haibun
A Quarterly Journal of Contemporary English Language Haibun
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December 2005, vol 1 no 3

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Ken's Corner - Part 2

It sprawls over the ground, no doubt having toppled a hundred years or more ago, a giant, pewter-colored trunk of swollen, twisted branches whose bulging roots prowl amid the soft, muddy banks of the estuary. Surprisingly, a small cluster of bright green leaves on a few thin branches at the top drives this huge, slow and secret engine.

This is a third of Gary Lebel’s haibun “Gravity.” It’s a description of a huge and ancient juniper. There is no thematic development, so the piece has to rely entirely on imagery. Please examine it carefully to discover how it achieves its powerful effect. This is the haiku-prose of haibun, where all the work is done by careful and feeling observation expressed in concrete imagery. As in haiku there is little that is superfluous and almost every word has work to do.

Look afresh at your experience, so that words appear and accumulate to give the readers, also, a reborn sense of their world. For example, the trunk above is “pewter colored”, which momentarily stops us in our tracks. Much of the imagery achieves its effect through metaphoric resonance. That means that it enlarges our sensibilities by echoing something else. But, in the haiku tradition of karumi, of “lightness”, it should do this no more than suggestively, avoiding heavy symbolism which robs the reader of imaginative space. So, in this example, in the bulging roots and the swollen branches, there is a hint of the tree being a living thing like us. And then there is the sudden startling and imaginative shift to the tree as a “huge, slow and secret engine”.

To be published, write only when you are strongly moved, when there is some kindling of the imagination, when some intriguing theme appears which won't let you rest, when you have something extraordinary to share with others—even an ordinary thing seen in an extraordinary light, like Gary’s juniper. This will give you the motive power to create literature, which is our business here. In many submissions I can sense some talent but it is  hidden under a striving to write in some “literary' style”. The result is commonly a stilted, contrived or overloadedprose. So often I say to myself, '”if only these persons would stop driving with the brakes on and just let go a bit and be themselves!”

The haiku watchwords SHOW, DON’T TELL apply equally to haibun. For example, instead of saying you’re sad, use appropriate imagery to do so, arousing space for the reader to feel and share that sadness. And many a promising haibun is spoilt because the writer cannot resist pushing into the picture—“hey, look at me!” Get a good friend to point out any self-indulgent, self-regarding, opinionated and preachy passages, then delete them, and stand back to admire the improvement. That’s happened to me so very often!

Again as with haiku, LESS IS MORE. As soon as you have something that looks polished well enough to fly, take the pruning shears to it. Cut out everything that is inessential to your purpose, to what the habun is really all about. (If you yourself don’t know, then the haibun is anyway likely to be a meandering, inconsequential thing which will soon lose the reader’s interest). Cut out wordiness and duplication, and especially adjectives. Cumulative adjectives do sometimes work, as in Gary’s “huge, slow and secret”, but he need not have told us that the leaves were green, for example.

Within the above criteria many different kinds of prose style can successfully be employed in haibun. As an example, here is the opening of “Coiled Wire” by Jamie Edgecombe, which recently landed on my desk.

only right arm active, copper twists devour the seconds hand’s backward motion: another part to another radiator, ice-box, boiler; to be bought by another factory worker’s by-the-hour accountable time. through single skylight in tin roof, direct rays of late summer march the line and land upon the lucky few.

In the next issue: Part 3—Need haibun be truthful?

 

[Did you miss Ken's Corner - Part 1? Click Here]

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