Tuesday, 13 February 2018

On writing haiku in English

This note considers what kind of beast the haiku has become as an English-language poetic form.[1] I begin with a commentary on Michael Dylan Welch’s book, ‘Becoming a Haiku Poet’,[2] then compare Welch’s views with those expressed by Lynne Rees at a course held in 2014 at Tŷ Newydd Writers Centre, North Wales, and conclude by drawing attention to a similar weekend course at Tŷ Newydd, scheduled for July 2018.[3] For handy reference, the forthcoming course details are given in the following table.

Journeys with haiku into verse and prose
Lynne Rees and Philip Gross
Friday 13th to Sunday 15th July 2018
Tŷ Newydd Writers Centre, Llanystumdwy, Cricieth, Gwynedd LL52 0LW, Wales, UK
+44 (0)1766 522 811

Tŷ Newydd Writers Centre

Welch’s short book, which is a print version of an essay published on his Graceguts website, opens by asking what do we need to know, somewhere between too little and too much, to write haiku well? Let’s see how his strategy for addressing the problem unfolds.

His opening move is to summarise the fundamental aesthetics of haiku; setting out and expanding on the proposition that, “[t]he most important characteristic of haiku is how it conveys, through implication and suggestion, a moment of keen perception and perhaps insight into nature or human nature.” By pointing at such mental events through objective description of the conditions in which they occur, a particular writer-text-reader relationship is created; the writer providing the textual conditions in which the reader can imaginatively arrive at the perception and feelings that prompted writing in the first place.

Welch next discusses the kireji; the pause or caesura that links (rather than divides) two juxtaposed statements, establishing an implied connection, or reverberation, between them. Again, it is the reader’s part to make an imaginative leap that connects the two statements as an expressive whole. Welch notes that the kireji is not often properly understood and is difficult to do well, yet it is the haiku’s “most important structural characteristic.”

The third topic is the kigo; the season word that serves “to anchor the poem in time and to allude to other poems that use the same reference.” Welch, commenting on the problem of using season words in a non-Japanese context, notes that there should be only one season word that, preferably, does not name the season directly, and he proposes that it is possible to develop a repertoire of allusive and associative words appropriate to one’s own climate.

Welch relates the brevity and expressive compression of haiku to the interaction of the above three factors: objective description as a means of giving control to the reader; the caesura as a generator of energy between two levels of meaning; and the season word as a means of connection with nature and other poems. “Above all, a haiku mysteriously creates an emotional impression, a whole that is often much greater than the sum of its parts.”

After this, Welch discusses the haiku’s formal characteristics, observing that, “form is not nearly as important as the other strategies [that have been] covered, [and that it] is the most misunderstood aspect of haiku.” He then rehearses the condition of the haiku as a Japanese poetic mode, normally based on seventeen sound symbols organised in 5-7-5 parts, and the fact that this does not equate well, linguistically, formally or expressively, with 5-7-5 syllables of the English language. The difference between Japanese sound symbols and English syllables has far-reaching consequences. Welch observes, “the vast bulk of literary haiku written in English are usually shorter than seventeen syllables, and their authors choose to follow or apply a free or organic form rather than an arbitrary external syllable count that hasn’t proved effective or appropriate in the English language.”

Welch’s closing sentences summarise his argument: “Search for the deeper form of haiku – the keen perceptions that are presented objectively through the use of juxtaposition. Read many good haiku to see what makes them work. Observe life around you closely and see freshly and authentically so that you may imply life’s daily epiphanies effectively. Let the ‘aha’ moments of life be implied by your carefully chosen words describing nature and human nature. Then you, too, will become a haiku poet.”

Welch investigates what knowledge and understanding is essential to the writer of English-language haiku and also proposes how we should prioritise our understanding: first, to the uses of objective language, the caesura and a season word, and then to syllable (sound symbol) count and other formal considerations.

This strategic inversion of the priorities for defining haiku is an important contribution to the recent writing on haiku as an English-language poetic form. Welch is establishing terms for a flexible understanding of what the English-language haiku may be, while also reaching back into the Japanese tradition, to understand what is essential to it, and how it may be used in the English language, in non-Japanese, contemporary Western geographical-cultural contexts.

The compression of Welch’s book has the feel of a gamble. It has about it not only the brevity of an introductory text for the tyro poet but also the rhetoric of a position statement aimed at a more knowledgeable readership. Is his a lone, eccentric voice or does Welch express, in his terms, a kind of understanding that is shared not only among people who have an interest in Japanese culture but also within a broader literary community?

This problem can be summarily addressed by comparing Welch’s USA-based position with that of the British writer, Lynne Rees, whose haiku and commentaries on haiku can be read on her blog, an open field. More specifically, I can report Rees’s views as expressed during a short course that she led in May 2014 at Tŷ Newydd Writers’ Centre.[4]

Rees opened the 2014 course by stressing the aesthetic functions of haiku, defining it as a mode of poetic expression that, in its brevity and compression, focuses on a moment observed, felt or remembered. The use of the caesura was discussed in terms of the way in which a haiku commonly works as a two-part juxtaposition, either phrase-fragment or fragment-phrase. On the writer-text-reader relationship, Rees commented that the reader completes the poem and that close reading, paying attention to every detail of the poem is vital – but different readers will produce different readings. This emphasis on the haiku’s polysemy is a little different from the view expressed by Welch and is, I think, a more convincing statement of the complexity of the writer-text-reader relationship.

waves push and slide—
sand martins flicker the wind
at their ease

Distinctions were made between the haiku form as historically practised in Japan and as it can be meaningfully practised in contemporary English. The 5-7-5 formal structure, as understood in terms of Japanese sound symbols and English language syllables, was discussed in similar terms to those used by Welch. There are further complications in the move from one language and culture to another. For example, capitalisation and punctuation need to be re-thought in terms of the poem’s needs, in which even an exclamation mark may add excessive force to a phrase that needs to sustain its focus and concision.

This brief comparison is enough to suggest close if not total agreement among leading writers like Michael Dylan Welch and Lynne Rees on what kind of animal the contemporary haiku in English has become – or is still becoming.

Of course, this is not the end of the matter: much more can be said and debated. What Welch and Rees share is a view of the English-language haiku as a poetic form that is rooted in a perceptive understanding of the Japanese parent tradition yet is viable in its own right. Within this primarily literary and contemporary understanding of the haiku, there is room for a diversity of opinion and, importantly, of modes of engagement.

There is a need for a continuing conversation about the cultural role of haiku in Western society, which is why I strongly recommend participation in the weekend residential course that is to be held at Tŷ Newydd in July 2018, tutored by Lynne Rees and Philip Gross. Tŷ Newydd is a fine setting for creative writing, situated at the eastern end of the Llŷn (Lleyn) peninsula in northwest Wales, with walks along the coast and immediately inland. If I’m in danger of writing advertising copy now, I have been to Tŷ Newydd twice before, for the 2014 course with Lynne Rees, and to the 2017 summer retreat, where it was possible to mix and interact with people from across Europe with different writing interests. It would be great if the forthcoming course could have a similar mix of people, bringing their diverse experience, whether limited or large, to the haiku conversation. So do check the course information given at the beginning of this note, and think about joining in.

low tide—
wading the cool Dwyfor
as though endlessly

[1] This is a modified version of an essay of the same title published in the journal of the Japanese Garden Society: Shakkei, winter 2017-18; 24/3: 31, 32. My thanks to the editor for permission to republish the work on my blog.
[2] Welch, Michael Dylan. 2015. Becoming a Haiku Poet. Sammamish, Washington: Press Here.
[3] The present photographs and two haiku are from my time at Tŷ Newydd in July 2017.
[4] Griffiths, Paul. 2014. Haiku and haibun at Tŷ Newydd Writer’s Centre. Shakkei 21/2: 9-12.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Paul,

    An interesting account, thank you! I remember when Lynne first became interested in haiku and booked me for a haiku course (and ginko walk) at her place in Kent back in June 2007.

    A lot of haiku writers are interested in what we can give, or at least present, to the reader, so that they are an equal, a 'co-poet', rather than a passive isolated anticipant. Some of the best reactions to my own haiku have been in public places (art trails, Christmas markets etc...) where passing general public did not know I was the author. I would overhear some great interpretations, all both astute, and ones that I had not considered. Sometimes poets 'overthink' and it can put off the general public. I've overheard or been told that people have been put off poetry as they either felt controlled (schools, colleges, even literary events in their various forms) and that haiku allowed them to be a reader, and a poet. I've felt haiku has often been an ambassador and a re-introduction to other poetry because of this.

    I wrote a piece touching on the reader-as-poet and poet-as-partner, which was published by the British Haiku Society's journal, then part of their website set of essays, and then later a longer piece was commissioned by the New Zealand Poetry Society.

    It has since been anthologised this year in "old song: The Red Moon Anthology of English-Language Haiku 2017" ed. Jim Kacian and the Red Moon Press Editorial Staff (of which many years ago I served on its panel, helping to select the best haiku; haibun; essays etc... of each year around the world).

    Haiku and The Reader as Second Verse by Alan Summers:

    Alan Summers
    co-founder, Call of the Page
    President, United Haiku and Tanka Society