Rewilding Your Self: a Mindful Writing Workshop
A guided meditation at the Rewild Festival
In the Mindful Writing Workshop at the Rewild Festival on 26th May 2023, we focused on the idea that we’re implicated in Matsuo Bashô’s frog poem; not passive readers of it. More than that, the Haiku is an opportunity for mindfulness, so I led a brief guided meditation, inviting participants to look at or experience the pond fully using all of the senses available to them. Then we went outside to the Victoria Gardens – where we found our own ‘old pond’ (the fountain) – and created our own poems based on the same idea. I’ve since received several wonderful poems in response from participants.
The workshop and audio
I’ve put an outline of the workshop on my own blog, with an audio of the meditation, so that you can take a similar journey into Bashô’s frog poem and have a go at creating your own poem – please share it with students and other Creative Writing tutors too. The outline includes a PDF download with the research questions we explored during the workshop and a few resources.
A personal fascination
I became fascinated by Matsuo Bashô’s famous frog Haiku a few years ago when a colleague showed me a book of 100 translations of the poem (Sato 1995). The reiteration of the poem, the transposing of it over and over again, made it seem elusive, and (ironically) untranslatable, as if each translation missed something that another could provide. Of these, my favourite were the plainest, the poems that conjured up a deceptively simply image, with the fewest words, such as this one, translated by Cid Corman:
I became so fascinated with the frog poem, and other Haiku by Bashô, Kijo and Pound, that I tried to write my own. I found myself unable to break out of the prose poem form I’m used to, although the last couple of lines are as close as I came to writing a free verse Haiku:
[…] A breeze touches the curtains as a yellow frog jumps back into the pond. The door slams. After a moment, everything is still.
Trying to write a Haiku
The resulting prose poem, called ‘Trying to Write a Haiku’ was published in Perverse, an online poetry magazine that says it’s for ‘deliberate, obstinate, unreasonable or unacceptable poems, contrary to the accepted or expected standard or practice’. I am fairly convinced that I wouldn’t have been able to place the poem anywhere else. I didn’t know about the call for submissions prior to writing the poem but that description neatly describes what I was trying to do with it. Possibly because of that, when I’ve read it out loud, audiences tend to miss that moment of stillness (the hidden Haiku!) at the end because they’re focused on the subject matter.
The poem is autoethnographic in the sense that I was thinking through the experience of having had fertility treatment and using writing to work out (write out) what it meant in a way that I felt wasn’t permissible. In the poem I bring together a handful of fairly well-known Haiku. They can easily be found by googling, but I have included several anthologisations in a bibliography at the end of this post.
I rift on Murakami Kijo’s poem about seeing his father’s face in the mirror one autumn morning (included in Paul Williams’ Novel Ideas), Buson writing about a butterfly asleep on a temple bell (in Henderson 2012 and Kern 2018), and Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’. It isn’t mentioned, but I was also thinking of Pound’s ‘Fan-Piece, for her Imperial Lord’. (Both are included in Jim Kacian’s Haiku in English.) At the same time, I imagined Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas playing in the garden amongst the roses (Stein 2001).
My aim was to introduce a frenetic energy to these intertextual pieces of writing as if the contents of each poem are bouncing around the speaker’s head as she writes – and trying to live up to the expectation is too much. Therefore, the poem is about trying to write as much as it’s about sperm donation. Writing it made me interested in why I couldn’t write a Haiku, but I think I know the answer now.
Bashô was a seventeenth Japanese poet and a Zen Buddhist monk, named Matsuo Kinsaku, known for his meditations on nature using the newly emerging Haiku form. In his thirties he received a gift of Japanese banana trees – known as basho trees – from a grateful student and adopted the penname. Apparently the frog poem was composed at a Haiku gathering (what we might think of as a nature retreat) at his cottage in Edo, near Tokyo, where there was a pond, and the theme for the day was ‘frogs’. That story might be apocryphal, but I love the idea of a group of poets, each spending the day trying to write a poem about a frog.
It seems obvious now, years after writing it, but I was palpably not attempting to meditate on nature when trying to write my Haiku-that-wasn’t-a-Haiku.
Stillness, movement, stillness
When first reading the translations of Bashô’s frog poem, I was enamoured by the stillness, the moment of movement, followed by stillness again, as the ripples on the surface of the pond, and the sound of the poem, died away as I read. The poems enact (and re-enact repeatedly) the dynamism of that one moment, while also providing a focus for, and emblem of, everyday mindfulness.
This power the translations have to repeat stillness, movement, stillness, reminded me of another poet, William Carlos Williams. Although it has a narrative drive unlike the frog Haiku, ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ (from Spring and All) uses the same focus on a moment in time, transposed from the countryside near Tokyo to Rutherford, New Jersey. As readers, we’re pulled into both poems: standing on the bank watching the pond, looking from a window or a doorway at a red wheelbarrow and white chickens.
Early on the morning of the workshop, I walked through Victoria Gardens in the centre of Brighton. I hadn’t seen the wild planting at the borders of Victoria Gardens before – it provided the perfect meeting place for nature and the sound of the city.
I stopped at the fountain: the waterspout was turned off, the water a murky green, beer bottles, crisp packets and other detritus of a night out on the town surrounded me. As I left, a litter picker was clearing the grass and steps, and when we returned for the final part of the workshop – writing ‘live’ outside – most of the litter was gone, and the water was on, creating a rainbow in the sunlight at just the right moment.
‘Bashô 1644–1694’, Poetry Foundation. Biography available online at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/basho [Last accessed 06.06.23]
Buson, Taniguchi. ‘Spring Scene.’ In Harold Henderson ed. An Introduction to Haiku, Doubleday, 2012
Kacian, Jim. ed., Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, Norton, 2013
Kern, Adam L. ed., The Penguin Book of Haiku, Penguin Classics, 2018
Kijo, Murakami. ‘First Autumn Morning.’ In Paul Williams, Novel Ideas: Writing Innovative Fiction, Red Globe Press, 2019
Sato, Hiroaki. ed., One Hundred Frogs: From Matsuo Basho to Allen Ginsberg. Weatherhill, 1995
Stein, Gertrude. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Penguin Classics, 2001
Tondeur, Louise, ‘Trying to Write a Haiku’, Perverse Issue 1: 2018. Available online at: https://perversepoetry.tumblr.com/issues [Last accessed 24.05.23]
Williams, William Carlos. Spring and All. Contact Publishing, 1923
Williams, William Carlos. ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, Poetry Foundation: Available online with a voice recording at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45502/the-red-wheelbarrow [Last accessed 06.06.23]
Yamamoto, Fumiko. Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems, Shambhala Press, 2009
Dr Lou Tondeur. 6th June 2023