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

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Contemporary Haibun Online 11.1

Enjoy the April 2015 issue of CHO which includes:

  • Featured writer: Harriot West
  • The winning haibun in the 2014 Jerry Kilbride Memorial English Language Haibun Contest 
  • An interview with Ray Rasmussen
  • Lynne Rees tackling language choices in her essay exploring 'Theme and Meaning in Haibun'

And of course a selection of outstanding contemporary English language haibun from writers across the globe.

Here's a little taster from contributor, Lynn Edge.

Rancher's Wife

My husband can barely walk, but he goes out and checks his cows every day even though he's down to only fourteen head. He hopes to drop dead in the pasture. How can one compete with that kind of devotion?

a cow bawl
carries through the mist
almost winter

Contemporary Haibun Online 11.1 April 2015

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

haibun: death, life, life, life, life

death, life, life, life, life

crisp corpses of flies litter the floor of the conservatory, the low window-sills, the table-tennis table, little clichés of death – on their backs with their legs in the air – wings still fanned as if the end came so quickly there was no time or space to measure between flight and fall, the buoyancy of air 

and ground

clover and buttercups bunch across the lawn, new growth on the espaliered cherry trees reaches to a leaf’s length of their neighbours; one of us says, my hair grows so quickly 

in this heat

our daughter complains about her daughter – the scorn in her voice, her tossed head, the moods, the egocentric bounty of an eighteen year old who knows, of course, all there is to know, we know, 

we know

solanum dulcamara between the apple trees – bittersweet, fellenwort, snakeberry, violet bloom, bitter, blue or woody nightshade – easy to mistake for the deadly kind, atropa belladonna, hallucinator, the potion of witches, instrument of seduction, or destruction, the poisoned tips of arrows

red sunset
in the cat's mouth
the vole
fakes its death

Modern Haiku 46.1 Winter/Spring 2015

Sunday, March 08, 2015

tiny words

bonfire smoke
we talk about
our disappointments

Thanks to tiny words
for featuring my haiku on 4th March 2015

Saturday, January 31, 2015

KYSO Flash

Big thanks to Clare McQueen, Founding Editor of the dynamic and inspiring KYSO Flash online journal for publishing a selection of my haibun in the latest issue. There's also a call for submissions for haibun stories for the next two issues in June and November. Read more here.


once upon a time no one lived happily ever after

Their kids loved the stairs. They’d only lived in ranch-style houses around South Florida before that summer of ’88 when we stayed with them for three months. When we all sat around the table for dinner every night, late into the night, where we laughed and told stories and gave each other Indian names: Walks like Worm, Flies Alone, Lies a Lot.

“The two-storey house,” their kids still say when they talk about it, grown up now, some of them with kids of their own. It had an orange grove to one side, a kidney shaped swimming pool, a giant Melaleuca tree in the front yard. But it was the stairs they loved the most.

At the end of that summer, I heard their mother whispering into the phone behind a closed door at the top of the stairs. “I love you, honey,” she said. Her husband was downstairs watching TV.

When they moved to Georgia they lived in a three-storey house, but they never talk about that or how their mother’s new lover moved into her bedroom on the top floor and their father slept in the basement. The beginning of another story.

First published in KYSO Flash January 2015.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

running haiku

run, expect nothing

after stretching the gate creaks on its hinges

worn tarmac I have forgotten where the joy lies

sand drifts across the pavement I pick up the pace

a wave of pebbles washed up along the shore laughter

the road rises at a blind corner expect nothing

half-way mark the way the sun and the sea dazzle each other

between traffic and the crash of surf the seeds of umbrella pines

in the shade at the water fountain there is nothing sweeter

down-hill the scent of a man who passes me uphill

the yellow stone of the old town across the bay another day

the smell of coffee as I pass the bakery the final push home

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Contemporary Haibun Online: where prose meets haiku poetry (CHO 10.4, January 2015)

The team of Bob Lucky, Lynne Rees and Ray Rasmussen are pleased to announce the release of Contemporary Haibun Online 10.4, January 2015, for your New Year's reading pleasure: a stimulating assortment of haibun, tanka prose, articles, commentary, and haibun news.

Contributors include Mary Frederick Ahearn, Jose Araguz, Ludmila Balabanova,  Shelly Bryant, Alanna C. Burke, Carolyn Dancy, Marcyn Del Clements, Angelee Deodhar, Claire Everett, Ian Felton, James Fowler, Terri French, Ferris Gilli, Bill Gottlieb, Autumn Noelle Hall, Leslie Ihde, Kasturi Jadhav, Alexander Jankiewicz, Ryan Jessup, Roger D. Jones, Tricia Knoll, Shrikaanth Krishnamurthy, Chen-ou Liu, Doris Lynch, Fran Masat, Jonathan McKeown, Tom Painting, Marianne Paul, Ray Rasmussen, Jackie Maugh Robinson, Melissa Watkins Starr, Jeff Streeby, Frank J. Tassone, Paresh Tiwari, Pat Tompkins, Diana Webb, and J. Zimmerman

The Featured Writer this issue is Jim Kacian, and J. Zimmerman reviews A Japanese Perspective on the Haibun: The Same Moon Each Night A Different Moon.

And there’s more. There’s always more.

Writers are invited to submit haibun and tanka prose during the next reading cycle (15 January – 28 February 2015) for consideration for the April 2015 issue of CHO. Please consult our Submissions Page and Editors' Guidelines

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Workplace haiku

The Financial Times' workplace haiku competition is in its fourth week (of ten). Last week's theme - balancing work and home-life - netted me a runner-up place:

weekend overtime
the kids all smiling at me
from a photoframe

The discipline of a theme and deadline are proving good for my haiku writing: even if it's just an hour or so each week spent scribbling words and ideas.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Haibun Today

Dream Date

It's not going to work between me and Gerard Butler despite the way he hugs me, rocks me with his enthusiasm, his smile. Even though he turns away his ex-girlfriend who turns up in a gold lamé negligee. Even though he has a male assistant called Mitzi with a bald head.

He has four dogs. He feeds them on broken biscuits and crackers. His house is a warren of tunnels and secret doors. And the forest fire is getting closer, flames wrapping the hillside, running down towards the edge of the lake, which may save us, or may not. His father was Spanish, he says quietly as we leave the house with only a picnic basket.

Kind of Blue
believing I loved him
and all that fucking jazz

Haibun Today
Volume 8, Number 3, September 2014

Monday, August 18, 2014

haiku uncut: Blithe Spirit

Many thanks to David Bingham, editor of 'Blithe Spirit', journal of the British Haiku Society, for publishing the following article this month Volume 24 Number 3.

haiku uncut

Take a look through any haiku journal or anthology and the majority of haiku will be constructed from a fragment preceding a phrase, or vice versa. They might be composed over the usual three lines or along a single line. The kire, the cut or caesura, may be explicit in the form of punctuation, or suggested by line break, or by phrasal construction, as in this fine monostich example from ‘Blithe Spirit’ 24.2 where the natural breath pause after rock-and-roll is obvious when read aloud:

rock-and-roll she outdid me that summer

Frances Angela          

The American haijin, Jane Reichhold, was instrumental in articulating and disseminating this structure, both online[1] and in her accessible and informative handbook, Writing and Enjoying Haiku, A Hands-on Guide (Kodansha International 2002). American haiku poet, Michael Dylan Welch, also includes the following advice in one of his essays[2]: Giving your poem two fragmentary parts is also one of the most important things to do in haiku. And that advice can result in haiku like this deceptively simple and effective one, from the same issue of Blithe Spirit:

a cup of tea
he thanks me for the things
I wish I’d never said

Naomi Madelin

But what of the less common ‘uncut haiku’? Haiku that appear to be ‘all of one thing’. Haiku that read fluently from beginning to end with no punctuation, or explicit or implied pauses.  Are they as successful and effective as their fragmented siblings? How do they work on us? What choices have their creators made?

Take Jack Kerouac’s well known:

In my medicine cabinet
    the winter fly
Has died of old age  [3]

There’s no kire. No phrasal construction within the lines. We have a simple declarative sentence extended over three lines. Kerouac wrote this in the 1950s, decades before the fragment and phrase structure had been so firmly adopted. But does it still work as a haiku today? It does for me because there’s enough juxtaposition of image and idea within the haiku to pull me, intellectually and emotionally, in a number of ways.
There’s the irony of something dying in a medicine cabinet. There’s the moment where the human experience mirrors a no less insignificant experience in the insect world. There’s the suggestion that death comes to us all despite our attempts to keep it at bay. And there’s the precision of ‘my’ cabinet, making the moment personal, juxtaposed with ‘winter’ which contains and symbolises the universal experiences of ageing and death.
The haiku, unusually, also communicates the passing of time: for the fly to die of old age suggests that it has been there a while, perhaps during the passage of winter into spring. And the passage of time is also felt in the following uncut haiku by Ken Jones:

These hills
have nothing to say
and go on saying it

This complete sentence, combined with the personification of the hills, risk aphorism or, if you have some knowledge of Ken Jones’ background, the philosophical whiff of Zen. But what rescues the haiku from those pitfalls, for me, is the use of colloquial language in the final line. We talk about people ‘going on’ about things, about being on their soap-boxes, so the haiku comes alive as a natural part of our daily lives. The personification is diluted and convincing too if we have ever walked in silent hills and felt the business of our own minds drop away in their presence.
Is this haiku imbued with mu, the allegedly inexpressible mood that we try to express as ‘no-mind’? Perhaps it contains ma as well: the space for us to enter and to complete it in our own minds.

I have used the following haiku by Nick Avis in several writing workshops:

deep inside the faded wood a scarlet maple

This isn’t a sentence, due to the absence of a verb, but it still reads continuously from beginning to end. Read it aloud and notice the pattern of stressed/unstressed syllable repeated six times, or trochaic hexameter:

deep in/side the/ faded/ wood a/ scarlet/ maple/

The trochee is a fairly common metre in children’s rhymes which makes the line subconsciously comforting. But the haiku’s full effect is completed by the juxtaposition of lack of colour (faded) and colour (scarlet) and its opening words: deep inside. They read like a secret: an invitation to discover what is hidden from view.

My penultimate uncut haiku is by the late Martin Lucas:

Giggleswick and Wigglesworth
                             I am uninspired

Again, this is a complete sentence, arranged over four lines, but like the best free verse poetry it has an effect on us even before we begin to read it. The form is ‘all over the place’: it sprawls and hesitates, reflects the subject matter of a haiku poet hunting for inspiration in the landscape. And like the best comic writing it utilises specific techniques to entertain: playful language – the inarguably funny sounds in the names of two North Yorkshire villages – and the unexpected direction of the final line.

Roberta Beary’s haiku is a simmered reduction of seven words and ten syllables.

hating him
between bites
of unripe plums[4]

The absence of any pause between the lines allows for the concentration of emotion to be communicated, to be felt when we read it: from the breathiness of aspirated h, the punch of b and p and the sharpness of t. Anger, frustration, tension: they’re all contained in those sounds and their repetition.
            I am also persuaded by her decision to balance the present continuous tense with the plural of plums. The hate doesn’t end with the eating of one plum: it continues through the eating of several, perhaps many.
            There is no overt juxtaposition here, an element we have come to expect in haiku, but unpick the language a little more. Consider the eating of fruit, in particular a woman eating fruit, and we can’t help but think of the biblical myth of Eve blamed for humankind’s downfall in the Garden of Eden and all its associated ideas. Old Testament v 21st century: perhaps we’re not that far apart.

The uncut haiku asks us, as poets, to pay close attention to our craft: to the shape on the page, to rhythm and sound, and to the language choices we make in relation to what the haiku is about, what we want it to achieve and to avoid. And while there is still so much more that remains to be said within the confines of prescribed form, whether that is fragment and phrase or the more traditional 5/7/5 syllable count, departing from a recognised path to explore another offers its own rewards for the reader and for the continuing critical haiku debate.

[3] This and subsequent ‘uncut haiku’ examples all taken from Haiku in English, The First Hundred Years, eds. Jim Kacian, Philip Rowland & Allan Burns, WW Norton & Co, New York & London 2013.
[4] From The Unworn Necklace (Snapshot Press 2007 & 2011)

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

What happens when haiku happen

I'm delighted to post Paul Griffiths' account of a course held at Ty Newydd, near Criccieth, North Wales at the beginning of May. 'Haiku: Writing from Life and the Landscape' ran from 9th to 11th May, 2014 and it was a joy to lead. Please, join us, vicariously, for the weekend.

Haiku and haibun at Tŷ Newydd Writers’ Centre

This is an account of my participation in a weekend of discussing and writing haiku and haibun in a course on the theme, Haiku: Writing from Life and Landscape, held at Tŷ Newydd Writers’ Centre, Llanystumdwy, near Criccieth, Gwynedd, Wales, in May 2014.

Tŷ Newydd (The New House) is an old, beautiful building, looking across fields to the sea, a short walk away. David Lloyd George (1863-1945) grew up in Llanystumdwy and returned to the village in his last years, where Tŷ Newydd was redesigned for him by Clough Williams-Ellis (1883-1978), creator of Portmeirion village. Lloyd George’s grave, also designed by Williams-Ellis, stands close to the house, in the Dwyfor valley. [1] 
first impression
Tŷ Newydd Writers’ Centre is part of Literature Wales/Llenyddiaeth Cymru; the habitable, stones-and-mortar component of a national society of writers; a magical place where people come from anywhere and any background for creative writing courses of all kinds.[2]  This year, the Centre holds three courses on East-West topics; this one being the first.

The course was led by Lynne Rees; a poet and novelist[3],  who was co-editor with Nigel Jenkins and Ken Jones of the anthology, Another Country: Haiku Poetry from Wales. [4] The course was originally planned by Nigel Jenkins and Lynne Rees, as joint tutors. Sadly, Nigel Jenkins died early this year after a brief illness, and the decision was taken to continue with the course in memory for the life of a poet.[5]

We seven students were diverse; a wide age range, women and men, of several transatlantic nationalities, from homes in Wales, England and France. Lynne had a clear understanding of what she wanted us to achieve, and it was a warm experience, socially and creatively. The course extended from the Friday evening after dinner, and finished with lunch on Sunday. So here we have our structure: introductions and preliminary thoughts, a main day of work, and a morning of new topics and summation.

Lynne opened by commenting that Nigel Jenkins wanted people to come to an informed understanding of haiku as a contemporary poetic form; a form that, in its brevity and compression, focuses on a moment observed, felt or remembered. The structure of a haiku is commonly based on a two-part juxtaposition, either phrase-fragment or fragment-phrase. Its common dangers were noted: ‘cause-and-effect’, ‘description’, ‘aphorism’, ‘the whiff of Zen’, ‘didacticism’ and ‘shopping list haiku’.

To explore the form as juxtaposition, Lynne offered an exercise based on a ‘haiku generator’; a couple of pages of one-liners taken from diverse sources. We were to use these to produce our own two-line juxtapositions. Here is one of mine:

where we stand in the rain
wild strawberries

My originality is restricted to the combination of two existing lines, in a way understood by me as phrase-fragment. All that was needed at this point was an exercise that draws attention to this basic formal and semantic aspect of the haiku form.

The Saturday was divided into four parts, with our eye on the wet weather: first, more work on the formal-semantic aspects of the haiku; second, a ginko – haiku walk [6];  third, more discussion of aesthetic principles and a discussion of haibun; finally, an evening session of recital and open discussion.
weather forecast

We awoke after breakfast to the business of making distinctions between the haiku form, as traditionally practised in Japan and as it can be meaningfully practised in contemporary English. There has also been a movement from some early, conservative practices in English-language haiku writing towards a more flexible contemporary practice.

It is, or at least was, a common Western conception of the haiku as a form based on a 5-7-5 syllable count, written in three lines. Such an understanding is not sufficiently accurate in terms of the Japanese tradition and also needs to be re-thought in terms of English-language contemporary needs. A 17-syllable count can be excessively long in English, while a three-line form ignores how haiku are usually presented in Japanese script. While the Japanese language does not have the definite article, its omission in English may produce a false orientalising note. Also, capitalisation and punctuation need to be re-thought in terms of the needs of the poem, in which even an exclamation mark may add excessive force to a phrase that needs to sustain its focus and concision.

With all such matters in mind, we were asked to look at several contemporary haiku, and write brief appraisals of one or two. I chose one by Anita Virgil [7]:

not seeing
the room is white
until that red apple

Note the poem’s spareness, syllable count (13), and lack of capitalisation and punctuation. My thoughts concentrated on the effects of the line breaks. I felt that the first works as a pause that emphasises the distinction between the act of looking and what is looked at, while the second marks a perceptual shock that awakens full visual awareness, as the viewer registers the presence of the apple. So I suggested that this can be understood as a haiku with two different kinds of break; the first semantic, the second perceptual. Others in the group had considered the same poem, and it was striking that there was limited common ground between how we understood it. I think that this is where Lynne’s comment that ‘the reader completes the poem’ is relevant: close reading, paying attention to every detail of the poem is vital – but different readers will produce different readings.

Now we were ready to take advantage of a temporary improvement in the weather, and take our ginko in a circuit from Tŷ Newydd down to the coast and back. Lynne’s conception of a ginko is similar to my own practice of using some combination of a notebook, sketchbook and camera while out walking. In addition, Lynne asked us to pause from time to time and write notes on specific topics, sometimes directly related to our experiences on the walk, more often of a general and personal nature, reaching beyond immediate experience.

borrowed landscape
After a satisfying lunch, we returned to general issues, beginning with wabi-sabi, loneliness and slenderness; the principles of Japanese aesthetics that were transformed and given new depth by the 17th century haiku master, Matsuo Bashō: wabi-sabi as the recognition and acceptance of imperfection as an essential part of reality; as tenderness and brokenness; as something laid bare. After brief consideration of renga – haiku sequences – our next major topic was the haibun; the prose-haiku partnership that originated in Bashō’s travel journals. Lynne used the concept of link-and-shift to explain the basic relationship between the prose and haiku elements of haibun. While there must be some recognisable connection between the prose and haiku, there is also a shift, in imagery and meaning. The haiku, read in the context of the associated prose, acquires new resonances that feed back into the prose.

We were left to ourselves for the latter part of the afternoon. I took the opportunity to look around Tŷ Newydd and dip into its extensive library, then worked on a walk journal that I had begun to edit a couple of years ago but remains unfinished. After dinner, we reconvened for recital and discussion of whatever we had on our minds. I read the freshly edited extract from my journal. This is an autumn walk in my home region, in the French Var [8]: 

After a steady climb along the fire patrol track, I arrive at the little reservoir, obviously broken and empty. It’s densely wooded here with many chênes vertes, but there are some fine views in the gaps: la Barre de Cuers, Rossignol, plateau de Thêmes, la Ste-Quinis. The breeze has eased off and I am left with the sounds of my writing, flies buzzing in and out of range, the feel of a sweet in my mouth, my tinnitus…
Almost no birds – the sound of a jay once, and the sight of a pair crossing the line of my walk. Jays, flies, butterflies… Plenty of signs of sanglier doing some gardening. The herby scent of everywhere – thyme dominant and so omnipresent that it is easy to forget to mention it. The breeze is picking up.

in the shade, pissing sound
walking on again
stink of cow parsley

The final morning opened with an exercise in free writing, choosing one word, then writing without pausing on whatever associations that word prompts in us. I chose ‘rain’ and had a rant about the weather. There’s no need to repeat that here and, indeed, the chief purpose of such an exercise is to get the words flowing and to open up the writing mind.

There was then further discussion of haibun and the working relationships between the prose and haiku. Two points interested me particularly. One concerned the placement of one or more haiku in relationship to the prose passage: at the start, within or at its end. There is no rule, and the key question is what work is the haiku expected to do in relationship to the prose. The other concerned the process of composition; noting that the prose and haiku are not necessarily written together, and a workable link may emerge later. In this respect, haibun can be understood as a form of collage.

We were then asked to produce another piece of writing, starting from a prompt provided by Lynne, ‘Imagine a photograph of yourself when you were much younger’. I had difficulty with this one, not because I couldn’t write but because the photograph I brought to mind took me too deeply into personal memory, and I opted not to read out my text.
incident with heifers
We ended the course with an exercise in tan-renga; a short form of linked verse, written by two people; the first writing a haiku, the second adding another two lines. The result is a tanka (waka) that would be 5-7-5-7-7 in Japanese practice [9].  As in haibun, the relationship between the two parts is based on link-and-shift: a sense of relationship, yet also a shift in register of some kind. To conclude, we were to choose a haiku from a page of them, and add our own lines to produce a tan-renga. Here is mine, opening with a haiku by Nigel Jenkins [10]: 

long enough in one town
to notice the people’s
ways of aging

so many stout arms
the women of Wrexham

Nigel Jenkins’ haiku prompted a recollection of noticing, while in Wrexham one day long ago, that so many of the local women of my mother’s generation had strong arms; massive but not manly, the result of a life of domestic and farm work. This too is personal memory but in a form that both I and a reader can cope with, so I hope.

So that was it; over too soon. Up to this point, I have been writing from my notes on Lynne’s discussions and exercises, and my responses to those, and have not covered every topic or idea that Lynne introduced. I want to end with some more personal reflections.
what storms do

I attended the course for several reasons, after seeing a notice in the New Welsh Review. One is Tŷ Newydd’s location in a familiar part of Wales, where old friends live. The notice in NWR also caught my attention because I had written about the Wales-haiku link in a review of Nigel Jenkins and colleagues’ Another Country [11].  I knew Nigel only through our brief correspondence associated with the review, and now feel that I was too late to meet someone very special – but it was good to join in a course with Lynne and other people who knew, respected and loved him. A year later, I wrote another review, on Stephen Addiss’s The Art of Haiku [12].  Writing both essays taught me a lot, and gave me some clearer sense of working across the historical and cultural differences between Japanese haiku and their Western descendants. But writing reviews is one thing; writing haiku and haibun something else.

In this last respect, I had a particular problem in mind, related to my own walking. I have been developing an approach to my walks, in the Var and North Wales, that combines drawings and photographs with notes written during the walk, sometimes including haiku. I am trying to work with these visual-textual materials through printmaking and by writing walk/travel journals for my blog. It is more than a year since I last posted such a journal, and the truth is that I have felt blocked about how to proceed [13]. 

I have conceived my journals with reference to Bashō’s haibun [14],  and to contemporary eco-critical and psycho-geographical writing [15].  There is a difference in mood as well as culture between these two kinds of inspiration, and part of the problem is how to make unified sense of them. The course has given me new insights into how I can work with that difference. One idea that struck me particularly was Lynne’s suggestion that haibun composition is a kind of collage, which makes sense of my attempts to combine visual-textual materials. For me, it was a ‘Yes, of course’ moment. This one insight is still at work, as I relate it to other things that are on my mind, and my perception of ‘who I am, at work in my studio’ is changing.

During the course, I felt that I was probably the only participant approaching haiku-haibun mainly from the perspective of an interest in East Asian culture, rather than as an extension of a contemporary Western poetic practice. Probably, if we had had more time to talk to each other, I would have found that our actual range of interests and attitudes is complicated, with everyone engaging with the Japanese tradition to a greater or lesser extent, while also drawing on Western haiku and the wider Western poetic tradition in many different ways.

I have come away from the course with a strong feeling that, whatever the linguistic, formal and psychological shifts in the move from one cultural tradition to the other, haiku-haibun writing is, as Nigel Jenkins has proposed, a viable contemporary Western poetic practice [16].  Working across cultural traditions is always going to be difficult. But I see this less as an obstacle than as sensitively negotiable ground; as a negotiation that is itself a poetic act.
tan renga

© Paul Griffiths,
3rd June 2014

My thanks to Lynne Rees for her teaching and to everyone on the course for our haiku-friendship, and again to Lynne for making helpful comments on a first draft of this essay.
[1] See entries in: Davies, John, Nigel Jenkins, Menna Baines and Peredur I Lynch. 2008. The Welsh Academy Encyclopedia of Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
[4] Jenkins, Nigel, Ken Jones and Lynne Rees (editors). 2011. Another Country: Haiku Poetry from Wales. Llandysul: Gomer.
[5] For a warm in memoriam essay, see: Barnie, John. 2014. Remembering Nigel. Planet: The Welsh Internationalist, 214, summer: 72-80.
[6] This term may derive from 吟行, ginkō, given by the New Nelson as ‘travelling minstrel’.
[7] From: van den Heuvel, Cor (editor). 2001. The Haiku Anthology (Third edition). New York and London: WW Norton and Co: 250.
[8] Chênes vertes and sanglier are small holm oaks and wild boar, respectively.
[9] For the origins of tan-renga, see: Addiss, Stephen. 2012. The Art of Haiku: Its History through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters. Boston and London: Shambhala: 45, 62.
[10] From: Jenkins, Nigel (David Pearl, illustrator). 2002. Blue: 101 Haiku, Senryu and Tanka. Aberystwyth: Planet, unpaginated.
[11] Griffiths, Paul. 2012. Taking the haiku temperature of Wales. Shakkei 18/4: 2-4. (A review of Jenkins et al 2011; see note 4.)
[12] Griffiths, Paul. 2013. The Art of Haiku. Shakkei 20/1: 8-11. (A review of Addiss 2012; note 9.)
[14] For Bashō’s poetics, see, for example: Shirane Haruo. 1998. Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Matsuo Bashō. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
[15] For example: Farley, Paul, and Michael Symmons Roberts. 2011. Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness. London: Vintage.
[16] For the Japanese tradition, see Addiss’s The Art of Haiku (note 9) and, I suggest, an account of the linguistic and visual aspects of Japanese poetics (haiku and waka), in: Tanahashi Kazuaki. 2012. Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan. Boston and London: Shambhala. …and for the Western (not necessarily anglophone) contemporary tradition, see the discussions in Another Country (note 4), and: Kacian, Jim, Philip Rowland and Allan Burns (editors). 2013. Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years. New York and London: WW Norton and Co.