The Nail That Raises Its Head

15 Jul

The nail that raises

Its head, is the very one

Which gets hammered down.

(©Kenneth Verity 1993)

If you stand out from the crowd, you take a risk. Sometimes you choose to stand out, sometimes you don’t get to choose, sometimes you just stand out because of who you are. Being hammered down may not be a pleasant experience at the time, but it’s worth remembering that the nail is not destroyed by being hammered down. It’s actually fulfilling its purpose.

Maybe you don’t agree with my interpretation of this poem, maybe you do. What you take from this kind of writing depends very much on what you bring to it. (Bit Zen? Maybe not, I’m paraphrasing an idea written by Friedrich Nietzsche).

Some years ago, almost by accident, I bought a book called Breathing With The Mind. It was written by Kenneth Verity and it carries the subtitle Verses in Senryu & Hiaku Style.

(This qualification is important; you can’t really write Haiku in English. The Japanese measure the on represents a sound, so while it is analogous to the syllable in English, but is not the same. It’s a shorter measure. Besides a metre that works in one language won’t necessarily work in another. For example, iambic hexameter is the basis for epic poetry in Latin and Ancient Greek where it works very well, but poetry written in hexameter in English tend to sound ridiculous, hence Pope’s use of hexameter in The Rape of the Lock and other mock epics).

So Verity isn’t locking himself into the rigid structure of 17 syllables arranged in the expected 5-7-5 format (and incidentally the Japanese write their Haiku in one line, not three), but he does respect the discipline and purpose of Haiku and Senryu. (Essentially Haiku tends to be more formal and is usually about some aspect of the natural world. It generally tends to evoke sensory perception. Senryu, on the other hand tends to be less formal, often humourous and usually concentrates on some aspect of human behaviour or psychology.

(A quick search of the Internet reveals that there is something of a ‘Haiku scene’ and, depressingly enough, there seem to be all sorts of factions and rules and all the other weary dross that pops up when a ‘scene’ develops).

So anyway, I opened the book and started to read.

The first verse goes like this:-

Strutting around the farmyard

The cockerel-

When did HE ever lay an egg?

(©Kenneth Verity 1993)


Which made me laugh out loud. Possibly not the most appropriate thing to do in a bookshop, but it reminded me so much of someone I knew.

Kenneth Verity, I gather, has studied yoga, meditation, Sufi philosophy and Zen. He’s also apparently an initiate of the Mevlevi Order of Whirling Dervishes (How cool is that?).

But that’s not really the point. The point is that this is one of those books that’s been important to me ever since I first picked it up in a bookshop all those years ago.

Other books that have been similarly important to me have included Albert Camus’ The Rebel, the Tao Te Ching and Watership Down by Richard Adams. But I suppose Breathing With The Mind is different for me because it isn’t just a book that I read, it’s a book that I have a sort of history with.

That history started with the unusual occurrence of finding myself in the poetry section of a bookshop at all. For a sometime student of English Lit, I tend to be surprisingly unliterary and I seldom read poetry. As a matter of fact it would probably be true to say that I’m not, generally speaking, a huge fan of poetry, and you could probably argue that I don’t understand it very well.

(I’m willing to make an exception for Gerard Manley Hopkins. He had a real feeling for the shape and texture of words).

I think part of what puts me off poetry is that it often seems to me to be sloppy with gushing emotions and spurious passions and in general it just seems to me like a perverse means of expression. (By which I mean that it’s a means of expression that seems to deliberately obscure about what is supposedly being expressed). Maybe that assessment says more about me than about poetry, but then again whenever you say anything about anything you reveal something of yourself and if you can’t be perceptive or witty then at the very least you can try to be honest.

Having brought my unlikely purchase home, I spent some time reading it. I’d have to say that the verses vary. I found many of them to be witty, insightful, and often very funny, but there were others that didn’t seem to work for me. That doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t as good, it may simply mean that I don’t connect with them in the same way or to the same extent.

Having read through the verses I came to the final section of the book which is essentially about composing your own Haiku. This was something new. Someone who writes poetry trying to encourage other people to write their own verse and offering some practical guidelines about where to start.

Naturally, being somewhat conceited, I gave it a try. I won’t bore you with any of my efforts, I don’t think they’re very good, but I did have some fun writing them, and if nothing else the discipline involved in writing Haiku style verse is a good training for developing precision in your writing. A skill that any aspiring writer should try to develop.

Some years after I bought this book a friend of mine was ill in hospital. She was undergoing some pretty aggressive treatment and while on the one hand she needed some kind of distraction, she was also having difficulty in concentrating for any length of time. She’d always been an avid reader so I gave her a couple of books. One of them was a collection of tales about Mullah Nasrudin and another was Breathing With The Mind. I hope they helped.

Unfortunately my friend died and I suppose after she died I could have retrieved the books I had given her. (They were really only supposed to be on loan). But somehow I didn’t quite feel able to do that. So those books went on their way. I don’t know where they ended up, but hopefully they became a part of someone else’s life.

In the time since then I’ve occasionally thought of replacing my copy of Breathing With The Mind, but somehow never managed to do anything about it. Then, finally I bought a second hand copy on Amazon. (It’s still in print, you can buy it new if you want to, it’s just that I’m a little short on spare cash for books at the moment).

So my new, second hand, copy of the book was delivered yesterday and I must admit to a certain trepidation as I opened it. Sometimes when you revisit something you enjoyed a few years ago you find yourself wondering what you’d ever seen in it. On this occasion I wasn’t disappointed. The magic is still there and it looks like I’m back to writing verses in the Hiaku/Senryu style that I don’t suppose anyone’s ever going to read.

So I suppose I’ve come full circle in a way.

If you want to write your own Haiku, or something approximating to it, then try the following.

1/ Look around you. The subject matter will suggest itself.

2/ Try to make a brief comment about your subject. Just a few words will do.

3/ Typically Haiku/Senryu start with an observation and concludes with a contrasting statement. It’s a bit like the punch line of a joke, and it’s the tension between the two parts of the Haiku that is compelling when it’s done well. The Japanese talk of it in terms of cutting.

4/ Rewrite and rewrite again. Experiment with synonyms and then when you think you’re finished, polish it a bit more until you have your seventeen syllables over three lines. (Don’t fret if you’re out by a syllable or two. What you’re aiming for is brevity and precision, as I’ve said before you can’t really write authentic Haiku in English anyway, so your paying respect to the tradition not trying to slavishly copy it.

5/ Read Basho (In English his name sounds as though it should belong to a clown. But there’s a reason why he’s the best-known writer of Haiku in the West. And one of the best loved in Japan).

6/ Don’t worry if you’re not very good. Neither am I. It’s not about being the best, it’s about being the best you can be. Attempting to write Haiku can be as much about sharpening your perception as it is about writing something that might impress someone else.

We can’t all be artists but we can all try to make the best of what we are.


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