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Ken's Corner #4
Previous Ken's Corner Essays: #1 #2 #3
At times when you are gifted by one or two haiku it may be worth quietly reflecting on the experience from whence they came. Sometimes they signal a bigger fish—a haibun—lurking down there. There’ll be a sense of ripeness and flow, and the outlines of a theme may begin to emerge. The haiku will have appeared as the sharp end of an emergent haibun, which is how it should be. From the start you have distinctive poems which can stand on their own feet. The alternative of creating a haibun prose first is quite possible but more hazardous.
After you have drafted your haibun try the following three checks on the haiku.
First, does each play a distinctive role in the prose in which it is embedded? To find out, try folding it back into prose. If it reads just as well there, then leave it there; better strong prose than a “haiku” which is really no more than three chopped up bits of prose. On the other hand, if your haiku stands out as somehow different from the surrounding prose, then leave it as a haiku.
Second, you will only get your haibun published if you are able to write authentic haiku, which is not the case with many of the submissions we receive. If you can’t persuade the editor of any respectable haiku journal to publish any of your freestanding haiku, then it would be best to concentrate on improving their quality first before trying to write haibun.
Third, ensure that none of the haiku repeats something you wrote in the prose. On the other hand, the prose context can greatly enhance the versatility and power of a haiku than if it is just freestanding, not least because the reader has already been sensitised to a particular mood. The whole imaginative experience can be skilfully ratcheted up, with the haiku in turn powering up the prose. This is the distinctive and unique power of haibun as a literary genre.
Having determined that your haiku do play a role distinctive from the surrounding prose, it will be interesting to ask yourself how they are distinctive. And how do they complement the prose ? Professor Nobuyaki Yuasa, in the introduction to his classic translation of Basho’s Narrow Road, maintains that “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.” This relationship can take many possible forms. It may create diversity and a change of note, for example, as when the haiku mark an intensification of feeling, or perhaps a break in the rhythm, a different kind of music.
In the early days many haibun were written in a flat, deadpan prose (as some still are) and it could be said of the haiku that they stood out like “pearls in mud banks”. However, mud bank haibun can never claim to be noteworthy literature. But what happens to the haiku when the prose is a fine and distinctive “haiku prose”, as commended by authorities from Basho to Yuasa? It then becomes much more challenging to create haiku which can stand up to and interact with such prose in a distinctive and creative way. Even some of our finest contemporary haibun writers do not always succeed in doing so. There are at least two possible approaches here.
First, a haiku may give an ambiguous twist to an unfolding theme: suddenly a paradox, a bit of mystery, a half-said thing appears in the straightforward unfolding of the prose. For this to happen the haiku need to be more than imagistic if they are to excel the prose, and to provide that distinctive twist in the third line which jolts us out of our customary perceptions.
Second, and more challenging, is the use of contrapuntal (or lateral) haiku. The analogy here is with the counterpoint found in baroque music, in jazz, and in the music of many other cultures. Haruo Shirane, in Beyond the Haiku Moment, evidently had this analogy in mind when he referred to the contrasting shots found in classic cinema montage. The contrast is with linear haiku, which follow the unfolding line of the prose exposition. Contrapuntal haiku are not necessarily distinguished by any different placing on the page, but they speak with a different voice, like a Greek chorus in the wings. They have several possible uses. The simplest is to encapsulate a metaphor in an image which reinforces what is being more explicitly expressed in the prose. For example, the haiku may present a violent image taken from nature which erupts in the course of a prose description of human violence. However, there are other and more challenging kinds of contrapuntal “comment”, which offer a different mood or perspective from the main line of the prose. For example in some haibun by Michael McClintock and by George Marsh the haiku act as reminders that ordinary life goes on alongside the drama of the prose—what I call “the fall of Icarus effect”, after Brueghel’s famous painting.
More structurally ambitious is three-decker counterpoint, where two parallel but interrelated themes, topics, treatments or narratives are pursued in the prose, one perhaps being italicised. There have also been experiments with public readings for two or three voices to musical accompaniment. The interaction of prose and haiku in haibun is an exciting area which repays exploration and experiment.
Below is a splendid example—a masterpiece which repays close attention, both in its overall conception and the crafted detail. Note the several interwoven strands. The sculptures provide a metaphoric commentary, in the form of contrapuntal haiku, which keep the discursive prose well grounded. The two quotations from the Venetian traveller give a broader English context to the central theme of love and childhood, which is unfolded in the poignant autobiographical heart of this haibun. The treatment throughout is wonderfully subtle and elliptical. I would very much like American readers to write in about what they make of it (for Ken’s Corner – 5), please. For I believe that some of the best haibun are written out of a particular culture, whether national or regional. To enter into them requires some effort from outsiders, but the result can be rewarding in broadening our empathy and understanding. In my own case, scrutinising several American haibun each week has given me a more subtle—and fond—awareness of contemporary American culture than I had before Jim signed me up for the job. Similarly, even some English, let alone American, readers apparently find my Welsh haibun collection Stallion’s Crag quite challenging!
THE ANGEL'S WOUND
I'm in Kew Gardens where there seems to be a temporary sculpture exhibition amongst the barberry shrubs, under full-leaved summer trees. I pick up a leaflet: Emily Young, sculptress, descended from the singing pirate, Admiral Sir George Young, and the widow of Captain Scott of the Antarctic, has made this Spangle Stone Fool Boy who looks at me with an idiot's lack of reserve. I can make a relationship with this head. I know him, and he is easy with me.
My older son was difficult to read at breakfast, with a give-nothing shrug and so-so eyebrow. He's no idiot. He learned refusal - it toughened him - during the Rejection, twenty five years ago. His mother left him, and rejection came down to her through her mother, who talked to blot out listening, and her father, a non-singing pirate who ransacked Borneo's rainforest. And it came to them from who knows what damage, how much further back...
sculpture park -
fossilised snail shells
polished to a warrior's head
I'm a product of the long English tradition of stony childhood.
tourists pass -
gold flecked onyx streams
from the angel's wound
I once read a Venetian traveller's account of England he wrote in 1500. "The want of affection in the English is strongly manifested towards their children; for having kept them at home till they arrive at the age of seven or nine years at the utmost, they put them out, both males and females, to hard service in the houses of other people..." The astonished Venetian relates that the children, "never return, for the girls are settled by their patrons, and the boys make the best marriages they can, and, assisted by their patrons, not by their fathers, they strive diligently to make some fortune for themselves." As my favourite cockney mystic put it, three centuries later:
The Angel that presided o'er my birth
Said, "Little creature, form'd of Joy and Mirth,
Go love without the help of any Thing on Earth."
I took on history and reversed the culture. I loved my babies, changed nappies, sang them to sleep, and hugged them.
But you don't buck the dread English family that easily. To love your children won't be enough. No no no no. You also need to create a sweet understanding with the mother. Out of nothing, make joy, like a vaudeville conjurer pulling a spreading rosebush from his dusty sleeve. So the boys got rejected anyway. She abandoned her infants.
four thousand million years
of yellow quartzite deposits
roughly shape a woman
My younger son and I now understand one another, nevertheless, more or less. We swap guarded exchanges over the crossword, and coded commentary on football and cricket.
peering from thick foliage
a Pleistocene rock
with a gleaming eye
The shrewd Italian writes that, "Although their dispositions are somewhat licentious, I never have noticed anyone, either at court or amongst the lower orders, to be in love; whence one must necessarily conclude either that the English are the most discreet lovers in the world or that they are incapable of love."
the black surface
of the marble girl
I don't regret that I was never indiscreet. If you're English, you should know, without all that. I feel admiration for ex-lovers and I delight in other women friends too, I do, really, and I will, unless, and until
marble man, still shrub -
in the heart of one of them
a squeaking wren
Note: Passages in quotation are from A Relation of the Island of England c.1500, published in The Portable Renaissance Reader ed. Ross and McLaughlin, Penguin. The “cockney poet” is William Blake.