This Haiku Life

James McGonigal

I began to write haiku poems for a practical reason. In the latter part of my professional life, I travelled a fair amount by car between schools and colleges of education, and found that the 17 syllables of a haiku were a manageable length to keep in mind until reaching my destination and scribbling it down. Passing scenes and memories triggered on the journey also stimulated topics for these short ‘poems’, whose single or double perspectives were enough to handle safely while also driving against the clock, usually, on busy roads. The glancing nature of this process also seemed to suit my personality, which, in contrast to a daily prolific use of spoken and written words as a teacher and lecturer, could be happily monosyllabic and silently creative when left to my own devices. It also gave the chance to discover something unforeseen or unforesaid, something to take away from the mundane movement from one place to another. And the form did not demand too much complexity of argument or attitude, which were part of my prose life. Their focus on details in the natural world also spoke to my rural Scots and Irish ancestry, perhaps, and served as an antidote to urban living.

There may be problems or drawbacks in focusing on such a restricted form, however. Thomas Kinsella’s description of the committed and worthy political poetry of nineteenth-century Ireland comes to mind: ‘Emotional simplicity persisted in, however unwittingly, gradually eats away poetic strength’. He was writing in 1970, and perhaps had the Northern Irish conflict in mind. Does the simplicity of haiku hold similar dangers? Edwin Morgan, who keenly tackled most forms, avoided the haiku (apart from translating a few Brazilian-Portuguese examples by the concrete poet Pedro Xisto). Reviewing Geoffrey Bownas’ and Anthony Thwaite’s The Penguin Book of Japanese Poetry for the Glasgow Review in Summer 1964, Morgan noted how much this poetry cuts itself off from the reflective intricacy and narrative drive that mark the Western tradition. Yet he does concede that the haiku poet’s way of looking at the world is also a key aspect of the human mind and heart: we need to look closely at the detail and not lose ourselves in the shadings and byways of the big picture.

Another problem with haiku is our distance from the actual culture in which the form emerged, so that we run the danger of a colonial attitude, a theft or a pastiche of literary artifacts. And then there’s the awkwardness of moving between a syllabic poetry and a stressed one, where more monosyllables than normal in English are needed to complete the thought within 17 syllables. What of the metrical danger for a poet of having seventeen syllables imprinted on the brain, with a rhythmical sameness that might do lasting damage? However, the limitation of length also has the merit of forcing us into moving our perceptions or expressions around to fit the space, and so some originality can also be engendered.

I can’t claim immunity to those problems. Ways of compensating over time have been various. There are haikus in Scots language, with its elements of the eerie or grotesque. Or I have used a version of the haibun form of blended prose and poetry, as in Basho’s influential collection The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Penguin: 1966); or the haikai form of haiku and seven-syllable couplet verses, linked thematically as in a creative conversation of poets, (as originally developed), an absorbing and rather competitive endeavour. I’ve also linked the haiku with translation of the greguerías of the Latin-American surrealist poet, Ramón Gomez de la Serna. These are one-sentence sharply-observed prose poems that he himself identified with the haiku: ‘X is the alphabet’s deckchair’, or ‘The moon’s the oldest tombstone’ are examples. I use the haikai form in the Approaching Autumn section of my collection In Good Time (Red Squirrel Press, 2020), featuring three northern poets of different eras (a bit of time travel involved there).

The final danger is that the haiku in Western hands may just become a slightly extended metaphor, whereas I have recently come to feel that the form hovers between metaphor and metonymy. Metaphor gives a single, albeit often singular, perception, and I find that my brain tends to work quite naturally in this ‘irrational’ way, where one thing instantaneously is seen as another. A cloud at sunset becomes a weathered hand … doing what? Ah, wiping crumbs from today’s bread board, of course. Metonymy, where associated attributes are substituted for the thing itself (for example, the Bench for justice) may also be at play in the traditional haiku, where two perceptions are often encountered side by side, in an association which is spatial but also emotional, or which can generate reflection on the mystery of linkage in life. So we discover ourselves in the contiguities of the space and time where we happen to live. That’s the theory, but of course poems, even brief ones, are not generated by theories. We might in a Western way still hanker to set haikus in a sequence, which might cohere into a larger whole.

In Lockdown, I have spent many early hours looking out from our front window to the Campsie Fells, rising on the other side of green Strathkelvin. We are on the first ridge southwards from their bulk, and Roman surveyors chose this ridge as the route for their Antonine Wall. We came here seven years ago, to a bare, exposed and mossy garden, which it has given me great pleasure to plant and touch and contemplate. That farming ancestry again, I guess. And so the haiku form suited those early hours, especially half-recovering from the coronavirus with its depletion of energy. I’ll give examples of some of those recent haiku, some seasonal as the form traditionally expects. But I will also include a sequence which reveals that cultural urge to make something longer and just a touch more interconnected, or at least existing in neighbourly metonymy, one with another.

Each tree we planted

holds up a fistful of shade

grabbed from underground.

Would that I could be

closer to the maple branch,

pecking like a bird.

Blossom at Easter.

An old man planting potatoes

bends in to the earth.

Dry March days. Nonplussed

by the absence of rain, leaves

hang about waiting.

My ancestor’s farm?

The postman points out a track

winding between rocks.

Dawn meditation.

Someone else’s breath rises

and falls next to mine.

Five Uncertain Steps

Old eyes, is it mist rising, or cloud falling

that obscures our glen-side?

Now rain is ready for its day-shift whenever

you fancy – Or not.

What can distinguish the bark of different foxes? –

A half-moon’s earpiece.

Each exiled poet learns how to classify clouds

drifting far from home.

Bare trees are trying to get a grip on the wind

and failing. Flailing.

Written by James McGonigal, whose latest poetry collection, In Good Time, Red Squirrel Press, 2020, is available from (The Camphill Wren, Red Squirrel Press, 2016, is available from the author).

The following are also available from Mariscat Press: Turning Over in a Strange Bed, 2017; Cloud Pibroch, 2010; which can be found at (No longer available: Passage/An Pasaíste, 2004; Driven Home, 1998).

James McGonigal is also author of Edwin Morgan: In Touch with Language. A New Prose Collection (1950-2005). Co-edited with John Coyle. Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2020.

Edwin Morgan: The Midnight Letterbox. Selected Correspondence (1950-2010). Co-edited with John Coyle. Carcanet Press, 2015.

Beyond the Last Dragon: A Life of Edwin Morgan, Sandstone Press, 2012.