first in the office – a haiku

Matthew Paul is one of a small number of poets who write both haiku and longer poems. A selection of the latter was featured here on 5 July 2020.

On Lammas Day here is his selection from The Lammas Lands, beautifully produced by Snapshot Press, followed by his thoughts on writing both haiku and longer poems. I relate to the bugbear he mentions!

The Lammas Lands

first in the office
my whistling echoes
up the stairwell

onto my fingers the rust of the farmyard gate

school’s out
the riverbank flush
with tansy florets
 

the last sun
across the lammas lands
perennial asters

cobweb morning
the merest outline
of ship funnels

two years old
she grasps with both hands
the autumn wind

through an angler’s pipe-smoke rising jays

touch of sleet—
making space for
the guide dog

white skies
a hare skedaddles
over Wealden clay

*

I discovered haiku at the age of 15 or 16, firstly through an English teacher at school and then by reading The Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels and The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse. I tried writing them shortly afterwards, at pretty much the same time I started writing longer poems. I’ve written both fairly regularly since then, though I went through a long period – from 1990, when the British Haiku Society was founded, until 2010 – in which I concentrated more on haiku. In the last 10 years, my focus, as a writer – as opposed to editor or reviewer – has been much more on longer poems.
 
For me, the engagement needed for one is rather different to the other. Being able to write effective and affective haiku stems from being in the moment, using all your senses to pick up on what you’re experiencing and finding a charge between two different objects/elements which you are perceiving at the same time. ‘Desk’ haiku are almost always obvious and lacking the spark born from real sensory experience.


Longer poems can, of course, also have content born of, or responding to, ‘the moment’ and can therefore be haiku-esque in how they treat their subject-matter – Imagism was often like that, and haiku itself was born from longer forms. But longer poems for me have much more space and freedom to move back and forth through time and, if necessary, tell a story, whereas haiku can’t do that in any meaningful way because of their intrinsic brevity.


My longer poems are probably more likely to be mini-stories than those of most poets precisely because of the freedom they afford which isn’t available within the form of the haiku. (I should add that achieving any consensus among English-language haiku poets about the essential qualities of haiku has repeatedly been proven to be impossible!)
 
One of my bugbears is that longer-form poets often use what they think of as haiku as a means simply to sharpen their powers of perception, as if it’s child’s play. Whilst that may well work for some people, I feel that approach rather misses the point of haiku. Like any art form, it takes a long time to become adept at it, albeit that an ‘apprentice’ haiku poet can have a freshness of perception which is often labelled “beginner’s mind”.


On the whole, though, I find it annoying when poets put their first, usually clunky attempts at haiku out on social media or, worse still, into print. Haiku in English do not have to be – though they can – be written as three lines of five-seven-five syllables. It’s common sense, isn’t it, that the essence and power of haiku aren’t derived from syllable-counting, but from direct, lived experience. Like many haiku poets, I have reservations about even calling my haiku ‘haiku’, because the original Japanese art-form is so freighted with Japanese culture and history – and translators from the Japanese into English invariably repeat the mistakes of previous translators!

3 thoughts on “first in the office – a haiku

  1. John Looker

    These thoughts on the contrasting possibilities of haiku and long poems are most interesting. I have occasionally ventured a haiku (and hope I have honoured the form sufficiently). I do agree that longer poems offer the prospect of stories – or scenarios perhaps. They can have a brevity of their own I suppose.

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