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

Volume 12, Number 3, September 2018

Ray Rasmussen

Editor's Comments and Challenge #2

Challenge #1: Results are Posted

I enjoyed reading through the comments of those who responded to our first challenge: to select a haibun from the last issue and tell us how its content applied to their own lives.

My belief is that a reader doing a close personal reading of another person's haibun is a worthwhile exercise, increasing the depth of understanding and feeling you have for the other person's work. It's also nice for the writer whose haibun or tanka prose you selected to know that his or her work has been read in depth and with appreciation.

The commentaries were received from writers who, to my knowledge, have not ventured into the commentary arena prior to this, at least not with respect to haibun and tanka prose.

So let's do it again. Here's Challenge #2:

I’m issuing a second challenge to our readers to consider contributing a personal commentary (sometimes called a close reading) on someone’s work that appears in this issue. I’ll post all commentaries I receive in our next issue.

Please consider stepping up to the plate. Our genre needs writers commenting on the work of others in the positive ways I'm suggesting.

In issuing the challenges, I realize that commenting on someone else’s work can be a daunting task. Most of us struggle with getting our own writing in good enough shape to submit to a journal editor. And, for good reason, many of us are shy about commenting on another person’s writing because some writers have very thin skins.

Why do this? Haibun and tanka prose are esxciting new genres in languages other than Japanese, but tiny in terms of numbers of writers, journals and published works, much smaller than the wider world of English-language haiku and tanka prose and the even larger universe of mainstream poetry. As Jeffrey Woodward has pointed out in his editorials, our relatively new genre needs a body of critical work to advance. [1] Literary criticism provides information as to what the genre is and how it differs from related genres like memoirs, travel journals, personal essays and even short fiction. As such, writers, particularly new ones, and editors have clearer guidelines about how to write and read haibun.

But I’m not asking for high-end literary criticism, and especially not feedback that points out problems with another person’s work. Instead, I’m more interested in inviting personal comments on the piece selected, what it brought to you, the commentator in terms of your own life experiences, past and present. The comments don't have to be more than a few paragraphs and it's up to you whether you want to provide a more detailed analysis of the work.

While less detailed than literary criticism, personal commentaries both provide feedback to the writer and, for the most part, make writers feel good that someone has taken the time to closely read their work. And, as a bonus, doing a personal commentary brings you, the close reader, a greater appreciation of the work of another writer. As Glenn Coats aptly pointed out through his piece “Mentor” in the last issue, writing is a lonely business.

Definition of Terms: How does a Personalized Commentary Differ from "Literary Criticism."

To be clear about what I’m asking for, I’ll define the terms “personal commentary,” “close reading,” and “literary criticism” so that you can be sure what I have in mind. ,,

Close reading and literary criticism are roughly synonymous terms. Both involve the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature and poetry. Modern literary criticism is often influenced by literary theory, which is the philosophical discussion of literature's goals and methods. [2]

Teachers of English courses suggest the following rationale for requiring students to do literary criticism (paraphrasing):

A rich text simply cannot be understood and appreciated by a single read, no matter how skilled and motivated the reader. Close reading refers to a practice of disciplined re-reading and analyzing inherently complex and worthy texts. Challenging texts do not give up their meanings easily, thus it is essential for learning about the author’s meaning and understanding the literary devices they employ. [3]

I can readily agree with the idea that poetic texts, including haibun and tanka prose and eventheir tiny partners, haiku and tanka, often can’t be fully understood or appreciated by a single quick reading. However, these rather formal notions of close readings and literary criticism bring to mind my high school and college English classes. We students were required to read texts that always seemed to be difficult poetry beyond our years, and make something of what we had read. In my case, I got little more than a little frustrated when trying to write a “What does it mean? and/or What are its literary aspects?” essay. My fondest hope was a passing mark. The typical (unfortunate) outcome for me was my teacher’s red-inked comments, telling me that my analysis was incorrect. The result was a lengthy period of distaste for reading literature and poetry.

In the teaching communities, there’s a good deal of controversy about the best approach to doing literary criticism or close readings. For example, some argue that the best starting point for writers who haven’t done commentaries is what I call a “personalized” as opposed to an “analytical” close reading (aka literary criticism). Their argument:

[It] is much easier to pick out the important information when I think about what matters to me first. . . . When we consider our own perspective first, it is easier to think about the writer’s overarching ideas. [4]

I agree and I'm asking for your personal takes on someone's work, what it meant to you, and not the formal analysis that our English instructors asked for in high school and university classes. Ask yourself, how does the haibun relate to your experiences, past or present. Then, if you wish, go on to do a more analytical close reading. But for the purpose of this exercise, getting into a detailed literary analysis isn’t necessary, or even wanted, particularly if it would discourage you from doing the first part – your personal take on the piece you select.

Many commentaries appearing in Haibun Today and other haiku genre journals are written by the journals’ readers, and the range of comments range from personal interpretations and appreciations of the work to detailed analyses akin to formal literary criticism. For the most part, the reviews and commentaries do not employ the techniques and detailed literary criticism found in academic journals written by scholars.

The Value of Personalized Readings of Haiku and Haibun

How does this apply to the reading that we do when perusing haiku genre journal offerings? As you read through Haibun Today or other haiku genre journals, what’s your approach? Too often I find myself trying to read through all the offerings in one or two sittings, and thus doing neither an analytical nor a personalized close reading, and all too often I lose my concentration and don’t really take in the pieces I’m reading. Of course, I don’t allow myself to do this as an editor where I have to read each piece to assess whether it would be worthy to present to our readers.

But as a reader, I’ve come to appreciate that some of our haiku and haibun texts can’t be understood with a single, quick reading. To expand on this notion, the haiku and haibun of Basho and Issa, to name two of the haibun masters, can’t be understood without reaching for the deeper contexts within the text. Their work, both haiku and haibun, were replete with allusions. When I first came across Basho’s famous frog pond haiku, which likely has been more often translated and interpreted than any other haiku, it seemed somewhat trivial to me.

The old pond:
A frog jumps in –
The sound of water
~ Trans. Chen-ou Liu [5]

Chen-ou Liu put it well (paraphrasing): “I wondered, how could there be significant meaning in such a simple poem which merely describes a frog jumping into an old pond?” Liu goes on to provide details and analysis demonstrating that what seems to be a simple set of images about a pond and the sound of a frog jumping in, is much more than what it seems with a quick reading. It references Basho’s cultural, religious and historical inheritances and according to Liu, it even challenges the traditional Japanese use of pond and frog kigos. [5]

Further to this point that reading haiku isn't as easy as it might seem and that there's more to a haiku than a couple of images, it’s of interest to read the editors’ commentaries in The Heron’s Nest, an online haiku journal. I often read published haiku very quickly, and like Liu’s initial response to Basho’s famous haiku, my reaction has often been to wonder why someone bothered to publish them. In each issue of The Heron's Nest, an editor selects several haiku s/he considers to be outstanding and presents sometimes personal, sometimes analytical, and sometimes a mix of reactions to the haiku. The editors’ close readings provide me with insights that make the seemingly “So what?” haiku come to life.

So, please consider giving a personal commentary a try. What do you have to lose?

Send your submission here: -> Commentary Submission s

~ Ray Rasmussen, General Editor, Haibun Today


1. Jeffrey Woodward, “Editorials,” Haibun Today resources pages:

2. “Literary Criticism,” and “Close Reading,” Wikipedia website.

3. See Grant Wiggins, “When Teaching Gets In The Way Of Reading Comprehension,” Authentic Education Website.

4. ibid. Quote taken from Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis, Primary Comprehension Toolkit Trade Book Pack for Content Literacy, Heinemann Books.

5. To Explore the different takes on Basho’s haibun, I recommend starting with Chen-ou Liu, “Ripples from a Splash: A Generic Analysis of Basho’s Frog Haiku,” Haiku Reality website. Liu’s essay offers an interesting perspective and contains a comprehensive list of references on the subject.



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