Category: Poetry

Favourite Haiku (2)

prayer
without words
spring rain

Bill Kenney

final resting place …
wherever
the wind decides

Michele L. Harvey

dregs in our glasses
you lay your day
on top of mine

Frank Hooven

someone’s newspaper
drifts with the snow
at 4am.

Jack Cain

searching the cupboard
for the answer
to why I opened it

Frank Dullaghan

Resonance

“The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.”

Richard Price

On Potentially Writing a Play

For years I’ve had a mild yet persistent interest in writing a play. I like the limits of the stage just as I like the limits of haiku because when there’s only so much I can do behind a closed curtain or on a page with three lines those limits become creative restrictions. And yet I have thoughts that there’s no point writing a play unless it’s guaranteed to be produced. What are those thoughts? Why is it so important to have a guarantee before starting?

A while ago Alan Jacobs wrote a three act play based on the friendship and correspondence between J.R.R. Tolkien and W.H. Auden. I have no idea if the play is any good because I don’t yet have playwriting standards (the mark of a true amateur perhaps?) but I admire that he gave it a shot and then published the play on his website as if to say it didn’t need to be produced by a stage company to be validated.

Sometimes I find that rather than trying to identify what feelings are holding me back from starting, in this case, a play, it’s easier to group them together under the umbrella of ‘resistance’. Could those thoughts be fear disguised as reason? Yes. Could those reasons be valid? Yes. But I suppose, if I really wanted, I could find a good reason not to do anything if I thought about it long enough.

Perhaps the creative impulse never “makes sense” because it doesn’t always lead to money and recognition in an artist’s lifetime (or ever) so I may never find an airtight reason to fulfil that need. And yet, it still makes me happy and I still need to do it, with or without guarantees.

Favourite Haiku (1)

entering the forest enters you

Ruth Holzer

_

one coyote –

the entire mountain

howls moonlight

Sandi Pray

_

chime shop

the dialects

of wind

Peter Newton

_

not seeing

the room is white

until that red apple

Elizabeth Searle Lamb

_

a screendoor’s quiet

rain and the sound of spoons placed

carefully away

Burnell Lippy

The Dreaming Room

When Leonard Cohen ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk in 1996 he received the Dharma name ‘Jikan’ which, according to Michael Dylan Welch in his essay ‘Going Nowhere: Learning Haiku from Pico Iyer’, means “the silence between two thoughts”. In haiku this silence or space between the poem’s two juxtaposed parts is called ‘Ma’ and this idea is crucial to the form’s power. Welch also refers to ‘Ma’ as the “dreaming room […] where the best haiku find their deepest reverberations.”

final resting place…
wherever
the wind decides

Michele L. Harvey, Heron’s Nest (June 2021)

In Memory

I read an obituary this week for a woman I met three years ago on a meditation retreat in the Lake District. We only met for five days and I had forgotten her name until I saw her photo in the obituary but I never forgot her. Carl W. Buehner, a speechmaker, once wrote that “they may forget what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

I remember her mother had recently died before the retreat and in our circle talks she was open with her grief. I remember walking with her on a field covered with goat faeces while she told me about her work in makeup. I remember driving with her and a friend to see the lakes and we bought ourselves overpriced ice cream and visited the local souvenir shop.

Once I was reading Gary Synder’s poetry during a tea break and another man on the retreat, Keith, noticed the book and asked if I had read any other Beat poets. Sharon, sat on the couch nearby, joined in and recited a line or two from Allen Ginsberg’s ‘A Footnote to Howl’ on the holiness of the madman, the typewriter and, for Ginsberg, the holiness of balls. I enjoyed her quirkiness.

On the last day Keith gave her a lift to the train station and before she left she hugged me and said “I love you.” Then she put her suitcase in the boot and drove off. I sometimes wondered over the years what became of her and if we would ever meet again.

Before he died the Zen Master, Kozan Ichikyo, wrote:

Empty handed I entered

The world

Barefoot I leave it

My coming, my going –

Two simple happenings

That got entangled

The Red Hot Chili Peppers released a song in their 2002 album By The Way called ‘Venice Queen’ about a woman close to the band who had died and one of the verses went:

Where you come from? / Where you going?

Coming and going. The Great Matter of Birth and Death.

Where has that person who said “I love you” gone?

I hope, wherever she is, that she’s reunited with her mother.

I love you too Sharon.

Make Your Own Rules

T.S. Eliot once wrote that “When forced to work within a strict framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, the work is likely to sprawl.” Given his background Eliot may have been talking about the creative restrictions of poetic forms but I think the principle applies to rules in general as well.

Art is one of the few places where you get to make the rules. When recording his fifth studio album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy Kanye West laid out some studio rules that included:

NO TWEETING

NO PICTURES

NO HIPSTER HATS

NO RACKING FOCUS WHILE MUSIC IS BEING PLAYED OR MUSIC IS BEING MADE

NO BLOGGING

These rules may seem arbitrary to me or you but to Kanye these were essential to the particular situation he was in. Someone in the studio, possibly Kanye himself, was tweeting or blogging and no music was being made. So, in that hypothetical situation, the rules are there to prevent (or minimise) the sprawl of procrastination because it’s easy, maybe even natural, to turn away when there’s difficult work to be done.

On this dual nature of ours Don DeLillo wrote that “a writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it.” If an award-winning novelist also struggles with procrastination (and still manages to write) we’re in good company.

So go ahead. Make some rules for yourself.

Do it for Yourself

William Zinsser working in his Manhattan office.

In his book Drive Daniel Pink writes about two kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Autonomy, mastery and purpose motivate us from within. Money, praise, status and all the rest motivate us from outside. Writing includes both kinds of motivation but I think what motivates us to write more than anything else is the need to be read. Why else would you write? But what happens if we aren’t read as much as we expect to be read, or worse, what if no one reads our work at all?

The danger of unchecked expectations like wanting to be read by so many people a day or to be followed by so many people in the space of a month or two is that, if they go unfulfilled and unnoticed long enough, we quit. It’s hard to stop and consider the possibility that we’re missing something. Maybe people can’t find our work because we haven’t marketed it enough or because we haven’t optimised it enough for Google and other search engines? Or maybe, like Steven Pressfield writes in Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit, “It isn’t that people are mean or cruel. They’re just busy.”

Also, as Seth Godin writes in The Practice, “people who are fairly satisfied say nothing.” If I like a newsletter or a blog post I don’t usually comment because I assume the author won’t reply and I’m wasting my time but for all I know that comment may just be what they needed.

So if people are busy or they don’t feel the need to comment and you don’t know what to think because no one’s giving you any feedback, why keep writing? I think William Zinsser can console us. He writes in On Writing Well:

“‘Who am I writing for?’ It’s a fundamental question and it has a fundamental answer: you are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualise the great mass audience. There is no such audience – every reader is different person. […] You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for.”

As for those troublesome expectations I think the poet Robert Bly can help us too. When Bly asked his mentor, William Stafford, how he was so prolific Stafford replied, “I lower my standards.” I feel we can do the same with our expectations.

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The Poet’s Cardboard Box

Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, wrote in The Poetry Home Repair Manual, “One of my first writing places was a cardboard refrigerator box pushed into the corner of the bedroom in a tiny apartment my first wife and I rented while I was in graduate school. I sat in the box to write my poems, and taped the drafts on the cardboard walls.”

A cardboard box isn’t an ideal desk to write on but I think Kooser understood, given the circumstances, that the writing itself was what mattered, not how it looked to others. Of course, if he could afford a desk he would have wrote on a desk.

It’s easy to get hung up on appearances and forget that the substance of a thing isn’t always revealed by its appearance. The beard does not make the philosopher.

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One Winter’s Day at St John’s Beacon

Liverpool in fog with the Liver Birds, Bella and Bertie, visible.

Before Covid struck England and shook the economy I worked as a tour guide in St John’s Beacon, the second tallest building in Liverpool. Up there you could see the River Mersey, the Irish Sea, the Welsh mountains beyond the Wirral and, on clear days, Blackpool tower. In summer we had queues waiting outside for us to open and there was scarcely enough time to catch a breath between taking old customers down and bringing new customers up. But in winter, when fog pressed against the gallery windows and the tourists were gone, there were very few customers.

One winter’s day with the city covered in fog my friend on the tour team and I decided on a whim to write a renga. In Japanese poetry the renga is a collaborative form of linked verses that two or more poets complete together. The introductory verse to a renga became what’s known today as haiku after Matsuo Basho pioneered that verse as a form unto itself. On breaks at work I would sketch haiku and tell my friend about it. Sometimes he would count syllables with his fingers and, apropos of nothing, recite a haiku he had probably been mulling over for the past half hour. Once, when I got stuck in a lift with customers for an hour, he wrote a haiku about it because of course he did.

I forget the exact verses of our renga but I remember, by some strange twists and turns, Bigfoot showed up at the end. Why not? Meanwhile, thanks to wind blowing down the Welsh mountains, the fog began to part and the familiar landscape came slowly into view.

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Hi, I’m starting a monthly newsletter on writing, creativity, philosophy, poetry, etc. Essentially anything I find interesting that you might also find interesting. I’ll throw some book recommendations in there too. If that tickles your fancy the link is here. First issue is out 30th April.