Favourite Haiku by Martin Lucas

Those who know me, and know the way I read haiku, will know that I’m selecting favourites the whole time – from every haiku publication I read. I call them my Seashells (“why” is not important, but it goes back to Basho …). I have hundreds, nay thousands, of Seashells. (Last time I counted, I had about 3000, but that was years ago, and the collection keeps on growing. Every year I run a contest called the Seashell Game when 512 or 1024 of the Seashells are matched against each other and our judges take their pick of the bunch.) How, then, can I possibly pick just 10?

I thought about this for a while, and I thought the thing to do is not to try to pick my 10 favourite haiku, because that’s impossible, but to try and pick 10 favourite haiku poets – a somewhat more manageable task – and then pick a favourite from each poet. But no sooner had I come to this decision than I thought, you know, there really are some stand-out individual haiku that I can’t possibly ignore, so what am I going to do? I know, I’ll just follow my nose … the following mixes favourite poets and favourite poems, and it wouldn’t really be right to say which is which.

night birth a lamb shakes fluids into the sleet

This haiku by Pamela Brown won the Haiku Presence Award 2009. It’s a haiku with raw power, and nothing even remotely pretty or comfortable about it. It makes you feel cold, and it makes you aware of an amazing will to live, and of how hard it is sometimes to survive in the face of elemental forces. And although most of the time, thankfully, we’re all a lot more comfortable than this, deep down we all share this vulnerability. Pamela is a poet living in Wales, who does not publish on the internet, and whose work now appears almost exclusively in my own Presence. As such, she is not well known internationally, but she is one of the most naturally gifted haiku poets writing today.

starlit sky …
I touch a turtle
before it enters the sea

K Ramesh, a haiku poet from India, also seems to live and breathe haiku. I could have chosen any one of many haiku he’s published in Presence and elsewhere over the years, but one that I particularly admire is “starlit sky”. It finished 2nd in the Seashell Game in 2010. It has much more conventional beauty than Pamela’s, and it lures the reader in, but it also has that same focus on a will to live, and vulnerability – in this case, not just the vulnerability of the individual turtle, but also of the entire species in the face of relentless human population growth and habitat destruction. There’s also this vast scale, and you can’t help feeling the resonance between the near-infinity of grains of sand and the near-infinity of stars in the sky.

I came here:
wind in the reeds

This haiku, by American poet Mike Dillon, won the Seashell Game 2004. That year the Game (which is usually run by email) was a live event at the British Haiku Society gathering at Bradwell on the Essex coast. I can’t help thinking that the participants homed in on this haiku as their favourite because it spoke to them, almost precisely, of where they were and what they were doing. They’d left their usual lives, and retreated to a quiet, windy, reedy corner, to spend some time with haiku. There are so many ways of living a life, and so many that have no time for poetry or nature; but for me I need to spend time where things are quiet enough that I can hear my own thoughts, and where the Earth speaks to me in its own language, as “wind in the reeds” or in its many other voices. I’m sure Mike Dillon has never visited Bradwell, and he’s probably never met any of the poets who voted for his poem, but the language of the Earth links us, wherever we are.

hearing the island
divide the river
starless night

Here’s another Seashell Game winner, the 2013 version, from another American poet, Burnell Lippy. And he’s someone else who seems to understand haiku from the inside out. Many of his haiku home in on small details that are somehow evocative of a much broader sense of the seasons, and it may not be representative to pick out a large-canvas haiku like this. But I can’t resist it. Again, it’s about listening, and hearing, and speaking. It gives the island a life and it gives the river a life. And it’s dark, and the opportunities to appreciate darkness are shrinking in this light-polluted world we’ve made.

enough grey light
for the greenshank’s shadow …
rain across the bay

lifting mist …
a flock of knots fans out
across the creek

Two more haiku from the Seashell Game – the winner and the 7th from 2008. John Barlow (greenshank) and Matthew Paul (knot) collaborated on Wing Beats, their collection of haiku about British birds. Allan Burns has described me as a “serious recreational birder”, and I suppose I am, since I spend a high proportion of my leisure time “birding”. Waders (or shorebirds, as they are known in America), are birds for the connoisseur – often rather drab in colour (except in their brief breeding plumage, when the knot, for example, turns a deep brick red), they spend their lives in the water-coloured world of estuaries, saltmarshes, and coastal lagoons. Birders seek them out; non-birders hardly know they exist. The greenshank and the knot are both medium-sized, but the former is slim, with long legs and bill, and the latter is dumpy, with short legs and bill. And the greenshank is usually solitary, whereas the knot gathers in huge flocks.

Both these haiku have that open-air feeling. John’s does very clever things with colour and Matthew’s is equally clever with movement. But mainly I like them just because they remind me of why I spend so much time seeking out these windswept places and the creatures that inhabit them.

trailing dusk the great blue heron skies

The same could be said of Andrea Grillo’s heron haiku, though for me it also has a touch of the exotic (which I doubt it has for the author) – the great blue is the American counterpart of the very similar grey heron of Europe, with which I am much more familiar. There’s some cleverness here too – the double duty of “skies” as both noun and verb; and the way the writer gets marvellous added value from transforming the rather technical “great blue” of the heron’s name, applying it also to “skies”. This is an object lesson in how to write one-line haiku: how to use opportunities for ambiguity to unlock the imagination, so that what you are writing is not some mere nature-sketch but very definitely a poem.

scattered drops
from the pheasant’s tail
autumn rain

Oh dear, another bird, but of a very different kind. The knot, the greenshank and the heron have great character and nobility. So too, perhaps, the pheasant, in its homeland of central Asia. But in Britain the pheasant is bred and released in its thousands to provide the extremely dubious pleasure of being shot by people peculiar enough to regard killing another living being as an amusement. This exploitation robs the pheasant of any noble associations, but it doesn’t entirely rob it of its beauty – catch it in the right light, and it’s still a dazzling creature. And Claire Everett has here caught it in exactly the right light. Okay, I hinted in my opening remarks that haiku has better things to do than be beautiful; but there are exceptions to every generalisation.

Not a single stone
To throw at the dog:
The winter moon.

So enough of what I love (birds); how about what I don’t (dogs). That remark could get me into trouble, so I better explain my meaning quickly, before anyone starts scanning about for a stone to throw at me! I live in an increasingly crowded and dog-obsessed country, and – as you’ll gather from the remarks above – I spend a lot of time seeking out quiet, lonely, contemplative places, and it gets harder and harder to find such places (in Britain) where the dog owners and their unleashed animals haven’t got there first.

So the haiku strikes a chord, although my reasons are unlikely to be the Japanese poet’s reasons – in his case the dog may be a real threat, necessitating self-defence. Anyway, his inclination towards violence is thwarted, which is just as well, and everything ends on a calmer note after all, as the winter moon casts its cool, placid, equable light on the scene (and maybe also on his conscience?). Haiku are not always simple and affirmative; they have an emotional complexity, which allows the reader a whole range of possible stances and interpretations. This haiku is by Taigi, often spoken of as the fifth great haiku poet (after Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki), and the translation is by R.H. Blyth – some of his versions are still impossible to better, even 60 years down the line.

heading home I return the stone to the river

And so we need to close the sequence. When you’ve found your stone, there’s something far better to do with it than lob it at a dog – you can give it back to the river it came from, and show your respect, and nourish the spirit of the river. I once described haiku as an ecological poetry, but I think I’d go further than that now. Haiku is an animistic poetry; it’s about seeing the life in things, and nurturing the life in things, in preparation for the great day when we finally find the trick of living in balance and harmony with nature, and adopt our rightful stance. That, at least, is my own very personal reading of this haiku by the master of the one-liner, Stuart Quine.

Editor’s note: Martin Lucas held a PhD from Cardiff University for his study of haiku as creative writing and was editor of Presence journal from 1996 to his death in April 2014. He was a past president of the British Haiku Society and author of Stepping Stones: a way into haiku (British Haiku Society, 2007) and co-editor of The New Haiku (Snapshot Press, 2002). Martin lived in Preston, Lancashire, and was a keen bird-watcher – some of his bird haiku were included in the Wing Beats anthology (Snapshot Press, 2008), and his work also appeared in Where the River Goes (Snapshot Press, 2014), a volume of nature-oriented haiku.