following the river

Not sure if this haiku needed an ellipsis at the end of line 2, but in the end I decided to go with it. Partly it’s informed by reading and reviewing Kanchan Chatterjee’s Scattered Leaves for Presence magazine. The review will appear in the next issue, so I won’t say anything about the book on the blog until it’s been out a couple of months. However, I can say that Chatterjee is liberal in his use of the ellipsis, which prompted me to use them in some of my haiku.

Another influence is John Wills’ wonderful haiku:

where the river goes
first day of spring

(taken from Allan Burns’ Where the River Goes, Snapshot Press 2013).

I love the spare use of language in this poem, the plain-spoken and utterly clear image of following the river’s path, the sense of freedom it suggests, but also the possibility that we’re not free, that the river must take the course dictated by the lie of the land, and therefore we can only take certain paths as circumstances allow. There’s a sense of adventure too – rivers are beautiful to follow, and yet they can be difficult as well. Sometimes the river bank has eroded and the path falls away. We turn back, or we scramble on. Either way, it’s spring and there’s that feeling of optimism that comes with longer daylight, birdsong, milder weather. Wills’ haiku opens with a single verb; it’s hard to pare writing back further than this. By leaving out the subject, we can place ourselves in the poem (I am going) although it’s equally possible to read the haiku as ‘the river is going’. Either way, the journey this poem evokes is at once truthful and metaphorical, as much about stillness and contemplation as it is about movement. For me, this is one of those poems that stays with you. I often hear it in my head when I’m out walking. I don’t walk by the river much, but when I do, it’s the River Don, which starts its course just a few miles up the valley from where I live. The photographs, above and below, were taken further downriver near Deepcar, where the river widens and the remains of old iron works can be seen along the way.

2 thoughts on “following the river

  1. I think your haiku’s better with the ellipsis. Allan Burns said something to me once about how he eschews punctuation as much as possible because he believes that’s in keeping with ‘haiku spirit’, but I don’t really buy that: surely where punctuation might be added to guide the reader, then that’s perfectly in keeping with haiku spirit. Here, it’s slightly unclear to me as to whether the ellipsis is doing the job of emphasising a pause at the end of the second line or is saying to the reader, effectively, that it’s not just the unseen protagonist who is following the river but the flowers as well. But I quite like that I’m unsure and I don’t really want to be wholly directed, so the fact that the ambiguity enables different readings is attractive to me and adds to the haiku’s power. I’m not sure that the reader would be led to the same ambiguity without the ellipsis. It’s a lovely haiku, which sounds as pretty as the moment and scene which it’s conveying.

    The Wills haiku has become a classic, through its simplicity, though one could argue that it would’ve been even better as a one-liner, mirroring the river’s path.

    You can definitely over-do ellipses and/or em-dashes – sometimes the Allan Burns method seems absolutely right. But as always with haiku, the ‘rules’ are there to be broken!


    • Thanks Matthew, this is really helpful. You’d think with such a short form there wouldn’t be space or time to worry over something as small as an ellipsis, but really, because haiku are so short, they seem to lead you to dwell on things like that – at least they do with me. Your comment is very insightful and much appreciated. I can see why the Wills haiku is seen as a classic, being at once accessible and profound. As to the question about its final form, I totally see your point. And yet, there’s something about the three liner spatially (I mean, on the page) that makes me prefer it to the single line. I have to admit I haven’t managed to create a one liner that I’m happy with; they are deceptively difficult. Yours, at the end of The Regulars, is a fantastic example of what a good one can achieve – here it is for anyone else reading this reply:

      my slouch in my son’s shoulders winter’s end

      Take care Matthew, and thanks for your encouragement.
      Julie x


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