Hark! The Haiku

What is a haiku?

As far as I can see it’s a tiny nugget of enlightenment in the form of two (written) images juxtaposed in such a way as to form a meaningful connection. According to the Academy of American poets: the traditional Japanese haiku focuses on an association between images at a specific moment in time. Form wise it consists of a single line of 17 on, broken into 3 phrases of 5, 7, and 5, that contains a kireji and a kigo.

Sand surfer on St Andrews beach

 St Andrews beach, our 3rd anniversary, a sand surfer woos us.

Um, what?

The Japanese on is a unit of sound, and though they’re not the same the nearest thing we have is the syllable. And as we have to organise our haiku somehow it’s syllables we use, and generally, but not always, stick to the number 17, and the 5, 7, 5 format. We usually separate the phrases into three lines, but, again, not always: it’s a rare poet who rigidly sticks to a rule at the expense of meaning.

A kireji is a word that acts rather like the volta in a sonnet. It effects a turn, or change of tone, and connects, and adds meaning to, the two separate images. Again, we don’t have direct equivalents in English, so we tend to use punctuation and/or line breaks to do this job.

Finally, A kigo is a word that refers to something specific about a season. For example: the smell after a late spring shower. The Japanese have a whole stash of these, but as we don’t English language poets have found ways round this element of the haiku without eradicating its essential haikuness.

For a little clarification:

Here’s more from the Academy of American Poets:

Haiku was traditionally written in the present tense and focused on associations between images. There was a pause at the end of the first or second line, and a “season word,” or kigo, specified the time of year.

As the form has evolved, many of these rules—including the 5/7/5 practice—have been routinely broken. However, the philosophy of haiku has been preserved: the focus on a brief moment in time; a use of provocative, colorful images; an ability to be read in one breath; and a sense of sudden enlightenment and illumination.


Got it?

Rather than tangling us up with more elaborate explanations, it’s probably best to show some haiku so you can see for yourself how they work. Look out for the two images, the ‘turn,’ and the sense of illumination. It seems only fair to start with a Japanese one, so this is by Matsu Bashö, and, according to Wikipedia where I took this from, is the best known Japanese haiku:

old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
water’s sound*

This one’s by Ezra Pound called ‘In a Station of the Metro':

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Here’s one by Seamus Heaney:

Dangerous pavements
but I face the ice this year
with my father’s stick.

And this is by Dag Hammarskjöld:

The boy in the forest
Throws off this best Sunday suit
And plays naked**

Poetry Clubbers have been asked to write as many haiku as they can for our next meeting. As it would seem wrong to ask this of them and not do any myself I’ve been stabbing away at it when time allows. It ain’t easy, but here’s one inspired by the photo above:

Pulled across beach sand
winter waves crash and rise;
boy, kite, wind: engage.

For those of you interested in the solutions to the Anglo Saxon riddles of the last post they are: 9: a cuckoo, and 30: a beam of wood


*Translating literature is difficult enough, translating poetry is virtually impossible, so here are another 30 English translations of Basho's haiku.
**Found in The New Yorker.
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Poetry Club

I started a poetry group

Moffat Poetry Group

Poster design, Sara Indigo.

At that first gathering we decided to meet fortnightly, every alternate Monday, so have had two now, and the next is on Monday (March 9). At the last one we looked at Anglo Saxon riddles, and all had a go at writing one there and then. Homework, for those who wanted it, was to bring a poem made from either that riddle, or from another written at home later.

Anglo Saxon Riddles

What little I know about these I read in The Earliest English Poems, wonderfully translated by Michael Alexander who says:

The riddle is a sophisticated and harmless form of invocation by imitation: the essence of it is that the poet, by an act of imaginative identification to which Vernon Lee gave the name ’empathy’, assumes the personality of some created thing – an animal, a plant, a natural force. Some element of impersonation is involved in any creative act, but by performing this particular ventriloquism the poet extends and diversifies our understanding of – or at least our acquaintance with – the numenous natural world whose life, even existence, modern men are becoming progressively unaware. This operation is salutary, and may be said to have a religious value.

So, the idea is to think yourself into the character of your subject and try and write as it, rather than about it.

I like to use the riddle as a teaching aid because it forces students to focus their minds on the particular, and to be as specific as possible about their subject.  It’s a great exercise in fully imagining. Here are a couple of the riddles so you can see for yourself. They all come, originally, from the Exeter Book:


Abandoned unborn by my begetters
I was still dead a few spring days ago:
no beat in the breast, no breath in me.

A kinswoman covered me in the clothes she wore,
no kind but kind indeed. I was coddled & swaddled
as close as I had been a baby of her own,
until, as had been shaped, so shielded, though no kin,
the unguessed guest grew great with life.

She fended for me, fostered me, she fed me up,
till I was of a size to set my bounds
further afield. She had fewer dear
sons and daughters because she did so.

I am fire fretted and I flirt with Wind
and my limbs are light-freighted and I am lapped in flame
and I am storm-stacked and I strain to fly
and I am grove leaf-bearing and a glowing ember.

From hand to friend's hand about the hall I go,
so much do lords and ladies love to kiss me.
When I hold myself high, and the whole company
bow quiet before me, their blessedness
shall flourish skywards beneath my fostering shade.

Can you guess what they are (I know the first one, but not the second, and have been able to not look at the solution in the appendix so far)?

I’ve been trying to write a riddle a day for the last week or so, but rather than looking at natural entities I’ve been using the form to explore abstract concepts. I hope to be able to make poems of them at some point, but here is a rough one (don’t feel obliged to say it’s good, it takes me months of chiselling to get a poem right):

I am the great regulator of your
life, of all life, though it's only you and 
your kind who, out of sync with the world's
rhythms feel the need to measure me. I
am not money, you cannot save me, or 
batch me into manageable quantities.
You can only exist within my 
untouchable boundaries: dark; light;
hot; cold. My passing is felt in all your
procrastinations; at parties to mark 
marriages and deaths; anniversaries
and births. You rail against me when you pluck
at those grey hairs, but look kindly and see
it is me who brings the first strawberry.

Should you wish to have a go at writing one I’d be delighted if you shared it in the comments section.





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Speech Impediment

Free Raif

I joined the Twitter campaign to raise awareness of Raif Badawi’s case, and, perhaps, get him out. I know it’s not enough.

Like most westerners I believe strongly in freedom of speech.

By which I don’t mean the ‘right’ to hurt others with words, as the term seems so often to be interpreted; but freedom to challenge beliefs, certainties, assumptions, values, the government and other powers? yes, I mean that. We can’t flourish without it. As individuals; as families; as groups; as cultures; as states, we all need our ideas to be challenged or we stagnate. We’d still be sending children down mines if speaking out against it got you imprisoned and tortured.

So how is it ok to eulogise about freedom of speech (and human rights) at home, but to snuggle up with a blind eye turned to another whom we know practises abuse of both?

I’m talking, of course, about Raif Badawi, currently imprisoned with a flogging sentence hanging over him in Saudi Arabia. For blogging.

And all the while our government is happy to do business with Saudi. We sell them the weapons they use to spread their particular, violent form of fundamentalism throughout the middle east. The type that thinks it’s fine to strap bombs to ten year olds and send them into market places.

And Nabeel Rajab awaiting trial in Bahrain for tweeting this:

“Many #Bahrain men who joined #terrorism & #ISIS came from security institutions and those institutions were the first ideological incubator.”

Bahrain, a state that tortures doctors for treating pro-democracy protestors. And we have just done a deal with them for a naval base in the Gulf. 

How can we live with ourselves? And if we can’t, what can we realistically do?


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Reading: A How

How to read  poems

Dead? How?

How do you read poetry?

I ask because I’ve made a discovery, I think. I have always read poems as individual entities. I read them one at a time, out loud, and interrogate them until I feel I have a grip and can move on to the next. This makes reading a new book of poems, or a new poet, very slow, not least because I get weary, and can end up reading a whole novel between each poem as solace. Or, I can have several books of poems on the go at one time, dipping in and out of each as my nerve allows. I’d never thought of reading a book of poems in the way I’d read a novel or a text book.

About half way through university I discovered that reading a text book quickly, without puzzling over every little thing actually aided my understanding. I’d read them as if I was doing so just for the fun of it, right to the end, stopping only to look up the meaning of ‘teleology’ for the umpteenth time. I’d then take a break and start again for a ‘close’ reading a couple of days later. It made the most enormous difference to my student life because second time around it was like having a conversation with an old friend. I read cookery books the same way: the whole book, often in one sitting, before attempting the recipes which, miraculously, feel like a breeze. But it took an interview with Louise Glück on her book Faithful and Virtuous Night to make me even consider the possibility of using the same technique with poems.

“I thought I’d never resolve the issue of this structure, never be able to give shape to these poems,”

she said. And went on: “which usually means there’s a piece missing, as was true here. […] I had thought that the long poem would be a whole that moved roughly chronologically from section to section, but it seemed lifeless when I put it together that way. I tried rearranging the sequence but that wasn’t the answer. [… the] shape didn’t really find itself until the end – when I wrote prose poems, which I’d never done before – they were written in a tide of exhilaration at the thought that maybe I could finally finish the book.”

This intrigued me so much I bought Faithful and Virtuous Night. Yet I still tried to read it in my usual way, labouring over every poem. And I didn’t get it.

The first thing about a poem that makes sense is, usually, the sound:

‘I ordered this, this clean wood box
Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.
I would say it was the coffin of a midget
Or a square baby
Were there not such a din in it’*


‘The spinner fluchters,
but falters not
in its bee-line for the shore,’**

Both these have strong rhythms (read them aloud), and imagery (second sense maker), but I couldn’t hear Glück’s rhythms, or see her vision. For example:

‘It came to me one night as I was falling asleep
that I had finished with those amorous adventures
to which I had long been a slave. Finished with love?
my heart murmured. To which I responded that many profound
awaited us, hoping, at the same time, I would not be asked
to name them. For I could not name them. But the belief that they
surely counted for something?’

When I read poetry the question: “What makes this a poem?” is always in the back of my mind, but here the question started wailing at me like a starving hyena. And I couldn’t begin to answer it. I kept reading: another, then another, always trying to make sense of one before moving on to the next, until I wanted to throw the damn book out the window. But I had ordered this, this clean cool book, paid for it out of my ever diminishing bank account, and Glück is a prize winning poet, I needed to work it out.

I gave it a break.

Then I remembered the problems she’d had putting it together, and that it was more than just one poem after another, so I tried reading it as if it were a novel. And by the time I came to the end I felt it. I heard her rhythms, and, thus, had some purchase. By the end of my second reading I was faintly in love with the poems’ personae, and Glück’s writing.

Trying just now to find an example to show how unrhythmic the poems were I struggled. So from now on I will read any new book of poems like a book, not just a bunch of random verses, without trying too hard to make sense of its individual elements.

So, I ask again: how do you read poetry (if at all)?

On reading poetry

Leadhills: desolate, but lovely.


*From ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’ in Ariel by Sylvia Plath (my favourite poem ever).

** From ‘Fishing at Spiggie’ in Nigh-No-Place by Jen Hadfield.

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Year of the Poet

Hello 2015!

Three days into the year and I am fit for nothing, except, perhaps, keeping tissue manufacturers afloat. I can neither read nor write, because my glasses irritate my nose and make it run all the more, so I have to stop every thirty seconds to grab at another tissue. Which makes concentrating so difficult I gain little or nothing from from the endeavour. So, instead, I’ve been filling up my Pinterest board, How to be a POet (the capital O was a typing error, but I quite like it) with images of fantasy poets’ book filled rooms, and wondering in the idle way of the faintly ill if I’m capable of giving up the idea of a whole room of my own yet. Probably not.

However, a recent trip to Ikea and a little manoeuvring has made my space at the top of the stairs about as perfect as its limitations allow.

Poet's workspace 2015

Ready for action?

Yes, it’s cluttered, and there are hideous wires hanging about, but the addition of a second bookcase has allowed me to have almost all the books I feel I need to hand, and given me an off-desk space for work in progress. I find if I don’t have my work visible at all times I forget about its existence, and poems do benefit from being idly picked up and tampered with over a long period of time, so I need to see everything I’ve got. A glance at my work in progress shelf shows me that’s not quite the case at the moment. Pinking shears; camera; a scarf; last year’s diary; two notebooks; a ribbon, and a mass of other papers all combine to obscure my poems, somewhat. But tomorrow I should be done with website designing and teaching is already over, so I’ll be able to devote the space to my writing alone. I know it will never be this:

Reader's chair

It’s the chair that does it for me, I’d go without cake for a year to have one like it.

Or this:

A room for readers

Oh god…

but it feels like it could work.

The Year Ahead

Thus I go into the new year with a feeling of optimism. No resolutions except to keep on going. I feel I got to grips with how to go about becoming the poet I am last year, and just want to keep hold of that. Yes, I’d like to travel a little further afield. Yes, I’d like to see more of my inspiring best friend. Yes, I’d like to spend more time in the city. But I don’t suppose any of those things are necessary for me to make good work. After all, there is a school of thought that proposes one’s most profound discoveries are invariably to be had close to home. I may be about to test that theory to the limit.

Here is a photo from last Monday. I knew the hill had been recently harvested of its pointy trees, but had no idea how war zone it would look.

Gallow Hill, Moffat, in fog.

Gallow Hill, on the edge of Moffat . I went for a wander up it in Monday’s fog, and was arrested by the decimation caused by recent clear-felling. It was like being an extra in a film about the battle of the Somme after the crew had packed up and gone.

Happy 2015 to all of you. If you have any new year’s resolutions do let me know in the comments, and if you don’t perhaps you’d like to explain yourself.

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Merry, Jolly, Splendid

We had snow! It’s gone now, but I managed to get a shot of it just as it was beginning.

This was taken as I walked home from a gig organised by Moffat Music Live in which young Scottish singer of the year, Siobhan Miller supported by Aaron Jones (bouzouki, guitar, voice) played wonderful things. They were supported by the Mr. and  band, Clan Blues, who also wooed.
This was taken as I walked home from a gig organised by Moffat Music Live in which young Scottish singer of the year, Siobhan Miller supported by Aaron Jones (bouzouki, guitar, voice) played wonderful things. They were supported by the Mr. and band, Clan Blues, who also wooed.

Goodbye 2014, I’ll miss you

I think you may have been my best year yet. You started, really, with the allotment. I had a great time planning, planting, harvesting, even the weeding was a great excuse to hang about in the sun, of which we had plenty this summer. The goodness continued when in April, for my birthday, I was taken to the best bookshop I’d ever been in: Barter Books in Alnwick. July saw the wedding of the Mr.’s daughter, which was gorgeous, and allowed us to see lots of family, after which we went on holiday to Argyle and I had my first visit to Mull (how I loved Mull!).

Of course, we also had the independence campaign which we worked on for most of the year. It was tiring and frustrating at times, but we got to make many friends, and learn a great deal. And though it was unsuccessful (from our perspective) it continues to be a tremendous boost for Scotland: as a nation we are much more engaged in politics, much more aware, and much more willing to tackle problems. I can only hope it lasts. At the time of the vote my son and his wife came over from New York, where they live, so he was there to commiserate and dissect, and at the same time I got to sniff him and chat to him, and fill up my mummy reserves.

Lastly, I had some poems published. I say lastly, but it wasn’t really last, and these weren’t the only good points of the year. For example, I also spent a couple of months teaching a young woman who, if she keeps at it, will be a great poet some day. I fully expect to see her lauded and showered with prizes in the not too distant future.

And, the Mr. didn’t kick me out, he continues to labour under the illusion that I’m nice to have around.

Hello Christmas

We have a lovely cosy Christmas planned, which includes a first visit from the Mr.’s 18 month old granddaughter (we have been frantically trying to minimise any dangers as we are told she now runs), and trifle made with the damsons we had soaking in gin (to make damson gin) for three months. Our fridge is the fullest it’s ever been, I almost took a photo of it.

Thank you

to all who return here time and again, and to those of you who join in the conversation with comments, or even by clicking the ‘like’ button, it’s much appreciated. Apologies that I haven’t been quite as attentive as I’d like to have been, and I do hope to do better next year.

Merry Christmas and very happy New Year to all of you.

Posted in Allotment, Independence, Poetry, Scotland, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

On Happiness

I’ve spent most of the day searching out poems on happiness for tomorrow’s lesson with my young charge. We’re looking at how to make emotions concrete, how to capture and present them to the reader’s senses, so they are felt. And I thought happiness as good as any to examine. We did love last week as she’d amazed me the week before by saying she’d tried to write a poem about love but was unable to distinguish between it and lust. So I took her a whole bunch of poems that I hope will help her make that distinction in future. And she, in turn, gave me Carol Ann Duffy’s Valentine. Love somehow led to happiness, so here I am.

After reading about happiness all day, and having a particularly good day, I thought I might share some of the things in which I find it.


Happy colours

I love these colours together, and finding them unexpectedly when the Mr.’s soup arrived made an already good day a gorgeous one.

Matisse said colour was his language, he even thought in it, and Klee rejoiced when he realised colour was his medium and his subject (or something like that). I wouldn’t go quite that far, but certain colours, and colour combinations can fill me with joy on my darkest days. This pumpkin soup with sky is one of my favourite matches, another is pea-soup green with dirty pink – like raspberry milkshake with soot in it. On Monday we were coming home from a trip to Edinburgh when the Mr. suggested we stop at Ikea to look at shelf units. While we were there he spotted a green plate. He knows how I love certain greens and pointed it out. It was a good green, and even better it had a blue cousin, and an orange one. There must have been something about my reaction because he told me to put them in the trolley. We didn’t need any more plates, but suddenly supper time is like living in an oil painting.

Being understood

My best friend understands me to the point where her husband is convinced we’re the same person with two bodies. You’ll see from the plate thing above that the Mr. understands me pretty well too. He proved it overwhelmingly today.

Happily lowered.

My desk from above just after I’d eaten toast with peanut-butter, banana, and syrup.

I love my desk (as you’ll have divined from all the photos I keep posting), but its height has been a big problem. I’m not tall, and I have a particularly short body, so I’m a bit like a child at a sweet counter when trying to type or write. It’s ok for just looking at the screen, but when it comes to actually doing any work I end up with sore, cramped shoulders, arms, and neck. I can raise my chair up pretty high, but then my feet dangle causing other problems. A couple of days ago it suddenly struck me that chopping a few inches off the legs would solve the problem. I shared this with the Mr. (henceforth to be known as M as I’m fed up typing the Mr.)

This morning over coffee in bed he asked me what my plans were for the day: ‘Write a lesson plan.’ I said. ‘Before you do that turn your desk upside down and measure how much you want off the legs.’ And, voila, it was done. My desk is now the perfect height for me, and after a whole day at it: reaching for books, reading, typing, and faffing, nothing is aching. That makes me very happy.


One of the joys of living in this house is the music it’s imbued with. M has played guitar for forty years, and it was this that brought him to my notice. My favourite mornings are the ones where, after we’ve had coffee and chats he goes to the music room ‘for a plonk,’ and I stay in bed writing while his tunes seep in. At one point today while I was working he came up and started playing; it seemed to make me so much more productive. Before I lived here I always thought I needed silence to work; now I realise some sounds are even better than silence. This has changed the world for me.

Word Sounds/language

I love M’s word ‘plonk’ for playing with his guitar. I nearly squeaked with joy when Jen Hadfield mentioned the Plinky Boat at a poetry thing recently. The Plinky Boat! How can anyone hear that and not want to know more? It makes me want to dance. When I discovered the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins it was love at first hear: the way he uses sound as a physical element in his poems, and one that enhances the meaning of his words and phrases. So new at the time in English poetry, but really resurrected from Anglo-Saxon and old Welsh. I have to admit, however, the god stuff gets in my way a bit. Luckily his legacy lives on, he was the father of a new poetic family, and one that has grown and morphed. Here’s a poem by Louis MacNeice that on first reading would appear to have no connection with GMH, but I know it does and it never fails to make me smile:


 The room  was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was                                        Spawning snow and pink roses against it                                                                      Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:                                                                                World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,                                                              Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion                                                                                              A tangerine and spit the pips and feel                                                                                          The drunkenness of things being various.

  And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world                                                                      Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes –                                                                             On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palm of one’s                                                             hands –                                                                                                                                                  There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses. *

I think I’ve written enough on this for one post, but here’s another image of foody remains:

Happy poetry



* The formatting’s all over the fucking place here, and I can’t seem to do anything about it.


Posted in Artist's Life, Poetry, Teaching, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments