Roger Stevens: Haiku, A Love Affair

My first ever published poem was a haiku:

When I write haiku

I always seem to have one

Syllable left o

This was back in 1998. Which makes that poem 24 years old. The only problem is, of course, it’s not actually a haiku.

My love of Japanese poetry began at art college in the late 1960s. I became fascinated with a book I found in the college library – Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps. This ‘collection of Japanese poems and stories’ immediately became a great influence on my writing, as well as on my art and music.

Back then it didn’t occur to me that the haiku in that book didn’t each have 17 syllables arranged in lines of 5,7,5. Later, I realised this was because they had been translated into English from the Japanese. But they maintained the essence of haiku by saying so much, so sparingly. One of the great haiku masters is Matsuo Basho (1644-1694):

The old pond

A frog leaps in.

Sound of the water

When I became a fully-fledged children’s poet, I would include what I thought were haiku in my own collections and anthologies I edited and found the 5,7,5 format great fun to share with children in workshops when I visited schools.

It’s a great discipline and children enjoy trying to fit their ideas to the form. I remember the teacher who couldn’t believe the enthusiasm of two boys in her class, who had hardly written anything creative before, writing verse after verse… because it involved counting.

I often still write poems in the 5,7,5 format. But I now like to, more accurately, describe them as ‘written in the haiku style’.

Because, in 2012, I attended an online haiku writing course, along with Liz Brownlee and several other well-known children’s poets, given by Alan Summers, a haiku specialist who has won awards in Japan for his poems and is the president of the United Haiku and Tanka Society.

And it turns out that haiku are much more complicated than I first thought. I haven’t the space to list all the rules and subtleties of writing haiku here. But to begin with, a haiku must have three elements: a reference to nature (kigo), two juxtaposed images and a kireji, or ‘cutting word,’ which marks a transition in the verse and pulls the poem together. An individual image must occupy lines 1 and 2, with the third line containing the kireji. During the course, I only managed to write one haiku that passed muster:

sky before rain

a Rackham tree

catches a hat

I also discovered senryu – and found these were what I had been writing all along. Because while senryu obeys many haiku rules, they can be about people, or society and are often satirical or funny. I know now that my first published poem was, in fact, a senryu.

I like to think that, along with the mesostic, I’ve done my bit as a poet, anthologist and educator to popularise senryu. I devote some time to discussing these Japanese forms in my book Is This a Poem (Bloomsbury, 2016.)

Is This a Poem?, Roger Stevens, Illustrated by Spike Gerrell, Bloomsbury

I do enjoy the challenge of writing true haiku; so few words say something that exactly catches a moment, an idea or a feeling. A good haiku brings out the sun, just for a moment, on a grey, rainy day.

Roger Stevens

Roger Stevens has had nearly 40 books published: novels, numerous solo poetry collections and edited poetry collections. When not writing, he visits schools, libraries and festivals performing his work and running workshops for young people and teachers. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation, a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses; and of course runs the award-winning and most excellent poetry website PoetryZone.

Roger Stevens: Poetry Forms

There are some very strange and beguiling forms, styles and varieties of verse out there in Poetryland. I’ve always been fascinated why this should be so and how different forms of poetry come about.

Take blank verse, for example. Its first recorded use was by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, in his translation of the Aeneid around 1540. Not so very long after, in 1561, the first play in blank verse, Gorboduc, was written by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville. The work of Shakespeare and Marlowe show how they then adopted and adapted this form.

Shakespeare, ever the innovator, developed blank verse in many interesting ways, using enjambment and feminine endings, for example, as well as using the potential of blank verse for abrupt and irregular speech. In this exchange from King John (3.2) one blank verse line is broken between two characters:

My lord?
            A grave.
                        He shall not live.
                                                Enough.

Believe it or not, one of the oldest poetic forms is the acrostic. The word was first applied to the prophecies of the Erythraen Sybil, of classical antiquity, which were written on leaves and arranged so that the initial letters on the leaves always formed a word. Many writers and poets have had fun with this idea over the centuries. Notably Lewis Carroll in his poem for the “three Misses Liddell” whose names are spelt out by the poem.

My favourite variety of this form is the mesostic, where letters in the middle of the poem vertically spell out the poem’s title. Mesostics were invented by the Fluxus artist John Cage in the 1960s and work much better in the classroom than acrostics, causing children to try a little harder for their poem to make sense and giving a more pleasing shape when written down.

Taking the idea further, there is the horizontic:

hope Or a mirAge, Shimmering In the deSert

This and other unusual acrostics, as well as examples and explanations of many different kinds of poetry, can be found in my anthology Is This a Poem? (Bloomsbury, 2016).

Haiku poems emerged in 13th Century Japan as the opening phrase of the Renga, an oral poem generally 100 stanzas long, which was also composed syllabically. The much shorter haiku broke away from its parent in the 16th Century. And was distilled a century later by the haiku master Matsuo Basho.

the old pond
a frog leaps in
sound of the water

No modern children’s anthology, it seems, can do without at least one haiku – which should really be about nature – or its cousin, the senryu, – which describes human behaviour and is usually satirical.

After having attended a course on writing haiku, as an anthologist I now describe all these types of poems as ‘written in the haiku style’. Proper haiku poems are very complicated beasts indeed and are typically serious. I broke that rule with the very first poem I had published, way back in the early 1990s:

When I write haiku
I always seem to have one
Syllable left o

Roger Stevens

Roger Stevens has published over forty books for children. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador, a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses and runs the award-winning website www.poetryzone.co.uk for children and teachers, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2018.  A Million Brilliant Poems (Bloomsbury) was shortlisted for the CLPE prize and his book Apes to Zebras – an A to Z of shape poems (Bloomsbury) won the prestigious NSTB award. This year he published his best-of collection Razzmatazz (Otter-Barry Books) to excellent reviews.

Susannah Herbert: The 600 Citizen Poets of Lockdown

First, a confession.  In the eight years I spent running the Forward Arts Foundation, I was never comfortable talking about my job “in poetry”. For me, those in poetry were the poets and performers, who often doubled as impresarios, editors, publishers and teachers, even while holding down other jobs. These people, it seemed to me, worked in words as potters worked in clay. As makers, they represented something special, luminous – they were touched by the creative spark in a way that set them apart.

Since stepping back from day-to-day involvement with poetry, I’ve thought more about the changes I saw over those eight years: the growing recognition for poetry in the book trade, the media and libraries, an elision of the split between the written and spoken word, a participation surge big enough to win headlines. These days, the notion of creatives as creatures “apart” seems… inadequate.

Take the phenomenon of Haiflu, a portmanteau word coined by the young West Country poet Liv Torc, whose first lockdown response in March 2020 was to wonder what her friends were making of the new normal.

She used her Facebook page to ask for updates: in pictures and words, limiting written posts to three lines arranged in haiku form (5-7-5 syllables). The witty, touching, thoughtful responses kept coming, week after week, each like the opening of a window. Many were breathtaking: all were good in the sense of being true to a personal perception, a moment, a place, a shifting of the light.

I was bewitched by the possibilities of such a simple idea and knew others in the National Poetry Day network – libraries, schools, journalists – would be too. All Forward Arts Foundation had to do was put her in front of the right people, via the British Library’s Living Knowledge Network seminars, the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme or the Arts Council’s library experts.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

A year on, Project Haiflu has directly involved more than 600 “citizen artists” across the UK, with more than 10,000 individual poems shared with Liv for possible inclusion in her weekly short films, tying together pictures and words with music by her composer husband, Richard Monks. Now Liv, who spent much of the summer hospitalized with an auto-immune disorder, has just won a proper Arts Council England grant to turn the project into a participative show touring village halls, plus a book.

I first knew Liv as a poet, one of the dozen working with National Poetry Day and BBC Local Radio as a #BBCLocalPoet in 2019. (See her fine poem about Somerset.) But it’s only when we caught up this week on the usual stuff – health, children, what’s driving us mad or keeping us going – that I realised how much she’d changed the way I understand the working of poetry.

 “2020 turned me into a better artist”, she wrote, “because within the restrictions of lockdown I learned how to adapt my practice and continue to hold creative spaces for people. Feeling inept as an individual to report back on unfolding events, I became a weaver.” 

To hold space, to weave, to feel inept alone. Oh yes, this resonates. (That’s an inadvertent haiflu: sorry).  Liv’s creativity cannot be summed up in her own work, but exists among the furloughed librarians and laid-off office-workers who adapted the #haiflu hashtag for use in their communities, among those who found words for their disturbed senses in response to the tentative attempts of others, lonely and fearful like them… like us

That’s how poetry works. I’m glad to be in it.

Susannah Herbert

Read more about Liv Torc and Haiflu on www.livtorc.co.uk

Susannah Herbert ran the Forward Arts Foundation, the charity responsible for National Poetry Day and the Forward Prizes, from September 2012 to January 2021. She is currently working with St John Ambulance, and learning from other vaccination volunteers – mainly furloughed airline stewards – how to improve her bedside manner.