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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.


  1. A great piece. Thanks Paul and Lynne for sharing. I got a little taste of what I missed. The haibun as collage is particularly helpful for things I'm working on at the moment.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it, jem. It was a magical weekend. Another poet, Tamar Yoseloff, wrote about the course here:

  3. Thanks, for that link to Lynne. Great to read Tamar's take on it too - especially with her starting from a relatively cynical position.

  4. An interesting approach to composition - not mine, but interesting.


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