Thursday, July 30, 2015

Book Review – The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy

worldwifeIt’s an interesting way to theme a poetry collection; to look at a number of famous wives/sisters of history and myth and rework those stories from their perspective.  I commented to friends that The World’s Wife reminded me of Fablecroft’s Cranky Ladies of History but in poetic form.

The World’s Wife is refreshing,  the concept paired with Duffy’s wit, rhythm and rhyme makes for a very enjoyable and at times educational collection.  I  find the majority of Duffy’s work uplifting and vibrant even when she’s covering serious subjects and here she is especially fresh and exhuberant.

In this collection we are treated to the playful Mrs Darwin:

Mrs Darwin

7 April 1852.

Went to the Zoo.

I said to Him –

Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of



and the imaginative The Kray Sisters, that conjures up a set of fictional female twins of the infamous Kray brothers. Duffy weaves in rhyming slang in a way that feels natural(at least to my ear).

Childhood. When were the god forbids, we lived

with our grandmother – God Rest Her Soul – a tough


who’d knocked out a Grand National horse, name of

Ballytown Boy, with one punch, in front of the King

Jeanette Winterson introduces the collection and starts with “Poetry is pleasure.”  And I find that The World’s Wife, is indeed that, a pleasure.  It’s rare, for me at least to find technical proficiency mixed with such light hearted enjoyment.  I enjoy navel gazing poetry but I sometimes feel that in poetry circles in Australia, the fare is all too serious and distanced from enjoying the benefits of ebullient rhythm and rhyme.

Another strength of this collection is that the poems are narratives and narratives that most will have a passing familiarity with.  So even if you don’t immediately notice her expert handling and variation of rhythm and rhyme you'll enjoy a different take on an old tale.

I should note that not all tales are happy go lucky positive twists on old tales, nor present their characters as Angels, but even Salome (of Salome and John the Baptist fame) gives me a giggle.

A poetry collection for those who may not like navel gazing poetry or that prefer the poets message to be entertaining as well as instructive. Those readers who enjoy modern takes on old fairytales or cultural myths I think will find it interesting too.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

River of Stars: Selected Poems by Akiko Yosano, Sam Hamill & Keiko Matsui Gibson (Translators)

riverYosano Akiko is one of Japan’s most well known and controversial poets.  Dying at age 63 in 1942, she was one of Japan’s first feminists, even daring to question the Emperor. Her Tanka poetry was erotically charged and showed women to be just as sexual, complex and assertive as men. Yasano said things and felt things that until that time were impolite to discuss.

Her life and achievements goes far beyond what can be covered in this review. River of Stars selects some ninety of her Tanka (she wrote some 20-50,000 poems in her lifetime) and twelve modern free-verse poems.  The book is illustrated by Steven Addiss, who manages to evoke a style that to my eye was similar to a fusion of the line drawings by Lautrec and sumi-e. 

The eroticism present in the poetry may seem a little subdued but I think it must be kept in mind how conservative Japan was at the time of publication.  Take for example:

Fresh from my hot bath,

I dressed slowly before

the tall mirror,

a smile for my own body.

Innocence so long ago!


How much this poem breaks with traditional Tanka  I am not sure but it is placing  the poet’s body at the centre of the poem and using it to trigger memories of erotic journeys.  Some of the poetry is more direct, some of it also speaks of the agony of absence.

This poem directed at a Buddhist monk:

You’ve never explored

this tender flesh or known

such stormy blood.

Do you not grow lonely, friend,

forever preaching the Way?


This possibly directed at her lover(and later spouse)Tekkan:


He does not return.

Spring evening slowly descends.

Only this empty heart

and, falling over my koto,

strands of my dishevelled hair.


There is something lost, I suspect,  in the translations.  I have a vague memory that tangled hair, dishevelled hair can also connote wild sexual passion, as well as frustration.  So this poem while presenting elements of loss and absence could also underline this with a message of sexual passion for the lover.  

It’s not all lust, loss and eroticism.  There’s also longing for children (Yosano gave birth to 13 children):


After twenty years

of living the barren life,

I want to believe

that now all my patient dreams

will at last be realized.

I greatly enjoyed the Tanka selected for this collection.  Despite Yosano’s work being tradition breaking and erotically charged I style find it has a quality of understatement that seems to characterise Japanese poetic forms. 

The 12 modern poems included after the Tanka, held only limited attraction for me.  Interesting from a historical standpoint but robbed of the constraints of the Tanka form, they felt as if they don’t quite port over to English as well as the short forms.  Here is one of the shorter examples:

The Only Question

This one thing

I will ask you:

are you with the people

or apart from them?

Depending on your answer,

you and I

will be forever divided

between earth and heaven.

This collection is a must I think for lovers and writers of Tanka.  I also think that unlike Haiku there’s more emotion that could hook in a wider readership.  It’s a wonderful collection and showcase of a giant of Japanese Literature.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Haiku Anthology by Cor van den Heuvel (editor)

the-haiku-anthologyFor any compendium of Haiku to make it to wide publication seems amazing (from my reading, Haiku was/is generally supported almost exclusively by small press in the west) but The Haiku Anthology made it to a 3rd edition and until Haiku In English - The first Hundred Years, was probably the latest and largest collection of quality English Language Haiku and Senryu in print.

It catalogues works from the beginning of the genre in the west to the late 1990's and reading it does give you some idea of the various historical changes and trends while  also displaying the variety of approaches in what seems like such a restricted form.  If I have one minor gripe, it’s the absence of works outside of North America.  I understand that in earlier editions it included the work of  Australian pioneers like Janice Bostok and possibly for space and target market reasons these have been dropped.

The Haiku Anthology includes the previous two edition’s introductions (yes that’s three different introductions) all in reverse chronological order.  This was  informative and provided historical information that’s likely to get forgotten as the genre moves on.

There’s a broad range of nature and urban Haiku and the Senryu vary from the rude and obviously comic to being difficult to decide whether they are Senryu or Haiku:

Alan Pizzareli’s Senryu vary from:


the fat lady

bends over the tomatoes

a full moon



reaching for

the wind-up toy

it rides off the table


There’s some early work by JW Hackett in the 5-7-5 format:


Half of the minnows

within the sunlit shallow

are not really there


and then there’s Nick Virgilio’s work, which demonstrates the form’s applicability to urban situations:


approaching autumn:

the warehouse watchdog’s bark

weakens in the wind


and it’s power to handle grief and passing


my dead brother…

hearing his laugh

in my laughter


In terms of gender representation the collection is about 70/30 in favour of males, which I found interesting in the context of the Australian scene which seems largely dominated by women.  Perhaps its the effect of early proponents such as the Beat Poets (Kerouac and Ginsberg) who lent it some early legitimacy/cool for men interested in the form.

For the poet who intends to write Haiku, the anthology is a must have (either this one or Haiku in English above, which I take as a 4th edition, Cor van den Heuvel I assume, having passed on the editorial reins) even if it’s just for the ease of having a large number of quality Haiku readily at hand.  Additionally If there’s one thing that is annoying about Haiku, it’s not being able to easily track down print collections of quality proponents.  I have been trying to track down copies of Anita Virgil’s work and this collection is about the only place you’ll find a large number grouped together in print.

For the general reader, it might be a bit much to take in at once.  Haiku is one of those forms that gains depth with more understanding of the technical aspects.  So it’s worth figuring out how a good Haiku is constructed while reading the collection.  That being said, some of the Haiku and Senryu contained don’t require an understanding of the form and are “wordless” in getting their image across.

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Monday, July 13, 2015

The Fragrance of Dust: Haiku, Stories, Poems by Jim Norton


James Norton is an Irish Poet and Buddhist (ie. not the actor from Grantchester) and the collection The Fragrance of Dust collates poems written over a 20 year period, from the 1990’s to just shy of the present.

There’s Haiku, free verse  and Haibun within its hundred or so pages but it’s the Haibun that really had an impact on me.  Perhaps it’s my love for narrative but I really did feel myself becoming immersed in some of his pieces ( an achievement in any poetry I think). 

I also find his poetry very centred in his culture.  A tendency with Haiku (and I have observed this in some of my early poems) is to, if not ape Japanese or traditional Haiku in content, then to be heavily influenced by it.  So lots of cherry blossoms etc.  Not so with Norton’s work here.  It’s firmly centred in his present whether that’s Ireland or Spain.



Such a sky—
the ache of loss is answered
and returned entire

It was soon after I returned, and savouring the pleasures of
rediscovering the old amongst the strangely new, my wanderings led
me back here, to the old Fever Hospital. I looked with great curiosity
through the railings, remembering my grandmother's stories of the
months I spent here, an infant confined in isolation, numbered like
the others so that parents, prohibited from visiting, might learn of
our condition by looking in the weekly newspaper notice, the
heading of the column in which each number was placed indicating
the prognosis. Now it serves to see us out.

A handbell is ringing:
beneath boughs heavy with blossom
old men linger.

The sound breaks
across the hostel grounds
petals scatter.

The neighbour
gathers up her child, hurrying,
slams the red door.


Brú: The dictionary gives two meanings for this Gaelic word (1) hostel
(2) press, shove, crush; pressure as in blood; bruise.


There’s also a suggestion here that Norton lets the poem dictate the form or even extensions of the form.  Indeed he mentions in his introduction that with his Haibun and some of his Haiku sequences he’s felt free to experiment, noting some of the traditions the predated Haiku. So in the end I get a sense of a poet in command of the form, adjusting it where he thinks it services the poem. If you think Haiku and related Japanese genres too rigid, its proponents somewhat fixated, I challenge you to read Norton’s work. 

The Fragrance of Dust is an excellent collection for the two reasons I have alluded to above, it is a demonstration of the various forms taken and populated with life as it’s lived/observed in the various places Norton lives/lived and it’s an exemplar of the power and versatility of Haibun.

Sadly I think it was only released on a short print run. Thankfully though it has been made available by the Haiku Foundation in their digital library.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

How to Haiku by Jim Kacian


Jim Kacian is is an American haiku poet, editor and publisher.  So it stands to reason that he knows something about Haiku. 

As an introductory text though, I think I would still direct those interested in exploring Haiku to Jane Reichhold’s resources at or indeed her wonderful (and much plugged by me) Writing and Enjoying Haiku - A Hands on Guide. 

But Kacian’s How to Haiku is worth reading.  I found a number of sections built on or better informed my practise.  If I had to summarise it, How to Haiku is giving you advice on how to polish your works more than construct them.

The chapter What is a Haiku? is a bit more generalised than I would have expected.  It looks more at the intention rather than specific techniques.  The spirit of the form rather than the nuts and bolts.  Indeed it’s much like an extended definition with examples.

The chapter Form discusses the origins and varieties of Haiku in English, 5-7-5 or short long short, 5-12 or 12-5 or the monostich/one liner.  It ends with an emphasis on the form suiting/serving the poem and not the tradition.

In Content we are directed towards what should be in a Haiku. It should focus on nature or our interaction in it.  It should imply the thing the poet wants to  express, rather than expressing it directly.

In Technique Kacian identifies three types of Haiku we might encounter and write:

implied context; context and action, and juxtaposition.

this is somewhat short of the number of techniques that Reichhold has identified but I found this section an interesting observation from another angle.

Language covers the appropriate word choice and diction for writing Haiku.  The focus should be on bringing the experience to the reader and in some sense the language should almost be transparent or wordless.  There is also great thought given to when to be specific or broad i.e. do you use Bird or Cormorant.  What really interested me here was the small discussion on grammar and punctuation.  Some of it was intuitive but it was good to see how hyphens, colons and semi-colons slightly altered the reading/presentation of the poem.

How to Write Haiku served as an example of process rather than of technique.  Kacian’s suggestions were to take copious (but brief notes) when observing or experiencing Haiku moments and then whittle this down at a latter stage.  I must say that I don’t work this way but I think its a valid way for someone to approach it.  

The A (Very) Brief History of Haiku rather than be a repeat of other short histories I have read on Haiku, actually had some really good information on the transmission of the form in the west, identifying different waves/cohorts of writers.  I’d say that this booklet was worth the reading for this section alone.  It is largely American centric but still it further solidified and helped organise my impressions.

There were also additional gems found in Related Forms, particularly on Haibun, though the Renku, Rengay and Sequence information was worthwhile too.  The section on Performance had a number of suggestions including those for how to read to an audience, the addition of music.

In summary, I felt that How to Haiku was certainly a journeyman text.  It has the feel of a series of thoughtful, considered meditations on Haiku.  I think a beginner might get hung up on the “specialness” of Haiku and be unable to write for fear of not producing something of great worth.  In saying that, I don’t think its Kacian’s intention to preclude beginners, its just that in my experience its better to get people playing with the tools and then showing them how to be craftspeople.  So read this if you are looking to improve your craft.

How to Haiku was downloaded from the Haiku Foundation for free.  You can check them out here.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Shane Koyczan’s 'Heaven, or Whatever'

I defy you not to leak salt water over this beautiful poem.

Japanese Style Bookbinding

I am thinking of creating a collection of my Haiku for friends/family that will be almost entirely hand made ie apart from the paper and card which will delay the project too much.  So I am leaving this video here for future reference and to share with those artisan poets who might like to do a similar thing.

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