After spending a few hours in St James’s Park under the cherry blossoms (or possibly some other kind of blossoms, I can’t actually tell), I made my way to the Chelsea College of Art for a haiku workshop. The workshop was run by haiku poets Sho Otaka and Paul Conneally, in English and Japanese, and attended by a good mix of English and Japanese people, and a few people from other countries.
It was free, so I’m not really complaining, but it wasn’t quite what I would call a workshop. It was assumed that everyone was already somewhat familiar with haiku and poetry writing and, other than a theme, we weren’t really given any guidance. After a brief introduction, we were told to brainstorm on the theme of “cherry blossom” and not worry about trying to write a haiku. I thought that after those first ten minutes we might regroup and share our ideas before composing our haiku, but instead the ten minute brainstorming time just flowed on and we were suddenly expected to write our haikus on a card with fancy pens. No one offered me a word of guidance before I had to decide my haiku was finished.
It was an interesting experience for me, as someone who has read and written a lot of haiku. I only write in English at the moment but I do hope to write in Japanese one day. I decided to attend this workshop because I thought it would reignite my haiku flame and encourage me to get writing again. I also hoped I would pick up some tips and receive some guidance. It’s been a good few years since I wrote poetry, and I’m feeling a bit rusty and in need of support.
I wrote my haikus based on the images of St James’s Park that were in my mind. These images provoked deeper thoughts, and made me think of my time in Japan last year. I have always thought haiku are like photographs, and I try to imagine my haiku as pictures while I am writing. The snapshots in my mind today included a weeping willow style tree which seemed to be crying petals into the water, the contrast of the pink blossoms against the blue sky, and my surprise when a petal landed on my skirt and I noticed it was heart-shaped.
I chose this poem as my final favourite:
He leans to water
watching his pale reflection.
Hearts floating away.
After being made to read this out to the group, I faced criticism. (Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t mind a bit of constructive criticism, but I don’t take that well to just bring told I’ve done something wrong.) Despite the fact that I had stuck to the 5-7-5 syllable count (something Paul Conneally said wasn’t necessary in English haiku), I was left with the impression that my haiku wasn’t really good enough because it was too mysterious. You shouldn’t have to think too much about haiku, I was told, but I can’t see why haiku have to be so obvious.
I was also told that my haiku was in three parts instead of two, but when I asked to know more about “the cut” that was apparently missing, I never got a straight answer. To me, my haiku is in two parts. He (which could be a man, or could simply be the tree) leans or bends towards the water of the lake, and in doing so sees his reflection. He then sees the blossom petals, which are heart-shaped, floating away on the water.
When it comes to art, art of any kind, I believe it should make you think. I also believe that when mixing art forms from different cultures, you have to be open to different ways of doing things. Personally, when writing haiku in English, I think of the haiku as photographs, as I said above. The 17 syllables (5-7-5) are the frame in which you are restricted, but everything else is about capturing the moment. That moment could be a dew drop on a flower, or the ripped stocking of a prostitute. Soft and gentle, or raw and gritty. Haiku don’t have to be what they were in the 17th century when basho was writing. I’m sure if Basho could come to London today he would draw inspiration from the flowers in St James’s Park as much as he would from the graffiti-painted streets of Shoreditch.
So, I guess I did learn something today. I learnt that my beliefs about modern haiku in English may not match up with other poets’ beliefs, but perhaps that doesn’t matter. I also learnt that haiku workshops might not be the best way for me to gain inspiration – walking through the streets and parks of London may well be enough.
I wrote two other haiku on the theme of “cherry blossom” during the workshop today The first is just about that moment, sitting in St James’s Park:
Sun shining through pink petals,
sitting by myself.
And the second is when I was thinking about Japan:
Cherry blossom falls.
Looking up, I’m reminded
we share the same sky.
What do you think about haiku in English? How closely, or not, should they resemble Japanese haiku?