Vol 16 No 1
Haibun and Realism I:
Some Thoughts upon the Developing Schools of Haibun
[Dedicated to Robert Wilson and Ray Rasmussen]
For some, amongst whom I count myself, realism is what haibun is all about; what it should attempt to do or present. The fact that haibun can be viewed as a realist form of literature is essential to haibun writing because it’s from this that haibun receives its power: from the gravity and sincerity of ‘life as it is.’
Despite this general consensus (although some have sought some more divergent paths), writing haibun in a realist style is a complicated matter and as always, better understanding of the considerations at hand can lead to more thoughtful practice. What this essay attempts to do is to take these considerations and form some broad schools of contemporary English language haibun writing style.
Reportage Narrative Mode
‘Reportage narrative,’ is a mode of presentation that makes the clear distinction that the events being portrayed did happen in the past, often through the use of past tense, and lack of literary allusion. Effectively this means that the haibun moment is being reported, relayed and that the poet is not trying to recreate this moment within the reader, but instead allows the presentation of what this moment of realisation has created within the poet. In other words, what wisdom or lesson was gained as the result of that experience.
Literarily merited, productive and powerful examples of this style are few and far between, although it is widely practiced. As an exemplar of how powerful this style can be, Robert Wilson’s series of haibun Vietnam Ruminations sets the precedence on how this style can be brought forth with purpose and effect.
does she dream,
this lady picking rice
before the sun wakes up?
Water buffalos were the tractors of South Vietnam. Only the well off could afford to buy one. Those who couldn’t ploughed the fields with their backs... Women carrying loads on their backs no American woman would ever agree to carry. They had no choice. It was work in the fields or starve to death. People starving to death in the villages and cities of Vietnam were an everyday occurrence.
When considering how form reflects, or informs, the poem’s meaning, Wilson’s straight-shooting prose section syntax, which for the most part is unadorned with poetic device, (except some understated, yet astute, metaphors and similes) help create the poem’s stark, dry tone. This has the effect of reminding us that, yes, these events did happen years ago, but are still deeply engraved images and thoughts that will stay with the poet as long as he lives. The haiku, to the reader, even seem to act as flash backs to those experiences, which spark into life, as the poet considers his experiences. Indeed, their intimate, ‘up-close’ experiences work to magnify the gravity and sincerity of the overall poem; often coming before the prose to ground the piece in genuine experience and set the tone for the prose to come.
Lastly, in such pieces, Wilson, not only presents his personal experience, but journeys out further to make valid social comment, such as through his references to the starving people in the nameless villages and cities above, further heightening the gravity of the poem, as good haibun should (Edgecombe, 2002).
Despite Wilson’s work in past tense, most haibun depict the past through present tense. As Ray Rasmussen has commented, ‘the present tense in haibun is a unique feature that brings a kind of power to words that is unusual. The terseness brings a poetic quality that is also unique to haibun’ (Rasmussen, 2004).
Indeed, as alluded to here by Rasmussen, there is a different school of haibun writing, where the prose itself has an intrinsic style. Place, person, or event can be presented through a language of poetic delineation, striking due to its immediacy, which has lead to a discourse of mystification, wonder or the portrayal of something’s essence, similar to Hopkins’s inscape.
When writing in this style, the poet has a whole host of haibunic devices available to explore with and subvert. These can include the fragmenting of sentences, the exaggerated (for use of a better word) use of noun-phrasing or word-block associations, literary allusion and so on. All of which help to disrupt the usual lineation of our language, thus averting the prose’s slip into standard narrative (as Ross, 1994, states we should avoid).
This style personalises language, allowing the exposition of feelings, emotions, in a way that would be detrimentally affected by “stabilised,” grammatically polished, language / syntax and helps form and structure our experiences of the world. If realism requires fidelity in representing the real nature of things, then this prose style actually bears more authenticity to the mixed, churning and fluid nature of people’s internal thoughts and feelings.
Such an approach has great benefits to the reader. This is because the experiences the haibun seeks to instill in the reader, or the realisation it wishes to recreate, may relate to what we, in education, refer to as accommodative learning. This type of learning refers to the acquisition of new ideas, concepts and experiences through the reformation of previously held knowledge / understanding. This reformation, which can be influenced by such factors as prior knowledge, experience, exposure (as explored in reader-response theories), requires the reader to engage with and internalise what is being read, in order to gain deeper, more profound impact. Alternatively, if we are given facts, or reported information, in a way that does not engage us, we simply assimilate it (assimilative learning) and store the new information with that which we already know; so no real internalisation / engagement takes place and hence undercuts the revelatory effect of the haibun (unless that is the poet’s desired reaction).
This more poetic school of language owes much of its compositional style to haiku’s abbreviated structure and deviation from standardised grammar, along with haiku’s associated philosophies, possibilities, layers of meaning and other techniques. This is what some, including Paul Conneally, Bruce Ross (Conneally, 2005) and myself, refer to as haibunic prose: a style that although it may possess many of the same qualities as haiku, is NOT haiku simply written out sequentially in linear narrative format. Indeed, despite the freedom inherent in the prose style, which often uses fragmented sentences, a basic structural coherence is needed. Otherwise, one might just as well write renga.
The Templum Effect
Probably the closest style to haiku itself, is that of ‘templum’ effect, where the poet is absorbing the swirling world directly around him/her. This effectively is a passive process and therefore negates the need for the personal pronoun ‘I.’ That is not to say that they have to be omitted completely, but the overuse of I can lead to a distancing effect, where the reader falls into the normal pattern of seeing the words on the page as artifice, something to be read and imagined, rather than viewing the reading process as an opportunity to engage with experience within itself, effectively placing themselves in the scene.
Exemplary examples of this style can be found in Frank O’Hara’s A Step Away From Them, Gary Snyder’s Walking the New York Bedrock; or in some of Jack Kerouac’s choruses from his collection of poetry, Book of Blues. What makes Kerouac’s work so exciting is the way he goes that step further and projects his imagination upon and explores those people who pass-by him, as Kobayashi Issa himself was known to do in his haiku, as seen in this extract from the 11th CHORUS:
There’s no telling
What’s on the mind
…the beauteous Indian
Girl hurrying stately
Into Marathon Grocery
Run by greeks
To buy bananas
For her love night,
What’s she thinking?
Her cheeks just pursue them out
All the more to kiss them
And suck their juices out.
Alas, does this form of egotistical projection affect the poem’s status as a realist piece of literature? I would argue not, seeing that these thoughts were sparked by the real events that frame and give life to them. On the most basic level, the girl and her bananas are not metaphors or allegories, but are real, simply having caught the poet’s eye/imagination, which come together to form the poetic ‘moment,’ very similar to Higginson’s haiku moment.
Haibun as Word-Photography
However, some might be prone to disagree, stating that this engagement of the imagination is not the sincerest form of presentation. Indeed, some may view that “realist” literature is more akin to a photograph. Christopher Isherwood in his book Goodbye Berlin,(1) states how a writer should approach writing:
I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair.
The idea that haibun could be viewed as a form of word-photography is an interesting one. For if the haiku is the instant at which the picture is ‘shot,’ the prose section could act as the ‘framing’ of the shot with all the mystery of association that it may entail: the possibilities of zooming, foregrounding and landscaping effects (like a Buson haiku); the choice of lens (tinted or not); the length of exposure (how much detail to include); and the breath which is held as the shutter snaps shut; all in unison with the possibilities that juxtaposition with the haiku could have. Of course this concept could also be effectively subverted to form surreal haibun, so that the reality of the situation / scene is revealed by a grounding haiku (a style I personally enjoy experimenting with), but the impact would be reduced if this framing concept did not already exist in other haibun. This technique is useful for writing out day dreams, flashbacks, or fantasies that superimpose themselves, or interject, into daily life. To those who may be opposed to the excessive detail that a photo analogy may incur within a minimalist literature, I would remind them:
The camera cannot see everything at once, but makes sure not to lose any part of what it chooses to see. (Bazin, 1972; 27)
As Ray (1985) explains, ‘no matter how much activity a … camera take[s] in, activity is still excluded. What the camera sees, rather than being “obvious” or “natural,” can be arbitrary (p. 286). Indeed, ‘photography [and I would like to add, haibun alike] -once considered a purely mechanical, even inartistic, art- is just as subjective as any other art form … Images don’t just “happen,” but are laboriously and consciously crafted’ (Garry, 2005; Part II, p.8). So it is worth remembering and considering carefully what aspects of the scene-situation are essential for a masterful presentation of the haibun moment, for brevity and conciseness are still key components of the haibun art.
In all and at its most simple: haibun can be seen as a realist text form, but of course from many different angles. I hope that this essay has opened up some paths into exploring these possibilities and the future destinations, or crossroads, they may lead to.
References and Bibliography
Anderton (2003) – learning section
Bazin, Andre (1972): Orson Wells: A Critical View, Harper and
Conneally (2005 – although referring to 1999): private correspondence, 05 September 2005.
Kerouac, Jack (1995): Book of Blues, Penguin Poets, Penguin Books, USA.
Miles, Barry (2002): King of the Beats, Virgin Books.
O’Hara, Frank (1926-1966), Step Away from Them, featured in Hall, Donald (ed.) (1972): Contemporary American Poetry, Penguin Poets, Penguin Books, USA.
Rasmussen, Ray (2004), correspondence, 2004.
Ray, Robert (1985): A Certain Tendency of Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1985, Princeton University Press, Princeton.
Wilson, Robert (2002): Vietnam Numerations, from Susumu Takiguchi (ed.) World Haiku Review, VOLUME 2, ISSUE 1, March 2002, online at http://www.worldhaikureview.org/2-1/whcvanguard_wilson.shtml
Wilson, Robert (2004), private correspondence; January, 2004.
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