Wednesday 7 June 2023

Writing the Small Sublime

 By Tracey Foster

         Black ticks on bright blue
         swifts flung across the sky
         like boomerangs.

The need to write concise poetry began as an exercise during the MA Creative Writing course, as a way of training myself to rein in a tendency to overplay descriptions and imagery. I fully enjoyed the process and learnt how to hone meanings and condense a poem into simple constructs. Haiku has always been an area of poetry that fascinated me, the art of writing tiny stories in very few words. Simple sentences that work across a few lines, rhythm and rhyme packed into the small sublime.

The form of the Haiku was developed from a much older tradition in Japan of writing Renga poems that were a hundred stanzas long. Haiku appeared in the sixteenth century and became the much shorter relative, packing a story into a more condensed version, usually constructed over three lines in a 5,7,5 syllabic format. The writer focuses on nature and sets the season with key words like 'snow.’ This is called ‘kigo.’ The most famous examples of this are sakura (cherry blossoms) for spring,  fuji (wisteria) for summer, tsuki (moon) for fall, and samushi (cold) for winter. The first two lines set up the situation and the final line is often in contrast, sending the reader down a different lane. This is called ‘Kireji,’ a jump in narrative that gives the poem its raison d'être, the key message to the reader, often dark in tone or converse. This appealed to me as my writing often had an eerie undercurrent; and my feelings about the state of our native wildlife and a plea to help nature are things I am keen to tackle in my poetry.

          Scrap of grass littered
          with yellow pee-the-beds.
          Weeds to feed the bees.

The most renowned writer of Haiku is Matsuo Bashō, who explored Zen teachings and played with the format. He said: 'Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one - when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural - if the object and you are separate - then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.' A good example of his work is:

         Breaking the silence
         Of an ancient pond,
         A frog jumped into water -
         A deep resonance. 

These works influenced many poets over the centuries, most notably the American poet Ezra Pound, who said, 'The image itself is speech. The image is the word beyond formulated language.' He was inspired to rewrite his poem ‘In a Station of the Metro,’ from a thirty-line poem, down to just two lines (or three, if you count the title):

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

My research into this field of writing led me to discover other forms of compact poetry. A single Haiku written continuously on one line is called a Monoku. Tanka is a longer form using 5,7,5,7,7. The first three lines are called  kami-no-ku ('upper phrase') and the last two the shimo-no-ku ('lower phrase'). Senryu is a much shorter version, using 3,5,3 syllables, and restricts the writer even more. This can often lead to incomplete sentences, leaving the reader to mentally fill in the gaps.

           Evening star
           blue linen sky,
           drawing pin.

My creative process begins with a walk in the countryside in all weathers, as I did in lockdown whilst writing my submissions for the course in 2020. I always take a phone and jot down key phrases that come to mind, often just a sentence that will later develop into a poem. Most of my poems start from  an observation from the world outside. A Haiku is a very short poem,  but I still like to employ key constructs in my work. Alliteration, rhyme and metre are some of the devices I have employed. But I'm careful not to overdo it: the reader should be able to just fall into the imagery. I use my feelings to convey emotions, sight, sound, touch and smell and try to make the reader aware of them, but as if experiencing them from afar. 

          A murder of crows
          flies skyward as one black cloud,
          dropping snails like hail.

During April and National Poetry Month in 2023, I set myself the challenge to write a Haiku every day. This had two purposes: helping me to keep up my Creative Writing and to fit around my other life as a secondary school teacher. The challenge was easy to accomplish but harder to find an audience for. My previous poetry had been accepted for several online publications, but Haiku seems to be a niche for which it is harder to find relevant publishing outlets. There is a good Twitter community of writers who share work and encouragement and some online publications that will accept submissions. However, sharing your work online via social media will mean it won’t be accepted for publication elsewhere. The best advice I can give you is to keep trying and keep it simple. Good luck!

Here are some very useful websites to help you:

About the author
Tracey Foster started off in a long career as an Art and Design teacher but wanted to refocus her creative energies into writing poetry and prose. After helping others find inspiration in the world around us, she took an MA in Creative Writing at Leicester University and has not looked back. She finds inspiration in the past and the events that shape us. Previous work has been published by CommaPress, Ayaskala, Alternateroute, Fish Barrel Review, Mausoleum Press, Bus Poetry Magazine, Wayward Literature and the Arts Council. Her latest poem is due to be published in the Literary Review 23. Tracey is on Twitter @traceyfoster77

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