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Haiku in the United Kingdom: Wales

Possessing one of the oldest living literatures in Europe, Welsh poetry’s first brushes with haiku occurred in the 1960s through the small press scene. Though developments were relatively slow in the following decades, the turn of the century saw a much wider and more meaningful engagement in the form in Wales, owing particularly to the nurturing of haiku appreciation in the country’s educational institutions. The creation of a national haiku journal, along with an ever-growing international awareness of haiku by Welsh poets, are serving to ensure that engagement in the form continues to thrive in Wales.

The tradition of Welsh poetry stretches back to the sixth century, making it one of the oldest living literatures in Europe. The traditional Welsh verse form that most closely resembles haiku is the englyn, a group of strict poetic meters. Typically, an englyn verse consists of three or four lines composed in rigid patterns of rhyme and half-rhyme. The earliest recorded englyn date back at least as far as the 10th century.

Despite a significant difference between the Welsh verses in terms of regular rhyme, a technique we don’t see in haiku, the division of a poem into three or four lines and a strict syllable count would appear to draw very closely to the compositional traditions of haiku. Looking more deeply into subject matter and spirit of composition, the Welsh verses also contain clear references to seasons and close observation of natural phenomena. The characteristic attributes that carry across both forms are brevity and concision of expression, simplicity of phrasing, a feeling of presence in the world, a direct appeal to sensory experience, and the employment of the present to lend the shared experiences a temporal immediacy. The sharpness of observation in the forms is mediated by the use of light, everyday, and unadorned language.

To illustrate the similarities between the haiku and the Welsh forms, here are two Welsh verses on the subject of cuckoos, along with two haiku examples by Bashō on the same subject:

Yn aber cuawg yt ganant gogeu.
ar gangheu blodeuawc.
coc lauar canet yrawc.
Yn aber cuawg cogeu a ganant.
ys atuant gan vym bryt.
ae kigleu nas clyw heuyt.

In Abercuawg cuckoos sing
On flowering branches.
Talkative cuckoo, let it sing for evermore.
In Abercuawg cuckoos sing.
It is sad to my heart
that who heard them does not hear them also.

Claf Abercuawg stanzas 5 & 7, 
translated by Sarah Higley

    Singing, flying, singing,
the cuckoo
    keeps busy.
    Not this human sadness,
    but your solitary cry.

                                                                                        Both Bashō, trans. R. Hass

In each case the keen observation of the natural world is striking. But what gives the poems their true power is the human resonance felt when the poet places themselves within the natural world they are observing. This direct immediacy of scene deepens the feeling of interconnection in each of these encounters with the bird.

Perhaps owing to the popularity and reverence of the traditional Welsh verse forms, developments and engagement in haiku in Wales have been chiefly in the English language. Perhaps its initial exponents were Tony Conran and Peter Finch (1947– ), who began writing haiku verse in the mid 1960s.

A dogfox
              sensing us, pulls
                            the sunrise tighter
                                                                                           Tony Conran (Skimmings, 2003)
          On the moors
The snow caught by grass
          No one to see it
                                                                                           Peter Finch (Food, 2008)

Following these early developments of the form in Wales, the poet Chris Torrance (1941– ) was the first Welsh haikuist to gain international recognition for his work. As a leader of creative writing classes at the University of Wales, Cardiff, he played a major role in spreading awareness of the form.

a bullfinch sparks off
into the gloom an old
     sadness returns
                                                                                Chris Torrance (Another Country, 2011)

Likewise, the poet Nigel Jenkins (1949–2014) made invaluable contributions to the nurturing of haiku engagement in Wales. As director of creative writing at Swansea University, he ensured that the form received longstanding appreciation in an educational setting.

gull hooked, trailing
from its beak, a yard of line –
o for a gun
                                                                                    Nigel Jenkins (O for a gun, 2007)  

Ken Jones (1930–2015) and his wife Noragh also played prominent early roles in promoting appreciation of haiku, and were the earliest pioneers of haibun in Wales.

pushing my reflection
this wheelbarrow
full of rain
                                                                                    Ken Jones (Blithe Spirit 11:1, 2001)
after the shower
scent of June diesel
from the narrow gauge railway
                                                                                      Noragh Jones (Stone Circles, 2004)

Initially, haiku poetry found a home in the more eclectic small presses in the U.K., as opposed to the more mainstream outlets. Peter Finch’s second aeon journal (1966–1974) proved a fruitful arena for the publication of haiku in Wales.

While meaningful recognition of haiku developed slowly in Wales, there was occasional contact with established haikuists from further afield. Of note is a landmark reading by Bill Wyatt in the early 1980s to a capacity audience at Swansea’s Singleton Hotel. The first event of national significance was the Welsh Academy’s 1991 Japan Festival Haiku Competition, which attracted thousands of entries from all over the world. Part of the prize was publication in the New Welsh Review, which became the first Welsh magazine to pay attention to haiku after second aeon. The following year saw David Cobb promoting haiku on behalf of the British Haiku Society at the Garden Festival, Wales. The festival itself attracted nearly two million visitors during the summer months of 1992. The increasing engagement in haiku in Wales was recognized by the Welsh Haiku Millennium Project, initiated by Ken Jones and Arwyn Evans. As a result of an invitational process among haiku enthusiasts in Wales, a selection of haiku from Wales formed the Welsh contribution to the Omnibus Anthology: Haiku and Senryu, published by Hub Editions in 2001 and edited by Fred Schofield. In 2007, interest in the form was sufficient enough to prompt the Welsh poetry, arts and culture magazine, Planet: The Welsh Internationalist, to invite Nigel Jenkins, Ken Jones, and Lynn Rees to engage in a discussion about haiku in the magazine’s “Exchanges” series of email debates among writers and artists.

Educational institutions have played an increasingly significant role in developing a culture of haiku engagement in Wales. Chris Torrance’s extramural creative writing classes at the University of Wales, Cardiff, introduced haiku and its related forms to many emerging writers. From the 1970s through to the beginning of the 21st century, poets such as Nigel Jenkins and Phil Maillard were offering haiku as an essential component for writing courses at the University of Swansea and for organizations such as the Welsh Academy. In 2001, while studying at Cardiff, Martin Lucas completed his ground-breaking PhD thesis, Haiku in Britain, Theory, Practice, Context.

The Arts Council of Wales’ Creative Schools scheme, launched in 2015 and involving over 600 schools, features a micro-literature module encouraging engagement in the haiku form among primary and secondary schools in Wales. The initiative uses poetry by Ken Jones, Nigel Jenkins, John Rowlands, Arwyn Evans, and Paul Chambers as starting points for discussion and exploration of short verse forms, encouraging learners to experiment in haiku with closer focus on its more creative and technical aspects (as opposed to the syllable counting exercise haiku has often been reduced to in educational settings). The Welsh national literature promotion agency, Literature Wales, has contributed to a growing awareness of haiku in recent years, with the introduction of a Journeys with Haiku into Verse and Prose writing retreat at Ty Newydd, the National Writing Centre of Wales, led by Lynne Rees and Philip Gross.

Haiku in Wales continues to grow in popularity, and awareness and engagement in the form is currently as high as it has ever been. In 2017 the Wales Haiku Journal was founded by Paul Chambers and launched in partnership with the national arts and culture publication, Wales Arts Review. The journal continues to publish a wide range of international authors, alongside an increasing number of Welsh poets.

Along with the more dedicated haiku specialists in Wales, who devote their creative energies chiefly to haiku, the form is growing in popularity with a number of authors experimenting with haiku and haibun in more traditional poetry collections. In terms of haiku specialists, among the most highly regarded poets to have contributed to the development of the form in Wales, following in the footsteps of the earlier pioneers, are Arwyn Evans, Lynne Rees, Matt Morden, Martha Magenta, Arwyn Watkins, Caroline Gourlay, Pamela Brown, Jane Whittle, Karen Hoy, Stephen Toft, Jon Summers, Colin Stuart, Lew Watts, Hilary Tann, Nathalie Buckland, and Paul Chambers.

at the top of the hill
I am still
the same size
                                                                                  Lynne Rees (Roadrunner 6:3, 2006)
mountain wind
the stillness of a lamb
gathers crows
                                                                             Matt Morden (Stumbles in Clover, 2007)
daylight fading –
        a curlew’s cry
        lengthens the hill
                                                                         Caroline Gourlay (Crossing the Field, 1995)

Among the relatively small number of haiku poets writing in the Welsh language, John Rowlands and Eirwyn George are the most celebrated.

llonyddwch y llif
yn llechi’n llawr

the stilled flows
in our slate floor

John Rowlands (Knots of Sand, 2017)

Internationally regarded poets affiliated with Wales to have experimented with haiku as a meaningful element of their creative endeavors include Philip Gross, John Freeman, and Humberto Gatica.

the drizzle slips
over the yellow
of the daffodil
                                                                           Humberto Gatica (Blithe Sprit 16:2, 2006)

In terms of haiku publications in Wales, by far the most notable to date, and a strong reflection of the widening appreciation of the form, is Another Country: Haiku Poetry from Wales, published by Gomer Press in 2011. The anthology, edited by Ken Jones, Nigel Jenkins, and Lynne Rees, features the work of 40 authors who have contributed significantly to the development and popularity of haiku.

Through the work of a great number of poets published in the Another Country anthology, along with newer haiku devotees and mainstream poets engaging meaningfully in the form and publishing their work in the Wales Haiku Journal, haiku in Wales continues to flourish well into the 21st century. A growing international recognition of Welsh poets reflects this trend, with several Welsh haijin having received such prestigious awards as the Museum of Haiku Literature Award and Touchstone Awards in recent years. More broadly, a good number of Welsh poets have made regular appearances in celebrated anthology series such as A New Resonance and the Red Moon Anthology.

AUTHOR: Paul Chambers.

ADAPTED FROM: Nigel Jenkins, “A History of Welsh Haiku,” The Haiku Foundation Digital Library.

Sources / Further Reading (Print)

  • Akmakjian, Hiag. Snow Falling from a Bamboo Leaf: The Art of Haiku. Meidrim, Carmarthenshire, Wales: Riverrun, 2010.
  • Chambers, Paul. Latitudes. Uxbridge, UK: Alba Publishing, 2017.
  • Chambers, Paul. This Single Thread. Uxbridge, U.K.: Alba Publishing, 2015.
  • Conran, Tony. Skimmings. Bangor, Wales: Deiniol Press, 2003.
  • Conran, Tony. Welsh Verse. Bridgend, UK: Seren, 2017.
  • Finch, Peter. Food. Bridgend, UK: Seren. 2008.
  • Finch, Peter. second aeon. (1966-1974).
  • Gourlay, Caroline. Against the Odds. Spalding, Lincs.: Hub Editions, 2000. Poems.
  • Gourlay, Caroline. The Country. Nottinghamshire, England: Poetry Monthly Press, 2005. Lyric poems, haiku, and tanka.
  • Gourlay, Caroline. Crossing the Field. Drawings by Anthony Manwaring. Clun, Shropshire: Redlake Press, 1995.
  • Gourlay, Caroline. Lull Before Dark: Haiku. Decatur, Ill.: Brooks Books, 2005. [Publisher has moved since 2005]
  • Gourlay, Caroline. Reading All Night. Spalding, Lincs.: Hub Press, 1999. Haiku.
  • Gourlay, Caroline. Through the Café Door. Liverpool, Eng.: Snapshot Press, 2000. Haiku.
  • Higley, Sarah Lynn. Between language: the uncooperative text in Early Welsh and Old English nature poetry. Pennsylvania, USA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.
  • Jenkins, Nigel. Blue: 101 Haiku, Senryu and Tanka. Ceredigion, Wales: Planet Books, 2002.
  • Jenkins, Nigel. O for a Gun. Ceredigion, Wales: Planet Books, 2007.
  • Jenkins, Nigel, Ken Jones, and Lynne Rees, eds. Another Country: Haiku Poetry from Wales. Llandysul, Ceredigion, Wales: Gomer Press, 2011.
  • Jenkins, Nigel. “The (Short) Story of the Haiku in Wales: An Afterword.” Jenkins, O for a Gun (2007), 123–38.
  • Jones, Ken. The Parsley Bed: Haiku Stories. Aberystwyth, Wales: Pilgrim Press, 2006. Haibun and haiku.
  • Jones, Ken, James Norton, and Seán O’Connor. Pilgrim Foxes: Haiku & Haiku Prose. Aberystwyth, Wales: Pligrim Press, 2001. Haiku and experimental haibun. 
  • Jones, Ken. Stone Leeks: More Haiku Stories. Aberystwyth, Wales: Pilgrim Press, 2009. Haibun and haiku.
  • Jones, Ken. “Zen and the Art of Haiku.” Blithe Spirit 8:4 (12/1/1998), 34. 
  • Jones, Noragh. Stone Circles. Aberystwyth, Wales: Pilgrim Press, 2004).
  • Marra, Michael F. Seasons and Landscapes in Japanese Poetry: An Introduction to Haiku and Waka. Foreword by J. Thomas Rimer. Lewiston, N.Y., Queenston, Ont., and Lampeter, Wales: Edwin Mellen Press, 2008.
  • Morden, Matt. A Dark Afternoon. Liverpool: Snapshot Press, 2000. Haiku.
  • Morden, Matt. Stumbles in Clover. Liverpool: Snapshot Press, 2007. Haiku.
  • Morden, Matt. Break of Dust. Napanee, Ont.: pawEpress, August 2003. Haiku broadsheet.
  • Rees, Lynne. Learning How to Fall. Cardigan, U.K.: Parthian Books, 2005. Poetry.
  • Rees, Lynne. Forgiving the Rain. Ormskirk, England: Snapshot Press, 2012. Haibun.
  • Rees, Lynne, and Jo Pacsoo, eds. The Unseen Wind: British Haiku Society Haibun Anthology 2009. Spalding, Lincs, U.K.: Hub Editions for the British Haiku Society, 2010.
  • Rowlands, John. Clymau Tywod / Knots of Sand. Uxbridge, UK: Alba Publishing, 2017. Haiku.
  • Schnell, Richard. Adirondack Haiku: Kayaking through Fog. Lewiston, N.Y., Queenston, Ont., and Campeter, Wales: Mellen Poetry Press, 2004.
  • Schofield, Fred, ed. Omnibus Anthology: Haiku and Senryu. Leeds, England: Hub Editions, 2001.
  • Wantling, William. Sick Fly: Poems. Cardiff, Wales: Second Aeon Publications, 1st edition, 1970.
  • Whittle, Jane. Footprints—From the Maze Path (Haiku and Haibun with Drawings). Ty’r Gawen, Llanegryn, Tywyn, Wales: Cambrian Printers, 2010.
  • Wilkinson, Geoffrey. Going to the Pine: Four Essays on Basho. Powys, Wales: self-published, 2018, 2019.

Sources / Further Reading (Online)

Haiku in the United Kingdom: England

Updated on April 29, 2024