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October 2013, vol 9, no 3

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Ray Rasmussen


Commentary: Jeffrey Woodward's "Time with the Heron" –
Poetic Techniques in Haibun Composition.

Given Jeffrey Woodward's publishing record and editorial activity (1), when I picked up his recently released collection, Evening in the Plaza: Haibun and Haiku, I expected a certain quality of writing, and the book doesn't disappoint. However, this commentary is not meant to be a book review. Instead, I want to use one of his haibun as an example of writing practices of which he is an exemplar – someone whose work we can learn from as well as enjoy reading.

I. The Use and Abuse of Repetition

Having myself been an editor for several haiku-genre journals, I have often encountered instances of what I call the 'lazy writer sin'. These are writers who repeat words and phrases out of habit and who may simply be unaware that unintended repetition can detract from the flow and beauty of a piece. And I've often seen members of writing forums criticize repetition with little consideration for whether the writer intended a deliberate use of a poetic device. The message conveyed is that writers should use a word or phrase but once in title, prose passage and poem. Although such criticism may be valid in a given instance, to suggest it as a hard and fast rule constitutes the parallel sin of 'lazy criticism'. If a reader has insight, suggestions may be helpful.

I had been thinking about the issue for some time because I tend to repeat words and phrases in my own writing and have to force myself to the thesaurus as a way to find words that don't normally hang in my writer's closet. I noticed that Woodward broke the 'thou shalt not repeat' pronouncement in two of the first three haibun, as well as elsewhere in the collection, and in my view, to very good effect. So I decided to write about how repetition can be put to good use.

Of course, the generalization that repetition is something to avoid is nonsense. Repetition, fragmentation, compression and rhyme are well-established devices in poetry. A example of the use of repetition in a famous prose poem is found in Baudelaire's "Be Drunken." In its final section he repeats the words "ask" and "drunken," the phrase "everything that is . . ." and the noun sequence "wind, wave, star, bird, clock" two or more times. I suggest that you read it aloud to get a feel for Baudelaire's use of the technique:

Be always drunken. Nothing else matters: that is the only question. If you would not feel the horrible burden of Time weighing on your shoulders and crushing you to the earth, be drunken continually. Drunken with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you will. But be drunken. And if sometimes, on the stairs of a palace, or on the green side of a ditch, or in the dreary solitude of your own room, you should awaken and the drunkenness be half or wholly slipped away from you, ask of the wind, or of the wave, or of the star, or of the bird, or of the clock, of whatever flies, or sighs, or rocks, or sings, or speaks, ask what hour it is; and the wind, wave, star, bird, clock, will answer you: "It is the hour to be drunken! Be drunken, if you would not be martyred slaves of Time; be drunken continually! With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you will." (2)

I believe that a good many of us who write haibun aspire to prose like Baudelaire's, that is, pieces that are lyrical in nature. Thus I think it worthwhile to examine haibun (and other genres) where repetition is used to good effect.

Following is the full text of Woodward's "Time with the Heron" as it appeared in Evening in the Plaza: Haibun and Haiku. (3) I suggest that you read it aloud prior to reading my comments below:

Time with the Heron

The angler will do well to set his fly-rod aside and forget for a time the alluring ritual to-and-fro rhythm of a cast, to sit on the bank beneath an inviting willow, to watch the current slur over a sandy shallow or ruffle above a rift in the rock.

Time will allow one to study the blue heron not far from the willow's shadow, to learn the skill that is his by concentrated patience and poise. The heron stalks his prey—stepping lightly upon stilts now—with a deliberation given only to one for whom time has no meaning. Even so, the heron's painstaking stealth muddies the stream. Even so, the heron pauses, stares.

Time will allow one to repeat the lyrical names of hand-tied flies—Blue Quill, Royal Coachman, Pale Evening Dun, Yellow Sally, Gray Hackle—until the syllables become a meaningless babble, having only their own inherent musical properties, like the voice of the brook before the first man came.

Time will allow the angler, also, to study that maze of light everywhere at play with the water and to gaze, without ease of penetration, at the cloudy trail a heron makes.

when the water clears,
the mind, also, of
a great blue heron

Each reader will judge whether Woodward's piece suits his or her aesthetic taste. I've selected it because it suits mine and because it is clearly different from the majority of haibun I read. So I wanted to learn more about the technique. "Time" is used in the title and is repeated in the first paragraph, while the phrase "Time will allow" begins all three of the other paragraphs. The phrase "even so" is used twice with good effect. This is an example of anaphora, the parallel repetition of a beginning word or phrase in successive lines or paragraphs. Anaphora is but one type of repetition. Readers interested in the other forms will find definitions and examples in Wikipedia and About.Com. (4) Several other pieces in Woodward's book use more disguised and complex types of repetition quite effectively. For example, "Shorty", with its repeated use of "that summer" and "maybe," is an example of the use of ploce – the repetition of a word with a new or specified sense, or with pregnant reference to its special significance.

II. The Naming of Things

"The poet's job is to find a name for everything; to be a fearless finder of the names of things; to be an advocate for the beauty of language, the subtleties of language."
                                                                                                        ~ Jane Kenyon

In one piece I've had published, I struggled for a long time with how to describe a neighbour's flower garden. How many of the many flowers should be named, which flowers, and to what effect? Why not simply write, "The garden was full of colourful flowers?" But we all know that doesn't work, or at least it isn't lyrical prose. Woodward's solution comes in his carefully crafted third paragraph where he names but five of the thousands of types of artificial flies that anglers use as lures:

Time will allow one to repeat the lyrical names of hand-tied flies—Blue Quill, Royal Coachman, Pale Evening Dun, Yellow Sally, Gray Hackle.

And the consequence of good naming practices, as Woodward says in the prose, is that:

"… the syllables become a meaningless babble, having only their own inherent musical properties, like the voice of the brook before the first man came …"

Imagine the damage to the piece had Woodward written something mundane like "Time will allow one to repeat the lyrical names of colourful, hand-tied flies." Thankfully he didn't and as I read the entire haibun aloud, his use of repetition combined with the way he goes about naming gave a musical feel to the piece.

III. Interpretation

Stepping beyond the issues of repetition and naming, a good haibun permits the reader to find room for him or herself within it – to make personal sense of the writing. Woodward's first paragraph raised in my mind the question, who is Woodward's fisherman?

The angler will do well to set his fly-rod aside and forget for a time the alluring ritual to-and-fro rhythm of a cast, to sit on the bank beneath an inviting willow, to watch the current slur over a sandy shallow or ruffle above a rift in the rock.

In my reading, we are, each of us, and were we to allow time in our wanderings, then as the closing haiku suggests, our minds would clear of humdrum thoughts that clutter them.

when the water clears,
the mind, also, of
a great blue heron

A literal interpretation of the poem is that when the water clears, a heron's attention is focused on prey to the exclusion of all else. This is parallel to my own experience as a once avid fly fisherman. Over time, casting my favourite fly, a Royal Wulff, I lost all sense of time and slipped into an intense experience of water flowing around stone, the blue-green pools, the musical sound of cascades and the rhythm of casting. Toward the end of my fly-fishing career, I came to care less about catching fish and more about the intensity of the experience.

Stepping away from close interpretation, Woodward may be suggesting a practice that is at the heart of haiku as Basho, a Buddhist poet-monk, is purported to have practiced it – the Zen practice of entering the stillness of being, of learning to be without the interference of mind. Japanese haiku poets traditionally held gingko walks in areas of cultural significance or natural beauty in such a way that, paraphrasing Woodward's words, time would allow the walker's mind to clear. We English-language practitioners of haiku and haibun have adapted our own gingko walks to minimize talk and maximize experience.

I took a break from writing this commentary for a gingko walk at the edge of a nearby wetland. There I spotted a heron in its slow motion dance. I allowed myself the time to experience the heron's movement, and indeed my mind cleared of other matters. I'm sure we've all had that sort of experience. It doesn't just happen. We need, as Woodward suggests, to allow time.

IV. Poetic Quality, Epiphany, Presence of Self and Accessibility

In Journey to the Interior (5) Bruce Ross described haibun as the "narrative of an epiphany." In my view a central characteristic of haibun as it is currently practiced (6) is that the writer is clearly present in the piece either through relating a recent important event or a memory of a special time in his or her life. Those who write in the first person are clearly present to the reader. Those who write in second or third person, less so. We have to infer their presence and if the writing is good, we do. I read and write haibun precisely because of the personal nature of the storytelling about such special moments, if not epiphanies. This I admit to a bias toward first person and present tense in our storytelling.

In his call for accessible poetry, Billy Collins, past Poet Laureate of the United States, believes that readers crave "a mixture of clarity and mysteriousness." On one end of the spectrum, he thinks poems that are perfectly clear are "a little flat." But on the other end, too much mystery can render a poem inscrutable. In his criticism of mainstream poetry, Collins maintains that writers have a tendency to show off – writing obscure verses – in an attempt to make their work more poetic. (7)

I often fail to grasp much of the poetry I read. I do enjoy haibun because most are accessible, that is, I can usually tell what's going on in the piece. Although writers of haibun might embellish elements of their accounts, most don't try to grandstand with poetic ornamentation.

How do Baudelaire's and Woodward's pieces rate as to accessibility, presence of self and epiphany? Does the poetic quality of these pieces make them less accessible or give a sense of less presence of the writer?

Both pieces pass Collin's notion of accessibility. I could understand them without feeling as if I was involved in an English poetry class where one had to agonize over what the poet really meant. In short, prose utilizing a poetic device with an impossible name like anaphora can be readable by the likes of me.

Because Woodward writes the piece in third person (the angler) and because of the poetic quality of the writing, it's not clear whether Woodward is himself the fisherman or whether he directly observed a fisherman and/or heron from the shore. Thus the piece has less presence than I normally want in a piece. Of course, the writer is always present in his or her writing; who else is making these astute observations about the angler and heron? To be clear, I am not suggesting that writers never employ the third person, nor that they must always write their stories in the present tense, nor that poetic writing is somehow wrong for the haibun genre. I am suggesting that the more the writing resembles the prose poem and the more it is written in third person, the less personal it feels to me as a reader. I'm sure that many readers don't share my taste in these matters, nor should they. In this particular case, the literary style of Woodward's piece provides a more than reasonable trade off for less presence and a very enjoyable read for me. The haibun world needs a mix of styles: first, second and third person; past and present tense; lyricist and storyteller.

Ross' notion of epiphany is of interest in comparing Baudelaire's and Woodward's pieces. My dictionary states that an epiphany is an experience of sudden and striking realization. Baudelaire offers what might be called a philosophy of living, to wit, be drunk with the living of life. One senses that he is summing up a lifetime of experience, a macro-epiphany if you will. Woodward's notion of allowing time for rich experience offers a similar life philosophy, but staged in the context of a single event – the observation of the angler and heron and the relationship between the heron's and the angler's use of time. In comparing the two, Baudelaire's prose poem feels more abstract, more like "telling" or philosophizing. Woodward's haibun with its focus on descriptive detail feels more like "showing"; more like the kind of focused-in-the-moment story that constitutes haibun; more like an important experience being shared.

V. Summing Up

In setting down guidelines for haibun writers submitting work to Contemporary Haibun Online, editor Ken Jones has called for more conscious artistry in our writing:

How about . . . the prose? You may be moved to report your holiday experiences in some exotic place, or tell the readers what happened to you on your way to work, or recount a family anecdote. These are all potential topics, but if they read as little different from the hundreds of holiday letters home, or passages from The National Geographic Magazine, or the thousands of after-dinner anecdotes that are told, then they really do not have anything special for our readers and we cannot accept them. What is being submitted in such cases is the raw material for a haibun that has yet to be crafted into literature. There's no literary nourishment in it. What does nourish is work which engages our feelings and which stirs our imagination. The writing is rich in striking and original imagery, as well as being concrete and economical. It enhances our experience of the world around us. (8)

Can we shift our writing towards the literary side? The answer is perhaps yes, particularly if we understand the various poetic techniques, of which repetition is but one, that our best writers employ and if we are willing to work to craft our prose to higher levels. For myself, I'm not sure that I can pen words the way that our poetically talented writers do. Still, just as I've suggested elsewhere that modelling another writer's work can expand ones style repetoire (9), why not give it a try? Perhaps I will. At the least, in the future I will read pieces that employ repetition with greater interest and understanding of the technique.

Related to Jone's admonition, is my observation as an editor that too many writers submit what seem to be spontaneous first drafts, sometimes not even bothering to use a spell check. I've heard some say that a spontaneous expression is often more true to experience and that redrafting removes some of the life of a haibun. While redrafting a piece can indeed increase it's coherence, I find it true that doing so loses some of the vitality of the initial flow of words. The more times I revisit a piece, the less I have a sense of it. Redrafting necessarily involves putting the work aside for a time and getting back to it with fresh eyes. At some point, the redrafting, frustrating as it often is, can lead to a superior piece of writing. So in general, I think that we writers should set aside our all-too-hasty pens, and allow the necessary time to learn and apply poetic techniques to our writing.

While this commentary was not intended as a review of Woodward's book, after my close reading of "Time with the Heron" and other pieces, I can say with confidence that Evening in the Plaza is not only a worthwhile read, but instructive for we writers who wish to improve our own practice.


Notes:

1. Jeffrey Woodward is one of the strongest advocates of the haibun and tanka prose forms. He founded and is general editor of the online journal Haibun Today, and in many editorials he has sounded the call for a critical literature related to the two forms. His gentle persuasive push has induced a number of us to adopt the role of literary critic of haibun. Consequently Haibun Today has become a very good repository of articles, reviews and interviews from which new and experienced writers alike can inform their understanding and practice of the forms. Woodward has also served as editor of Modern Haibun and Tanka Prose, as well as an adjudicator for the British Haiku Society's Haiku Awards, and he has a deep background in other poetic forms and literatures.

The Haibun Today resources page is found at: http://haibuntoday.com/pages/resources.html

2. Arthur Symons (1865-1945) translation, as quoted by Eugene O'Neill in Long Day's Journey into Night.

3. Woodward's just released book is Evening in the Plaza: Haibun and Haiku, Tournesol, 2013. "Time with the Heron" shown above is a revision of a piece first published in CHO, 3:2, June 2007. http://contemporaryhaibunonline.com/pages32/Jeffrey_Woodward1.html

4. Those interested in examining some of the many types of repetition can refer to the Wikipedia and the About.Com page which provids both definitions and rich examples:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Repetition_%28rhetorical_device%29

http://grammar.about.com/od/rs/a/repetitionterm.htm

5. Bruce Ross, "On Defining Haibun to a Western Readership," Contemporary Haibun Online Definitions Page. http://contemporaryhaibunonline.com/articles/bruce_ross_haibun_sh.html and Bruce Ross, Journey to the Interior: American Versions of Haibun, Tuttle (July 1 1998).

6. Ray Rasmussen, "Characteristics of Contemporary English-Language Haibun," Haibun Today, December 9, 2007. http://haibuntoday.blogspot.ca/2007/12/ray-rasmussen-characteristics-of.html

7. "Collins Values Approachable Poetry, Not Pretension," NPR Books Website, taken April 06, 2011 1:00 PM http://www.npr.org/2011/04/06/135181560/collins-values-accessible-poetry-not-pretension

8. Ken Jones, from Part 1 of "Ken's Corner," Contemporary Haibun Online: http://contemporaryhaibunonline.com/pages_all/kenscorner1.html

9. Ray Rasmussen, "The Role of Modeling in Haibun Composition," Haibun Today, 7:2, June 2013.http://haibuntoday.com/ht72/a_Rasmussen_Modeling.html




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