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)

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Mainichi Times English Language Haiku Section

Haiku: June 26, 2015

all the small things
I see
midges in sunlight

Lynne Rees (Offham, Kent, UK)

Selected by Isamu Hashimoto

On Bob Lucky's Ethiopian Time

Ethiopian Time by Bob Lucky. St. Paul, Minnesota: Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014. Single signature, hand sewn binding, author hand-numbered edition of 100. 5.5" x 7," 52 pp. $12 USD, including shipping to USA & Canada, $20 USD International.

The blurb on the publisher's website says of this haibun and tanka prose collection: Bob takes the foreign and makes it familiar. Then he takes the familiar and the ordinary and turns it completely foreign.

That's a pretty good summary of my immediate response to the work. The opening haibun, "New Home," talks about exploring a new neighbourhood, the affluent area, teething problems with the house's electrical system. It also shows us the road from the house slick with mud; there are watchmen carry[ing] AK47s; and recounts the plumber's advice to wear flip-flops in the shower to prevent us from getting shocked. I don't know about you but I generally, extreme weather conditions excepted, take the hard surface of my roads for granted. There are no automatic weapons carried openly on the streets around my home. I do not worry about being electrocuted before stepping into the shower.

The haibun's concluding haiku reinforces the idea that violence and threat are the narrator's new neighbours:

along the wall the gleam
of razor wire

There are always literary risks involved in portraying a new life in a new country. I came up against it myself when I moved to France: the risk of idealising the novel and unfamiliar aspects because they excited and pleased me, alongside the risk of dramatizing the same because they challenged and threatened me. Although the challenges and threats in France, in contrast to Ethiopia, tended to be more bureaucratic than terror-based.

Bob Lucky avoids both the "rose tinted glasses" and the "bloody battle" effects by maintaining a measured and understated voice throughout the collection. He also balances his perceptions of a foreign and unfamiliar world—he spent four years in Ethiopia—with glimpses into the private (yet universal) and natural worlds, into the vagaries of the quotidian, ageing, health and climate.

I was particularly struck by the quality of the accompanying haiku in the collection. For the most part they're sparkling stand alones: something I aspire to and often fail to achieve in my own haibun. Here are the opening and closing haiku to "Keeping Track":

drool on my pillow
the thread of a dream

rainy season
the warmth of ironed

The brief paragraph of prose they sandwich does what we all want a haibun to do: expand the meaning of the two parts.

My wife reminds me it's my birthday. At a certain age, no one allows you to forget anything. Later, everyone's amazed when you remember anything.

We shift, with the first haiku, from a suggestion of ageing and the ethereal, to the pragmatism and irony of the prose, and finally to the juxtaposition of the natural and human worlds, of dry/damp, of discomfort/satisfaction, in the closing haiku. And we end up with more than just a prose sandwich; here's a vignette that captures our tenuous human grasp on life, the temporary footprint we make, the simple things that can make that life enjoyable, worth living.

There are a clutch of prose poems included in the collection: that is, paragraphs of prose without any haiku. (Please relocate for any discussion of whether haiku-less—or poem-less—haibun can exist: for me they don't.) And they sit comfortably within the body of work; surrounded as they are with the haiku offspring of other adjacent passages. I'm less sure of the tanka prose pieces because the tanka often feel more like extended haiku:

"Some Notes on Paradise" concludes with:

in the garden
my wife and I
take inventory
so many things
yet to be named

The two principal components, taking inventory in the garden and the concluding statement, produce, for me, a 5 line haiku. And that's fine. I'm only being picky because of the publisher's explicit mention of tanka prose.

My other picky point about the collection is the page orientation. The landscape format creates short, but wide, pages so, here and there, there's a "widow and orphan" effect of a few lines of concluding prose being shunted to the top of an otherwise blank page, or a final tanka drifting on its own in white space, and this oddness interrupts the flow of reading.

But I can tolerate these kinks within a framework of linguistic and tonal sleekness. These are deceptively simple haibun: no impression of textual leisure, of invitation and ease, are ever arrived at without the hard work of craft and editing. And Bob Lucky wears his knowledge gently too: references to Robert Frost. Ezra Pound, Slavoj Žižek, Bruegel, as well as Ethiopian culture and traditions, are seamlessly woven into the narratives without any whiff of didacticism.

The quiet subtleties of the writing are commendably illustrated in the following haibun:

Dead Cat

Dead from lack of love or food or simply a boot in the ribs, the cat outside my gate meows no more. I'd pay a beggar to take it away, but not one is willing to lose his turf for a few birr and a dead cat. It's a nice afternoon—cool in the shade, warm in the sun—but not a good day to be a dead cat. Or someone who has to remove a dead cat.

steady breeze
the warp in the sprinkler's

There's a delicate balance between irony and emotion. There's no hint of the maudlin (a congratulatory achievement when writing about cats) and the closing haiku links (the outside environments in both prose and haiku) and shifts to the idea of imperfection that exists even in beauty. We don't leave the haibun mouthing a syrupy "Awww . . ."; we leave it with the epiphany of "Ahhh . . . ."

It's a personal tic but with any collection of poetry/poetic prose I always like to examine the final piece in the light of its position. Why might the author have finished here? How does it work as a finale?

A prose poem concludes Ethiopian Time.


Gravity was strong today. My feet barely left the earth. The sky was bird-less. Pied crows, wattled ibises, kites, all the birds, gathered on the soccer pitch and pecked at the turf. Clouds crashed around me, sank underground, giving me the impression, in spite of the effort needed to drag my soul all the way to dusk, that this could be heaven on earth. So I began to pay attention.

I detect a slight shift in tone here. The playfulness ("My feet barely left the earth") is cloaked with seriousness (a synonym for the title). There's a more explicit reference to the narrator's mood, in comparison to the general implicitness, the "show not tell" approach, in the rest of the collection. As a reader I feel the "weight of the world" too as the narrator forces himself through the day. The realisation of "heaven on earth" placed on the final page reads like an acceptance of the "Time" spent in a country of other-worldness, of challenge. And "So I began to pay attention" could not be a better exhortation with which to move forward. To another home, another writing project, another day. Into the world. Writer and reader in companionship.

Monday, June 01, 2015

In Interview with Jeffrey Woodward at Haibun Today

The Hungry Writer: An Interview with Lynne Rees

Lynne Rees started working with haiku forms in 2006, was haibun editor at Simply Haiku in 2008 and 2009, and co-editor, with Jo Pacsoo, of the British Haiku Society's Haibun Anthology, The Unseen Wind (2010). In 2011, she jointly edited, along with Nigel Jenkins and Ken Jones, another country, haiku poetry from Wales. Lynne has also published Learning How to Fall (poetry, 2005), The Oven House (novel, 2008), Messages (flash fiction collaboration with Sarah Salway, 2008), forgiving the rain (haibun, 2012) and Real Port Talbot (travel guide, local history & memoir, 2013).

JW: Let me ask first, with your permission, about your personal background. You come from Wales and I wonder what influence, if any, this circumstance had on your literary development and interests. The population of Wales is small when measured on the world's scale and Welsh history and culture are unique. Was a Welsh sensibility or identity formative for you or did you mature at a distance or with indifference to the same?

LR: I suppose on an international level Wales's most famous literary export is Dylan Thomas who was born a matter of miles away from the town where I was born and grew up. But I wasn't introduced to his work while I was at school in the 1960s and 1970s where the emphasis was on the traditional (English) literary canon of Shakespeare and a clutch of usual suspects like Dickens, Austen and Wordsworth. If he had been included on the syllabus it's possible I'd have been as indifferent to his work as I was to literature studies in general: probably a combination of uninspiring teaching and a personal dissatisfaction with school in general.

I didn't actually start to write until around 1988, 10 years after moving away from Wales, and at the time I was completely unaware of any Welsh literary influence on my work.

Between 1994 and 1996 I studied for a Master's degree at the University of Glamorgan in South Wales, working with the Welsh poet, Gillian Clarke, and this was the first time I became aware of "voice": what a poet writes about and how they express it. A lot of Gillian's work has its origins in Welsh landscape and life, but maybe that's to be expected from a writer who lives there. My own voice didn't seem anchored by my birthplace or my history and my early poems avoided, as far as I can remember, any explicit reference to Wales, or my family and personal history. Although "avoided" suggests a conscious rejection and that wasn't the case: I suppose I was more interested in the universal human emotional experience rather than one framed by geography or personal experience.

In more recent years I have written explicitly about Wales, about family and ancestors, about the history of the town where I grew up. In fact, that first began when I started to research and write haiku and haibun. Here were genres that encouraged me to be more plainly spoken and dilute the poetic fireworks that were in danger of becoming an unconscious habit in my poetry. I was overly fond of an extended metaphor! Moving to the South of France in 2007 led me to explore even further the events and ideas of my Welsh childhood in my hungry writer blog; perhaps a case of when I was a way from Wales I could write about Wales, to misquote Hemingway and his "Paris."

But apart from the rhythm of my language choices, that draw on the patterns of my everyday speech—the inflections and intonations, the musical peaks and dips that people tend to identify when they hear Welsh people speak—and these days, the often explicit Welsh subject matter I explore, as a writer I remain more interested in my audience's potential interest and appreciation than in preserving any personal national or cultural identity.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Language as Vehicle: Theme & Meaning in Haibun

In his book Haiku: A Poet's Guide1, Lee Gurga points out the risk of writers attempting haibun 'before they have acquired sufficient skill at writing haiku'. 'Fine prose with poor haiku,' he says, 'makes poor haibun.' But the reverse is also true: fine haiku with poor prose also makes poor haibun.
What your story has to say will gradually reveal itself to you and your reader through every choice you as a writer make . . .2
The writer must decide what larger meaning the story represents and lead the reader to that.3
Both these quotes come from writers' handbooks I have on my bookshelf. The first is a guide to writing fiction, the second to non-fiction but they both share an acknowledgement that our written stories, imagined or experienced, need to mean something to our readers and that making writerly choices ensures meaning will be communicated.

Haibun writing possesses its own specific craft challenge, i.e. the effective balance of prose and poetry, but its effectiveness also relies on craft choices that are common with other genres, choices that will engage a reader, assist in elevating the writing above personal anecdote or pretty description, and help develop theme.

What do I mean by theme? For me, theme is what my haibun is about combined with what I think and feel about it and my aim is for readers to leave the page also thinking and feeling in response to my words. While the first spontaneous draft of my haibun might be, for example, about my teenage daughter leaving home, I recognise that it will also need to be imbued with meaning. So, what do I think and feel about that subject? What are the ideas and emotions behind this story that might engage a reader? Fear, perhaps, for my child's unchaperoned future? A sense of loss, an absence in my life that I feel, at least for the time being, cannot be filled? But what about the idea of freedom and the feeling of joy? After all, I suddenly have my own life back after 18 years of daily mothering.

Once I've identified my theme then I can begin to make language choices that will lead the reader towards it. But what I don't want to do is to be overtly didactic in my writing, metaphorically shouting at a reader, 'Look, this is about loneliness/fear/absence.'

Some haibun might be far less obviously idea-based; they might originate from a response to a natural or urban landscape. But, for the most part, we still need to locate an overall theme, whether it's the ability of a sunrise to make us believe we can start over again or the sound of rain that encourages us to question certain decisions we've made in our lives. I won't deny the success of some haibun where a single paragraph of beautifully written description is completed and expanded by the juxtaposition of a particularly fine haiku. But, generally speaking, description needs to be more than just pretty; do more than just literally describe. It needs to be significant too: i.e. suggest ideas and emotions to a reader.

One way we can avoid both the 'didactic' trap and the 'pretty description' trap is to use language as a vehicle for our ideas.

1. Concrete language: the sensory experience
Concrete language is expressed and experienced through the senses: what we can see, smell, taste, hear or touch – trees, the sea, strong coffee, a train, velvet curtains – as opposed to abstract words like hope, fear and success which embody ideas. That's not to say a writer should never directly express an idea, or use an abstract expression, but that abstractions and generalisations need to be realised through or balanced with an appeal to the senses.

Concrete language offers 'proof' of scene, character or even dialogue: it convinces a reader at physical and emotional levels. And our ordinary everyday language is rich with suggestiveness and innate metaphors that can help make our writing significant. At a very simplistic level, the image of a woman wearing a short, red dress carries connotations – ideas and judgements – that are very different from a woman in a long white one; even if a writer goes on to subvert the reader's expectations of those images.

Take a look at the following haibun by Cara Holman.
"Did you know a plane flies over your house every seven minutes?" Dad asks. I didn't know that. Dad is checking his watch again. "There goes another one," he says triumphantly. I check my watch. He's right. It has been exactly seven minutes. Dad likes to measure things. He was a scientist, before he retired. He taught me how to measure my pulse, how many steps to take before letting the kite string out, and how to count the gap between lightning and thunder. In his world, everything is precise and orderly. The hospice nurse says he has six months or less to live. That's a lot of airplanes.
deepening twilight . . . 
one by one
stars appear
The language in Holman's haibun is the recognisable concrete language of daily life: planes, houses, watches, kites and the weather. Yet every image seems to reinforce the theme of the relationship between the elderly father and his daughter and of his approaching death. As a reader I did not consciously catalogue every image and its effect when I first read the haibun. I simply read it with enjoyment, felt the emotions of intimacy and loss, thought about my own ageing parents and pondered the man-made measurement of time that marks our days, in both senses of that word. But as a writer I'm interested in identifying why and how it affected me. I can learn by analysing the language choices Holman has made.

The images of the pulse measuring, the kite string and the thunder and lightning were the most vivid for me. And because the haibun explicitly states a father/daughter5 relationship the ideas of (i) caring for someone, (ii) letting them go, and (iii) teaching them to negotiate fear and danger all emerged from those three things.

After several readings other responses arise. The 'seven minutes' has an echo of the seven ages of man that Shakespeare identified and links to the father's age and ill-health. The measurement of time and its diminishment juxtapose poignantly with the eternity that the stars in the haiku suggest. And while the 'Counting' of the title is the father's time-keeping as well as something a child learns to do, it is also what an adult daughter finds herself doing as her father's life approaches its conclusion: the years already past, what time remains.

It's a wonderfully balanced haibun and although there are other elements that contribute to its success – e.g. the use of dialogue for immediacy and character development, the rhythm and variety of sentence structure, as well as that lovely link and shift from prose to haiku – the concrete language is a fundamental reason why it speaks so eloquently to me.

2. Figurative language: simile and metaphor
Anyone can make comparisons and our language is littered with 'dead' similes and clichéd metaphors – lonely as a cloud, he laughed like a hyena, the rosy fingered dawn – all of which might have surprised and delighted at some time but through overuse have lost their freshness. You might regret that expressions like, 'eyes like pools of stars' or even 'eyes that flood with tears' lack any energy for a contemporary writer but they have been repeated so often they have become shorthand for emotion and lack any vital force. As a writer if we record an emotion without that felt force, without felt depth, the reader can lose their trust in us as their literary guide.

We need to create new and surprising figurative images, not to decorate our texts, but to provide a sense of illumination. The goal of literary comparison is to enlarge and enrich the scope of our own and our readers' understanding. But there are pitfalls. Similes and metaphors that ask the reader to make too large a leap between the objects being compared, either explicitly or implicitly, or step to far away from the subject matter also risk losing the reader's attention. Executed with a heavy hand they call attention to a writer trying to be clever or entertaining. A good metaphor fits so neatly that it fuses to and illuminates the meaning. And perhaps the biggest pitfall: the overuse of figurative imagery. Think of it as seasoning rather than a principal ingredient. A lightness of touch is essential. One, or two, considered and well placed figurative images might be all you require to support your overall theme, the ideas you want your readers to take away with them.

Bill Gottlieb's haibun, below, confirms these points about appropriateness and lightness of touch. The single apt simile he employs (limbs like bats in a rack) both connects to the scene he describes – watching baseball – and is cruelly suggestive of how a terminal illness can affect the body: inactivity, dis-use, feeling wooden, perhaps, and numb.
Baseball is always relaxing, you said our last summer on the couch – in cancer's coma, limbs like bats in a rack, game over – as the Phillies, two years ago the winningest team in baseball, were losing, losing. Loss wasn't as fun for us. But the men were good men, trying as hard as men can, mostly failing, and you loved them. And you loved life around a diamond, a gem of time, a few hours when you could defer to fate, be a fan, a hopeful person, winning never out of the question until the last second, when the small dense ball massed into a mitt and they lost, you lost – my favorite enthusiast – and I lost. Tonight I lie on the couch where you died and narrate the ninth to another woman who has fallen in love with the game, my game. She admires a man who doesn't stop when he is losing, a determined man, a man who endures an ending, plays again.
I can never
catch you
full moon
And look at that subtle metaphor in the middle of the prose – a gem of time. It refers literally to the diamond of a baseball pitch or field but also deepens our insight into the preciousness of this moment of ordinary enjoyment that may not be repeated. And, of course, the ideas of winning and losing are threaded through the haibun as lightly but as firmly as silk and we are pulled between the losing baseball team and the characters' negotiations with life and death.

3. Language as symbol
In Gottlieb's haibun the 'small dense ball massed into a mitt' not only lives within the game, but also, given the context, symbolises cancer's vile and determined presence. The writing process itself is inherently symbolic. We work only with words but in structuring events, depicting character and atmosphere, choosing object, details and language, we are selecting and arranging for these words to signify much more than their material existence.

In everyday life too we constantly function symbolically. In quarrels or conversations, how often do we say one thing but intend something else? Did you pick up my dry-cleaning? can mean, I bet you were too busy thinking of yourself to even consider me.

Jonathan Humphrey's haibun uses everyday language to create a fantasy world that symbolises a very common human right of passage.
How To Disassemble Your Father's Ghost (Winter)7

We suffer each other to have each other for a while.
Li-Young Lee

The night your father's ghost appears, take his old pocketknife from the drawer in the study and have him sit down in the chair. First you must cut the apparitions of his ears. He will ask for you to skip them like stones across the wooden floor. He has always wanted to know this sound. Next, you must sever the opaque tongue from the back of the opaque throat. Cast it into the fire. He will smile, as it tastes like bourbon. Close the knife. Return it to the drawer. His heart will be easily retrieved from the cloud-like chest. It must be fed to the dog. Wake the dog and feed him heartily. Your father's ghost gives you this order without reason. Slowly he will stand and walk to the sliding door by the back porch. Follow him out into the snowy yard. Watch as he stretches his arms. Be prepared to stare until morning. When the wrens wake, they will dart through his body until it is riddled with holes. What remains will lift like fog, burnt off by a trepid sun.
were my father alive
green shoots
pierce snow
We suspect by the end of the first sentence that this might not be the territory of ordinary life. Once we've read the second we are in no doubt. The world Humphrey creates is both ethereal and violent: 'apparitions' and the cutting away of ears and tongues. We know this is imagined or dreamt yet we suspend disbelief because so much of this world is like our own: a pocketknife, a study drawer, wooden floors, bourbon, a fire, a dog, a door onto a porch, snow, a yard, wrens and fog. They are so familiar they provide a platform that persuades us to accept the fantasy. But, at the same time, because we know it isn't real we can't help but try and work out what these images and actions might symbolise.

To 'disassemble' means to take apart or dismantle, and we often do that to machinery to repair or to understand its workings so there's a sense here that the father's ghost is being disassembled in an attempt to come to terms with his death and even the man he used to be. The emotional tone of the haibun is mixed: the epigraph talks about us suffering 'each other' and the physical violence committed on the ghost prevents hearing/understanding, speech, and perhaps even the capacity to love with the destruction of the heart. Yet the violence is softened by the father's smile, by the childlike image of skipping stones, the 'cloud-like chest', the snow, the darting wrens and the fog. Somehow this makes sense. Grief is rarely one dimensional, rarely black and white; our relationships with parents can be complex and confusing too so the juxtaposition of imagery, the way the language shifts us between violence and softness, anger and compassion, dislike and relief, is entirely convincing.

Using language as a vehicle suggests some sense of movement, a way of transporting the reader towards thought and feeling. I recently came across the following words by American poet, Mary Oliver: 'Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report.'8 Reports can be interesting, even alarming, for their factual content but they rarely move us. For me, Mary Oliver's idea of 'feeling' comes from the human element of a story, and a writer's honest emotional and intellectual engagement with the world, whether that's animal, vegetable or mineral.

But honesty is hard-earned by writers. It requires us to question ourselves, what we think we believe, our aims and intentions, and whether what we have to say is worth sharing. We need to go deeper into ourselves and deeper into the language at our disposal to do the best we possibly can. 

1. Modern Haiku Press 2003 pp.121-122
2. Burroway, Janet, Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft, Longman 2000
3. Kramer, Mark & Call, Wendy, eds, Telling True Stories, A Nonfiction Writers' Guide, Plume 2007
4. First published in cho vol 8 no 2
5. I've assumed daughter, as opposed to son, because of the autobiographical tone of the haibun. But the narrator could as easily be a man.
6. First published in cho vol 10 no 4
7. First published in cho vol 10 no 2
8. Our World, Beacon Press 2010