Tag Archives: haiku

Haiku in Hamburg

I visited planten un blomen, Hamburg’s botanic gardens, in mid-September, and ran a haiku workshop in the Japanese garden, which has a teahouse beside a pond lined with maples, pines and bamboo.

I’d visited the garden before, in late spring, but it seemed to be more itself in autumn – leaves reddening, a few of which had dropped visible in the clear water; pine needles fallen onto rocks; a more muted light suggesting both distance and enclosure.

For the workshop I selected some lines from German versions of Japanese haiku, and we used these as starting points for our own work. Here are some the poems written on the day, with my English translations.


Bauschen die Wolken
lausche ich dem Herbstwind und
halte die Luft an.

Clouds pile up
I listen to the autumn wind and
hold my breath


Der Herbst beginnt schon
noch blühen die Sonnenblumen
welch ein schönes Gelb.


Autumn has begun
still the sunflowers bloom
a wonderful yellow


Plötzlich donnert es –
das Geräusch des Wassers bleibt

Sudden thunder –
the sound of water continues


Geräusch des Wassers
taube Ohren des Herbstes
nach dem Sonnenklang

The sound of water
autumn’s deaf ears
after sunchords


Zwei Ameisen sah’n
Altona Amerika
Erlangen Weisheit.

Two ants saw
Altona America
Gained wisdom.

This is a playful take on an already playful poem, ‘Die Ameisen’ (’The Ants’) by Joachim Ringelnatz (1883-1934) known to anyone who lives in or grew up in Hamburg. I append a literal translation below. The district of Altona lies immediately west of central Hamburg.

In Hamburg lebten zwei Ameisen,
die wollten nach Australien reisen.
Bei Altona, auf der Chaussee,
da taten ihnen die Beine weh,
und da verzichteten sie weise
dann auf den letzten Teil der Reise.

In Hamburg there lived two ants,
who wanted to travel to Australia.
In Altona, on the street,
their legs started hurting,
so wisely they gave up
the last part of their journey.




Buson by the Firth of Forth

HarbourOn a grey September morning, I walked to Newhaven harbour with the P5 class from Edinburgh’s Victoria Primary School. The earlier rain had stopped, and the tide was out, beaching the small boats moored there. We walked out to the lighthouse at the harbour mouth, and looked upriver to the three Forth bridges, and north over to Fife. The walk was a preliminary to reading and writing haiku, and looking at the work of Yosa Buson (1716–1783), one of the great haiku poets of Japan who was also a painter. As with last summer’s workshop at Jedburgh Grammar School I wanted the pupils to think about combining visual and verbal elements in their work.

Back at school we read these haiku by Buson (all taken from Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson, trans. Merwin & Lento, 2013).

Half a day to myself
by the nettle tree
listening to the cicadas

Summer afternoon downpour
a flock of sparrows
hanging on the grass

There’s silver grass
I expect to find bush clover
not far away

We used some as models to write from. I retained their structure, and asked the pupils to fill them with their own content. We made some together, as I wrote down their suggestions, and then I asked them to write some on their own.

Buson VPS 02 Buson VPS 01

A couple of days later I did a second session. This time I asked them to choose one of their verses, and to present this on a postcard, together with a drawing of their choice. I showed them examples of other postcards which used text and image in different ways – sometimes as separate blocks, sometimes completely integrated.

Buson VPS 04 Buson VPS 05 Buson VPS 06
Buson VPS 08 Buson VPS 16 Buson VPS 17
Buson VPS 09 Buson VPS 20

Buson VPS 19  Buson VPS 18  Buson VPS 10

I also asked them to made folding cards, again thinking about the relationship between their words and images (though we didn’t have time to explore this fully).

Buson VPS 13 Buson VPS 11

With thanks to the teachers Mrs Gorrie, Miss Blyth and Mrs Sim at Victoria Primary School, and to the GB Sasakawa Foundation for funding the work.

Buson VPS 21 Buson VPS 15 Buson VPS 03

Buson 2016 : Jedburgh

Snowclad_houses_in_the_nightI’m running several events this year under the heading ‘Buson 2016’, celebrating the birth 300 years ago of the great Japanese painter and haiku master Yosa Buson (1716–1783).

This week Andrew Mackenzie and I visited Jedburgh Grammar School, where we worked with S5 and S6 pupils. Andrew and I collaborated on Into Ettrick a couple of years ago, but this is the first time we’ve worked together with a school group. The idea was to create a piece which integrated image and text, as Buson did in many of his works.

We sketched and took notes at two spots by the Jed Water, near the Abbey Bridge opposite the abbey, and by the Canongate Bridge. Andrew showed them how to sketch with pencil and charcoal, while I encouraged them to be attentive to what has happening as we were there, using Norman MacCaig’s poem ‘Notations of Ten Summer Minutes’ as a model.

Back in school I guided the pupils into writing haiku based on their notes – snapshots capturing when, where and what happened – while Andrew led them in working with watercolour and pen-and-ink to develop sketches made earlier. Then we put the two together – some of the results are below.

David Blake, PT English who organised the school’s side of the session, commented:

Blank space! If there is one thing which I will always remember from the Yosa Buson workshop which I took part in, along with 35 Higher and Advanced Higher English pupils, it is the importance of blank space. As both artist and poet Buson would have instinctively understood the relationship between the visual and the written – something that we often forget.

Our day began somewhat greyer than I had hoped and the pupils’ initial enthusiasm reflected that sombre sky but as the first part of the day proceeded they quickly began to respond to what they saw in both visual and written mediums. Pupils who claimed that they could not draw were working hard to create images of what they saw, within minutes of being given a writing task they were enthusiastically coming up with ideas that I would struggle to draw out of them in the classroom. By the afternoon, armed with the sketchbooks in which we had drawn what we had seen and written down our thoughts, we were ready to embark on the production of ink illustrations and haiku poems. The quality of some of the work that the pupils produced was well beyond their expectations and despite their many claims that their work was rubbish you could see they were secretly pleased with how well their paintings and poems had turned out; one or two even confided that they had gone home that night and made further use of their sketchbooks!

This was one of the most enjoyable workshops that I have experienced in my teaching career and one which I believe that, as well as the wonderful creative experience of producing the visual art, the pupils got a lot out of in terms of their understanding of how to write effectively: in writing, as in art, it is as much about what you leave out as that which you put in – blank space.

With thanks to Jedburgh Grammar School, and to the GB Sasakawa Foundation for funding the work.

Composite Landscapes

‘Composite Landscapes’ is a paper on my work with artists ~in the fields, which I delivered at the conference Writing into Art held at the University of Strathclyde and Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow, on 18–19 June 2013.

01 ~in the fields

Since 2008, I have collaborated on several projects with the artist collective ~ in the fields, Nicole Heidtke and Stefan Baumberger. Their work, in their own words, “emphasizes natural phenomena and condenses poetic moments into inventions of closed systems”. Their visual art practice draws on archival material and often involves environmental topics.

Our collaborations include a publication, an exhibition and public art projects, and I would like to consider some of the approaches to writing these different projects suggested, in terms of our collaborative methods, as well as the ways in which the content, form and sequencing of the resultant texts developed.

In particular I’ll consider two works: ink, for which text, written in response to an extant sculptural work, features in and shapes a book publication; and yen to see distant places, an interactive work made for an exhibition last summer at New Media Scotland, Edinburgh.

02 soccer

Our initial connection was a shared interest in the relationship of the handwritten inscription to the printed book – the individual to the mass-produced. I wrote a sequence of poems, On the flyleaf, notionally written in and relating to particular books, and I continue to have an interest in marginalia – readers writing in books. The image above features one of the ‘flyleaf’ poems.

03 parallel_view_on_programming_det

~ in the fields’ work incorporates new and old media, and their sculptural work ink used digitised versions of handwritten inscriptions found in five printed books from five centuries. This inscription – here represented in digital form – is taken from a 1634 edition of Pliny’s Natural History:

With one sole pen I wrote this book
Made of a grey goose quill;
A pen it was when I it tooke,
And a pen I leave it still.

04 ink_threespheres

Ink – the sculptural work – consists of five colourless clear glass bulbs – each partly filled with blue ink. When the visitor approaches, the bulbs begin to rotate, causing a layer of ink to coat the inside surface. Through the ink, illuminated handwritten inscriptions become visible on a spinning armature – a rotor with LEDs which pulse very quickly – and the inscriptions are given to the visitor individually. The visitor’s presence initiates the offering of the inscription once again.

05 Ink upright

In the book Ink, images and texts relating to the sculptural work ink are augmented by texts by myself – original poems, found poems and reflective prose – which consider the sculptural work itself as well as the related topics of marginalia and the colour blue. An alphabet poem – on imaginary shades of blue – came to define the structure and extent of the book.

06 Ink French folds

The book is bound using French folds – the main text is all printed on one side of the paper – but between the pages, as it were, there is a background text – the alphabet poem – glimpsed out of the darkness. The book is 52 pages, so two pages for each letter of the alphabet.

07 Ink Circles

The poems in the book move off in different directions from the sculptural work. As well as the blue alphabet, there are found poems using parts of the handwritten descriptions; these additionally reflect the globes of sculptural work by being presented as circle poems, a form I had previously attempted without much success, but which seemed to work for me in this context. There are also poems reflecting on the sculptural work directly – on movement – on the propriety, or otherwise, of writing in books – and on the happenstance of the collaboration occuring in the first place. Here are two short poems – original, rather than found – from the book.

A paradox – before
this or any other book
absorbs the library-
stamp of ownership.
a proper response, a nod
to posterity; but afterwards
unwanted, wanton, an act
of desecration,
proper grounds for censure.


It felt like a gift, such an encounter, out of the blue.


08 Myriorama

“Landscape is not seen as merely dramatic background but as a force which shapes and directs the minds of its inhabitants.” (James Reed)

yen to see distant places from 2012 projects composite landscapes drawn from early 19th century etchings of Scottish landscapes, creating – perhaps somewhat in the manner of historical fiction – an image each of whose elements is based in reality, but which has never yet appeared in quite this context or combination.

Each composite image consists of three elements – background (The Sublime), middleground (The Beautiful) and foreground (The Picturesque).

~in the fields wrote to me: “[we are] working with the ‘Sublime’ as landscape elements which are rough and evoke respect. The ‘Beautiful’ (Edmund Burke) are the small elements, smooth, delicate. The ‘Picturesque’ (William Gilpin) element is something like a ruin of a castle… We decided also to have the introduction of the rhododendron, etc.”

09 backgrounds 1-9

Here are some of the backgrounds. Individual elements are sourced from different books, mainly Walter Scott’s Provincial antiquities and picturesque scenery of Scotland: with descriptive illustrations, published in the 1820s. Other sources are books from the Botanic Garden Library, for example, Scottish trees with a history or a connection to a famous place. There are also some landscape drawings by Robert Kaye Greville (mainly for ‘the beautiful’) from the 1830s.

10 3 x 15

Fifteen images were selected, and individually coloured, for each element, and thus in total there are over three thousand possible combinations(15x15x15), or composite landscapes. The idea is also that the composite images can also connect horizontally to form a continuous landscape, or ‘myriorama’ – an idea taken from 19th century sets of cards featuring landscapes, which could be placed in any order and still produce a coherent image.

11 0001wG

I was originally asked to provide a short caption or title for each image, but in fact produced a short poetic line, mostly taken or adapted from the work of Sir Walter Scott and other Romantic writers. Like the images, these lines were adjusted so that when combined they form a composite three-line verse, or Romantic haiku. The first and second lines – background and middleground – are linked by prepositions ‘from x to y’ – with the third line following after a dash, thus precluding the need for more specific syntax, yet qualifying the previous couplet in some way.

12 2012-08-09 16.17.56

Here is a shot from the exhibition. You can see how each of the images is presented on a glass screen on a pole. When these are moved into a certain position, they are projected on to the screen at the back as a combined image, and the text appears with them.

Here is the composite landscape, and poem, formed from the three elements in the bottom right of this image.

13 4_27_38

The text reads

from savage grandeurs, to
shaggy heath –
making improvements

14 2012-08-09 16.14.56

Another exhibition shot of the three elements – and the composite landscape which they form.

15 1_24_43

from wild cascade, to
boughs, and a low eminence –
a beached skiff

Here are a series of images, as presented on the screen during the exhibition, shifting from right to left.

16 panorama

In this case, the user experience is very different from that of ink, as they participate and create one image out of three parts, anticipating what the composite image will look like and seeing this as a part of an ongoing panorama, and then being surprised by the related poem they have also “composed”.


To conclude: poetry is about structures, about form as well as content, and sometimes the most interesting way of producing content is to focus on the form, and let the content as it were come of its own accord. I enjoy the way ~in the fields focus on thinking through and making their highly conceptualised and technically ambitious works, and I hope the poems can work in similar ways, as intricate machines which fascinate in terms of both their engineering and their output.

Ken Cockburn, June2013


2013-04-16 09.39.45

Last month I spent an overcast spring day at the National Fruit Collection, Brogdale Farm, near Faversham in Kent. It was supposed to be the height of the blossom season, but most of the trees were holding on to their winter bareness until the weather improved.

I was there to lead a couple of haiku walks – the idea was that we’d write poems about the abundant blossom, but what we actually wrote about was the late arrival of spring.

I was there with Luke Allan, who works as Alec Finlay’s studio manager. Luke was there to install and photograph poem-labels for a project of Alec’s called The Bee Bole, and here all the poems were variants on Basho’s famous haiku about a bee leaving a peony-flower.


You can see all the poems here.

Below is a sequence of haiku, featuring some of the names we came across (four trees and a beer).

chilly April
an Early Bird
at the Sun Inn

chilly April
Pyrus Chanticleer
has yet to crow

chilly April
the Blue Prolific
is anything but

chilly April
Zwemmers Fruehzwetsche
and one bee

chilly April
Prunus Stella

chilly April
one magpie
in a fallow field

2013-04-16 14.35.23

Autumn leaves

Autumn seems to be the time translations appear – a smaller crop than last year’s, but there are two publications to mention. No Man’s Land, the online journal for German writing in English, has published my translations of Arne Rautenberg – several haiku, and ‘gingko leaf fairy tale’, about coming across a pressed leaf in a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Those poems, and many more, are included in Snapdragon.

The recent issue (3:18) of Modern Poetry in Translation is on the theme of Transitions. It’s the last to be edited by David and Helen Constantine, who share this issue with their successor, Sasha Dugdale. I’ll be sad to see them go – they have consistently published work of interest from a generous range of poets and translators, and have been very supportive of my work, taking versions of Thomas Brasch, Thomas Rosenlöcher and Heiner Müller. This issue features translations of three poems by Heinz Czechowski (1935–2009), a writer I’ve just discovered this year, and who skillfully interweaves his private and public selves, the historical and the contemporary, the literary and the mundane. You can read one of the poems here.

Beside them are other translations of Czechowski by Ian Hilton, a former professor of Germany at Bangor University, who has known his work for much longer than I have, and who many years ago met the poet on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall.


Snapdragon is a newly published collection of my translations of poems by the German writer Arne Rautenberg, made over the past decade. Arne lives in Kiel, where I’ve visited him on several occasions, and he has been to Scotland twice, in 2003 and 2007.

As all books are, it is a collaborative effort. I was introduced to Arne by Alec Finlay, who has written the cover blurb above; Stewart Conn heard Arne and me read in Edinburgh and 2003, and his poem ‘Translations’ describing that occasion is included; the book is designed and laid out by Barrie Tullett, with whom I’ve worked on many projects over the years; and the cover was designed by Jantze Tullett, Barrie’s wife.

The ladybird
On the hibiscus flower
In the ashtray


The poems are fomally varied: monologues, lists and fairy tales – haiku, double haiku and football haiku – one-word poems, nudges and inversions. They are presented as parallel text, German on the left and English on the right.

Between turbulence
And the monstrous rivets
A beckoning home.

His gaze deep in the
Rear wheel of a juggernaut
Thundering on by.

(from ‘Kiel After Rain’)

I mention my choice of title in the Afterword: “I settled on Snapdragon as it seemed to sum up much of Arne’s work: a flower-name, so a word that’s rooted in the real, something delicate and beautiful; yet also with outlandish and unsettling associations.”

The formal details are:
published by The Caseroom Press, 180 x 125 mm, 64 pages, ISBN 978-1-905821-21-1, cover price £5.00.

A review by Lesley Harrison has appeared in Northwords Now, no.22 (if you download the pdf, it’s on p.22). “I don’t speak German, but the English versions conjured very clearly a city-world still recovering from war, and Cockburn’s clipped, wry translations seem to be a perfect window to it, both clever and compelling.”

If you’d like to buy a copy, it’s available via The Big Cartel.

Arne Rautenberg, Glasgow, 2003
Alec Finlay & Arne Rautenberg, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 2007
Ken Cockburn & Arne Rautenberg, Kiel, 2008 (photo by Birgit Rautenberg)

~in the fields

After our collaboration on Ink, I’ve had the pleasure of working again with ~in the fields, and written texts for two works in their current show at New Media Scotland, Inspace, part of the Edinburgh Art Festival 2012.

Yen To See Distant Places features ‘3D’ images – images literally made up of three layers, that is background, middleground and foreground, or ‘The Sublime’, ‘The Beautiful’ and ‘The Picturesque’. There are fifteen of each, so 45 in total, presented in the gallery on stands, and they can be physically moved. When three are placed in a particular spot on the floor, they are ‘read’ by sensors, which create on a screen a three-part composite image.

from steep and solitary rocks, to
groves deep and high—
an air of majesty and dejection
from gloomy raptures, to
the lonely down—
sepulchral yew

Each ‘ground’ also has its own associated line of text, and beneath the composite image a composite three-line text appears. Just as the ‘grounds’ are adapted from 19th century engravings drawn mainly from Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Provincial Antiquities and Picturesque Scenery of Scotland’, so the lines are drawn from 19th century texts, especially Scott’s. I think of these little three-liners as ‘Romantic haiku’. The composite images (though not, sadly, the texts) are then transmitted to St. Andrew Square where they can be viewed through a telescope located by the Edinburgh Art Festival pavilion.

Drifts Through Debris is a modern take on the 16th century book wheel of Agostino Ramelli. Ramelli’s wheel was made to allow comparisons to be made between different texts – you could have several books open at a time, and by turning the wheel you could compare and contrast their contents.

This wheel features video screens, and draws attention to the growing problem of oceanic plastic pollution. Footage includes archive material from the 1940s extolling the virtues of plastic as a way of utilising what would otherwise be waste products, and responses by two dancers – Sue Hawksley and Tony Mills – to images of sea-creatures constrained in various ways by plastic debris.

I wrote texts to the same images, and extracts from these are presented as part of the soundtrack to the video loops. The wheel is made of steel, with spaces at the hub for small projectors – a clever piece of contemporary design – but you turn it by pulling on handles made of driftwood, so it also has a nice tactile element to it.

The third work in the show is A Diagram of Floating Stones – in tall, thin aquariums, lace-knit wrapped stones from Shetland beaches are given buoyancy by plastic found on the same beaches.

I think it’s a great show – conceptually and visually strong, a fascinating mesh of old and new technologies, and acknowledging the gallery visitor as active participant rather than passive consumer. There are pictures of the opening, and of the works, here.

The Road North at StAnza 2012

'there go the geese / and the foxgloves / not yet over (Slioch)'

The ‘sampler‘ of The Road North which was shown at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh last summer can be seen in St Andrews as part of this year’s StAnza poetry festival.

1.00pm – 5.00pm
Thursday 15th – Saturday 17th March
Public Library Meeting Room, Church Square, St Andrews


Details here