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Journeys with Haiku - Lynne Rees

The haiku has always been willing to travel with companions, to strike up conversations and develop relationships.  It began life as the hokku, the starting verse to a long and collaborative form of linked verses called the renga for which one of the great Japanese masters, Basho (1644-1694), was chiefly known in his lifetime. It was also Basho who juxtaposed hokku with prose in his travel journals, impressionistic sketches and diaries to create the form we call haibun.


In the 18th and early 19th century Yosa Buson (1716-1784) and Kobayishi Issa (1762-1826) continued to popularise the independent hokku but it was Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) who renamed it haiku, by combining the word haikai (the term for the subsequent linking verses in a renga) with hokku.


 In Western contemporary practice the haiku continues to be a popular solo performer, the opening act in renga, the muse and counterweight in haibun, and the lexical element of haiga[i], the marriage of image and text popular with photographers as well as ink-wash and watercolour artists.


The haiku also contributes to a quirky and rewarding little form called tan renga which the late Jane Reichhold introduced me to in her Writing and Enjoying Haiku, A Hands-on Guide. ‘A nice way of complimenting someone who sends you a haiku is to respond with your link to make a tan renga.’


Paper dolls-

they all look as if

they want to be in love


snip snip snip

cut off their silly heads


Masaoka Shiki, trans. Janine Beichman/Lynne Rees


And in the early 1990s American haijin, Garry Gay, invented a shorter version of renga with his rengay, a collaborative six-verse linked thematic poem comprised of three-line and two-line haiku, or haiku-like stanzas, that can be written by two or three contributors.


You will recognise all these forms in the pages of contemporary haiku journals. You will even glimpse the occasional haiku, or haiku-like poem, or a haibun, in mainstream literary journals but there is no significant platform that I’m aware of where haiku writing, free verse and prose share the spotlight.  But then, there are not many writers whose practice includes all three forms so perhaps the place to begin would be with writers who are open to exploring the relationships between them. Not to highlight difference and diversion but to celebrate how the principles behind successful haiku can enrich longer texts, or how the writing of haiku might encourage extrapolation, or  how haiku themselves can form a structural part of a textual or visual project.


 ~ ~ ~


The first anthologies of translated Japanese haiku were published in the UK in 1910 and in the US in 1915.  Two years earlier, in 1913, Ezra Pound had published his now famous couplet, ‘In a Station of the Metro’, later acknowledging the techniques of hokku in helping him with revisions. In 1917 Wallace Stevens published ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, and in the following years ‘haiku’ like poems appeared across the international stage by William Carlos Williams, Amy Lowell, Charles Reznikiff, Paul Eluard, Antonio Machada, Rainer Maria Rilke and George Seferis.[ii]


These image driven poems gave rise to the term Imagism, ‘A reactionary movement against romanticism and Victorian poetry [that] emphasized simplicity, clarity of expression, and precision through the use of exacting visual images.’[iii] Simplicity, clarity, precision, images: key ideas behind the construction of haiku that these writers took forward into their own work and 100 years later I’m hoping for something similar, if significantly less explosive in a worldwide literary sense (!), at a weekend course in July at Ty Newydd, the Welsh writing centre near Cricieth, North Wales.  


‘Journeys with Haiku into Verse and Prose’[iv] will examine how haiku’s distillation of experience and startling depth of focus can capture the essence of a moment or a memory and provide egress into the more expansive spheres of free verse and prose. I’ll be co-tutoring the course with prize-winning poet and librettist, Philip Gross[v], admirer of Basho, champion of collaboration and author of I Spy Pinhole Eye with photographer Simon Dennison, winner of Wales Book of the Year award in 2010.


Back in 2005, when I first started researching the contemporary practice of English language haiku I came across an article by Philip in Magma Magazine, ‘On the train with Bill and Basho’[vi]. In a discussion of his poem, ‘A Prospect of Goole’, he states, ‘My stanzas make no claim to be haiku – though their three-line structure, stepped to show the drawing in of space around them, full of line breaks that open up cracks in mid-sentence, phrase or word, are clearly in a conversation with that spirit I both admire and resist.’


American poet, Billy Collins’ poem, ‘Japan’[vii], has a more direct relationship to haiku, a meditation on a famous haiku by Yosa Buson:


On the one-ton temple bell

a moon moth, folded into sleep,

sits still [viii]


Over 12 three-line stanzas he reflects on the sensory thoughts and emotions the haiku inspires, ‘… like eating/ the same small, perfect grape/ again and again’, turning it over and over, reminiscent, in a way, of Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’.


In his introduction to ‘Haiku in English, The First Hundred Years’[ix] Collins concludes with:


‘…an analogy between haiku and physics. Just as matter is composed of atoms, which give off a great energy when accelerated to the point of collision, so time is made up of moments, and when a single moment is perfectly isolated, another kind of cosmic energy is released. I like to think of the haiku as a moment-smashing device out of which arises powerful moments of dazzling awareness.’


I can vouch for a moment of ‘dazzling awareness’ that brought me to tears when I was sitting behind my father at my niece’s wedding 20 years ago and suddenly noticed that he had an old man’s neck, the skin wrinkled, his stubbled neckline silver. That moment eventually found its way into my writing in the following haibun:




For a week our roles have been reversed. I have been looking after them, checking they’ve slept well, making sure they eat enough. And they have allowed me to be the one who cares, the one in control. ‘Where does this go?’ my mother asks, standing in the middle of my kitchen with a white dish and a tea towel in her hand. ‘I had some orange juice,’ my dad says one morning before going to buy his English paper at the Bar Tabac on the corner. ‘Be careful crossing the road,’ I call after him. When I kiss them goodnight they feel breakable, in need of protection. I pull the shutters in their bedroom closed.


And now at the airport I can hardly bear to watch them moving away from me. I wave one last time as they pass through security at the Departure Gate, so small now I could pick them up between my thumb and finger and slip them in my pocket.


sunlit garden

when did my father grow

an old man’s neck?


The prose came out of a journal I was keeping at the time I was living in France, yet that physical and concrete sign of my parents’ ageing occurred so many years before but stayed with me.


~ ~ ~


A straightforward way to describe haiku is: a very short lyric poem that uses imagery to express emotion and idea. But that description fails to communicate the sense of wonder, or sudden shift of consciousness, or a new way of seeing, that well-crafted haiku can offer. So I’ll add: the ordinary made extraordinary, the illumination of moments observed, felt, imagined or remembered. Small epiphanies and tiny elegies.


What we do, as writers, with these epiphanies and elegies, comes down to subjectivity. We allow them to exist as poems in their own right. Or we see them as portals into something more expansive. The weekend at Ty Newydd will create the space for both or either of these possibilities in a celebration of collaboration between texts, participants, memory, imagination and the landscape. A celebration too of the uniquely freeing Japanese principle of wabi-sabi, of creative incompleteness, that liberates responses from others, as readers or writers, and from one’s self.


Journeys with Haiku into Verse and Prose/ Fri 13 Jul - Sun 15 Jul 2018

Tutors / Lynne Rees & Philip Gross

Course Fee / From £220 - £295 per person

For more information and booking contact: Ty Newydd


[i] Haiga by Ron Moss:

[ii] Higginson, William J, The Haiku Handbook, Kodansha International, Tokyo, New York & London 1985,  Chapter 4, ‘Early Haiku in the West’




[vi] Magma 33, Winter 2005


[viii] Kennedy XJ, Introduction to Poetry, Boston: Little, Brown (8th edition, with Dana Gioia, New York: HarperCollins, 1993) (Pearson/Longman, 12th edition, 2007)

[ix] Kacian, Jim, Rowland, Philip, Burns, Allan, Eds, WW Norton & Co, New York & London 2013

[x] from forgiving the rain, Snapshot Press 2012

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