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January 2014, vol 9, no 4

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Ken Jones

High Poetry & Traditional Mainstream Haibun

I have selected two haibun in order to offer some rough-and-ready comments about two contrasting modes of haibun: High Poetry haibun represented by Claire Everett’s ‘Burnt Sugar’, and Traditional Mainstream haibun, represented by Rich Yeoman’s ‘Memories of Tommy’.

Metaphor is important in haiku and haibun in offering concrete imagery, as fresh and compelling as possible, to suggest and evoke reader emotions, without directly needing to name them specifically. I contend that, at their most effective, metaphors convey the thus-ness of life, its just-how-it-is-ness. They can offer a subtle kind of existential (or therapeutic) function. Like the rest of literature they can expand our horizons and affirm the diversity of moods and emotions.

I would argue that Traditional Mainstream haibun (and haiku) are accessible to a broad spectrum of readers because they employ readily comprehensible metaphors and language in pursuit of readily recognizable themes, though much might be left unsaid or only hinted at.

Youmans' “Memories of Tommy” skilfully employs a succession of images which metaphorically, if not directly, give the reader an overwhelmingly clear picture of the kind of man Tommy was. Thus, his (literally) “fast blond” has exciting “smoky green eyes” and a “candy-red” sports car. And so on . . . ending with his death “skimming through starlight”. The haiku contains an innovation – an abrupt cut off (which is not a typo!). There is more to this piece than just skilful imagery. Both at start and finish we are told that Tommy is “the one who always got his way”, with the implication of egotism, wilfulness and perhaps a deep emotional neediness. This opens up wider implications about human behaviour for the reader to reflect on.

Access to the theme of Claire Everett’s “Burnt Sugar” is clear enough. The opening paragraph is readily rewarding, as with “ankle deep in the sound of water”. But some of the remainder moves towards an extravagance of language which is a feature of High Poetry haibunists and in clear contrast to our plain-spoken haiku family. For example, Klimt’s "Kiss" has been the subject of so many poster reproductions that its appearance in the first haiku is perhaps a misplaced sophistication. And the following two haiku “robin song” and “red oak” seem too distant from the rest for the metaphorical spark to jump the gap.

The kind of imagery that propels Everett's second and third paragraphs makes an instructive contrast with that taken in Youman's “Memories of Tommy”. Should the reader of High Poetry haibun need to have a good dictionary in hand to cope with unknowns or obscurities? I failed to trace ‘katsura trees’ and learning that “liquidambers” are “balsamiferous trees” put a brief stop on my enjoyment, however liquid sounding the words. The High Poetry school typically employs language which can seem over-wrought to a reader accustomed to the more sober (but nonetheless effective) metaphors of the mainstream haiku world, as with Everett’s ”hours cast with watchmaker’s gold, set with rubies”.

As an editor, however, I did opt for acceptance of all three of Everett’s haibun, which are best evaluated as a whole. I believe that High Poetry haibun, at their best, can enrich the genre, exploring fields and modes of consciousness beyond the customary empirical experience of reality. On the other hand there are many which lie beyond the time-warranted accessibility and simplicity of the mainstream haiku tradition. For those who want to explore the High Poetry mode further, Clare McCotter’s recent collection “Black Horse Running” (Alba Publishing, 2012). springs to mind.