Sunday, 25 April 2010

Horrible haiku

Could haiku be a joke played on the rest of the world by the inscrutable Japanese? I've sometimes wondered. Today I am putting forward the view that haiku, in the West at any rate, are not poetry.

While researching this post (see, the trouble I go to) I came across a haiku I like. Here it is:

Just friends:
he watches my gauze dress
blowing on the line

Alexis Rotella 1984

This is an exception to the generality of haiku. Wikipedia informed me that in Japan there's a lot more to them than having 5/7/5 syllables, but somehow this has got lost in transit. Over here, it's just an easy way to let schoolchildren think they are writing poetry when they are not. (The other way is free verse, i.e. a short piece of prose about nothing very much chopped up into random lines on the page.)

Proper poetry rhymes and scans, and from this derives its power and memorability. The writers of pop and rock lyrics know this. Alas, many English teachers do not.

Do tell me whether you agree with me. If you like, you can tell me in haiku form, which shouldn't take you much more than a minute. Here is mine:

Horrible haiku
What is your fascination?

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Borrowing books

What is it about books that brings out the worst in otherwise honourable people?

By my twenties I'd learnt it was a bad idea to lend books to anyone except my mother, even if I'd written my name at the front. These days I try to lend only to my daughter. The blood tie, I find, protects my property - or maybe it's just that you can nag a close relative to return a book, where you can't nag a friend.

(Don't think I'm being self-righteous about this issue. There are at least three books on my shelves which are not mine. Plus a school copy of Love's Labour's Lost.)

And it's always the best books that fail to return - the ones you love so much you tell a friend about them. Then each time you see the friend, she forgets the book. Or you don't see each other for a while, and it gets forgotten. Or she's too busy to read it, and never does, and time passes and you realize she has now moved to the Isle of Wight... Or, by the time you remember to ask for it, she's totally forgotten and denies all knowledge, and says you are thinking of someone else. The anticipated pleasure of discussing a favourite novel with a fellow reader seldom materializes.

Eventually you give up, and buy another copy.

Footnote: writing this has reminded me of a book of my mother's I lent to an obnoxious girl at school, and never got back. Jules Feiffer's Passionella, a collection of witty graphic novellas. I've just tracked it down and ordered it. Three cheers for the internet!

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Courage, Sacrifice and Brotherhood

I'm reading THE SOLDIER: a History of Courage, Sacrifice and Brotherhood, by Darren Moore, and I'd recommend it. It's a fascinating and thoughtful book.

It covers the experience of soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars to the present day, with many personal accounts. Every possible aspect is covered, including what makes soldiers reluctant to kill - their perception of the enemy as being like them - and what makes them want to - the death of their comrades. There is one heartbreaking photograph among the illustrations, of a soldier comforting another whose buddy has been killed, which alone is worth the price of the book.

I often feel, when reading battle scenes in fantasy novels, that it's all too obvious the authors have zero knowledge of war, fighting, or the psychology of the soldier, and their imaginings are wide of the mark. For them, this book could be the answer.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Buns for tea

It was breakfast time. Mother's face was very bright as she poured the milk and ladled out the porridge.

"I've sold another story, Chickies," she said; "the one about the King of the Mussels, so there'll be buns for tea."

I was misinformed at an impressionable age about the saleability of fiction: I picked up the idea that if you wrote well, you could sell your stories and earn a living, albeit a modest one. I risk your laughter if I tell you that I wrote my first novel, Torbrek...and the Dragon Variation under this misapprehension.

Today I name the two main books that gave me this notion (there were other novels, less memorable, amusingly catalogued under 'Careers' in my school library). All that can be said in their defence is that they're pretty ancient, and were even when I read them as a child; it probably was possible to eke out a living by your pen back then.

  • Little Women. Jo March, every reader's favourite among the four sisters, hating housework and loving books, getting inky fingers from her writing and making her first sale to an editor before she was out of her teens. Also, poor soul, being expected to forgive Amy for burning the only copy of her manuscript. Darned if I would.

  • The Railway Children. There are no fewer than EIGHT references to 'buns for tea' - which is how Mother celebrated with the children whenever an editor was sensible and accepted one of her stories for publication. Editors are a good deal less sensible and much harder to impress these days, alas.
Today, I guess it's not fictional heroines who promote the dream. It's JK Rowling, and the vast fortune she earned from her imagination.