A Quarterly Journal of Contemporary English Language Haibun
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March 2006, vol 2 no 1

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Ken's Corner #3

   Of the writing of haiku it has been said: “Seek them and you will not find; don’t seek and neither will you find.” Likewise the best haibun are written when something moves us to write. When we stop trying too hard and get out of our own light, inspiration flows of its own accord. We can, however, create favourable conditions for the Muse to appear. If we cultivate an alert vacancy and allow ourselves to fall into a meditative state of mind, then, in William Blake’s words, we cleanse the windows of perception, and a poetical experience more readily surfaces.

   It is strongly felt experience that moves us to write. It may be the vivid recollection of a long forgotten childhood episode. It may even be a dream, a myth, or an imagined story collaged from fragments of our own real life.  Such experiences may feel more real, more truthlike, than anything in our mundane daily round. Many fine haibun are poetic fancies, inspired imaginings, and yet the imagery is so direct and fresh and vivid, our imagination is so awakened, our feelings so stirred, that we are drawn into and enriched by the poet’s “reality”. And particularly in such haibun, as in the best haiku, something mysterious takes place; nothing is quite what it seems; there is an allusiveness and ambiguity which stimulates and leaves space for the play of the reader’s imagination. The work of Michael McClintock, William Ramsey, and David Cobb offers many such examples.

   When a promising experience comes to mind, inquire what is it really all about? What is really moving me and stirring my imagination?  The answer may find expression as haiku around which the prose can take shape. Writing the prose first and then trying to conjure up appropriate haiku is much more difficult.

   There are a few first class haibun which achieve their whole effect through no more than the exceptional quality of their sustained imagery. For the most part, however, haibun need to have some feeling and imagination about them if they are to draw in the reader. And the writer has to translate that into imagery which conjures up that feeling and imagination in the reader. In haibun, as in haiku, we don’t tell—we show. If our experience is one of fear and menace, then our surroundings will manifest for us those emotions, and hence the imagery which we use to conjure up those surroundings for the reader.

   When you have written up the first draft, ask yourself again what is this haibun truly and essentially about?  If it takes the form of a walk, then what was special about that walk ? What did it inspire in you? What were you seeking? What was the unifying experience? For a mere walk to make a haibun it needs to have some quality of pilgrimage which the reader is moved to share.

   A reader’s interest is attracted by some underlying theme or focus, and interest is sustained if the theme is skilfully unfolded, moving to a climax, perhaps in the final capping haiku, where matters might take an unexpected turn. Too often a haibun stops evolving half way through and begins to meander aimlessly here and there. The fact that this or that did in fact happen is of itself no reason to include it if it does not contribute to a satisfying and unified overall experience for the reader.

   Like haiku, the simplest way to make a haibun more effective is to cut out the inessentials. This is where the critical comments of fellow haibuneers can be especially valuable. For they will not share our attachment to particular haiku which have taken our fancy, or turns of phrase of which we feel rather proud, even though they detract from the overall effect of the piece. In my experience three or four critics, accomplished haibuneers themselves, have wrought wonders in improving my work. I am less inclined to take notice where their comments cancel one another out, but where there is consensus about the need for some particular change then that really makes me sit up.

   To illustrate some of the above points I have selected as my own contribution to this issue the haibun entitled “Such stuff as dreams are made of." This fantasy is collaged from a wide range of personal experiences. The setting is taken from a shooting lodge in the Scottish Highlands, and the doppel-ganger is drawn from a lifelong friend. That he is in fact my doppel-ganger is hinted gradually here and there. The theme opens as a lonely pilgrimage through the wild country of my native Wales, from the known to the unknown. It unfolds in the shifting mysteries of time, space, ageing and even of past lives. And yet throughout the imagery is down-to-earth, like a vivid dream (which in part it was). There is the wistfulness of old age, but a reassuriance in the conclusion (as in the revelatory haiku at the start), before the melancholy ambiguity of the concluding haiku. Essentially it is the reverie of an old man, coming to terms with the mystery of life and death.

Previous Ken's Corner Essays: #1 #2


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