Gathered again around the long table in the farmhouse kitchen, old friends and new - Ken and Noragh Jones, George Marsh, Michael Gunton, Jim Norton, the ever-hospitable Jane Whittle, Helen Robinson, and Anne-Megan Griffiths joining us for the first time. Regrettably, Jonathan Buckley unable to be here, nor Bill Wyatt; Sean O’Connor and Joe McFadden fondly remembered from past Redthread retreats. Looking back over the records of those previous retreats, it came as a pleasant shock to realize that this is our 8th annual gathering!
Perhaps for that reason, this year was notable for especially lively debate on how we want the group to go forward. It was decided that a Redthread website would be developed, its purpose being to explore the contemplative dimension of haiku and to offer more widely a liberative vision of haiku practice as a non-sectarian, inner-path spirituality. As expressions of that, each retreatant was asked to contribute a statement of what The Way of Haiku means to them. Short extracts from these are given here, and the full statements will appear on the website.
Challenging basic assumptions about haiku in relation to other forms of creative writing, Noragh Jones dropped Seven Pebbles in the Pond, which will also be posted on the website, as will Ken’s presentation, a radical critique entitled Finding the Heart of Haiku which is extracted below.
As usual in this neck of the woods, the weather also was challenging, but we ventured out in gale and torrent, and sat wordless, listening at dawn.
Following are a selection of haiku written by participants during the retreat. They are offered anonymously, as has become our custom. Individuals’ views on the way of haiku are identified.
I waken to the silence
of peopled spaces
leaves a black rock
merging with spray
I missed it again
as it rose up
a purple wisp of sea-fern
dries into stone
the blue shoreline
dissolves into sky
its soft self
wound to the centre
“The approach is fundamentally one of mindfulness, which increasingly renders every task, everything heard and seen so much more vibrant. With the awareness of impermanence, each vibrant moment then is experienced fully, taken into me and me going out to it. Then the joy, however brief, of some sort of merging, of oneness.” - AMG
in a gale
that shakes our houses
keep each other company
as the day darkens
is his face
young or old?
under my hand
this cat’s warm purr
in the dead of night
bending to stroke it
“The conciseness of the haiku form offers a discipline that restricts the expression of ego so that the ‘ten thousand things’ may be celebrated with affection and sympathy“. - HR
a broken gate
from the stream
an oakwood in my palm
the river slows
for a drowned fireplace
in the heat of the sun
hounds play act the chase
“The path is made up of many steps, and it becomes clearer the more footprints that are made…Every footstep on such a path begins with the practice of silent devotion, or “emptiness”. Until the mind is still and cleared of the distraction of thought-chatter, the path is foggy, reality is not apprehended“. - JW
of the torrent in flood
there’s something steadying
its leaping edges
the beat of a heart
the sound of rain>
“I am a Quaker. Through our largely silent Meetings for Worship, and at any times when I sit in the Light on my own, I learn to see myself and the world as they really are, beyond my ego. Haiku too help me to see the world as it is, as I become still, and receptive to everything around me. They give me a language for the reality I find in stillness”. - MG
On ‘Finding the Heart of Haiku’ by Ken Jones
Haiku poets and enthusiasts often complain that our beloved genre isn’t taken seriously by the wider literary world. Lately I’ve been asking myself - does it deserve to be? As a sympathetic reader of current journals and former editor, too often I have to echo Homer Simpson - d’uh!!! Or if you prefer - so what? - writ large.
Ken Jones’ workshop at this year’s retreat had us close-reading a selection of UK and US haiku journals, and scoring their contents across a spectrum of four broad categories:
- Existentially liberative haiku of all kinds which give off a strong but open metaphoric resonance, offering some spark of revelation or keenly felt insight.
- Simple imagery, the stock-in-trade of western haiku.
- Clever, in which the metaphor is closed, and all that remains for the reader is to chuckle, or admire the ingenious contrivance.
- Symbolic, which again is haiku of closure, but this time freighted with heavy-handed ‘meaning’.
This exercise proved very helpful in clarifying why one often comes away from reading haiku feeling disappointed. More than that, it suggests the tentative outline of a haiku path.
To sketch this out, I’ll use a device common in buddhist studies but applicable to any situation, that of Ground, Path, and Fruition. At its simplest, the ground of haiku (or any contemplative art) is that moment of self-forgetfulness when one’s preoccupations have been momentarily suspended, and in that gap (or on its boundary?) one experiences something more clearly and with deeper feeling than is usually the case. This brings a sense of liberation, shallow or deep. One could just leave it at that, smile and pass gratefully on. Or feel a desire to explore and communicate that. Often it triggers that sort of responsiveness.
Which leads us to the path. In haiku terms, this initially involves simple imagery (Ken’s category 2, above). As he points out in his essay Finding the Heart of Haiku: “…it must not be supposed that the better sort of “Simple Imagery” haiku are easy to compose. Shiki envisaged a hard and lifelong apprenticeship in order to develop the necessary power of perceptual observation, to translate perception into poetry, and to keep one’s own thoughts and feelings out of the matter. Mastery of “Simple Imagery” will always be the essential foundation for attaining the full potential of haiku…”. I’d add to this by pointing out (as Ken does elsewhere) that simple imagery becomes complex through the use of the cutting line and the joining of disjunctives.
But what’s a path without pitfalls? Clever contrivance is, it seems to me, a sign of technical progress. But at this point on my Pilgrim’s Progress, a cartoon John Bunyan jumps up shouting - Beware Facility!. One’s found the head but lost the heart. Symbolism’s good. We are meaning-seeking beings. The significance of things matters deeply to us. But here’s where haiku differs. In haiku, the thing itself, clearly seen and deeply felt, is the meaning. Nothing need be added. The poet who can convince us of that, by the spirit of their word, truly liberates. All of which depends upon leaving the significance open. So I guess at this point Bunyan’s jumping up and down shouting Beware Closure! With heavy-handed symbolism, the head usurps the heart.
The main antidote to these two (Ken’s categories 3 and 4 above) in terms of path is repeatedly to return to the ground. Zazen and similar practices point the way. Vigorous, well-informed criticism is an invaluable helpmate.
As to fruition, category 1 above pretty well describes it.
- Jim Norton
Ken Jones’ essay Finding the Heart of Haiku has been submitted for publication to Blithe Spirit
The Redthread Haiku Sangha is a fellowship of haiku poets who endeavour to join their spiritual practice with the discipline of writing haiku, and indeed, see the two as inseparable. Although our orientation is primarily Buddhist (including practitioners from the Zen, Mahamudra and Theravadin traditions), ours is a non-sectarian fellowship open to anyone practising inner-path spirituality or humanism. The name ‘redthread’ comes from the writings of Zen Master Ikkyu and denotes a celebratory attitude to passion.
Formed in 1996, our principal activity has been an annual weekend retreat, sometimes in Ireland, more often in Wales. The 2004 retreat was the eighth such gathering.
We are currently developing a website to explore the contemplative dimension of haiku. In the meantime, we can be contacted via Jim Norton (firstname.lastname@example.org), a founding member of Redthread and former editor of the journal Haiku Spirit who will be editing the website.
the ground they cover