caroline gourlay

East meets gorllewin


The last time I visited Tŷ Newydd, the national writers’ centre in Wales, was about a dozen years ago. Since then, the house has had a renovation – there’s now a new extension comprising a sunny conservatory – but otherwise I found it unchanged. There are some places that remain preserved in the memory; even though it had been many years, it was as if the house welcomed me back.

There is a famous and odd acoustic trick you can perform in the bay window of the library – if you stand in a particular spot, someone at the opposite end can hear you clearly. They say it’s the exact spot where Lloyd George, whose summer residence it was, died – which sounds like the kind of story that writers concoct of an evening, until you learn that Lloyd George did indeed die at Tŷ Newydd. His grave is in the village, on a bank overlooking the River Dwyfor; I’m not sure exactly where in the house it was that he died, but the library story is certainly convincing when you are sitting in the room experiencing that strange echo.

I was back at Tŷ Newydd for a weekend-long immersion into Haiku writing, taught by my friend, the poet and novelist Lynne Rees. Lynne has been writing haiku and haibun for many years now and has thought a lot about how the ancient eastern form can adapt to a contemporary western voice.


I was there not only to hang out with Lynne and revisit the Llŷn peninsula, but also to challenge a prejudice of mine. I have always considered (contemporary English) haiku a bit frivolous, not a serious poetic form, tied to a sort of wooly eastern spirituality. There are a lot of bad haiku out there, the kind that Lynne describes as having ‘a whiff of Zen’: meditations on cherry blossoms and weeping willows written by poets sitting in semis in Sheffield (I’m not being rude about Sheffield – it’s just the first example of an urban and therefore not-very-Zen-like setting that popped into my head). Lynne is possibly the most no nonsense person I know, and while she is sensitive and self-attuned, she is also extremely skeptical of the kind of easy spiritual statement that hasn’t been earned. So I felt if anyone was going to convince me, it would be Lynne.

We dodged the rain on Saturday morning for a ginko, an organised haiku walk that took us along the coast and back to Llanystumdwy along the river.  At certain intervals, Lynne gave us instructions / suggestions / prompts to create haiku on the spot. I was surprised to discover how difficult they are to write immediately: one thing I learned about haiku is that the best ones have an element of statement=revelation – which most good poems do – but in a haiku, this needs to be accomplished in microcosm. This movement is referred to in modern haiku as ‘link and shift’, so that a statement is made, then the next statement links to what has been said, but also makes a shift to something new. It’s what I think of as a turn, but in haiku it is accomplished over two or three lines. So during the ginko, I made some notes, trying to avoid the pitfall of easy revelation. But I didn’t write anything I could call a proper haiku.


Lynne showed us some good ones. This haiku by Caroline Gourlay really struck me:

I close my book –
a wave breaks its silence
against the rocks

Perhaps it appeals because the end rhyme of ‘book’ and ‘rocks’ (and ‘breaks’ in the middle) gives the poem a very satisfying sense of closing (like the book in the first line). I like the way ‘breaks’ has two meanings – the more familiar one to do with waves, but then the added idea of silence yielding to sound – link and shift in one word, to mark the moment the speaker comes back into the world after shutting the world of the book. It’s deceptively simple, but there’s a lot going on, the whole thing perfectly balanced over those three lines.

So, not throwaway. And quite tough to achieve. I’ll keep working at it …


The presiding spirit of the weekend was not in fact old Lloyd George, but Nigel Jenkins, who was due to teach the course with Lynne; he died at the end of January this year. I’d only met Nigel twice, but he made a great impression. He and Lynne edited the anthology Another Country: haiku poetry from Wales ( and I remember his reading at the launch in Aberystwyth, his extraordinary deep bass voice. I’ll end on a haiku of his I particularly like

colder, greyer …
the first ditherings
of snow