then art may appear
rain settles in
over the city
a mind for poetry
poetry will arise –
take a breath
a soft, grey day
a quieter world
a day for poetry
Scattered throughout Uneven Verse are poems about the conditions that I need for writing poetry. It’s something that I’m curious about. Why is it sometimes possible to write and sometimes simply impossible? It’s not about being easy or difficult. I either can or I can’t, and why is that?
Poem #24 suggests that idleness, solitude and silence are prerequisites, but this is not the whole story. I don’t always need to be alone and quiet. I can write on a crowded bus with noise everywhere.
Chinese girls chattering
Flame Trees on the bus driver’s radio
And by the same token, if my mind is busy, even when I’m alone and quiet, poetry can’t arise. If I’m tired, stressed, preoccupied with to-do lists, poetry doesn’t appear. It’s not actually about it being quiet outside, but about being quiet inside.
the rain sounds like a train
watching at open doors and windows
lights on in the daytime
steady rain falling –
thoughtful, no thoughts
I’ve always wondered why I’m so prolific when I’m in Japan. There may be a couple of reasons. I don’t read or speak Japanese, so my mind isn’t cluttered with extraneous language through overhearing what others are saying, or through reading environmental text. I’m free to just look, watch and experience the world. I’m on holidays. I have no responsibilities. I don’t need to do anything, and most of the time I can’t do anything. I’m quite useless. This poem is from my first book, Ash.
the deaf, mute guest
sits alone writing
while others work
In contrast, when I'm at home, I have many duties and roles to play. I am not just some-one, I am many-ones. I am a wife, parent, grandparent, adult child of an elderly parent, sibling, colleague, friend, citizen. Even being a consumer requires a certain persona.
There’s nothing wrong with this. All these selves are parts of my identity, reflecting and (usually) satisfying all the parts of who I am. But when I am able to write poetry, all these selves have dissolved and I am left, not to be myself, that’s not it, but to be no one - to play no role, to wear no hat, to not be useful to anyone. To be quite useless. To be empty the way a guitar is empty. When I’m empty in this way, poetry may appear.
This self without identity comes and goes in my day – when I’m standing at the kitchen sink, hanging out the washing, sitting on the bus, lying in bed before I get up in the morning, walking the dog. My mind floats and then fixes on something – a small detail of what I see, what I’m doing, or a thought that arises – and it forms, in my empty mind, into a poem.
If my poetry is anything, if my art is anything, it is an affirmation of life. Ironically, it is when I take my self out of my life, that I can be alive to the life I am living; alive to the moment, alive to the sensations of being alive, alive to the joy of having a body, awake.
walk through your days
step by step
try not to escape
silent rain, silent river
poetry mind returns
from where you are
is poetry’s beginning
with time to drift
poetry may come
The Haiku Form
You may know me as a painter, but I also write poetry. On the 14th of July 2022, I will be launching Uneven Verse, my second book of haiku-inspired poetry at Avid Reader Bookshop in West End, Brisbane. Books will be available for sale through Avid and through my website. There are links in my website’s Poetry section for direct sales.
I plan for this blog to provide a forum for me to share my thoughts about my work, both poetry and painting, to update you on events, and for you to ask questions and request subjects you would like to know more about through the 'comments' option at the end of the blog.
As I will be launching Uneven Verse next week, I’m going to use this first blog to talk about the haiku form, why it inspires me, how my poetry conforms to the form and how it doesn’t. I hope this will give you a richer reading experience and lead you towards reading haiku from other writers.
What the haiku is not
1. There are no titles in a haiku poem. I sometimes use them, but as far as I’m aware, they never appear in Japanese haiku.
2. Haiku doesn’t rhyme. Occasionally, a poem of mine will emerge with a rhyme, and I may choose to leave it, but it’s untypical. For example, this poem from Uneven Verse.
I go to bed
with cake and tea
3. Haiku doesn’t use simile or metaphor. What is, is. There is no ‘like this or like that.’
Five elements that define the form
A. The 5-7-5 syllable rule
If you know anything about haiku, you probably know this rule. It means that the poem consists of 17 syllables broken into 3 lines with a 5/7/5 syllable pattern. This is a lovely rule. It’s a discipline. It’s a challenge to say what you want to say as briefly as possible and to find a freedom within the structure, but there are some problems with this formula, particularly when it is transferred into English.
Firstly, to equate Japanese ‘syllables’ or ‘on’ with English ones doesn’t quite fit. One doesn’t equate exactly to the other. As an example, ‘on’ is considered 2 syllables in Japanese, but only one syllable in English.
Also, some translators believe that 12 syllables in English approximates to the duration of 17 Japanese ‘on’, and that 4 lines is a more appropriate match when translating a Japanese poem into English.
The final point to make about the 5/7/5 rule is that even the most famous haiku poets didn’t always follow it, and modern Japanese haiku are increasingly unlikely to conform to this rule.
For me, it’s something to keep in mind, but I’m not going to contort an otherwise natural string of words just to fit into this pattern. However, I do do a lot of syllable-counting as I write. I find it a useful disciple if a poem is getting too wordy, and I often return to it in the editing phase.
I also like the three-line structure. It feels elegant to me. I often ask myself – How many words do I really need? Can I say the same thing with less? Is the poem better with fewer words?
So, for me, this three-line, 17 syllable structure is more a suggestion than a rule.
B. The natural world and the seasons
The seasons are an idea that I’ve used to structure both my books and nature is a thread that runs throughout the poems. However, along with the 5/7/5 rule, modern Japanese haiku do not always take nature as a subject and I don’t restrict myself either. The natural world is central, but it’s not the only subject I write about.
C. The concept of ‘kiru’ or a cut between two parts in the poem
In traditional haiku, the first part of the poem presents the condition or situation, and the second part is a sudden perception – an awareness of something revealed by the initial observation, that may take the form of a comment. This juxtaposition is seen as the essence of the form and it is a tradition that continues to be honoured in modern haiku.
Japanese haiku use a kireji (or cutting word) to signal the shift from one section to the other. This is usually rendered in English either by a punctuation mark, such as a dash, or some kind of implied break or shift that is intended to prompt the reader to reflect on the relationship between the two parts.
This ‘sudden perception’ doesn’t have to be a sharp contrast. It can be very subtle. Sometimes I use it, but not always. Here are two poems by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), considered the master of the haiku, followed by two poems from my first book, Ash.
on a dead limb
squats a crow –
early autumn –
rice field, ocean,
a late storm, cold rain
blows across the city night –
cold rain is strange
the fan turns slowly
the night silent and still –
it is what is not
D. The simplicity of language
This is a vital element of traditional haiku that is essential to my poetry. Here is a comment from Lucien Stryk (1924-2013), the American poet and translator of Buddhist literature.
"The poet presents an observation of a natural, often commonplace event, in plainest diction, without verbal trickery. The effect is one of sparseness, yet the reader is aware of a microcosm related to transcendent unity. A moment, crystallised, distilled, snatched from time’s flow, and that is enough."
Here is a poem of mine from Uneven Verse, written after I held my grandson for the first time when he was 4 days old. It has a title.
Haiku for Ari
the light of a round moon
falls on a distant sea
new to the world
Imagine sitting with a tiny, newborn baby in your arms, looking out over the mountains towards the sea in the distance, where a silvery moon reflects on the water. The moon is round and smooth, the baby’s head is round and smooth. The baby and the moon, the new and the ancient, the mortal and the eternal, the beauty and wonder of both. The baby sleeps and dreams, at peace in the universe, just as the moon is also at peace; and I am looking down on the baby just as the moon is looking down on us all. It is, as Stryk says, “a microcosm related to transcendent unity. A moment crystallised, distilled, snatched from time’s flow…”
E. Suggestibility and the reader’s role
Haiku demands the reader’s participation. To come alive fully, it needs the reader to contribute. Perhaps because haiku is so brief, it does not explain everything, or give you all the answers or meanings. It is up to you, the sensitive reader, to bring yourself to the reading. Stryk says, “…without a sensitive audience it would appear unimpressive.”
This brings to my mind a quote from the Russian/American painter, Mark Rothko, talking about painting. “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. “
One dimension of ‘suggestibility’ is poets referring to other poets. Haiku poets traditionally make reference to each other. Haiku is not my tradition and so I haven’t internalised much Japanese haiku, but I have internalised a lot of writers in English and this sometimes comes through naturally in the poetry. So if you think you hear an echo of something in my poetry, then go with it, you’re probably right.
These echoes, to other poets, to your own memories and feelings and experiences, are what reading haiku is all about. It’s not a passive experience. It’s not just about being told things, or trying to work out what the poet is trying to say. It’s about what it says to you. It’s about bringing yourself to the poetry. Only in this way does the poetry come alive – alive within you.
Thank you for reading.