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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & Owner
Ray Rasmussen, General Editor

Volume 11, Number 4, December 2017
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Roger Jones
San Marcos, Texas, USA

Haibun as Diary: Diane di Prima’s The Ones I Used to Laugh With: A Haibun Journal

Diane di Prima, The Ones I Used to Laugh With, San Francisco: Habenicht Press, 2003, 12 pages. Available at Amazon.

In his classic critical study An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry, Earl Miner writes that “the characteristic figure of classical Western literature is the orator, and of Japanese, the diarist." The pioneering haibun writings of Basho and Issa (in their journals), among others, show that there has always been a vital link between the haibun form and journals or diaries. Contemporary haibun writers, such as Robert Spiess, Harold Henderson, Penny Harter, Gary Snyder, and Tom Lynch, have continued the tradition of travel journals, but the use of haibun as straight diary also finds occasional current exemplars.

In the opening of her 2003 chapbook The Ones I Used to Laugh With (published by San Francisco’s Habenicht Press) Beat poet Diane di Prima writes that:

In April 1992, I gave my writing class a month-long assignment: They were to keep a prose journal which included short poems (in the traditional Japanese “haibun” style). I suggested that they limit the journal to a single topic. I myself chose to look at my relationship to poetry and creativity during that time.

Di Prima’s directive to her students – to limit the scope of their journals to one topic – was wise in that it immediately focused writers mainly on daily experiences that would fit into the topic at hand (and perhaps would help them see whatever patterns in their daily lives that were harmonious with the assignment). Di Prima was approximately 58 when she wrote her haibun journal, and as the contents make clear, she was already seeing the loss of some close acquaintances as a reminder of time and mortality. Her coupling of this awareness, and her focus on poetry, art and her work at the time, makes for a harmonious field of attention.

The ten haibun units in this chapbook are not separately numbered or titled (though they are interrupted in strategic places by asterisks), and thus move along together as a singular unit. The brevity of the work (twelve pages) opens the content to close reader scrutiny. Di Prima immediately focuses on absence, death, loss:

I have been reluctant to be in this room, and now, returning, am aware of a great heaviness and sadness with no particular cause. Examining it more deeply, I find a kind of loneliness.

The traffic goes by unceasing
but they are gone ahead:
the ones I used to laugh with.

“. . . Even as I write”, she continues, “others are going”:

Will they remove your lung?
I reach for the phone, my friend
Not knowing what news to hope for.

The nature of the haiku in many of Di Prima’s pieces here shows her willingness to diverge from the tradition enough to use the haiku for more prose-like continuations of thought. Other haiku in the collection fall neatly into the tradition:

the grey stones standing
in green fields
boisterous with color

more prized than gold
the horses
shine in green-gold fields

Splashes of color
the women’s scarves
their skirts, their hair

The segments in this work sometimes trace moments that feel loose, random. We are aware that Di Prima is guiding them along via the topics she has chosen – artistic work, mortality – but her attention falls casually on day to day, sometimes momentary, situations:

On a warm spring day, the kind of day that comes seldom in San Francisco, I went to lunch with a new friend. She talked to me of astrology: my birth chart and my work. Essentially, she said

Let it explode
like the stars
these next five months

As the pieces transpire, she records visits to readings, the theater, a Van Morrison concert:

Is heart the fuel
that the mind consumes?
Or do they both
burn as the body wishes?

I long to return to this state of passion in the daily practice of poetry.

This sub-theme – the search for the lost passion in her own art – takes on more emphasis as the segments progress, reflecting her sense of mortality:

The world that nurtured you
gone as the last notes fade
do I weep for you or for myself?

It made me look again at my own situation.

Never outside of
struggle, suspicion, judgment
I manage to write
but do I open my heart?

The autobiographical quality to haibun sometimes is glossed over by the writer’s wish to craft the record into work more closely approaching a pre-conceived aesthetic ideal or mold. Basho, for example, worked hard to hone his own travel journals, smoothing out the ragged or loose sections to more closely reflect his artistic vision. Tonally, Di Prima takes the risk here, with the brevity of the project, to make use of moments or descriptions that might strike a reader as unduly quotidian:

On the Saturday before Easter, I went to the theater again, this time with the poet Julia Connor and her lover, the actor Jim Anderson. We went to hear the Bulgarian Women’s Choir. How utterly moving they were! Each group dressed in the costume of their province, the women so simple. Enormous presence and innocence, as if they existed for the music. . .

The overall direction is sparse, however, in the style of traditional haibun journals. She moves quickly from moment to moment, point to point, never losing sight of the experiment both she and her students are engaged in. It would be interesting to have seen this work in combination with some of the journals produced by her students as well. The Ones I Used to Laugh With is not an exceptionally ambitious work, but is instead a creative side road intended to impart not only some appreciation of the haibun tradition, but also to teach (or re-teach) to her class members the value of journals or diaries as potential artistic products on their own.

Di Prima nicely concludes the work by turning fully to her own creative projects – her poems. There is both trepidation and hope as she signs off:

I have cleared the study, dusted the desks, sorted the letters, all stands ready for a season of work. But the geography of this place brings us summer days dark as winter.

Do I have the heart for them
in the summer fog—
these stacks of dusty poems?

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