Another Country: Haiku Poetry from Wales, edited by Nigel Jenkins, Ken Jones, and Lynne Rees (Llandysul, Ceredigion, Wales: Gomer Press, 2011). 176 pages; 5x7. Semigloss four-color card covers; perfectbound. ISBN 978-2-848513-06-8. Price: £9.99 from the publisher at <www.gomer.co.uk>.
Another Country indeed! The publication of this first collection of haiku and related forms from Wales might be interpreted as an act of Welsh nationalism, albeit a gentle and understated one, as much as a literary imperative. As the editors point out in their Introduction, there have already been several British haiku anthologies of short-form poetry and one from Scotland. They might also have noted other activity in Celtic haiku: a very active Irish scene including translations and new work in Gaelic by Gabriel Rosenstock et al., and even haiku in Breton by Alain Kervern and others. Clearly haiku is a growth industry in these parts.
The forty poets included all have ties of one kind or another to Wales, either originating there or having lived and worked there. Some of the most well recognized names in British haiku are included; in addition to the editors one might point to Caroline Gourlay, Matt Morden, and Arwyn Evans, for example. The Welsh haiku diaspora extends even to North America, embracing American poet and composer Hilary Tann and Canadian Mary B. Valencia. Most haiku are in English, a few are translated by the poet into Welsh, and one poet, Eirwyn George, presents his work in Welsh only.
The editors make a point that the verses in this collection were selected on the basis of their quality and only secondarily because of Welsh themes. The haiku, haibun, and occasional tanka or work in another form are arranged by topics that well cover popular subject areas for haiku writing: Age & Youth, Culture & Society, Daily Life, Exits & Entrances, Love & Loss, Memory & Imagination, Nature Observed, People in the Landscape, and Shorelines.
A volume such as this inevitably raises the question of whether there is a distinguishable "Welshness" about it—whether, after about fifty years, one can already speak of a Welsh haiku tradition. On the basis of this anthology, our answer would have to be no. Apart from haiku with purely local subject matter and poems written in Welsh, the concerns of the writers and their poetic treatment of them are not dissimilar from those of their brethren elsewhere. Quality too runs the gamut. Some haiku seem like flat descriptions or commentary, more or less poetically expressed:
the cow’s measuring eye
dismisses me for more
spare parts in a hedge
the afterlife of a plough
Other poets seem more attuned to the haiku tradition, are more sensitive to season, and use juxtaposition of images:
the stillness of a lamb
gathers the crows
buying the smell
I showed Another Country very briefly to Lew Watts, the new Modern Haiku Board member and a Welshman, and asked him (unfairly) to comment on his sense of the book. He observed that the bits of Welsh here and there often cause the text to sing, to make it into poetry, in a way that a non-Welsh-speaker would likely miss. For example, in Ken Jones’s haibun "The Skinner Street Salon,"
'Bore da, cariad! Nadolig llawen!'
It is Buddig, with her bouffant display of henna'd hair.
("Good morning, darling! Merry Christmas!"), where the Welsh pronunciation of the woman's name ("Buthig") off-rhymes with "bouffant" and sets up the alliteration of "hanna’d hair." Watts also said he was looking for — though he did not immediately sense it — the quality called hiraeth, a deep-rooted feeling of nostalgia for home and the past that infuses Welsh culture.
Another Country concludes with a useful essay on the development of haiku in Wales and a collection of biosketches of the poets. This is a fine collection of interest not only for its high-quality content and good production but also because of the interesting directions one's thoughts are led.