Sunday, November 12, 2017

haiku commentary - Kaneko Tohta

猪がきて空気を食べる春の峠

     a wild boar
     comes and eats air
     spring mountain path

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

mountain path
a wild boar eats
the spring air



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

Monday, October 30, 2017

Haiku Rebellion Studio

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

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


Small is the New Big

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

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

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

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

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

bare bones

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

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

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

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

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

ant shadows


Friday, October 20, 2017

haiku commentary ~ Paul Miller

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

Paul Miller, Called Home (2006)


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

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

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

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

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

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




Sunday, October 08, 2017

Review ~ Paul Chambers

This Single Thread
Paul Chambers

£10 available from the author and Alba Publishing 

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


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

evening wind
a feather trembles
in the grass 
(p.11)

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

overnight train
a handprint
smears the moon
(p.68)

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

pylon hum
the twitch of fibres
in a horse’s shoulder
(p.27)

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

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

(William Wordsworth, from ‘Leisure’.)

My life is richer for Paul Chambers noticing:

white mist
the wing and the wave
almost touching
(p.90)

Friday, September 29, 2017

haiku commentary: Ajaya Mahala

mosquito wings —
the colour of evening 
so thin

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

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

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

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

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

Review: cylymau tywod ~ knots of sands

cylymau tywod ~ knots of sand
John Rowlands

£12 from Alba Publishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

trwy heddiw
i arogl doeau
llifio coed

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

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

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


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Haibun

When in doubt say ‘yes’ 

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

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

fall
I try
not to





First published in CHO July 2017