Category Archives: poetry

Poetry in Translation – The Trouble with Tits

At one time I was fascinated by foreign languages, but frustrated by my lack of talent in learning them. What I should have done, while I still had the intellect, was to have learned them in a more structured way. I had a friend who wanted to do languages at University and he used to give himself a target to memorise a list of words each week. If only I had learnt then what it took me another forty years to realise – talent isn’t necessary, and hard work  will always beat it.

At the back of my mind, since looking at haiku in translation, I have become convinced that writing haiku in foreign languages isn’t difficult. It can’t be, because there aren’t many worlds and there are no complicated ideas. This is strange, as I make hard work of them in English, so really can’t imagine they are less difficult in a foreign language. Such thoughts are often born from a position of ignorance, so I’m probably going to alter my position on that subject.

Also at the back of my mind, in that portion where the world is a strange place and reality has little to do with my thoughts, is a vague thought that even if you are a native English speaker, that isn’t enough to enable you to write haiku for Americans.

For one thing, the guidelines generally given fro writing haiku are often ignored by American editors so I don’t have a clue what they really want.

And for another, you have the “two nations divided by a common language” problem.Take birds, for instance. As I look out of my window, I see Blue Tits and Great Tits in reasonable numbers. This is not a family of birds familiar to the American reader. They have chickadees. In any case, I tend to steer clear of tits in poetry, as the ambiguity of the word tends to encourage smutty levity and the proliferation of limerick type verses.

Until the Great War they were known as titmice, if you look in older bird books. This is just one more area where the war encouraged the decline of society – the others being votes for women and the popularity of the wrist watch. Life was much easier when women let us think we were in charge and where watches were commonly worn in waistcoats. The decline in standards can, I am convinced, be blamed on the decline of the waistcoat. You don’t need a watch pocket if you have the infernal device strapped to your wrist, and without a waistcoat all you are left with is a gravy-stained shirt. No waistcoat, no gravitas.

Back at the poetry/ornithology interface, how do you get round the chickadee/tit problem? Tits have one syllable, chickadees have three. You can’t just slip in one word as a substitute for another. In haiku syllables are important. In a poem limited to 17 syllables, adding two is a difficult task. Three syllables are a sixth of the poem. Do that calculation for a sonnet and it’s over two lines. That is significant length. At least with the goldcrest/kinglet translation there is no syllable problem. You might be OK translating chickadee and long-tailed tit, but who in his right mind is going to try to get long-tailed tit into a haiku?

Anyway, Julia is 125 miles away, visiting Number One Son in his new Norwich home, and I am already thinking about a Chinese takeaway. Or possibly a curry. One thing I’m definitely not thinking about is salad. So, I’m going to leave it here, and start behaving like a bachelor. Loads of TV featuring archaeology and machinery and no diet. And definitely no washing up until it’s twenty minutes from Julia’s estimated return.

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Some thoughts on Long Covid

I made six submissions last month, all apart from one were in the final week of the month. This month I have only two submissions to make, and have made them both already.

This is a welcome return to what I consider normality. Twelve months ago I was able to make the month’s submissions on the days the submission windows opened. Illness intervened and I found myself entering a period where I was mainly editing work that was already written, and I was struggling to complete it and submit for the end of the period. After six months I started writing new poems again, and it is only this month that I have managed to get far enough ahead to submit closer to the beginning of the period.

I could have submitted sooner, but have become lazy in the last year.

The advantage of submitting earlier in the period is that (in my theory, at least) you establish yourself as the favoured candidate, and later submissions have to work harder to push you out.

The advantage of submitting later is that you (probably) have more time to let the piece mature (unless, like me, you are struggling to keep up) and you get answers quicker, as decisions are made within days of submission rather than waiting until the end of the month.

In years to come, the mythical PhD student I always think I’m writing for, will be able to read this post and add it to the list of Long Covid symptoms – difficulty in writing new poetry. I didn’t write anything new for several months after Covid, and even struggled to knock the existing writing into shape. I then spent a long time struggling to write anything new – resulting in missed deadlines and lots of last minute submissions. Finally I managed to find some form and, for the last month, have finally started writing with fluidity again. The plan for next month is that I will submit as much as possible in the first week of the month, using things which I am finalising now.

What a difference a year makes.

Danger of Tedium . . .

Sorry, another day and another late night slump in front of TV. Julia woke me to tell me she was going to bed and I fell asleep again. I awoke with a head full of peculiar dreams (I’d obviously being listening to TV as I slept) and found the remote on the floor, where it had obviously dropped when I drifted off.

You didn’t miss much, as it was a truly boring day. The man with the “13 gold guineas” didn’t turn up, but we had always suspected that might be the case. A dealer did turn up with a load of junk, which is always interesting as some of it was quite interesting – one man’s trash being another man’s treasure as they always say. Silver has gone up so he wanted to cash in his lower grade coins and he also had various bits he’d bought in auction which are not his normal type of stock. The other two enjoyed themselves with that and I ended up with the task of writing up empty display cases for eBay. They are easy enough, but not very interesting.

Today (Sunday) has mostly consisted of bacon croissants, ginger biscuits and going through old emails. I lost my list of submissions when the computer failed, and I need to get it back together for future use. If I want to reprint anything (I’m still ambivalent about putting a book together) I will need all the details of first publication. A trawl through the emails has netted me 22 haiku (which was a surprise, as I thought it was only about a dozen) and 20 tanka. I have not been writing tanka very long, but am obviously better at them than I am at haiku.  I know there are a few tanka missing from that total and I think I know where to track them down, so suspect that the amended figure might see tanka outstripping haiku.

And suddenly, from telling you that I had a boring day on Saturday, I start telling you I spent Sunday making lists. Sorry about that – let’s hope Part 2 is more interesting.

 

Smugness, Success and the Art of the Humblebrag

Warning – this post may contain smugness and inappropriate levels of self-satisfaction. I have also invented a new (to me ) form of humblebrag –

Do you realise how much time it takes emailing editors to thank them for accepting your work? I’ve had to do it three times in the last three days and it’s hard finding time to actually write the poems.

That’s. of course, an exaggeration, as i’d be happy to spend all day thanking editors, and in truth it only took about ten minutes in total. I tend, like editors to have a fairly standard reply, because after “thank you” there isn’t much to say.

The story is that I have spent the last few days hammering away at the keyboard. I did this because I am lazy and disorganised and only work when under threat of a deadline. Even then, the “work” of writing poetry doesn’t compare to cleaning out a chicken she in November, or cutting lawns in the middle of summer. Anyway, I managed six submissions in the last  four days (they were written but not finished.

One had an acceptance within 24 hours. I have already written about that. This morning I had an email to tell me someone had accepted three poems from yesterday’s submissions (which is a high level of editor industry and well beyond the call of duty. This evening I switched the computer on and found two more had been accepted. That had taken several days, which is still stunningly speedy considering editors also have day jobs and get piles of poetry sent to them.

Obviously, I’m happy and grateful, and, as you may have noticed before, success is a double edged sword, as I start to worry about repeating it. However, it goes deeper than that. It’s 12 months since I had cellulitis and the associated sepsis, and about eleven since I had Covid. It has taken all that time for me to get going again and to feel I am back up to standard.

Unknown Stories – a haibun

This is an example of a haibun, following on from yesterday’s post. The eldest (tallest) daughter is my grandmother. She isn’t holding his hand, as mentioned in the poem, but it is the last photograph. For more information see The Carus Brothers at War (Part 1), or The Carus Brothers at War (Part 2) or The Carus Brothers at War (Part 3).

It was first published in The Haibun Journal April 2022.

Unknown Stories

last photograph
in it my grandma holds
a soldier’s hand

In 1920 the Great War was over, but the grieving continued. The British Army exhumed four unidentified bodies from the major battle areas of the Great War. After four years of fighting there was no shortage of choice. There are differing stories about the secretive process, and nobody knows exactly what happened. However, we do know that on the night of 7th November 1920, a General, either blindfolded, or with his eyes closed, selected one of them.

That body became the most celebrated British soldier of the war – the Unknown Warrior. He lies in Westminster Abbey – the only tombstone in the Abbey where nobody is allowed to walk. He is buried with a Crusader’s sword, a gift from the King, in a coffin made from an oak tree that once grew at Hampton Court. The Americans gave him the Medal of Honor and, in 2020, his hundredth anniversary, the Poet Laureate wrote a poem for him.

The remaining three were reburied by the roadside under cover of darkness. They were eventually found by a Grave Registration Unit and moved to a cemetery, as were thousands of other wayside graves. For them, there was no grand ceremony, just a stone marked, like thousands of others, “Known unto God”.

a poppy cross
each year her eyes filled up
two minutes pass

What is a Haibun?

I was asked recently, in the comments, for a definition of a haibun. The quick answer is that it’s some prose with a haiku. As answers go, that’s accurate, but not particularly useful.

It’s likely, if you look back at old poems, that it doesn’t actually have to have a haiku. However, try convincing an editor of that.

A haiku is a very short poem that, over the years, has attracted a lot of rules. In Japanese it has 17 “on”, which are sound units. They are not the same as syllables, though they were originally treated as if they were. In Japanese “haiku” has three “on”., but only two syllables in English. Originally we were told to write haiku in three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables. If you check on the internet, you will still be told that. This is wrong.

We are now allowed to use lines of different length and told that 13 syllables is probably about right. We aren’t supposed to include ourselves or poetic devices in haiku and they are supposed to have a season word, talk of nature and a cutting word to differentiate the two parts of the haiku. They like to have two parts – one being what you saw and the other (usually the last line), something that acts as as a contrast. If they talk of human nature, they are senryu, but for haibun purposes they are much the same. They also have simplicity and various sad, wistful feelings attached to them. As I say, short poem, a lot of rules.

Strangely, a lot of the “rules” started off as guidelines and, in the minds of various editors, become rules.

My Orange Parker Pen

Then you get the prose. It should be terse and haiku-like, because it then mirrors the haiku. Or if you read another well-respected poet, it should be different in style from a haiku, as the same style will make it boring.

The haiku should be different from the subject matter, and should “link and shift”. Or, according to another well-known haibun writer, that’s not correct. and is based on a misunderstanding. No, I can’t explain “link and shift” properly. And considering the experience of all the poets and their different views, I can’t tell you exactly what a haibun is either,

Tanka prose is slightly easier to understand. It’s a tanka (five line poem) and prose. There are fewer rules and less discussion about tanka prose, so it’s easier to write. You can concentrate on the writing instead of worrying about hitting the targets imposed by various, contradictory, rules.

Finally, the poem and prose can be placed in different ways. This can be poem and prose or prose and poem. It can also be prose, poem, prose or poem, prose, poem. Or other ways. As usual, there are Japanese words for all these things. And, as usual, I can’t remember them.

That’s a vey short, simple and not exactly neutral explanation. I’ll post a few poems and links over the next few days.

Orange Parker Pen

Day 210

Last night I spent several hours improving a tanka prose poem with a restructure and a new tanka. I then unedited a small part where the original was better than the re-write. All in all, it felt good.

Finally I decided on a destination and started to get it ready to send. For some reason, alarm bells started to ring. I checked the last submission I had made to the intended magazine and found I’d submitted the old version last time. I’m never sure of the advisability of sending new versions to old editors (if you see what I mean).

Then I had a look at the magazine. I hadn’t just submitted the old version, I’d had it accepted.

My Orange Parker Pen

Coming so soon after the incident where I seem to have bought from eBay in my sleep I really feel I need to get a grip. A new filing system is called for, and that should be achievable. Apart from the problem with filing, I have the additional problem that some haibun have multiple versions and several different titles. A new brain would be good too, but I think that might be beyond me. I must eat more fish.

I’m thinking that with just four submissions this month I may call it a day and not try any of the other seven I have listed. It’s a poor result when compared to the plan, but it’s still four submissions, which is a reasonable amount.

I just spent the last two hours looking at odds and ends – there really is nothing that I feel like sending. I am going to spend August organising things (not many submissions planned) and in September I’m hoping I will be ahead of myself once more.

I always used to plan things so that I could submit at the beginning of the window rather than the end. I always think, rightly or wrongly, that if I get in first the next submission has to be better than mine to replace me in the editor’s mental shortlist. If I submit at the end, I have to be better than the others. And there is always the chance, as has happened several times, that there will be a  last minute email glitch.

A colourful shed

Day 140

I’ve just been looking at a recent haibun, which I had thought I might reprint it in the blog. When I looked at it I found that, despite it being accepted and published, and despite my various edits and improvements before submission, it still has faults. It’s strange how that happens. There are at least two corrections needed in the space of 200 words. I suppose this will always be the problem with written work. It seemed finished when I submitted it, but the faults are clear and jarring.

Looking at it with fresh eyes shows more clearly what an editor may see when looking at my work. They aren’t even complicated faults – one being a fault with rhythm and one being a repeated word.

The piece I have used, could be better, and I have had a couple of thoughts for improvement, but nothing leaps out at me immediately. I’m now wondering about the idea of leaving everything for an extra three months before submitting it.

 

Quiet Corner

As a child, I attended a village school where the playground shared a wall with the churchyard. On one side of the wall we played and shouted. On the other, a line of small mossy memorials marked the graves of babies. Having grown up knowing that I had a sister who had died before I was born, I accepted, as did most people, that babies died. Years later, staring in wonder at my firstborn, I would think about those stones again, the tiny bodies that they covered, and from a new perspective, the parents.

snail shells
the song thrush uses gravestones
for an anvil

First Published Blithe Spirit February 2022

Day 118

I picked twelve empty stalks from the Spanish poppies today – the season’s total so far. There are five more in bloom today and they seem to have lasted better than most of the blooms do. I think one or two must have lasted two days now. late last summer we were lucky if they lasted six hours. I must monitor that this year and see if they follow the same pattern.

The Welsh poppy is looking good, and has a number of buds ready to take over the job of flowering. I’m not sure how long they last, but have always thought of them as quite tough. Again, I will have a chance to observe. I must make sure I end the season with enough seeds to ensure it spreads.

Meanwhile, having resisted sarcasm yesterday, I couldn’t hold it back this afternoon on the shop. There was an incident earlier in the week where one of my co-workers was, I thought, rather wasteful with some packaging. Well, today he excelled himself. Twelve items, twelve plastic sleeves. Then a board backed envelope and then two pieces of card. I maintained silence. I am, after all, just a cog in the machine. Then the printer started. He was printing three sheets of paper with screenshots of the goods he was packing. He could simply have put Banknotes (12) on a compliments slip but that wouldn’t have been wasteful enough for him.

“Why,” I asked, “don’t you just nuke a forest while you’re at it?”

He took offence at this.

My penultimate news is that my vaccination seems to have passed without incident. I had a slightly sore arm last night and woke up at about 6am this morning when I rolled over on it. It’s still slightly sore if I touch it, but, as I used to tell the kids when they did such things – don’t touch it.

Finally, cattails is out. I am on pages 83, 86, 118, 170, 173, 174. The last one is just a repeat of 170, which is the Editor’s Choice in the tanka prose section. Just thought I’d mention that as I slip from the page.

 

Day 104

I fell asleep in front of TV. The fire was on and the chair was comfortable. What more can I say?

I had three non-acceptances yesterday – one from a magazine and two from a competition. After doing well in competition last year I had hopes again for this year, and my entries were, I thought, better than last year. The winning entries, unfortunately for me, were also better, and far better than mine. Such is life. The magazine rejection was not unexpected.

That leaves me at nine acceptances and three rejections for the year, which is still satisfactory. Even better, I have a number of poems which are now free for resubmission to other places – this is my writing system and it is good to get it back into operation. After the double illness last year the system stopped, as I lost the continuity. It’s good to have some material in reserve again.

Beach Huts – Southwold

I think I’ve probably covered this before, but a lot of my acceptances have had several rejections before they succeed. Many of the successes, to be fair, are very different from their original form – forged in the heat of rejection, if you like.

Inevitably they become shorter and often assume the form of a short prose piece followed by a haiku. I don’t remember the proper Japanese term, but it has developed over the years, even over the few years I have been writing them seriously, and is almost the standard form.

I find it a bit dull, when there are some many other structures, but that’s just how it is. Sometimes it seems like it’s impossible to be published in an American magazine unless you adhere to this form, and to several other fashionable ideas. What were guidelines a few years ago, are almost rules now.

On Dunwich beach

Of course, the older rambling prose interspersed with multiple haiku can be pretty dull too. They used to be known as “pearls from mudbanks” haibun – flashes of brilliance concealed in a heap of words. I’ve read a few of them this month too, and they can be great, but often aren’t. That was the style I used to write fifteen years ago. None of them were published. After a twelve year rest I came back ith shorter haibun. I’m now trying to make them longer.

And thus we come to a crossroads. Do I alter my writing style to fit fashion, or do I carry on doing what seems right and wait for fashion to change?

I have ambition to improve, and write better, but no particular inclination towards fame and fortune, so i can afford to wait. After all, as I’ve said before, I write because I enjoy it and only submit to magazines because it’s a form of quality control. It’s nice to know that I’m writing to an acceptable standard, but I try to take a balanced view of rejection. A couple of years ago I used to compose acerbic replies to editors in my head. These days I just shrug and edit.

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