Haiku Workshopping and Poems About my Dad

On Wednesday, I led a workshop for the Red Door Poets, the collective of nine (including me) folk who meet every now and then at the home, in London, of one of us, Mary Mulholland. Workshopping, whilst it sounds like it’s the name of a town in Sweden, can be a tricky business, because the tutor has to ensure that the tutees gain an understanding and/or increased ability of the matter whilst not doing so in a overly didactic/dogmatic manner. I had never led a workshop on my own before, though I did lead a couple of workshops with John Barlow a few years ago. Although they had all kindly bought and read The Lammas Lands when it was published, and are all highly talented poets, the Red Door mob were largely unfamiliar with haiku, either  translated from Japanese or originally written in English, so, with the time available being limited to just three hours, I thought that there should be three principal objectives: to gain, from close reading of some excellent examples, a sense of what successful haiku do and what they don’t do; to go for a fairly brief walk (a ginko) during which we would write down observations which could either emerge as fully-formed haiku, or could be used to write some; and, generally, to increase their enjoyment of reading, and hopefully writing, haiku.

I started with a list of 13 features of what I regard as good haiku and then we went through 17 English-language haiku, by the likes of David Cobb, Alison Williams, Robert Spiess, Peggy Willis Lyles, Caroline Gourlay, etc. I tried to let the group come up with their thoughts about each haiku and prompted them only when I felt it was necessary, though, being very perceptive and intelligent people, they ‘got’ the haiku in nearly every case. As I was at pains to say, my feeling is, and always has been, that haiku come from a different part of the brain to longer poems as they are about being ‘in the moment’ and are less consciously polished. That doesn’t, of course, mean that haiku can’t be edited in order to improve them, but somehow the best haiku have the uncanny knack of seeming as though they are spontaneous reactions to direct observation/experience. That was certainly exemplified by some of the featured haiku, such as this one by John Barlow (from Waiting for the Seventh Wave, Snapshot Press, 2006):

day’s end . . .
loch water laps
the tethered canoes

On the surface – pun intended – of this haiku, there isn’t a lot going on, but I’d argue that it’s a marvellously balanced poem which conjures up a deeply resonant sense of melancholic beauty, very firmly in the haiku tradition. One of the group suggested that the ellipsis was superfluous and, whilst you could indeed argue a case for that, I offered my alternate view that it allows the reader space to pause and really absorb the fact that it’s a very specific time of day, with darkness coming on and, perhaps, a brightly setting sun. We discussed the fine verb use, which is so often key to a haiku’s success or otherwise: here, ‘laps’ is perfect, being simultaneously quiet and onomatopoeic, and having the secondary meaning of ‘going all the way around’. We then talked about the adjective, which is also spot-on: it’s as if the canoes are roped up not just to stop them from being carried away across the water, but also from actively drifting away, i.e. as though the canoes would have some kind of existential freedom to move of their own accord if they weren’t tethered. You may think I’m being daft at reading it like that! It’s important, too, to iterate that the haiku sounds as lovely on the ear as it looks on the page. It’s also a bit wabi sabi, a concept which the group latched on to with very pleasing glee and which was exemplified by another, but very different, haiku, by Cor van den Heuvel – ‘all night diner / jukebox lights in the dented top / of an old salt shaker’.

Among the other haiku we looked at was another one by Barlow, (from Wing Beats, Snapshot Press, 2008):

depths of the wood
the bullfinch’s breast

empties of song

Again, we focused very carefully on the language used; that surprising opening phrase, with its emphasis on ‘depths’, which chimingly, yet subtly rhymes with the first syllable of ‘empties’, and which puts the reader firmly in the scene, a long way from civilisation, so that when it comes the bullfinch’s song is all the more powerful and affecting.  (It seems timely to add that Barlow and I both discovered from a presentation given by Tim Birkhead, at one of the New Networks for Nature conferences, that the bullfinch has the largest testicles in proportion to its body-size of any bird.) The subtlety of the haiku also resides in the phrasing of the second and third lines too – the specification that it’s the bird’s breast (and its implicit distinctive redness) which is emptying of song gives the reader the sense that the creature is really busting its lungs, like its life depends upon it; and ‘empties of song’ is, as we noted, just the loveliest phrase, seemingly simple yet beautifully precise. The need for precision, rather than generalisation, in haiku can’t be stated enough. In the same manner as ‘day’s end’, this haiku looks, reads and sounds perfectly poised, with no wasted words and without any showiness; in short, it is a wonderful example of how haiku can be high art.

Our haiku walk, down to the rose gardens beside St Luke’s church in Chelsea, had to be brief, not just because the weather was less than clement, but also because, paradoxically, and as we often found when we were on Pascale Petit’s Tate Modern poetry courses, the less time allocated to write in a workshop or creative-writing situation, the better one tends to write. The group wrote really well and it will be very interesting to see their haiku when we meet next.

When we returned to the house, we looked at some senryu, which are haiku that are concerned with human foibles, often in a comic and self-deprecating way. A particular favourite of the group was Matt Morden’s sardonic ‘end of my tether / some bastard on the radio / talks about god’ (from Martin Lucas’s Stepping Stones, British Haiku Society, 2007), about which we had a lively discussion as to whether the first line rendered ‘bastard’ superfluous (most of us felt that it not only adds to the Meldrewesque comedy of the poem but gives a better stress in the middle line than simply writing, say, ‘someone on the radio’ would have done). In all, we had great fun and it was a really enjoyable session, to which everyone contributed. As a workshop leader, you can’t ask for more than that.


Meanwhile, thanks to Sharon Larkin, two poems from my forthcoming poetry collection’s final section, which features a sequence of poems about my dad, have recently been published on the Good Dadhood poetry site.

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