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April 2018, vol 14 no 1

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Lew Watts

Searching for a haiku, in a haibun

This essay is about the importance of the haiku (singular or plural) within a haibun. But more importantly, it is about how the “right” haiku surfaces. What follows, after a short introduction, is a summary of a fascinating exchange with the ever-patient Ray Rasmussen, haibun co-editor of Haibun Today, on a haibun submission I had made. I learned a lot, and I hope you will also.

When I am asked to describe a haibun, I often start by saying it is a prose poem that contains one or more haiku. But there are actually three important and interrelated components in the finest haibun:

1. The Prose. A sense of immediacy, and inviting the reader into the “moment,” is usually (but not always) achieved by writing in the present tense. Some editors prefer minimalist prose based on clear, unencumbered, observation, while others welcome a more poetic style, the use of metaphor, and even internal rhyme and alliteration. Importantly, in my experience, a sense of closure is not necessary—a final haiku can do this. But if there is closure, the haiku can roam more widely.

2. The Haiku. The very best haiku captures a moment, and by (often) presenting two images separated by a cut, the show-don’t-tell creates space for the reader to imagine, speculate, and sense things beyond the words. The haiku phrases reverberate internally, and their combinations radiate outwards. Importantly, a similar reverberation occurs between the prose and the haiku within a haibun. The haiku should add to the prose. But this needs some nuance—a haiku that roams too far from the prose can seem abstruse, while too close risks repetition or restatement of the prose, which achieves nothing.

3. The Title. Some editors give equal weight to the choice of the right title. As with my comments above, the title should not merely describe the prose. Instead, it should present a “teaser” that, when the reader returns to the title after reading the haibun, there is a new perspective, as though seeing a different facet of the prism.

The word “prism” is a useful analogy here. Good haibun have three equally important facets—prose, haiku, and title—that combine to release a spectrum of color beyond white light.

I know several haibun poets who start with an interesting haiku, and work on the associated prose and title. I rarely do this. For me, the prose comes first, a narrative around an experience, whether past or present. The challenge then is to search for haiku that emotionally link to, and hopefully resonate with, the prose. The title comes last.

If I am lucky, I may have a haiku that almost works within my draft file. If not, I wait for serendipity, notebook and pencil in hand. It is hit or miss, and sometimes my haiku never arrives (I have an even longer draft file of haibun prose pieces).

In this light, I would like to describe working with Ray Rasmussen on a haibun submission to Haibun Today. Although, as you’ll see, we discussed the title and the prose, most of our interactions concerned the haiku. Here is my original submission:

Drama queen

My big toe is a seismograph of agony. Each shattered shard of bone reacts to the smallest step across the emergency ward. But the sister is kind. She can be brusque, but she now slides silently as she approaches my bed.

“Are we still in pain?” she asks.

I am tempted to debate her choice of plural pronoun, perhaps ask whether some form of transference is occurring. Instead, lulled by the tail end of a sedative, I choose humor.

“Worse than childbirth.”

The five smacks of her hand on the gurney rattle every fracture.

“Well, we wouldn’t know about that, would we?” she says, angrily.

Labor Day…
Lamaze breathing
through the flu shot

Ray replied that he liked the haibun, which was good news. But he questioned the title and added, “The haiku is clever, witty, and it strikes me as too far removed from the nurse and hospital setting.”

I also had a problem with the “Labor Day” haiku. While it linked to my “Worse than childbirth” comment in the prose, the result was two season words, “flu shot” being the other. But what I missed, initially, was his focus on the nurse, rather than little ol’ me.

Ray asked if I wanted to work with him on the haiku. I’m always interested in new ideas, and so I eagerly agreed. This is what he then sent me:

“Tell me how the guy is feeling after this exchange. What's he thinking? What does he see, hear, smell, feel, and taste that can be used to represent or serve as a metaphor for those feelings? Start by telling me the first part, then start composing phrases (not full haiku with two phrases put together yet – that can be self-defeating) that carry a sense of those feelings.”

I started, stopped, started again, and ground to a halt. I lost sleep, and I felt my stress level rising. After a further email exchange with Ray, I realized that my problem was with the word “metaphor,” something that has no place within a haiku. But that’s not what Ray was suggesting—instead, the derived metaphors were a way of stepping away from the events described, to allow senses, emotions, and images to surface. Relieved, I sent Ray the following list. In bold are those words and phrases that he and I picked up on and that, eventually, led to three new haiku:

How was I feeling after this exchange? - stunned, confused, misunderstood, and regretful that I had upset the nurse, self-loathing, ashamed.

What was I thinking after this exchange? It was supposed to be a joke; I was playing; I was exaggerating trying to be funny; it was thoughtless; I'd love to take those words back; I should have realized she was childless; she reminds me of my spinster aunt—warm, but really uptight, easy to shift from soft to prickly.

Metaphors, what did I … :

See—starched collar; barren moor; still-born foal; bare ring finger; father's raised hand; sitting through a long labor

Hear—impatient feet departing; speech through gritted teeth; rain dousing an open fire;

Smell—coal tar soap; disinfectant;

Touch—the girl’s new scars; sudden chill; biting a lip;

Taste—bile, orange bitters.

Clearly, some of the above were about my attempted joke of “Worse than childbirth.” Thinking of extending this hyperbole-humor in the final haiku, and using “long labor” and “playing,” I came up with this haiku.

12-hour labor...
my sciatica
playing up again

But it’s obvious that most of my derived thinkings, feelings, and metaphors concerned the nurse, as per Ray’s initial focus. After some work, two haiku emerged that related more to this nurse-sister, and incorporated the words and phrases “soft to prickly,” “spinster aunt,” and “bitters.”

identical hats…
the Ascot going from soft
to prickly

baby shower drinks
my spinster aunt's
extra bitters

Perhaps some comments are necessary on the first haiku, which is a problem in itself. The moment relates to an event I observed at Royal Ascot in England, a major horseracing event. It was Ladies’ Day, and the enclosures were full of beautiful women in their finery. There was a flamboyant feel in the air, champagne, laughter and fun…until two ladies noticed that they were wearing the same “designer” hats. All I can say is think frosty stares, the rapid beating of fans.

But as Ray observed, this haiku may have been familiar or understandable to readers in the UK, but for others it was a step too far; it was too “abstruse.” We eventually thought “baby shower drinks” could work. As Ray commented: “I think spinster aunt lets us know that there's an association between the nurse and your aunt, between never having a child, a life devoted to career or not having found the right partner, being labeled a 'spinster’, and ‘extra bitters’ speaks for itself.”

With the focus of the haibun (and haiku) now clearly on the nurse, the title “Drama Queen” was no longer appropriate and was replaced by “Shattered Illusions”—that what one thinks is correct often isn’t, and that even the softest person has a hard inner shell that can quickly surface. Moreover, I didn’t need to inflict more pain on my drama queen self through the angry “five smacks of her hand on the gurney” that “rattle(d) every fracture.” That line was deleted.

But we weren’t finished—once more we returned to the haiku. “Baby shower drinks” certainly set a time and place, but its link to childbirth appeared contrived (which it was), and its emotion was one of celebration rather than a degree of sadness. It had to be changed.

This is the final, accepted haibun:

Shattered Illusions

My big toe is a seismograph of agony. Each shattered shard of bone reacts to the smallest step across the emergency ward. The nurse-sister can be brusque, but she's devoted to her work, and she’s kind. This morning she slides silently as she approaches my bed.

“Are we still in pain?” she asks.

I am tempted to debate her choice of plural pronoun, perhaps ask whether some form of transference is occurring. Instead, lulled by the tail end of a sedative, I reply: “Worse than childbirth.”

“Well, we wouldn’t know about that, would we?” she says, snappishly.

rest home drinks
with my spinster aunt
extra bitters

Is it perfect? No. Is it better than the original? Certainly.

I will still carry my notebook and pencil, searching for inspiration around moments for stand-alone haiku. But, as I said to Ray afterwards, I learned so much through the week we corresponded. The use of “thinking” and “feeling” metaphors may not suit everyone, but it is a powerful way of surfacing haiku that are able step away from, yet add to, the prose of a haibun—not too far, not too close.

Thank you, Ray.


The final haibun "Shattered Illusions" appears in the current issue of Haibun Today, 12:1 March 2018.

Lew Watts was born and raised in Cardiff, Wales. After receiving a PhD from the University of Reading, he spent many years living and working in Europe, Scandinavia, the Middle East, and Africa before settling in the US (Santa Fe and Chicago) in 2002.

Lew is the author of the poetry collection, Lessons for Tangueros (2011), and the poetry-themed novel, Marcel Malone (2016). His haibun and haiku have appeared in A Hundred Gourds, bottle rockets, Contemporary Haibun Online, Frogpond, Haibun Today, Modern Haiku and Presence, among others. For several years, Lew served on the Board of Modern Haiku.

Lew was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree by Bristol University in 2016, and sits on the governing board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (custodian of the iconic Doomsday Clock). His passions are family, poetry, and fly fishing.