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October 2013, vol 9, no 3

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John Daniel

Modernist Haibun: A review of Haibun Notebook by Stanley Pelter, George Mann publications, 2013, 158 pp.

As per his 7 volumes of Haibun with Visuals, this book is a GIFT.

Haibun is traditionally a Japanese form first used in the seventeenth century by Matsuo Basho which combines one or more haiku with several paragraphs of prose to create effects which in the Western tradition might loosely be likened to the prose poem or to the intermingling of prose and poetry such as we find in John Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress. Originally deployed to heighten travel-writing or straightforward reportage it was famously used in the twentieth century by Robert Wilson in his Vietnam Rumination where a philosophic meditation on the conflict was accompanied by sharp, quasi-visual images close to the Eastern culture in which the war was taking place.

So haibun has not stood still any more than other literary forms and in his previous seven volumes Stanley Pelter has sought to expand and develop haibun, particularly with relation to modernism and post-modernism. The beginnings and endings of his experimentation are now collected in his latest Haibun Notebook which forms an impressive anthology of modernist quotations plus some fine illustrations of hearts which constitute the visual crux of the book. Pelter is an unashamed modernist who presents his speculations with all the freshness of an artist for whom Duchamps' celebrated "Urinal" is just around the corner. Not for him the drab reportage of a travel guide or a pedestrian diary. He never forgets we are spinning through space living brief lives which we can never fully understand. Modernism's achievement was to confront this whirligig, to show that reality was not only impressionist top-hats on a rainy Parisian street but a whole range of fabricated responses from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake to Rothko's "black holes in inner space".

To this end Pelter has collected what Alexander Pope might have called his "commonplace book", a pot-pourri of insights, speculations, observations and definitions which are illuminating because they continually shake the kaleidoscope of haibun into different colours and patterns. Pelter enlists a cavalcade of critics, writers and visual artists in his search for meaning, from American critic and short story writer Edgar Allan Poe to English literary critic Terry Eagleton by way of flaneur-commentator Walter Benjamin (a favourite), Victorian fabulist Lewis Carroll, visual artists Picasso, Blake, Goya, Ron Kitaj, Ben Shahn, Robert Rauschenberg, Paul Klee, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, scientists Crick and Watson and many others.

This is a valuable archive but Pelter isn't merely name-dropping. He deploys his modernist pantheon of heroes to analyse and expand the possibilities of haibun which become commensurate with modernism itself. "There is a need to defend haibun against the haibun industry" he asserts. "If haibun is not subversive it is nothing." It is "the breaking away from comfortable habits" because it has the ability to go beyond the contents of its "well-crafted box" with the explosive power of art. For art in its modernist and post-modernist role is more than a depiction of politics or feelings or any other aspect of life. It is life, packed tightly within its frame but with the potential to reach out to the edges of the universe. These are high claims but ones which take haibun out from the white-walled study of traditional oriental detachment to the fast-paced restlessness of Western culture.

Pelter's scraperboard and acrylic hearts are several light-years away from the newsagents' Valentines or suit of playing cards but they are central to the body of his haibun. One, on p16, is cut open like a tin-can to expose the convoluted piping of its circulatory system. You can almost hear it clanking. Another, on p22, shows a hand reaching down beside a heart that looks as if it has been used for target practice in paintball. The heart is spattered, as hearts can be. Another on p.60 shows the outline of a heart disappearing into a haze of what could be blood-spots, nebulae or frog spawn, and my favourite on p42 depicts a volcanic tumult in its upper regions dropping down to blackness in its inky depths. "Haibun is an art form. As such it celebrates the absence of solutions – or it should. It is, more than a result, a mood, a sensibility, an atmosphere." (p48)

The haibun, and even more so haiku by their very conciseness, invite an aphoristic conclusion which puts the seal on life and brings it to an abrupt conclusion. This aspect is one that Pelter rejects. Modernism opens out to a cornucopia of possibilities, a black hole of infinite ambiguity.

Our First bomb
Marsh sands manoeuvre
Into feet of clay

This haiku is taken from one of Pelter's previous volumes entitled & Y Not?, which deals with a series of "firsts", this one being a bomb dropped on the family shop, but it is also open to a variety of interpretations: sinking into sand, the vulnerability of wartime heroics, the spectacle of unexploded bombs buried in London clay, even perhaps his father's one leg. Modernism as William Empson celebrated in his critical work, Seven Types of Ambiguity, rejoices in the multi-faceted universe.

In this critical approach Pelter draws on what seems to me a jewish tradition of Talmudic analysis, questioning the central form of haibun with a multitude of differing slants, asking dozens of fascinating questions, suggesting hypotheses, disrupting the surface of received opinion. It is no coincidence perhaps that many of his co-questioners derive from the same tradition even if they are more involved with the visual than the verbal: "The picture, in order to move us, must never merely remind us of life, but must acquire life of its own", said Lucien Freud. This life-force is echoed again in Pelter's animus against the conventional: "Western haibun is slowly emerging from the squeezed womb of haiku." What an image that is! But he is not critical of haiku and haibun per se, only in the ways they have been artificially restricted by timid practitioners. He wants to unite East and West to release the potentialities of the prose/poetry form.

In the later half of the notebook Pelter conducts an enquiry into examples selected from his previous volumes. For those who haven't read his extended memoir – for that is what this multi-faceted, epic journey through the Seven Ages of man fundamentally is – his selection is an opportunity to sample the collage together with an analysis of some of the major devices used in the composition. Pelter has the courage to tackle tricky subjects head-on. For instance he takes Iris Murdoch's strictures on a hopeful postmodernist exhibit she encountered while teaching philosophy at the Royal College of Art on "a coat hung up on the wall with some violets on the floor" to discuss juxtaposition in an interesting way and to conclude rather surprisingly that "there is less to it than meets the eye."

The critical discussion is at the heart of this questioning volume, but there is another aspect which merits attention that might come under the heading "Suggestions for Creative Writing". Pelter worked as a teacher for many years and his volume is sprinkled with practical ideas for making things happen, for reassembling reality and for producing innovative haibun. "Statements for group discussions" on p.47 and "Alternative possibilities?" on p.97 are two of the down-to-earth aspects of the book. From the cosmic to the hands-on this is an anthology for teachers and artists as well as readers and if it ends in darkness

thick slab of black notes
interpretative collisions
give nothing away

it's because our lives do, although (as reported in The Guardian, August 6 2013) a new version of one of Van Gogh's sunflower series has been unearthed after the original was destroyed in 1945 by the U.S bombing of Hiroshima. Only a reproduction of course, but there's a modernist haibun flowering in there somewhere.