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january 2019, vol 14 no 4

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Ken Jones

Editor's Note: In 2015, we announced the death of Ken Jones, one of haibun's outstanding literary poets. Along with founder Jim Kacian and co-editor Bruce Ross, Ken edited CHO during it's first 10 years of publication. In 2005, Ken posted a four-part series called "Ken's Corner" which we think is sufficiently rich and which few of our current readers were around to have read. So we've decided to repost the series starting with this issue.
                                                                       ~ Ray Rasmussen

Ken’s Corner - Part 2

| part 1 |

Dear Haibuneer,

1. To be published, write only when you are strongly moved, when there is some kindling of the imagination, when some intriguing theme appears that won't let you rest, when you have something extraordinary to share with others—even an ordinary thing seen in an extraordinary light, like the excerpt below from Gary LeBel’s "Gravity." This will give you the motive power to create literature, which is our business here.

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.

LeBel’s passage is 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.

2. The watchwords SHOW, DON’T TELL for haiku and general prose composition apply equally to haibun prose. 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. LeBel's passage creates a feeling by showing detail, not by saying how he feels.

Note that in LeBel's passage, there is no direct statement of his feelings (as in "I felt elated when I came across a giant tree, sprawled over the ground ... ." It's left for his readers to have their own feelings as they observe the tree directly through LeBel's eyes and prose.

3. 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!

Note that in LeBel's excerpt, there is no use of the word "I" as in "I walked through a forest and sprawled over the ground ..."

4. 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 overloaded  prose. 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!”

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 LeBel's passage 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."

Note that as a reader, you will make your own judgments as to whether a prose passage is overly ornamented or over-ong with descriptive detail or filled with cliches. Yet most readers will agree when a piece feels as if the prose is over-cooked.

5. Again as with haiku and other forms, 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, but he need not have told us that the leaves were green.

                                                                       ~ Ken Jones

Editor's Note: Ken Jones' original piece was re-edited, but the substance is the same as the original.