British Haiku Society. 2002 (ISBN: 0-95223974-4)
Ken Jones has contributed much to engaged Buddhism in the UK through his noteworthy books and to the Western Chan Fellowship through his retreat and event offerings. Now he emerges as a prize-winning poet in a genre that is novel, difficult and highly imaginative. The haibun which Ken writes are a form of poetry that originated in Japan wherein short poems in the manner of haiku alternate with poetic prose poetry to create an image of unusual intensity and clarity. Such pieces are usually quite short, a page or two. The intensity of their impact could not be further sustained by a reader.
Haibun originated in the autobiographical account of his journey on foot to the north of Japan by the well-known seventeenth century Zen master Matsuo Basho but has fallen more or less out of literary usage in Japan in modern times. The emergence of haibun in English owes much to the Japanese originals although the poems do not of course follow the strict rules for the Japanese language. A number of collections have appeared in Britain and North America in the last five years. Some of these are relatively homely accounts of excursions or home life with no great literary merit, a form of diary writing one might say. Yet even these are adventures in creativity that are certainly to be encouraged. Ken Jones, in his introduction to this collection, is concerned with the more literary forms and he discusses the criteria by which they may be judged.
In his rugged style Ken's judgements are characteristically forthright. "A large proportion of Western haibun are bald narratives rendered in colourless and banal prose, with a bland earnestness devoid of feeling, irony or any subtlety." He ponders whether North American haiku sometimes show a "deficiency in ironic statement, black comedy and tongue in cheek ambiguity." Yet he concludes that the distinction between what is "natural haibun" as distinct from the literary form does not run across any clear cultural lines. The key question for Ken is whether a putative haibun has any literary form, any poetry about it. Does it enlarge our imaginative sensibility? Does it call on iconic imagery from the past to illustrate a felt situation in the present? Given the Zen origin of this form one may also ask whether there is sensitivity to transience, mindful awareness, perhaps compassion. Ken’s introductory essay is invaluable for he sets out clear criteria by which such questions may be answered. The essay must be one of the most important contributions to the understanding of this field.
Ken's contributions in "Arrow of Stones" are an impressive achievement. Each one creates a specific "atmosphere" around an ordinary event, watching seals off Worms Head, receiving the results of a biopsy, coming across a ruined cottage in remote Wales, a one- night stand sharply remembered, sorting out old papers before moving house. Not surprisingly they all illustrate Ken's criteria for the literary form which he is strongly promoting here.
Underlying these poems one feels the Celtic imagination at work for Ken is very much a child of his native land. Indeed the Welsh background sometime resonates vividly:
"Close knit, we're always passing in this dead-end lane. Here comes Olwen and her cross- eyed dog. Been baking a cake for the Christmas party. 'Ah yes, Mr Jones, Arranging the almonds like little soldiers upon the icing.' 'Very nice.' I say .We both pause for thought. Then she goes on about Jesus".
Some passages are downright eerie. Ken settles into his high backed chair having thrown away old postcards and letters:
"The silence settles. The lawn is in twilight. And then I hear them.
Flying in low
over dusty fields
In such passages one can feel the rhythms of Welsh speech with its magical lilt and covert immediacy of expression. Indeed I feel these poems would translate very well into Welsh and I hope someone tries it for they are particularly a contribution to contemporary Welsh writing in English.
Yet - it is into Japanese they have gone. And the book amazingly includes the introduction and all the poems in full translation into Japanese by Sakaguchi Akiko and Professor Nobuyoki Yuasa, all printed in Japanese calligraphy. This is because an earlier book of which Ken was part author (together with Jim Norton and Sean O'Connor of Ireland), won the coveted Sasakawa Prize for "original contributions in the field of haiku" in 2001; the criteria being the presence of the spirit of haiku, the very nature of the writer shining through the life lived, a spiritual journey undertaken.
On the strength of this award Ken has recently visited Japan on a tour presenting Western haiku to Japanese audiences and naturally many of these were his own work. One cannot help wondering how the Japanese respond to the Celtic atmosphere of these poems and the translation from the colloquial must have posed severe problems.
"From lamp to lamp
a rakish fellow
striding forward, falling back"
All lovers of poetry should have a copy of this remarkable work.