Mountains and valleys, Days 6 and 7

Day 6, 5th November

Up at a reasonable time for breakfast, then shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagoya, and a change to a ‘limited express’ to Takayama. A stunningly beautiful journey through the mountains. The autumn colours are at their magnificent best, and the trees a multicoloured mixture of broadleaves and conifers, a russet and green mosaic. Near the top of the hills the leaves have already fallen, and the forest dissolves into transparency, the soft fuzzy look of bare twigs on the high ridges. Near the road we see the spindly maple shrubs, with starry scarlet leaves. Occasionally there’s the piercing yellow of ginkgo trees. The single-track line crosses and re-crosses narrow gorges, with fast green rivers far below. We pass through a metamorphic belt, and into granite country, the high hard core of Japan.

hilltop trees are leafless,
a russet haze on mountain ridges
where it’s already winter –
here in the valleys
a warm autumn dithers

Takayama is a nice little town with gridded streets and a lot of character. It’s touristy – but mainly for Japanese tourists – but it’s also a town where people live and work. We have a walking tour first, visiting the Jinya building, where the administrator lived during the Shogunate period. It had a number of large, high-ceilinged unheated rooms which must be freezing in winter, even with the open hearths. Then on to a sake brewery for a tasting, then another tasting in a miso soup emporium, among the big barrels of fermenting bean paste.

outside the office
taxi-drivers wait –
samurai rickshaw-pullers


Day 7, 6th November

Up for morning market in Takayama – colourful and interesting. We buy some ginkgo nuts to take home, persimmons to eat today, lacquer bowls, a wee taiko hand-drum for our grandson, and some other nick-nacks. Leave at 9 for a visit to an Edo period merchant’s house and a Buddhist temple, which we can’t enter because a funeral service is going on. Then on the bus to the Shokawa Valley, and the Shirakawa-go hamlets. Terrific drive up into the mountains, with hairpins, narrow tunnels, dams, lakes and hydro schemes. In places the scenery is like the Scottish Highlands, in other places completely different. We make one stop beside a large lake behind a massive gravity dam. The ‘rest stop’ toilet was closed, sadly, but in the car park there is a giant cherry tree, a favourite of the locals, which was transplanted when the valley was drowned. Amazingly, after a few years, it began to send out leaves and flowers once again. There’s a statute to the man who moved it, and quite right too – I’ve never seen a tree as big as this being transplanted.

venerable cherry
leaves its drowning village
puts down new roots

The village in Shirakawa-go (Ogimachi) is very picturesque, with thatched cottages where large extended families live on the ground floor, raising silkworms in the upper stories. The houses are called gassho-zukuri, which refers to the hands raised in prayer because the roof pitch is very steep. The thatch is made from Miscanthus grass – we see fields of it growing. It’s a World Heritage site, because there isn’t anything like these houses elsewhere, and to have 150 of them in the one spot is unique. Eventually we managed to find a place for lunch – soba noodles in vegetable soup for me – quite tasty – but Jane had chosen cold soba noodles – a summer speciality. It wasn’t as nice. We buy candied apples and cucumber, not knowing what they are, but they are very tasty, especially the apples. Back down to Takayama, where we have a tonkatsu meal at the restaurant Bandai Kadomise – a country style restaurant where we have to sit on the floor. Very uncomfortable, but the food is good. And so to bed.

candied cucumber
a bitter-sweet snack
after cold noodles



At last! A good use
for Pampas Grass –
thatch for silk-worm
hatcheries far better
than suburban lawns.

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Mountains and valleys, Days 4 and 5

Day 4, 3rd November, Nara

Off to Nara today by coach. Drove through forests of bamboo, and in every hamlet persimmon (kaki) trees – leaves bare but with the large orange fruit still festooning the branches. There’s a Japanese saying about the patience needed to wait for persimmons to ripen. Higher up are the forests of hinoki trees – Japanese cypress – which have massive straight trunks, much used for supporting pillars in temples, torii and the like. We stopped at Todaiji temple first, in grounds populated by hundreds of tame smelly sika deer (smaller than our red deer), who beg for ‘deer crackers’ – biscuits specially made for them. The temple is a truly massive building, containing a giant bronze statue of Buddha Vairocana – the Rushana Daibutsu, a National Treasure. I stand in front of it and bow, feeling less self-conscious than I did in Tokyo. Beside it is a smaller but very beautiful gilded wooden statue of the Kokuzo Bosatsu – a boddhisatva.

leafless kaki trees
each hung with little sunsets
waiting for sweetness


Rushana Daibutsu

Hinoki trunks turned
to roof pillars, high
but still it’s dark inside.
The huge bronze Buddha sits,
hand to Heaven,
middle finger blessing,
eyes closed, centre of the Lotus World,
cosmic, all-connected Vairocana.

A word or two about Buddhism: Sue may be a member of the Pure Land sect, as she keeps talking about Buddha ‘taking people to the Paradise’ after death. This isn’t really what Buddhism is about for me – if that were all, it would be a belief system similar to Judaeo-Christianity, but it’s very different in the Zen Buddhism I try to follow. The Buddha has attained a state of enlightenment, which we’re all capable of reaching, and in the highest state we are released from the wheel of samsara, the endless cycle of rebirths and suffering which is the lot of all living things. He wants us all to follow him, and to reach this ‘highest perfect enlightenment’ by following the Eightfold Path. In Zen you aim for this state by meditation (zazen), and in some sects by contemplating a series of mental paradoxes which are unsolvable by logic (the koan). The Amida sect, however (and it’s a major one in Japan) believes that after enlightenment we all go to the Pure Land – the ‘Western Paradise’ – after death. Anyway, a boddhisatva is one who postpones his own enlightenment until he has helped others to attain it.

Namu Amida Butsu

As we left Todaiji it started to rain, and by the time we reached the bus park at the Kasuga Grand Shrine it was pretty steady. Walking up the hill, the track lined with 3000 stone lanterns, we became soaking wet, but didn’t care. At the secondary shrine near the top of the hill we observed at close hand a Shinto service, and we found it very moving if somewhat incomprehensible. Five priests sat under a pagoda roof, rain dripping off the eaves, chanting, bowing, and clapping hands. Two walked up the steps to the sanctuary, taking off their lacquered clogs, and did whatever they do there, then all five walked back into the main room, across from where we were sitting spellbound. Music began, and a girl (the maiko) came out to dance a slow, solemn dance – we were told later that she was the voice of the god speaking to us at this point. It was extremely moving. The Grand Shrine itself was a bit of an anti-climax after that. Then back down the lantern-lined staircase, for a lunch stop in the Nara mall – noodle soup, rice, minced raw salmon, pickles – very tasty. Just before we got back on the bus Jane went to the rest room in a very posh craft shop, and I managed to buy my bamboo ladle. I wish we’d found the place earlier – they had some wonderful things there.

Kasuga Great Shrine

Rain drips from the roof,
chanting voices drone in unison,
hands clap twice, heads bow.
Bamboo parasols shelter the priests
for the short walk
to the hall of worship
where a girl dances to
the rain god’s choreography.

Back in Kyoto we were dropped off at the Handicraft Centre, where we bought presents, souvenirs, a yukata robe for Jane, and a lovely tea bowl. I also buy the tabi socks with separate big toe space. Yukatas are cotton dressing gowns, and in each hotel room they are provided for the use of the guests. They are dead comfy, great for slobbing around in. In the evening we went out to a kaiten-zushi bar, where the individual plates of sushi move past you on a conveyor belt. The food was excellent – tuna, sea-bream, tiny squid, salmon roe, mackerel and lots of other fish, with rice, green tea, and clam miso soup.


Day 5, 4th November.

A leisurely start to a free day in Kyoto. We left the hotel at 10 for a public bus ride to the top of the Philosopher’s Walk. Beautiful weather – sunny and warm. The walk goes along the side of an aqueduct – more like a channelled stream than a canal. The water was clear and contained lots of fish – carp and little ones. We stopped at several temples along the way – each being a different style or having different features. First was the Ginkaku-ji (Silver Temple). There’s a beautiful garden on a steep hillside, a combination of Zen garden and the naturalised landscape garden. This was a place that really took my breath away. The path wound artfully round feature after feature, steadily rising up the hill. Here is the Kogetsudai – the Moon-Viewing Height. Next stop on the walk was Honen-in, a Jodo Zen temple with raked sand gardens – a little gem of a place. The garden was divided into blocks of different plots of sand – some raked to form sinuous patters like waves, some crescentic, like barchan dunes, and some linear. In a stone trough used for washing hands two flowers floated – someone had placed them there deliberately, for their simplicity and exquisite beauty.

Ginkaku-ji garden


Earth mound made pillow
by green starry moss;
the maple leaves
are swept off daily,
only the latest litter layer
is seen – gold, russet, red –
an origami of autumn.


Gravely raked gravel
mimics lunate dunes, a conic section;
severe lines map the contours
of a moonlit ocean’s waves
where rock continents float.


Wide and narrow, thick and thin,
immaculate grey lanes, untrodden,
overhung by an obedient pine,
trained arms stretching out needle fingers.


A trickle bounds downhill,
splashes on a stone,
bubbles a coin-bottomed pool
beside a red-bibbed shrine
where I fold my hands.

We stopped next at the Nyakuoji-jinya shrine for a delicious bento lunch in beautiful surroundings. This is a Shinto shrine, and all the time we were sitting there people would come into the courtyard, ring the big gong, bow, clap hands twice and bow again. Next was the Eikan-do temple complex, which was hosting an art exhibition when we visited – wonderful paintings and ceramics. The route took us (barefoot of course) from one beautiful building to the next. The (Amida) Buddha here is a curiously ambiguous one – he stands (or it could be she stands) , with his/her head turned to one side. The garden here is stunning, and has great views of Kyoto. There is also a large Buddhist cemetery, with hundreds of small stone shrines where the ashes of the departed are buried. We stopped briefly in the huge free-standing gate of Nanzen-ji temple, but we didn’t have time to go in.

We’d been misdirected by the travel rep, who had assumed that the big art complex building – the Miyako Messe – was actually the sister hotel to ours. After some confusion inside the building we discovered her mistake, and we then had to jump on a city bus back to the hotel, but it wasn’t difficult, just very crammed.

Miyako Messe

The art gallery was hosting
a wedding demonstration
of high and temporary fashion.
Bridal gowns swept by, paired
with dark-suited consorts,
glimpsed through an open door
by five unsuited, unsuitable tourists,
gate-crashing the party
in search of transport.

In the evening we met up for a Night Tour of Kyoto. We started with a tempura-style vegetarian meal in a Zen ryokan (a traditional inn). We both thought the food was delicious, but I don’t think many of the others in our group enjoyed it. Pieces of vegetable (lotus root, sweet potato, shiso (a kind of aromatic leaf), and two kinds of tofu) coated in a thin batter were served with miso soup, pickles and rice. In the same inn we had a tea ceremony, which stuck pretty closely to the authentic format, but was speeded up to cope with the needs of tourists. Within the building itself there were courtyards open to the sky, with little gardens. Then we walked through the narrow streets of the Gion district, where the geishas work, but we didn’t meet any. We did see a night heron, however. At the Gion Corner theatre we had a demonstration of chanoyu or sado (tea ceremony), ikebana (flower arrangement), gagaku (an incomprehensible court dance), kyogen (a comedy theatre production), kyomai (geisha dance – elegant and attractive), and bunraku (puppet theatre, an acquired taste). Then back to the hotel to pack for the next jaunt.

night heron’s grey kimono
has white and black highlights
in the yellow glow of Gion


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Mountains and valleys Day 3

Day 3, 2nd November, to Kyoto

A very early start to catch the bullet train. Luggage space on these trains is very limited, so ours is transported by truck, taking most of the day to get to Kyoto, while we manage the journey in a fast, comfortable 3 hours. One of our number, an obnoxious Colonel Blimp look-alike loudmouth who wears shorts throughout the trip, is sitting beside me. At one point I doze off, and wake up to find he’s helped himself to my map of Japan. We pass through many small villages and much agricultural land – small rice paddies, vegetables, tea bushes, intensive cultivation with no livestock. Smouldering piles of stubble at the side of the fields, rice ‘stooks’ drying. Rivers are either dry or very low. Hills are steep and forested, with every scrap of ground in between being farmed. Check in to the ‘New Miyako’ hotel, and discover that as well as the Gideon Bible we’ve got a copy of ‘Teachings of the Buddha’ in our room.

Kyoto tour starts after a bento box lunch bought in the Tenkatsu Mall across the road from the hotel, and, on our son’s recommendation, a can of Pocari Sweat – a drink I become very fond of.

Our new guide asks us to call her Sue. Our first stop is the Sanjusangen-do temple dedicated to the Buddha Kannon. The hall, the longest wooden building in the world, contains 1001 gilded wooden statues of the Buddha, guarded by deities which are nearly all avatars of the Hindu pantheon – it’s astonishing how they’ve all been adapted to Buddhism. As I approach the central Buddha, which is much larger, I am overwhelmed by feelings of compassion and reverence.

On to the Heian (Shinto) Shrine, a very beautiful garden containing trees, streams and ponds. Like many temple gardens in Japan, it aims to contain features which suggest nature and evoke feelings of contemplation and relaxation. I come across a patch of iris growing at the water’s edge, with a single flower in bloom. We also see a heron attempting to catch koi carp which are far too big for it.

Finally today, the Kinkaku-ji Zen temple and grounds. By the side of an artificial lake the Golden Temple rises. In the lake, artificial islands, shaped like turtles, each feature groups of pine trees. The garden is just superb, serene and surprising. It contains a dry garden with raked grey sand, and a 600-year old trained pine tree. I manage to buy a bamboo tea scoop here, with the intention of conducting a tea ceremony when we get home. I still need a ladle, tea jar and a bowl.


Three temple day

I. Sanjusangen-do

We park our shoes
in the reserved spaces
and slide over the squeaky floor.
Pillars divide the long hall
in thirty-three compartments.
In all save one, three ranks
of ten gilded statues stand.
Before each group a guardian –
Krsna, Siva, Devi – Vedic avatars
transformed to protective spirits.
In the centre, huge, stepped back,
Kannon sits, thousand armed,
bestowing mercy, being mercy.
Behind their backs
a long corridor, where
archers compete each year.

II. Heian Shrine

A walk in the Paradise Garden
passes streams and ponds
where herons wade
in search of careless carp.

We move under trees
thinned by approaching winter.
Maples flame against the sky
but cherries are already bare.
The tall spires of ginkgos
glow gold and green.

A line of stepping stones
would be a magnet
for hopscotching children
anywhere else, but here
only one stupid tourist
breaks the spell.

III. Kinkaku-ji

Deep in the lake
a golden roof ripples
thatched by falling leaves.

In the evening we visit the Isaten Department Store behind Kyoto Station. Restaurants are all full, with queues outside. The basement is full of counters offering an amazing array of food. We go back to the restaurant and have a rather disappointing yakitori meal, followed by coffee and surprisingly good donuts in ‘Mister Donut’. Very tired all day.  We enjoy looking at the other customers, and we love the subtle way they observe us.

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Mountains and valleys, temples and gardens, Day 2

Day 2 – 1st November, in Tokyo

An excellent city tour today, led by Smiley, who fills every minute of every journey with facts and figures about Japanese history, religion, culture, language and way of life. We start at the Meiji (Shinto) Shrine, dedicated to the first Meiji Emperor. Massive torii gate at the start. Smiley tells us the legend of how such gates came to be erected at Shinto shrines. The Sun Goddess – Amaterasu – had taken offence at something, and was hiding away in a dark cave. Another deity – the Rain God – had taken the form of a cockerel, perched on a gate outside the cave, and crowed. Amaterasu took this as a wake-up call, and came out to shine. So it’s said. Shinto has a variety of spirits – kami – who inhabit specific places. (It’s a different concept from my own feelings about ‘spirit of place’.) There are also the major spirits, of sun, moon, mountains, rivers, rain, trees, crops, etc.

There’s a large line of stacked sake barrels by the road, donated by the sake brewers every year. Also on the road there’s an exhibition of chrysanthemum blooms – this is the season for them after all. The flower heads are massive, but there’s also a group of bonsai chrysanths, and a group trained in the shape of a shield (or it may be a fan). Several families were in the grounds, taking their daughters and sons to the shrine. Girls aged 3, 5 and 7, and boys 5 and 7, are brought here every year on their special day. They’re all beautifully dressed in bright, colourful kimonos, and they look sweet. They raise two fingers to their faces and say “ni” (=2), because “ni gives a nice smile”. After getting permission from her parents we photograph one little girl who doesn’t seem to mind 40 Westerners asking her to pose – she’s lovely. In the background the sound of the shakuhachi flute floats over the park.

rows of stacked barrels
bear messages of cheer
from the sake brewers

We saw the priests preparing for the ceremony, washing hands and faces. They wear creamy white costumes, black hats, and wooden sandals. A wedding procession passes – priests and family. The taiko drums are so loud that we can feel the vibrations – the drums bring good luck. During the ceremony I notice two priests ascend wooden steps to an inner sanctum (the honden) which is hidden from view.

birds mock wedding march
priests lead bride, groom, family –
one crow per marriage

On the way to our next stop we pass the Imperial Palace grounds – very ornate gates, and a house that looks a bit like Buckingham Palace. It’s now used to house visiting heads of state, but after the war it was General McArthur’s GHQ. Smiley tells us the Japanese interpreted this as Go Home Quickly. To Imperial Palace Plaza for a photostop. The lawn is planted up with very attractive long-needled pines (Pinus thunbergii – the Japanese Black Pine), which have a very statuesque habit. The central trunk seems to arise directly out of the ground – no obvious lateral root systems – but this may be the way they’ve been cultivated. Each branch seems to have been deliberately placed or trained exactly where it is, to give the maximum visual effect. This is obviously where the Japanese paintings of pines have their origins – it’s just the way they grow here.

Imperial Park

Black trunks spring like mushroom stalks
from green and weedless lawns.
Each short branch is parasol-tipped
with a bunch of long dark needles.
From his house on the hill
the Emperor’s empty window
looks down on his tidy forest.

Then on to the Asakusa Kannon Buddhist temple – an amazing place (Kannon is the Buddha of Compassion, in Sanskrit Avalokitesvara, in China Guan-yin, in Tibet Chenresig). The temple was founded here because in a nearby lake some fishermen found in their nets no fish, but a stone Buddha-figure. This is now revered, but unseen, within an inner chamber. A bit awkwardly, because I’ve never done this in public before, I perform my devotions in front of the shrine. I bow five times. You always bow an odd number of times, just as you always process clockwise. Outside there’s an incense brazier, where you can ‘bathe’ in the smoke for the good of your health – you waft the smoke over each affected part. Glad to see there don’t appear to be any patients suffering venereal problems. Outside the temple there are rows of stalls selling touristy stuff, but it’s a lot more tasteful than some of the tourist traps I’ve seen back home. We watch a stall where cookies are being baked – they look a bit like waffles. We buy ice cream, in taro (sweet potato) and red bean flavours – good and not too sweet. We pick up a couple of paper wallets, which I think are used on tables to hold chopsticks at place settings. Jane isn’t convinced, but they’re beautiful anyway. The bus moved on to the Ginza district – huge skyrise apartments and the city’s main department stores. When we disembark we walked through an underground food arcade and visited a pearl wholesaler. Back in the arcade we had pork tonkatsu – breaded cutlets served on finely shredded cabbage, with a thick fruity sauce.

Later, on our own, we walked through Hibiya Park. Here we saw the first down-and-outs we’d seen in Japan. They weren’t begging, just sitting about aimlessly. A lot of feral cats live here too, and they seemed interested in some birds I couldn’t see, but which had a very loud call. We visited another chrysanthemum show; this time we noticed some growers were selling plants. We wandered round the park, taking in the packed tennis courts, and came to an area of brown lawn which had been roped off for an art class (I think). There was also a large clock set in the ground. As the light dimmed we walked on to the Imperial Palace grounds, passing more groups of beautiful pines. I noticed one woman stop to admire one particular tree – would we see this at home? I think not. We found the Nijubashi Bridge (we’d seen it from the bus that morning), which was very beautiful in this light. The moat contains huge carp and an assortment of terrapins. We caught the Yamanote Line train back to Shinagawa Station and our hotel. Out for a meal later we came across a traditional noodle-type restaurant, where we dined. Back at the hotel we decided to go to the hotel’s American bar for a dark beer – very expensive but excellent.

wild cats roam the park
stalking noisy birds,
an egret fishes, standing still;
homeless men shelter
under blue plastic sheets
from the coming winter;
crows here have a different call;
the bridge admires itself
in its mirror, moat.

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Broadening the mind

is what travel is supposed to do, but does it? Unequivocally yes in my case, whether it’s been staying in gites in various parts of rural France, driving between guesthouses in the Black Forest and environs, or getting to know Italy on bus tours with friends or on our own. We’ve learned such a lot through being immersed in the life of the communities we’ve stayed in, however briefly. These places I’ve mentioned so far have been in Europe, our local patch (I am a confirmed and unrepentant citizen of Europe). Further afield, I’ve enjoyed poetic trips to Lithuania and Quebec. But I’ve also visited some more exotic destinations, where the cultures have been radically different from that in my home patch.

Experiencing these places – Japan, China, Tibet – really did open my eyes to different ways of living, although I was already steeped in Japanese art, culture and religion before we went there in 2003, having been a practising Zen Buddhist since I was a teenager.

I keep travel journals, always have done, and they’re invaluable for recreating journeys, being far more reliable than memory. This series of blog posts will be based on my travel notes, but the first one is developed from a haibun I wrote after our Japan trip. I called it Mountains and valleys, temples and gardens, and I’ll post daily segments from it. Here’s the first day:

Mountains and valleys, temples and gardens, Day 1.

After an uneventful early morning flight from Edinburgh to London we board the 747 to Tokyo. We fail to sleep while flying over Russia. It is extraordinary to look down from the plane’s nose camera at a frozen Siberian river – I believe the Amur. Overflying the mountains of Japan is very spectacular then, unexpectedly we get a view of the top of Mt Fuji as we descend towards Tokyo.

ice snake far below
grips the frozen ground –
television scenery

misty ridges
merge into clouds –
Fuji poking through

Narita Airport is 50km outside Tokyo city. After a very forbidding and stern passport control we retrieve our baggage and it is loaded onto a truck by porters wearing white gloves. Many workers in Japan wear white gloves – bus and taxi drivers most obviously. We meet our Tokyo guide, who said we should call him Smiley, and he entertains us on the two-hour bus journey to our hotel by explaining some facts and figures about Japan and the Japanese people. He’s a delightful guy, with a good sense of humour, but we don’t quite follow the commentary about the different prefectures we passed through on the way. The city is vast and sprawling – same traffic congestion problems as the rest of the world. We go over the Rainbow Bridge, and realise we’re high over the dockside area, but it’s too dark to see much. There are several artificial islands, made from landfill.

We check in to our hotel then walk out to look for a meal. On the way down the steps outside we hear cicadas in the trees. It is very warm compared to the Scotland we left behind that morning. We find a Yoshigawa restaurant (distinctive orange shop fronts identify this chain) and dine well and very cheaply on salmon, thinly-sliced beef, miso soup, pickles and rice. Then we stop at the convenience store next door to buy mochi cakes – gooey rice flour balls stuffed with sweet bean paste. They are tasty, more so than another local speciality (below).  The politeness of the shop assistants is wonderful.

soft rice-paste balls
on a stick –
sweet-glazed and soy-salty

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Prose, Prose Poems, Poetic Prose, Poetry

I’m writing this partly as a response to a StAnza discussion between Marie-Elsa Bragg and Don Paterson on the borderlines/boundaries (if such exist) between prose and poetry. My title may suggest a continuum, but is that so?

I’ve written elsewhere about my own reasons for switching from being primarily a writer of poetry to mainly writing prose – short stories and flash fiction. Here I want to focus on the differences in the way I approach the forms.

For me, poetry starts with a line, a group of words which comes into my head, a group of sounds I hear. My ideal way of writing a poem is similar to that which Norman MacCaig professed to follow. He said (I paraphrase) that he would follow that first line down the page and see where it led. That, more or less, is how I do it.

It starts with word sounds, but because I’ve been writing so long, unconsciously I bring in rhythm and many other techniques, such as assonance, alliteration, rhyme or half-rhyme, repetition, the ‘Rule of Three’, and knowing where to break a line for breath or emphasis.

These techniques, allied to knowledge of specific forms and shapes for poetry, characterise poetry as a literary entity. I’m not saying they define it, for that would be to limit its range of possibilities, but that’s what most poems look like.

Prose poetry would remove the discipline of line breaks, but could incorporate some or all of the other poetic techniques.

There’s one particular form which blurs the borderlines between prose and poetry, and that’s the haibun, a Japanese form made famous in the West through translations of Basho’s great work Oku no Hosomichi – Narrow Roads of the Interior.

It’s lyrical prose, written in the present tense, and is usually the record of a real or imaginary journey. It’s punctuated or end-stopped by a haiku. My 2014 collection – The Book of Ways – is a gathering of 112 haibun, published by Red Squirrel Press. I still explore the form from time to time.

And so to prose itself, and, because I’ve never written a novel, I’ll restrict myself to short forms – flash fiction and the short story.

For the most part, short fiction is a narrative which does not have the line structure of a poem, and nor does it (necessarily) embody poetic tricks and techniques. The conventional story is structured into a beginning, middle and end; or an opening, a development and a denouement.

The opening can be as short as the first two sentences. The first tempts the reader in; the second hooks them. Or you can go larger. The ending can be a full stop, or it can be more open-ended or ambiguous. I’ve found that the needs of the story itself dictate the type of ending. Sometimes the end is a question, requiring the reader to speculate on ‘What happens next?’ If character and plot have been sufficiently developed, there are probably enough clues to tease the reader into answering their own question.

That’s my personal take on these particular borderlines, but I’ve read and enjoyed, or written and enjoyed writing, examples which have transgressed these boundaries. Borders are made to be crossed.

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Word counts

There are a lot of short story competitions out there, and most of them are very different. Some are niche, and some are broad. One thing they all share is they have a word limit in the competition rules. One thing I’ve found in writing short stories is that each is as long as the story they have to tell. They don’t conform neatly to a word limit when I’m writing them.

So when I look at competition submission rules, it’s a rare and fortuitous event when a story I think is suitable for that particular competition fits within the word limit. If I’m lucky, they may be only slightly over the limit, and it’s usually a simple matter to knock out some of the superfluous words – there are always superfluous words, no matter how often I’ve revised them. Some stories seem to put on weight quite naturally, and it’s good for them to lose a bit. Cutting out usually leaves a story leaner, tighter, but of course there’s the risk of leaving words out that are essential to the plot, the character, or the arc of the narrative.

Limits can go from ‘less than 8,000 words’, through ‘not more than 5,000’, or ‘under 2,200’ to ‘a maximum of 1,500’. That last one’s really hard for me, because mine tend to average out at just over 2,000 words, and to get below 1,500 I’m sacrificing around a quarter of the story. That’s not worth it. I’d rather write a new story and deliberately keep it within the limit, which is what I’ve done a few times.

The issue with flash fiction is similar but less of a problem. My definition of flash fiction is between 500 and 1,000 words, but some competitions have 500 as the maximum. But that’s OK, really. I enjoy the challenge of creating a story which has a beginning, middle and end on a single side of A4, because that’s what it boils down to.

I’m just about ready to submit some stories to magazines and competitions, and I’ve read the rules and guidelines – you have to.

Good luck with yours.



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