ground that enabled us to edit another country, haiku poetry from Wales (Gomer 2011) together.

I last spoke with him at a haibun evening at the Poetry Society Café, London in March this year. I really didn't expect him to be there: his health was frail and he'd moved, with his wife Noragh, from their mountain home in North West Wales to more suitable accommodation in nearby Aberystwyth. But there he was, thinner than I remembered, but still, and this was the only way I felt I could describe him, full of light. His voice trailed away when he stood to read his haibun about terminal cancer and his impending death but that really didn't matter. It was the closest I've ever come to witnessing, and feeling, what the Zen Buddhist idea of acceptance really means: he was a man living and enjoying the moment, acknowledging the reality of his life without fighting it or trying to change it. He was a receptacle of peace.

Because of our shared Welshness Ken used to close his emails with Pob hwyl or Hwyl fawr. Pob means 'every' in Welsh. Fawr means 'big'. Hwyl is trickier. It can mean 'the sail of a ship' and also 'fun'. But it also refers to how people are, their 'feeling' or 'mood'. You can sing with hwyl, with emotional fervour. And you can ask people how they're feeling: Sut hwyl sydd arnat ti? Literally, 'what feeling is on you?'

I like Hwyl fawr. Big feeling. What Ken sent to me. What he embodied in his life and his writing. What I will always remember about him. In the way he both lived and died.

This fine evening
stacking firewood
how simple death feels
From The Parsley Bed: Haiku Stories, Ken Jones, Pilgrim Press 2006

First published in Contemporary Haibun Online, September 2015, vol 11 no 3

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

haiku: a poetry of absence or an absence of poetry?

The following paper was presented at the PALA (Poetics and Linguistics Association) 2015 Conference at Canterbury University, Kent, UK on 16th July 2015. 

Minimalism in Contemporary English Language Haiku

The popular perception of haiku as three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables persists in the mainstream poetry world and beyond as if nothing has changed since the first Western translators counted the onji, or sounds, in traditional Japanese haiku and created that misconstrued but enduring template fleshy enough to support a traditional English syntax.

And while putting flesh on bones might be a useful metaphor for the construction of formal and free verse, contemporary English language haiku practice is often more akin to the trimming and polishing of bones to create a form where point of view, adjectives and even verbs may be dispensed with entirely. 

This 30 minute presentation will analyse examples of minimal, micro and monostich haiku from British and American practitioners and ask if the absence of the language choices and structures traditionally available to the poet results in an absence of poetry.

Since I was properly introduced to contemporary English language haiku around ten years ago I've been on a bit of a campaign: to try and restore some respect for the quietly spoken and often maligned haiku. But even the most successful campaigners have to accept the best advances are made gradually so I’ll be happy if you leave this room taking just two things with you today:

1.that syllable counting is not at all an essential element to writing haiku well, and 2. the plural of haiku is haiku (think sheep and fish).

Anything else you take away is gravy. And talking of metaphors…

Haiku have been described as ‘little pictures’, ‘moments frozen in time’, ‘one breath’ poems, ‘small epiphanies… Snapshots of the quotidian taken from unexpected angles… The tiniest of elegies. Breaths of emotion, some light, some dark[1].

More straightforwardly, contemporary English language haiku are short poems, mostly arranged in 3 lines, that use an image from the natural world to convey or express an emotion or feeling. But that fails to communicate the sense of wonder, or sudden shift of consciousness, or a new way of seeing that well-crafted haiku can offer.
The haiku’s non-identical twin form, the senryu, is similarly constructed but has traditionally been associated with human nature/social issues, but the difference between haiku and senryu in our contemporary world can often be blurred. So many, and so much, of our lives unravel in urban contexts. Is ‘end of the school year’ a seasonal reference to summer (in our hemisphere) or a human construct? And aren’t human beings part of the natural world anyway? So for the purpose of this presentation I’ll refer to all the poems as ‘haiku’. 

I’d like to blame Twitter whose 140 character restriction has resulted in millions of people writing the most banal statements in 5/7/5 syllable lines and hashtagging #haiku. And the woman who is gradually filling the world with cat haiku books – just take a look on Amazon. And people who write SciFaiku …

At the end of 2013 the BBC World Service invited me on air to comment on the winning entries in NASA’a haiku competition[2] organised to promote the MAVEN launch to Mars.

‘We don’t want you to be nice about these,’ the interviewer said to me. That was a relief. There were over 12,000 entries: an enthusiasm for poetry writing that was only eclipsed by the staggering absence of any poetry. Here are two I like to call, ‘It’s haiku, Jim, but not as we know it …’

It’s funny, they named
Mars after the God of War
Have a look at Earth  

United Kingdom                       

Maven’s engineers
write in binary while we
count some syllables.        

Connecticut, USA

I'm pleased that responsibility for these lies on both sides of the Atlantic.

But the responsibility for the widely accepted 5/7/5 syllable count travels further back in time to 19th and early 20th century translators[3] of original Japanese classical haiku who counted their 17 sounds (some of which were grammatical suffixes, sounded punctuation, or attitudinal instructions to pause, express wonder), noted their internal three-part structure, and set about reproducing them in English. And creating what I like to call ‘winter duvet’ versions (i.e. a few togs too many) and eliminating any poetry of suspension and suggestion.

The 5/7/5 structure of haiku has been further enshrined into consciousness by primary school teachers hammering syllable recognition into the fresh little brains of their charges[4].

But contemporary understanding of the differences between Japanese and English suggests that 12 syllables, or less, would create a haiku of similar effect. (E.g. the one syllable English word ‘bone’ would have 3 japanese on – bo/n/e.) 

But that’s not to say effective haiku can’t be written according to that formula.

mid-winter evening     
alone at the sushi bar –
just me and this eel

Billy Collins [5]

Collins, known more for his exceptionally popular collections of free-verse, explains that he counts syllables not out of any allegiance to tradition but because I want the indifference and inflexibility of a seventeen-syllable limit to balance my self-expressive yearning. With the form in place, the art of composition becomes a negotiation between one’s subjective urges and the rules of order.[6] Sonnet writers might use a similar argument.

To be fair, he has created a haiku where I can’t detect any superfluity, no words squeezed in to pack out a predetermined shape. It’s constructed from 2 enjambed lines (that we’ll refer to as a phrase), a break, and a single line (that we’ll call a fragment). The break, marked at the end of the second line with a dash, is a feature of classical haiku called a kire.  In Japanese haiku that break would have been illustrated by a kire-ji – a ‘cutting’ word, like ya.

Collins’ haiku features a particular season and scene, adds gentle irony with a precise observation. The break or kire is a kind of structural support and creates a juxtaposition of the two parts. There is no explicit comparison, but some kind of relationship is suggested. What does it mean? What is the language doing? Let’s come back to meaning and the reader’s interpretation of a text later on. For now I want to ask: is haiku poetry?

So what is poetry?
Perhaps the most straightforward definition of written poetry is ‘words shaped on the page to have a particular effect on a reader’. The Collins haiku and the ones I’m about to show you use the page’s white space in the same way as the majority of poems. But what of language, what of content? Haiku’s brevity, apparent simplicity and its associations with Zen and nature have contributed to a reputation that often demotes it from the realm of literature to the levels of  banal description, aphorism or pop-philosophy. Its misleading democratic accessibility (after all, who can’t count syllables and fill in the blanks?) has created a genre of pithy idea. punchline or a quick-fix poetry languishing in cliché. 

And I have to admit that reading through dozens of journals and anthologies preparing for this paper I often found myself cheering from the ‘absence of poetry’ camp, almost convinced I would turn up today not to praise haiku but to bury it! But that’s a fate familiar to any poetry journal editor or poetry competition adjudicator, regardless of the form: there tends to be a fraction of good work amongst swathes of mediocrity or poverty. Let’s rise to the top of the pile.

Some of haiku’s absences are immediately obvious: titles, little or no punctuation, upper-case letters. Others relate to their language choices: an absence of opacity and explicit figurative language. But that’s not to say they lack the ability to resonate.

the girl we didn’t like
with fireflies in her hair

Harriot West [7]         

finally getting
the why of loneliness - 
bright sun on ice

Lorin Ford [8]

Both of these haiku are constructed of two parts; they use juxtaposition; they use language that’s familiar. And they contain a precise or concise perception or observation.

‘Image as a vehicle for idea or theme’ is something I’ve spoken a lot about in my years of teaching both poetry and prose. I’m not claiming any originality of thought here only expression. I acknowledge Eliot’s ‘objective correlative’: objects, situations or events that evoke an emotion. Poet Robert Hass talks about the ‘power of the image… the implicit idea that anything can contain everything.[9]’ And what Henry James says in his ‘Art of Fiction’: The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implications of things.[10]

The source of James’ quote feels particularly appropriate for West’s haiku (a fragment, dusk, followed by a phrase over two lines) which manages to create a succinct narrative with its suggestion of backstory and reflection in lines 2 and 3.

Dusk: a time suspended between dark and light. Entre chien et le loup as the French say, ‘between dog and wolf’, between two states, between two perceptions. None of that is told to me. But the word’s juxtaposition (through line break rather than being specifically marked) with the following two lines asks me to try and make sense, to pull on strands of meaning, for me to interpret and interact with the text. I shift from a state of neither darkness nor light, to the darkness of memory and a suggested ostracising, to the image of literal light – fireflies – and maybe the metaphorical light too of ‘insight/understanding’.

Innate or ‘distilled metaphor’[11] is often the way haiku communicate. They demand the reader’s attention to the imagined.

Lorin Ford’s haiku combines statement and image – a phrase (finally getting the why of loneliness) and a fragment (bright sun on ice) and explicitly marks the juxtaposition with a dash.
I find this haiku less transparent than West’s. The statement, the why of loneliness, doesn’t give itself up immediately. There’s an air of mystery/obliqueness and I find myself going back to the beginning after the fragment in the final line, asking myself how and why the image of bright sun on ice informs the statement. Does it inform the loneliness? Or does it inform the narrator’s understanding/ clarity of thought – the finally getting? And what about that expression: finally getting? Does the use of the vernacular distance the haiku from its poetic function? Or does it anchor the haiku to familiar experience?

There’s an element of subjectivity in the appreciation of any poem. What if Ford had written:

finally getting
bright sun on ice

For me there’s a barrenness to the haiku now – a loss of poetry from both the rhythm of the why of loneliness and the semantic interest created by the unusual questioning of an abstract state. I’d be even less satisfied by loneliness sitting on a line of its own too, proselytising its abandonment, waving at the reader to notice it.

But let's ask the question: how much can you successfully pare away from an already brief form and still make poetry? 

pig and i spring rain

Marlene Mountain [12]

American poet, Marlene Mountain, has been experimenting with single line or ‘monostich’ haiku since the late 1960s and this is one of her most anthologised.

From a formal aspect there’s a seasonal reference, what’s known as a kigo in the Japanese classical tradition, with spring rain. There’s a natural caesura, or breath pause, after pig and i: an invitation to consider its juxtaposition with spring rain. From a semantic point of view: pig and i is a more formal choice than ‘me and the pig’. And pig rather than ‘the pig’ creates a kind of archetypal pig, something more than a specific farmyard oink.

Use of the lower case personal pronoun is quite common in contemporary EL haiku: the argument for it is often the dilution of personal ego - but there’s too much of a whiff of Zen in that for me. And it’s an argument that feels contradictory too: a lower case i seems to draw even more attention to itself than the standard upper case, which we’re so familiar with we hardly notice it (as long as it’s not overused). But here I’m actually in favour of the lower case for the parallel it appears to draw between the pig and the narrator, both as equals in the spring rain, on the balanced see-saw-like single line.

pig and i – spring rain

But … is the prettiness/tentativeness of spring rain making me see the pig, probably the least pretty of animals, (and the haiku) through rose-tinted spectacles? Someone else would have to analyse and argue for that case.  
Poet, Jane Hirshfield, describes haiku as a single moment’s precise perception and resinous depth.[13]

That’s what Anita Virgil’s haiku[14] feels like for me:

not seeing
the room is white
until that red apple

The uncompromising attention to the images (white room/red apple) creates, for me, the same mood as William Carlos William’s ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, and was, perhaps, inspired by it. The lineation slows down the reader’s perception, reveals the scene in stages. Although the order the poet has chosen reverses the poet’s original experience (she saw the red apple and then noticed the white room).

But where would the surprise be for the reader in: after seeing the red apple I noticed the room was white. We need to have the apple stain, or illuminate, the whiteness of the room we have already entered to appreciate the contrast.

I think there’s a case here too for arguing the idea of MYTHIC RESONANCE in haiku. Apples and red apples echo Roman and Judeo-Christian myths; they’re the instruments of fairy tales. In a sense there’s a vertical dimension to haiku that exploit that potential: something that classical Japanese haiku explored fruitfully with literary and historical allusions, allusions that were often lost on a Western audience unfamiliar with the culture.

Staying with the Imagist influence:
 except the swing bumped by the dog in passing

Robert Grenier [15]   

Grenier’s single line, or monostich, haiku is an accumulation of image and movement out into the page. Breaking this into lines would introduce pause and stasis.

Any explicit mention of the swing’s motion is absent. And yet we see it. And perhaps we feel it too: the continuous present participle at the end of the line returns me to the beginning of the haiku each time I read it.

What is this moment? Why does it resonate? Something so precisely observed adds importance to it perhaps? I’m also struck by the unusual way it opens in media res as if we have walked in on this suddenly revealed moment where everything is still except…
Let’s remain with stillness (and transformation) with four words from Welsh born composer and poet, Hilary Tann[16] [17].

we become

In Creative Writing and Stylistics Jeremy Scott provides a framework for the stylistic analysis of poetry[18]. I’m always keen to put haiku to the same kind of rigorous tests I’d subject free verse to, or any other kind of poetry,[19] so I took one of my haiku and tied it to the ‘Scott Analysis’ rack.

Monday morning
we share
each other’s rain

This haiku [20] was published in the Financial Times in October last year, a winner in its Haiku at Work weekly competition. Unusually for haiku competitions run by non-specialist organisations (remember the haiku crimes committed in the NASA competition), the adjudicator was a well-known haiku poet and critic, Jim Kacian, founder of The Haiku Foundation in the US, and someone committed to expanding the critical debate around haiku writing. So it was refreshing to read, each week, haiku that rose above the Twitter dross, haiku tempered by craft.

But back to the ‘Scott Analysis Rack’ where my haiku is gently stretching and let's apply some pressure. 

General Understanding: summarise it in a couple of sentences. What is it about?
It’s about that Monday morning feeling on a rainy day and travelling to work with other people on public transport.

Semantic analysis. Look for semantic deviation and relate this to your overall understanding in a. i.e. what the poem is about.
a. People don’t rain, so it’s initially illogical that they could share it with one another. The idea of people travelling together by bus or train isn’t directly stated but ‘Monday morning’ and the act of sharing something suggests people in close proximity so the idea is implicit.
b. The use of the 1st person plural creates community rather than an individual experience. The act of sharing something brings people closer. There’s togetherness rather than isolation

Grammatical patterning. Look for grammatical and syntactical patterns, structures that are deviant from ‘perceived linguistic norms’. Explain how these work in terms of what the poem is about.
a. There are two implied parts to the haiku: a fragment/ and a phrase over two lines. But certain words are foregrounded. With /share at the end of the second line the reader recognises the grammatical structure is incomplete. There’s a sense of hesitation in the line break before the ‘unexpected’ image of ‘each other’s rain’ on the next line.

Phonology. Patterns of rhyme, alliteration, assonance or other sound elements that can be related to what the poem is about.
a. Consonance and alliteration in Monday morning. And the eye rhyme of Mo/mo too.) There’s assonance in we/each. (These are unifying effects of sound that pull the poem together)
b. The first line is trochaic dimeter: Monday morning. The opening weight of those first syllables suggests heaviness. Compare that with the iambs in line 2 and 3: we share/ each other’s rain: which create a lighter rhythm, suggest, perhaps, a lightening of mood in the recognition of not being alone?

Graphology. Does the text deviate in any obvious way? Can these be connected back to what the poem is about?
a. No title. No punctuation. No capitalisation at the beginning line 2. (I did capitalise Monday as I felt it would draw more attention to itself with a lower case ‘m’.) Are these things just haiku being tricky? Do they contribute to what the poem is doing as a whole?
b. If every mark on the page matters to what a poem is doing then every absence should have a function too. If haiku are the smallest of lyric poems, moments of resonance captured on the page, then the absence of ‘noise’ should be considered. Suspension and suggestion can be railroaded by flamboyances: linguistic and graphological. Seven words interrupted by punctuation and unnecessary capitalisation would introduce pause and formality at odds to what the haiku is attempting to achieve: unity, a single moment of ordinariness made extraordinary. Resonance in the quotidian.

Monday morning
we share
each other’s rain

This hasn’t been an exercise to try and persuade you of this haiku’s brilliance. Although I am quite happy with it and for a poem of 7 words it took me longer to complete than you might think.

I wanted to illustrate that haiku can be, or should be, muscular enough to withstand scrutiny, close reading. And I also wanted to try and expunge their reputation as mainstream poetry’s country bumpkin cousin: naïve and embarrassing to have around in sophisticated company.

Let’s have a brief respite from text before I conclude:

Barnett Newman
Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue? 1966
I can’t help but draw an analogy between colour field painting and haiku. The ‘apparent’ simplicity of what’s on the canvas and what’s on the page. How the divisions/juxtapositions seem to suggest something to us; the invitation to the viewer/reader to participate in meaning.

Writing and reading haiku
One of the problems I identify within the haiku writing community is to do with form: there’s a tendency to default to the popular phrase and fragment or fragment and phrase structure rather than consider each haiku individually.

Another problem I identify is also to do with form: poets who only write haiku and nothing else – no other type of poetry or prose – and seem to believe that haiku can say everything they have to say. Hey - if a sonnet can’t be a universal voice then a haiku has no chance at it.

Haiku practitioners writing unconsciously, rather than making conscious craft choices, can lead other poets to think of haiku as ‘a poetry of quick-fix or shortcut, a neat pre-emption of failure to think further and really explore what language can do.’[21]

Although perhaps an equal amount of responsibility lies with the reader of haiku. Our 21st century society cultivates a culture of noise and activity, a culture that can easily overlook the intrinsic power of the ‘small’ and the ‘quiet’. One of our top poets is alleged to have said that reading a haiku collection or anthology is like being beaten to death with a swan’s feather.

And I have a certain amount of empathy! But perhaps that’s to do with the way we read? Can we slow down? Create the space around us for a single haiku to speak rather than rushing from page to page before its words have had a chance to find a place in us, like a crow settling on a bare branch on an autumn evening[22].

I’ll close with one more haiku I recently came across that challenged my idea of what is and isn’t possible in such an economic form.

Until I read it I’d have bet good money that any attempt at political or social statement in haiku would be an abject failure: an overstated soap-box mini-rant. But this one works for me: it makes me think and laugh, wonder and despair. I‘m not going to spend any time analysing it: at this point I’m handing over to you, the readers. Let it work quietly on you before you come to any firm opinions. Hold it in your head. Some might accuse it of cleverness or banality, or of there being an absence of poetry altogether. But what about you? Is there space for you in it, among the 9 syllables of its 5 words?  

America –
you and
that pizza

Steve Sanfield [23] 

Thank you.

[1] David Cobb, Foreword, The Humours of Haiku (Iron Press 2012)
[5] Collins, Billy, She Was Just Seventeen, Modern Haiku Press, Lincoln IL USA 2006
[6] Introduction, Haiku in English, The First 100 Years, eds Kacian, Rowland, Burns, WW Norton & Co, NY & London 2013
[7] Kacian, Jim, Rowland, Philip, Burns, Allan eds., Haiku in English, The First Hundred Years, WW Norton & Co 2013
[9] Roadrunner November 2007 Issue VII:4
[11] Scott, Jeremy, Creative Writing and Stylistics, Creative and Critical Approaches, Palgrave Macmillan 2013, p.179
[12] Haiku in English, Ibid
[13] The Heart of Haiku, Kindle Single, Amazon Media 2011
[14] Van Den Heuvel, Cor, ed., The Haiku Anthology, 3rd edition, WW Norton & Co, 2000
[15] Haiku in English, Ibid
[19]  ‘Going organic: line break in free form haiku’: an analysis of how line break choices available to the free verse poet can be effectively applied to haiku.
[20] Financial Times, ‘Haiku at Work’, Thursday 24th October 2014
[21] Rowland, Philip, ‘From Haiku to the Short Poem: Bridging the Divide’, white lies, Red Moon Anthology of English Language Haiku (Red Moon Press, Winchester VA, USA 2009)
[22] Bashō’s (Matsuo Kinsaku 1644-1694) famous haiku: on a bare branch/a solitary crow/ autumn evening (Narrow Road to the Interior and other Writings, Translated by Sam Hamill, Shambhala Boston & London 2000)