Commentary on My Haibun, "Unsaddled"
Last year I was asked to post a haibun and write a commentary on the nature of haibun for Abstract Magazine, an art-writing venue. The readers of this non-haiku genre journal likely had never heard of haibun. I decided for a number of reasons to use "Unsaddled" as my example.
Breakfast without a newspaper is a horse without a saddle.
—Edward R. Murrow
I am six months into my experiment of not reading the daily newspaper. Instead I read essays, including one by E.B. White, who, in response to Murrow’s metaphor, called breakfast “the hour when we sit munching stale discouragement along with fresh toast.”
Breakfast is now more enjoyable, but I at times feel I’ve missed something important – that others know about events that I don’t, but should.
Stretching Murrow’s metaphor, it’s me that’s unsaddled—riderless.
This morning, as I walk the dog on a berm overlooking the freeway, there’s the usual tangle of commuters, all hurrying somewhere.
the cat mews
over her empty bowl
Previously published in Haibun Today.
Commentary on “Unsaddled”
My sense of the haibun genre is that it’s different than other popular short forms (memoirs, personal essays, travel experiences, flash fiction), in that haibun as practiced by most writers is autobiographical – the characters and situations are drawn from the writer’s life, not made up. Thus a reader should feel that “Unsaddled” is about a real time in my life.
In many works of fiction, the writers aim at making events and lives seem real even when they're made up, and and some haibun poets do the same. While most readers become involved with the fictional characters and their situations, they also know the work is made up, which establishes a distance.
And whatever the genre, there is always a degree of embellishment. Some facts may be left out; other less-than-perfectly-true elements are put in. And some poetics are employed for effect.
However, haibun in English and in languages other than the Japanese of the originators, there is room for experimentation and evolution. Indeed, in the last decade, haibun that are clearly fantasy or accounts of dreams, and even some futuristic, sci-fi haibun are appearing. I think of dreams and fantasy to fall in the auto-biographical mode, particularly if they’re quasi-accurate accounts of true dreams and fantasies or day dreams. Others might view dreams as excursions into fantasy that the dreaming mind creates.
Some haibun writers are producing fiction as if they are writing factual accounts of their own lives. Recently, one writer so convincingly conveyed a suicide impulse, that I contacted the writer to ask if she needed help. The writer revealed the story was made up. In short, I can’t always tell the difference between fictional work presented as autobiography and close-to-the-truth accounts of a lived life, particularly when the writers are skilled. On the other hand, some haibunists whose work I admire have taken issue with my preference that haibun be autobiographical. One of my favorite writers wrote:
I often tell other people’s stories in the first person because I like the intimacy and immediacy of the voice. And even then I manipulate details for effect—whether for the story or the way the words end up on the page.
And I confess I can't tell which of her pieces are fictional and which depict issues in their own lives.
Perhaps the most significant way that haibun differs from other short forms is the prose is married to one or more haiku (or tanka) poems. Haibun is a linking form and the nature of the linking is an important aspect of the writing. For example, a haiku that appears at the end of a prose passage isn't just a three-line expression that is obviously related to the prose theme, and thus could easily be folded back into the prose. It's meant to step out in some significant way, yet work with the prose to form a sum greater than the two parts: prose and poem.
Haibun carries the burden of needing to work with a worthy haiku, and not just any three-line aphorism, witticism or ditty. Yuasa has suggested this two-way relationship:
“… the interaction between haiku poetry and haiku prose is haibun’s greatest merit … The relationship is like that between the moon and the earth: each makes the other more beautiful.”
Various editors have indicated a number of ways this can occur, for example, while not containing a metaphor internally, a haiku may itself serve as a metaphor for aspects of the prose. Or the haiku may serve to close off the piece with a small poem that encapsulates the dominant feeling of the storyline.
While some insist that the haiku must be able to stand on its own, without the prose, that’s a secondary concern of mine. I didn’t bother myself about whether the haiku in “Unsaddled” could find publication as a stand-alone in a haiku journal. I wrote the poem in the haiku form because I wanted it to fit with readers’ sensibilities of haibun as a coupling of prose and haiku, that is the poem should follow the “rules’ of haiku” so to speak. To name a couple of those rules, the poem should have the characteristics of succinctness and of showing more than telling. Most haiku couple two distinct images or phrases that work together to form the haiku, and most don't contain poetic devices such as rhyming, metaphors or similes.
The English-language form is evolving in many ways from it's Japanese ancestors. I have an urban sensibility, so I don’t concern myself with season words (called kigo), a Japanese haiku orthodoxy stemming from its origins at a time when most Japanese lived nearly to country settings. While the haiku in this piece does make a season reference to winter – an image fitting with aging and retirement – I’d not have minded a phrase that doesn’t so obviously reference a season. I don’t concern myself with syllable counts or line lengths except to work to keep my poems between 10-17 syllables – short enough so they can be read aloud in one breath. The average length of contemporary English-language haiku is about 13 syllables. The 5-7-5 syllable count arose from the 5-7-5, 17-sound-unit count used by traditional Japanese poets which, in length, would be similar to a 13 syllable count in English.
In “Unsaddled,” the cat’s empty bowl references my feelings when I lack the daily news, particularly when others are talking about it. As such, it is meant to serve as a metaphor for the prose storyline. Note that the haiku doesn’t contain an internal metaphor or simile which are usually signaled by the words “like” or “as.”
This particular piece contains both an epigraph and an internal quote. A decade or so ago, one rarely saw either device being employed in haibun. While both practices are showing up more frequently in today’s haibun, there’s a danger in their use. For one thing, both Murrow and White have offered very clever quips about the daily news and both are (or were) well-known writers. So the quality of their words could become the story, with my words but fluff surrounding them. I do hope in this haibun to have added something to their words yet not to have allowed their two quips to get in the way of my storyline. Another aspect is that I admire White’s writing and Murrow’s thoughts, and I wanted to bring these two luminaries from the last century back to life, so to speak, for today’s readers.
Basho, perhaps the most famous of Japan's haiku poets, often referenced the works of Japanese and Chinese poets from earlier eras.
Finally, I’d like some of my haibun to offer readers the possibility of introspection, as in, here’s something to think about in the context of your own lives. While a young person will not likely identify with my experiences, I think that many middle-aged and older retirees will. If I share something real about my inner world, perhaps others will find it to be of value. And today, with the entry of Donald Trump onto the world and US political stages, how could most people not identify with the consistent awfulness of the news? [It Beatles who famously sang “I read the news today, Oh Boy!”] Yet most of us are glued to that dismal news, offered daily and even hourly through numerous media. And yes, at times I’ve gotten back to reading the news, and I’m coming to regret it.
As a final point, no story is just a story. Many, but not all, of my pieces contain my thoughts about living a full life. In some cases, I offer challenges to an orthodoxy being advocated by another writer. “Unsaddled” is an example of didactic writing in that I’ve presented what I consider to be an expansion of and even challenge to the ideas of White and Murrow.
1) The Commentary was published in Abstract Magazine: Contemporary Expressions, an Online journal devoted to visual and written arts.
2) My haibun, "Unsaddled," was first published in Haibun Today, January 6, 2008.
3) Both the Murrow and White quotes in "Unsaddled" are taken from E.B. White, “Newspaper Strike,” The New Yorker Archives, December 12, 1953. For those interested in reading more work by E.B. White, try One Man's Meat, and Essays of E.B. White. Edward R. Murrow was an American broadcast journalist and war correspondent who came to the nation's attention as the radio voice from a beleaguered London during the Blitz and air Battle of Britain. His compassionate reports contributed to the pro-Allied sympathies that were growing even before Pearl Harbor. Worth listening to and reading, especially in these times is Murrow's broadcast response to accusations made by the infamous Senator McCarthy that Murrow was left-leaning. McCarthy had led a lengthy witch-hunt for American communists. Murrow's comments can be read and heard here: Murrow Broadcast
4) The quote is taken from Nobuyaki Yuasa’s introduction to his book, Matsuo Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, Penguin Classics, 1966.
5) For an expanded discussion of the relationship between prose and poem, read “A Haibun Editor Suggests,” an essay in Ken Jones Zen website.