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January 2018, vol 13 no 4

| Contents This Issue | First Haibun |



Ray Rasmussen

Haibun as Letter Writing: A Reply to Peter Newton’s Haibun

This essay is a comment on and response to Peter Newton’s haibun appearing in this issue. It includes a discussion of haibun as a form of letter-writing in our era of Internet communication which includes: email, tweets, Facebook posts, personal blogs and websites that carry personal writing such as haibun.

Because I think it’s best to read the piece being commented on prior to reading a commentary, here’s Newton’s haibun as a starting point:

Peter Newton

To a Friend Who Hasn’t Written in Months

Writing is a kind of wealth. I mean the act of doing it. How rich we feel in the throes of it. How carefree and unbothered by our day-to-day drudgeries when we are racing atop a slew of ideas that have finally broken free under their own weight carrying us along on the ride of a lifetime. Or so it seems for a little while. Until we come to a stop. And the landscape is back to its still life existence.

painted turtles in full sun logging in

Sometimes, I wait at the window for a homecoming of even the fewest words strung together like a souvenir from another world. There is no other reward really. But the unexpected gift. Saying what only you can say. What no one else can say – even if they wanted to.

No wonder writing always feels like a kind of singing. A celebration. Good writing finds that flow and sweeps us into it. We are picked up here and put down over there. Now that's transportation. You'll know when it’s time to get moving.

rebuilt boardwalk every step a new view of debris

The Allure of a Title

Letters normally don't have titles, but Newton’s haibun does and his title and my interest in letter writing made Newton’s piece the first I chose to read in our new issue. It tapped my curiosity. Did something happen to the friend? Or is something amiss in the relationship? What will Newton have to say to a friend who seems to have dropped contact? And on it goes. I want to know all of this and more.

In our October 2014 issue, Modern Haiku editor Roberta Beary wrote the following about the three elements of haibun: title, prose and poem:

Strive for a haibun title which adds texture [emphasis mine], strive for risk-taking prose that steps away from the mundane, and strive for high quality haiku that illuminate the prose.

In the last two decades, there have been almost no published haibun without titles. At this point, titles are generally taken for granted by both writers, editors and readers. Currently, a key issue about titles in haibun rests not with the question, “Should haibun carry a title?” but instead with “What kind of title?”

Beary suggests:

In haibun, the wrong title is like a wrong number. It makes the reader want to hang up the phone. A haibun's title should be strong enough to draw the reader into the prose and make the reader want more. Let the title be a link to the prose and the haiku, not give away the rest of the piece. After reading the entire haibun, the reader should be able to look at the title and see more than one meaning. [1]

CHO Editor Bob Lucky adds:

. . . [Beary’s points about titles are] important, and especially so for shorter forms. I often remind myself of the guideline for the Vestal Review (the longest running flash fiction magazine in the world) when I've finished a haibun with a stinker of a title. Their guideline: Don't forget that the title is an important part of the story. Make it pertinent but don't tell too much either. We generally don't favor one-word titles. [2]

Strange, isn’t it, that of the many definitions of haibun found in print and online, almost none mention titles. Yet here are the editors of two of our important journals emphasizing them, if not as equal partners with the prose and poem, at least as quite important.

In comparison, there’s abundant information pertaining to the importance of titles and how to compose them for genres that are close relatives of haibun: memoirs, personal essays, prose poetry, travel journals, flash fiction and short stories. If you google phrases like “short story titles,” you’ll see what I mean and may even glean ideas for your titles.

Prose: The Pleasure of Artful Writing

Clearly Newton is rather serious about letter-writing as well as writing in general. In his first paragraph he plants the writer’s flag:

Writing is a kind of wealth. I mean the act of doing it. How rich we feel in the throes of it. How carefree and unbothered by our day-to-day drudgeries when we are racing atop a slew of ideas that have finally broken free under their own weight carrying us along on the ride of a lifetime.

I’d classify most haibun I read in our journals as narratives, well-crafted personal stories sans poetic flourishes. Only a minority contain artful writing or what Ken Jones called literary haibun:

" . . . (The) mere reportage of experience is not enough if we are truly in the business of literature. Even the humblest haiku moment is not usually just picked up from the ground but needs some polishing before being put into print. How much more so is this true of a complex thing like a haibun. Not only is well-burnished imagery required, but also some thematic shaping to a purpose . . ." [3]

Newton’s prose strikes me as artful in two ways: 1) he presents a well-written account of his own writing experiences; 2) he employs some artful – leaning toward prose poetry – passages. Consider:

. . . How carefree and unbothered by our day-to-day drudgeries when we are racing atop a slew of ideas that have finally broken free under their own weight carrying us along on the ride of a lifetime.

This passage aptly describes the way I feel when writing, that is, the way I feel sometimes. What’s missing are the frustrations of revising and failing to get a piece working well. On occasion I’m tempted to toss a piece I’m writing into the electronic trash basket and take up TV and naps. If you visit the piece I’ve posted in this issue, you’ll see how frustrating writing can be for me, and perhaps for many of you.

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Letter Writing is often referred to as a lost art. Almost no one writes artful, content-filled letters any more, nor even those postcards with dense, cramped writing on the back. As evidence I offer my empty, but-for-bills and junk mail, postbox, which makes it clear that none of my friends and family engage even in light letter writing. Instead people email or tweet or post short comments and images on Facebook, as in: “Here's Me and friends on a beach. Having fun. Wish you were here.”

I googled the phrase, “Lost Art of Letter Writing,” and found dozens of online articles and even a few full books lamenting the loss of letter writing and suggesting that we ought to be writing them, and even how to write good ones. But few of us are going take up artful letter-writing, tomes that contain both substance and style. It takes a lot of time to write an artful letter. And some might ask: “What’s wrong with staying connected by email, Facebook, phone and Skype?”

I do write lengthy email letters to friends and family. You may be thinking, “Glad I’m not on his email list.” I don’t mean the typical email that consists of a mix of tweets and Facebook type snippets, with chat about this and that. I write some of that type too. I mean more like the work of artful letter-writers – you can read some of their letters on the Internet. They’re works of literature and have deep substance. Similarly, an email can also contain thoughtful content and artful writing. And because I often put a poem at the end, I wonder, are my email letters haibun?

This is not to suggest, as some have, that Facebook-type posts are bad for us (even if not usually artful). For me, Facebook serves the purpose of learning what friends and family are up to. As a bonus I get photos showing me what they’re doing. Almost all my family members live in distant places, and evidently, all but me take vacations on sunny beaches, yet they never mention sunburns.

Sending and Receiving

If you do write a artful letters or emails, isn't there always a desire to receive a response. One interpretation of Newton’s title and the passage below is that he’s actually waiting for letters from people important to him:

Sometimes, I wait at the window for a homecoming of even the fewest words strung together like a souvenir from another world. There is no other reward really. But the unexpected gift. Saying what only you can say. What no one else can say – even if they wanted to.

This passage could also serve as a metaphor for a writer looking out through the mind’s window, taking in through the senses – eyes, ears, taste, touch, smell – waiting for strings of words to arrive. Of course, every reader will have his or her own unique "take" on Newton's prose. There's little use debating what Newton meant. He's started us on a journey, perhaps akin to his, but it's our own journey.

Messages in Bottles

Today, letter sending is akin to the even more arcane practice of putting a note into a bottle and casting it into the ocean. (Did anyone ever really do that?) The answer is “Yes,” my partner said. She’s often put factual messages in bottles with name, date, where launched, and contact information, but nothing else. Like banding a bird, she’d hoped to get a response telling her where the banded bird had landed. But like Newton, she’s still waiting at the window. What would I put into a bottle, she asked? “I wouldn’t put a note in a bottle,” I reply. “But if you did,” she insisted. I thought about it and then said, “A haibun.”

A few days ago, I walked through the river valley near my home and found an inspirational passage tacked on a treee, no signature, just a small bit of writing, likely someone else's:

“The past is a place of reference, not a place of residence.” [3]

A Carpe Diem call, I thought. There I was mulling over regrets, residing in the past, blind to snow-coated shrubs and trees, deaf to bird songs, grumbling about the icy-touch of winter on my face. After all, December is the season of the year – and, for me, the season of life – when one receives repeated visits from Scrooge’s ghosts.

Still, just as Newton’s haibun took me on a journey, the tree-posted quote was a welcome break, a mini-letter that brought me out of my dark mullings. And on today’s walk, I found myself more in a carpe diem mood, and looked for a new note, me waiting at Newton’s window. I’m tempted to tack a response next to the note. Perhaps the person who put it there is hiding behind a tree, is waiting for a reply.

Haibun as New-age Letter Writing

Isn’t artful letter-writing akin to what we’re doing when we write a haibun and submit it to a journal or post it on a Blogsite or offer it in a paperback collection? Most haibun are personal in nature, focused on our past experiences (memoirs) or recent important happenings in our lives (personal essays) or detailed Basho-like accounts of our travels. Some haibun go well beyond straight narratives and contain writing akin to prose poetry – personal stories, artfully written. They go far beyond a quote posted on a tree or on an inspirations website, and far beyond the typical Facebook-type mini-comment, as in: “Here’s a selfie of me and Barb on our cruise ship.”

We cast these haibun, our lived experiences, into the Internet ocean, to be presented through a journal or blog, hopefully to be read by at least a few strangers. We all do want to be read, don’t we?

Still, however long we wait at the window, it’s unlikely that we’ll get a response to our haibun beyond an editor either accepting, rejecting or asking for a revision. Not to say that an acceptance isn’t gratifying.

If you’re like me, it’s likely that you do more than submit your writing to journal editors. You may also send pieces to friends and family and post them on web forums. And what do you usually get back? Again, if you’re like me, maybe you get some “Attaboys” or “Attagirls." After all, friends are loath to say things like “Please quit sending these,” or “You have a bunch of typos in that one,” or “That’s pretty awful, why don’t you try painting or golf?” And even if they read and enjoyed what you sent, many have the excuse of time to not reply. “Sorry. Just too busy to respond,” a friend recently emailed me as a response to a piece I sent to the unfortunates on my email list. By the way, if you’d like to be added to my personal, blog-like email list, just drop me a note at ray@raysweb.net. But you'll have to write a response to this article or to the haibun I put this issue. Am I serious? I guess there's only one way to find out. I'll waiting at the computer window.

And here's a thought. Should we at CHO allow writers who wish to do so to add their email addresses along with their haibun. Not required, just those who would like the chance of a comment coming their way from one or more readers. You can let me know at the same address if you'd think that would be a good idea and maybe Bob will decide to implement it.

The Haiku

Letters don't usually contain haiku. One of haibun’s key differences from memoirs, personal essays, prose poetry and travel journals, is the presence of that unique little poem that is added to enhance the prose. Nobuyuki Yuasa offers this poetic vision of the relationship:

The interaction between haiku poetry and haiku prose (another name for haibun) is haibun’s greatest merit … The relationship is like that between the moon and the earth: each makes the other more beautiful. [4]

How does one achieve a moon/earth relationship? Aimee Nezhukumatathil describes it thus:

. . . [a] haiku usually ends the poem as a sort of whispery and insightful postscript to the prose . . . . [Think] of haibun as highly focused testimony or recollection of a journey composed of a prose poem and ending with a meaningful murmur of sorts: a haiku. The result is a very elegant block of text with the haiku serving as a tiny bowl or stand for the prose poem. [5]

Paraphrasing others’ thoughts, a good marriage between prose and haiku occurs when the poem accomplishes one or more of the following:

• The poem creates a thematic diversity from the prose subject.
• The poem evokes an intensification of feeling.
• The rhythm of the poem presents a break from the rhythm of the prose.
• The poem offers an twist to the prose themes.
• The poem serves as a metaphor reinforcing the more explicitly expressed prose.
• The poem illustrates the prose, in the same manner that drawings and images can illustrate text in magazines.

Reading Haiku is Different than Reading Prose

We are used to reading prose, and in most cases can easily comprehend a haibun’s narrative flow. A haiku requires special kind of reading, demands a mental shift from just cruising along comfortably with the story to working with the poem's meaning in relation to the prose storyline. In short, when a poem appears, the show stops, and we’re asked to engage with it.

Does Peter’s closing haiku fit the bill?

rebuilt boardwalk every step a new view of debris

For me it does. Because it seemed to step so far out of the narrative stream, It sent me into a medative spin. What, I asked myself, does a rebuilt boardwalk have to do with composing artful letters or haibun or writing in general? And why does every step along the boardwalk offer a new view of debris? What’s the debris? Clever guy, Peter. He has me engaging.

I have my personal answers to these questions. But I’ll leave it to you, readers, to ask your own questions and find your own answers. Otherwise I’ll be like that English Lit teacher who made you hate poetry because when you offered up your interpretation, he told you that you were wrong.

No, I won't do that to you. Reading artful prose and interpreting well-crafted haiku is part of the pleasure that the haibun form offers. We each do it with our own sensibilities, the things we carry into the other's haibun.

So if you sign up for my email blog, you might be able to pry my answers from me and, of course, offer your own, in exchange. Did Peter mention that sharing is an important part of writing? Of course, that’s why he’s waiting for that letter.

Personalization

Consider Peter’s third stanza:

No wonder writing always feels like a kind of singing. A celebration. Good writing finds that flow and sweeps us into it. We are picked up here and put down over there. Now that's transportation. You'll know when it’s time to get moving.

Yes, if artful, we get swept into the writing, enjoy the poetic prose passages, get transported into someone else’s world.

And isn’t there even more to it – there's personal quality to haibun, a well crafted piece can make you feel in contact with the writer. As I wrote this commentary, I was initially employing the standard practice of referring to the writer, Peter Newton, by his last name. At some point, I shifted to the more personal “Peter.” Did you notice that? For me, that impulse to personalize my references to Peter speaks to the feeling that is evoked when we humans exchange artful passages about present and past experiences, when we write and share haibun, just as we’re doing when we read the pieces in this current issue.

Conclusion:

Artful, personal writing can occur in letters, emails and Blogs – all close cousins to the haibun we write and have published in journals and/or share with friends and family.

I’m happy that I spent the time carefully reading Peter’s haibun, and through this bit of writing, responding to it.

Peter, I wish you many sittings by the warmth of a fire, a glass of fine wine or hearty spirits in hand, and at least one long-awaited letter.

And I wish the same to all of you contributors who have filled the pages of CHO with your personal letters in haibun form, for us, your readers.

A New Year’s toast to careful reading of the songs by all our contributors in this issue.

~ Ray Rasmussen, Technical Editor, CHO


Notes:

1. Roberta Beary, "2012 Haiku Society of America Haibun Awards: Judges' Commentary." Retrieved July 21, 2013.

2. Bob Lucky, “Titles in Haibun,” CHO 10:3, October 2014.

3. Ken Jones, "Writing Reality," Ken Jones Zen website, Haibun Section.

4. I researched the passage tacked to the tree and believe it is taken from Roy T. Bennett’s, The Light in the Heart: Inspirational Thoughts for Living Your Best Life. This is not an endorsement of the book or quote or of inspirational quotes in general. It was used to add ideas to this commentary.

5. Nobuyuki Yuasa, quoted from Blithe Spirit, 10:3, Sept 2000.

6. Aimee Nezhukumatathil, “More than the Birds, bees, and Trees: A Closer Look at Writing Haibun,” taken from the Poets.Org website on February 20, 2014.


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