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October 2018, vol 14 no 3

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Bob Lucky

Random Praise: Jonathan McKeown's "Neighborhood"

Jeffrey Woodward's "Stray Memoranda on the Art of Haibun" in CHO 14.2 gives me several openings in which to approach the "Random Praise" for this issue, as well as a lot to think about. I'm somewhat guilty, especially lately, of writing what he calls a common shortcoming, namely the "one-size-fits all, cookie-cutter aesthetic (one paragraph, one haiku and invariably in that order) in lieu of formal curiosity and innovation." There's a reason for that, but this isn't the place to go into it (and it's really not all that interesting). Another shortcoming he identifies is the "flat depiction of one's domestic environment and daily routine in lieu of significant matter or theme." There is this notion common to many haibunists that the form is ideal for undigested bits of diary. It could be, in the right hands, but most of us aren't attached to those hands.

"Haibun is a type of poetry," Woodard asserts. I agree, but wonder what type. When I think of sonnets, my mind splits itself into the lyric and narrative boxes (while acknowledging the existence of argumentative sonnets, a proposition and a response). Technically, a haibun is a prosimetrum, a literary form combining prose and verse. (Let's ignore for the moment the question of whether or not haiku is poetry.) However, to challenge my point and support it, there are poets/haibunists who write free verse + haiku. What to do? What to do?

Write on. If it's quality literature, someone will (hopefully) recognize that and publish it. But that takes us back to the question: what is a haibun?

Who knows? Who are the masters? Do we emulate them or do we subvert them? Sonnets are alive and well – Ben Lerner, Don Paterson, and Terrance Hayes, just to name a few, are kneading the form in interesting ways. The English poets – Shakespeare and company – twisted the original Italian form to fit the English ear, and even then the Italian form remained a viable variation in English.

In general, a contemporary sonnet will have fourteen lines and a volta (somewhere). Meter and rhyme are often after-thoughts or accidents. What does a contemporary haibun need to qualify as being haibun? At a basic level, a block of prose and a haiku (somewhere) does the trick. And at this level, it is the relationship between the prose and haiku, the shift and link, that is the hallmark of a good haibun. Anyone can describe their morning commute and tack on a haiku about the weather, but…. Well, if you've read this far, I think you know.

So, without much more ado, I've chosen Jonathan McKeown's "Neighborhood" for this Random Praise. Although it is a block of prose + a haiku, both the prose and the haiku are poetic to my ear. And it's not every day I read a haibun from the point of view of a tree.

Jonathan McKeown


… no one is present there,
and everything is sheer persuasion.
                                   ~ Kierkegaard

Some nights when the house is all asleep he comes and sits out here on the steps with us and smokes and sips from a mug of tea. Here he can be and think as if he were alone – in one respect he is. A little breeze comes and goes, its passage traced in the rustle of our leaves. He thinks: – Sometimes trees are the best company. One can be at ease. With them there is no comparison. And for a moment considers: (us here) – how (seemingly forgotten and neglected) we grow; unobtrusive, constantly, abiding all extremes and variations, unsheltered, enduring, naked witnesses of every season, hidden for the most part in plain sight. – How close and modest and reassuring they always are, especially when considered. He takes a thoughtful toke and looks up – exhales, through our latticework of leaves – to the silent stars, and wonders … (Perhaps it is the smoke that disturbs one of our little sleeping birds who mutters something close, absurd, and settles again.) His ear – falling now to the hush of a lone car threading its way through the surrounding labyrinth – follows its fading sound.... He drinks the last sweet dregs of tea....

between soft thuds
of palm drupe, night’s lull-a-bye
of crickets

Note: reprinted from CHO 14:2 July 2018