“In recasting “haiku as poetic spell”, I wish to emphasise, firstly, an ideal that is poetic as opposed to prosaic, and secondly, an expression that is more akin to a magical utterance than a mere report of an incident, however consequential or inconsequential.”
Martin Lucas, Haiku as Poetic Spell*
It matters little that Wing Beats was published eight years ago. This beautifully produced collection of 323 Haiku, all of which are ‘solidly grounded in actual experience’, has lasting value. The poems reflect moments in the lives of, we are told, 131 of the 570 species of British Birds listed by the British Ornithologists Union. This is, necesssarily then, a local project. One American viewer was baffled, for instance, by the word tormentil (a small yellow flower that is quite common where I live). As someone who is familar with, and very fond of, British flora and fauna, though, I find that many of the poems work well as evocations. They brim with what the seventeenth century naturalist Gilbert White called nice (exact, meticulous) observation of our avian neighbours, whilst Sean Gray’s monochrome illustrations depict each species so convincingly that I’ve been quite surprised that some of his birds haven’t flown up from the page.
The medium of haiku -characterised, according to sources to hand, by immediacy, precision, concreteness (no overt use of metaphor or symbolism), restraint, open-endedness, suggestion rather than explication, and an effacement of human emotional response- elicits slow contemplative reading. This is not a book to be rushed.
For readers unfamiliar with the evolving tradition of English language haiku poetry, or with British Birds, there is a useful introduction and a series of informative appendices on taxonomy, naming conventions, the process of compiling the anthology, and (a substantial essay) on season words (kigo). The latter includes interesting comparisons between the avifauna of Britain and Japan, where the associations between various birds and particular times of the year are ‘deeply rooted in haiku tradition’. Matsuo Bashō often wrote about birds. British cultural tradition is, of course, also rich in seasonal lore, not least that surrounding ‘the old pagan holidays’.
Interestingly, an early conception of the project was for a book of crow haiku (!) “twisting back from the mythic legacy of Hughes to include Bashō’s famous ‘crow’ haiku”. Although John Barlow and Matthew Paul chose instead to emphasise ‘the real’, ‘to celebrate the commonplace, the local, the everyday’ and reflect ‘the geography, geology, history, and flora of the British landscape’, they clearly believe that the sensory moments they celebrate ‘refresh the human spirit’. Stephen Moss, in his Foreword, talks about an underlying indefineable connection with wild creatures ‘the true meaning of which is perhaps known only to our hearts’, and writes that the poems help us reconnect in a deeper, more intense, way, -though ‘an element of mystery remains’.
The quotation (epigraph above) from Martin Lucas -who was a colleague and friend of the editors, and a keen birdwatcher- is taken from an essay in which he likened haiku to ‘a poetic spell’, in which words ‘chime’, ‘beat’, and ‘flow’, have power, and when spoken like a charm, cannot be forgotten. This recalls Ted Hughes’s conception of poetic magic, though Hughes took the idea further, believing that sufficiently well crafted words could summon an animal, or spirit. In suggesting that there were other kinds of poetic spell, however, Martin Lucas did leave open the question of what form these might take.
I like this book very much, but a critical voice in me found the lack of an author index frustrating, and would like to have seen more than a couple of passing references to the crisis affecting so many bird species. The scale of the loss of many once common species is perhaps more evident now than it was in 2008? (See, for instance here). I’m all in favour of celebrating the beauty of the living world. It seems to me that many of these haiku have the attributes of Martin Lucas’s ‘magical utterances’, that they have been crafted from the numinosity of nature, and crucially for me, they foreground the agency of other-than-human protagonists. But its now quite widely accpeted, not least in the burgeoning field of ecocriticism as well as amongst contemporary animists, that celebration needs to happen in a context that tells truths about both the impact of human cultures, especially those framed by global capitalism and late modernity, on other sentient species, and attends to the deathward facing/katabatic aspect of cosmic nature. This is something that Ted Hughes, at his best, arguably achieved.
I borrowed a copy of Wing Beats from my friend Jo Pacsoo, who has a haiku in the book (and several others here). Elsewhere she has made effective use of the haibun form, in which haiku are embedded in similarly succinct and controlled prose, allowing personal and/or political context to be elaborated.
But enough from my inner critic. I would wholeheartedly reccomend this anthology to anyone who knows, and cares about, British birds. There is a lot to be said for the understated phenomenological precision of haiku as a way of responding to, and evoking, the depth and complexity of the living world. Taken together, the poems in Wing Beats constitute a valuable repository of testimony to human appreciation of, and respect for, wild land and the multi species communities we are fast losing. Amid an unceasing deluge of apocalytic news, there is, surely, a pressing need for practices and sites of quiet contemplation and celebration.
B.T. 26th of September 2016.
John Barlow and Matthew Paul, eds.Wing Beats, British Birds in Haiku, Snapshot Press (2008).
Martin Lucas, Haiku as Poetic Spell, a paper delivered at the 4th Haiku Pacific Rim Conference in Terrigal, Australia, in 2009.
Jo Pacsoo, Chiaoscuro, and Earth, Time, Water, and Sky, both from Palores Publications, Redruth.