I won the 2010 Apprentice House Chapbook Award. My manuscript, The Loneliness Jacket, consisted of thirty linear poems. Most of these poems were originally written and published as haibun—usually a single prose paragraph with a single concluding haiku. I started writing them in 2006 and published several dozen during the following three years. But even as they were appearing in magazines and anthologies, they seemed to fall short of what I wanted them to do. My haibun were written from a poet's sensibility, and I began to realize that they could not, as prose, fully express their content.
Working prose into poetry is not something new. Robert Frost once recommended that his friend Edward Thomas apply the practice to essays he had written about nature. W.B. Yeats often began his compositional process by sketching his topic in prose. Like Thomas, I did not start out intending to use the prose as a source for poems, and like Yeats I needed to shape my material with poetic technique in order to find a pattern of words that would carry my thoughts and feelings. The difference is that by casting my work in the haibun tradition, I willingly placed a constraint on it: for the most part I would forego abstraction and aphorism in favor of situation and setting; argument and explanation would yield to image and context. This gave my finished poems a notional unity compatible for collection in a chapbook.
The influence of haibun is evident in my book. Although the poems are structured in patterned stanzas, half of them have a concluding haiku. And though the lines are broken with purposeful intent and are worked for intra-linear effect, the line itself is free in the sense that it does not adhere to a pre-set system of rhyme or meter (though I do use meter and rhyme wherever I catch them or wherever the poem feels empty without them). The finished poems retain a coherent sentence structure and could readily be reset as prose paragraphs, but overlapping and contrary suggestions that come out in the poems would be lost if this were done.
Ancient poetry lent itself to incantation. And passed on orally, it was more easily memorized than prose. It developed as a system of patterns, eventually using devices such as rhyme, meter, and alliteration to set up expectations of the pattern's fulfillment. Poetry was devised to "link" (that essential haibun word) the lines of a poem one to another. In contemporary poetry, the unit of the sentence often vies with the unit of the line and the organization of the lines into stanzas. As the syntax breaks down and rebuilds, perspectives are altered and meanings shift; stanza and line become a part of the content by the way they control, suppress, heighten—even sabotage and ultimately rescue—features of the sentence. The various units—of phrase, line, sentence, and stanza—struggle within and against themselves in a way that reflects the mental activity of composition.
My first published haibun was "The Recycling Center." I received email notice that it had been accepted by Contemporary Haibun Online on New Year's Day, 2007. It has since appeared in the poetry anthology The Light in Ordinary Things (Fearless Books, 2009) and is included in my chapbook. Here is how it read when submitted to CHO:
The Recycling Center
My father walks slowly as we leave the house now empty of all but his needs. He tells me again the stories that were new to me when I listened as a boy, important to him again, stories of his boyhood and early setting up, by which I once learned the workings of a world that reported all its wonders. Our daily walk follows a soft lane that skirts the marsh behind a plant where discarded paper is trucked and processed. He's tolerant of the renegade fly-aways that litter our path and points out from time to time the signs that nature takes this in stride.
a turtle poking
its nose into
an old edition
As I reworked this haibun into a linear poem I tightened the language. This could have been done while still retaining the prose paragraph. What distinguishes the poem from the prose is that the lines can be read both separately and as a part of the sentence to which they belong. This fractured reading allows for a more layered meaning. The line breaks also control the pace to greater effect and expose a hidden rhyme to accentuate the seemingly shared philosophy of the old man and the turtle, while the stanza break signals a changed focus or attitude:
The Recycling Center
He walks slowly as we leave behind
the house now empty of all
but his needs, his stories
important again, his youth and early setting up
by which I once learned the workings of a world
that reported all its wonders.
We follow a soft lane, skirt the marsh behind the plant
where discarded paper is trucked and processed.
of the fly-away dailies that litter our path,
points out from time to time
some sign that nature takes this in stride—
a turtle poking
its nose into
an old edition
The line breaks give the poem an increased tension, and with this tension, an increased claim on the reader's attention. We all know the many things the aged "leave behind" (as they lose memory, ability, life itself), and in the brief moment while the reader's eye moves down from the end of the first line to the beginning of the second, the reader might wonder which of these losses will be confronted. By the end of the second line, though it's not expressly stated, the reader senses the lost presence of a wife and family. Read by itself, the third line equates "his needs" with "his stories," the remembered life taking precedence over the present one. The fourth line reinforces this, telling us that what is "important again" is the man's memory of "his youth and early setting up." We learn in the fifth line that the speaker is apparently a son, and with the alliteration—"once," "workings," "world"—we hear the echo of repetition: he has heard these stories before. The final word of the sixth line, the final word of the stanza, picks up that alliteration long after it seemed to have been dropped— "wonders"—and this coincides with what the words are suggesting, that these stories are important to the son too, and that he feels nostalgic for the lost world the stories depict, or at least for the heyday of his father as a young man telling him the stories. The slowed-down pacing of line breaks (and the segmenting of the sentences into lines) is essential to glean these readings; and with the extended pause of the stanza-break, the poem signals a shift into present-day action. In lines 7 and 9 we read the only end-rhyme in the poem: "plant" and "tolerant." It surprises us out of the old man's mood of reminiscence to his acceptance of contemporary life. Despite our littered present, there is still order in his world, at least an attitude of order, and this is reflected in the rather formal structure of two six-line stanzas. Nature (the turtle) is resilient to the man-made mess, and the old man literally "points out from time [the past] to time [the present]" that he too "takes this in stride."
The poem substitutes linear poetry for the prose but retains its haibun semblance because of the haiku. The line breaks are functional, not just decorative, and the haiku is essential to the completion of the poem, linking the old man to the turtle.
Although language can be tightened without reworking prose into poetry, sometimes the demands or instincts of a poem call for a tightening that was not heard in the prose. What might be an acceptably functional part of a prose sentence can read quite flat as a line in a poem. And details that might create mood and setting in prose can seem peripheral in a poem's sharpened focus. Transformation into poetry sometimes gives rise to changes that would lie dormant in a prose revision.
Here is my haibun "Confetti," published in Contemporary Haibun in 2008. When I wrote it I had the sense that the concluding sentence and haiku had to be held off as long as possible, that they would have the desired impact only if I had laid down sufficient words to lead up to them:
I didn't know I would remember this as a time when fence posts were still wooden and their hollow knots housed a bright populous of bluebirds, a forgotten time when the hill held its own against the road. After her first year of school it seemed in the natural order of things that when my sister called out "Now!" and I looked up to our bedroom window, from all around snowflakes floated down through the hot summer day, white pieces of permission allowing me to laugh. She had worked for weeks cutting them out of her notebook, her scissors persistent beyond boredom, and stood me in the grass, and from that window above me had overturned her basket. Through the still air I heard the thin paper flakes flittering toward me, the sight and the sound. She had explained this to me all along, as she worked, telling me what it would be like. The cutout snowflakes so lazy in their fall I could see up through them her tiny white teeth as she watched from the window. When it was over the air was clear and silent again. "Jump up here!" she called down, as if now, touched by her worked miracle, magic would come easy to me.
birdnest! and threads
from my red sweater
I find there
Much condensed, and with a different title, it appears as a poem in Poetry Ark Anthology (2011) and in my chapbook:
Now! my sister calls, and conjured snowflakes fall
through summer heat. She has worked for weeks
cutting them out of her note book,
her scissors persistent beyond boredom,
and from that window above me
overturned her basket. The thin paper flakes
so lazy in their fall I can see up through them
her tiny white teeth bright with permission
she cannot grant. Jump up here!
she shouts down, as if now,
touched by her worked miracle,
magic will come easy to me.
from my red sweater
I find there
The haibun was presented as a childhood memory, and in the poem I wanted to quickly evoke this idea by the sound as well as the meaning of the words. In the first two lines I looked for an internal off-rhyme—internal so that the rhymes would be in quick succession (like a child's poem or nursery rhyme), and a bit off to suggest the slightly skewed perspective of an early memory. The poem tightened down considerably when I came up with "calls" and "fall," "heat" and "weeks." I dropped the long opening of the haibun because it was more setting than I needed—the poem was about this particular scene, and not about the extended ambience of childhood in general. And when I realized that the subject was not so much what happened as what the boy made of it, I knew I needed a title change. This is where the boy is learning to be a poet, this is his apprenticeship. The boy's sister has made it snow in summer—and even though this is a "worked" magic, it feels "conjured." The boy learns that "magic" (or poetry) does not come easy, and yet, with a slight twist, magic (the essence of the poem) can still be found by serendipity, as shown in the haiku when the boy comes across a thread from his sweater in the bird nest. Because of its rigid symmetry—two quatrains bracketed by two couplets—the structure provides a counterbalance to the whimsy, just as the girl's weeks of persistent work counterbalance the giddy moment of snow falling in summer. The haibun may have worked as prose, but it had far too much slack for a poem. The need to compress the language mothered the invention of conflated phrases. "White pieces of permission," referring to the cutout snowflakes early in the paragraph, and "her tiny white teeth," coming four sentences later, find a closer link when joined in the poem: "her tiny white teeth bright with permission." And by breaking the line there, after "permission," the poem reintroduces the can-can't-can of making magic. No amount of prose revision could have had this effect.
Not every haibun reworked as a poem reads as a haibun variant. This is especially true when the end result has neither prose nor haiku. But when the change is very minimal, the similarity between the haibun and the poem shows how differently the two forms work.
Here is a short haibun that was published in Modern Haiku in 2008:
On the shore of the inlet we stalk a firefly blinking in a bush. When we get up close we collectively gasp. It's caught in a web, and the spider is on it, completing the wrap—smooth as silk the last hint of day glistening on the surface.
Rewritten as a poem it reads as follows:
On the shore of the inlet we stalk
a firefly strobing a bush.
Up close we catch
short breath: it's caught
in the calm of a web
and the spider is on it, completing the wrap—
smooth as milk the last
silk of day on the ebb.
The obvious difference between the two is the dropped haiku. In the haibun the link between the prose and the haiku is one of human interaction with other species. The firefly's predicament has touched the speaker and the speaker's companion—do they or do they not intervene? In the haiku, the interaction is equally ambiguous—are the crickets becoming quiet as the speaker and companion approach, or does the sound of the crickets make the speaker and companion stop walking, whether for fear of stepping on the crickets or for fear of what dangers might lie in the dark? This works in the haibun, but it doesn't work with the poem. With minimal word change the focus of the poem has altered. The poem wanted its own sound, not the sound of crickets, and it wanted this in rhyme, assonance, and consonance: "stalk," "caught"; "bush," "close," "catch"; "wrap," "last"; "milk," "silk"; "web," "ebb." Because many of these rhymes and off-rhymes had the distance of inter-stanza placement, they could fall at the ends of lines without sounding singsong; to some extent they had to fall there so as not to be lost. As I was setting this up, one line was too truncated, a single anapest, and needed to be doubled: "in a web" became "in the calm of a web." I had hit on a word that seemed wrong but was right. That word "calm" changed the whole poem—a sailor becalmed in an inlet (no wind, nowhere to go), a firefly becalmed in a web with no escape. And within that "web" lies its own rhyme: "ebb." The day's last light ("milk") shines on the ebbing light and life of the firefly in the web ("silk") and on the ebbing tide in the inlet. This was actually the initial direction of the haibun before it changed course with the haiku. Man and other species share the same fate to which nature (the ebbing tide) bears indifferent witness.
If the above example (with the prose rewritten as linear poetry and the haiku dropped) shows how differently the two forms of haibun and poetry work, a further example demonstrates how difficult it sometimes is to draw a distinction between the two forms. What happens when a haibun is reworked as a linear poem and the haiku is subsumed into the lines of the poem?
Here is how my haibun "Birthday Hike" appeared when submitted to Frogpond:
My bottle filled with mountain runoff chills me suddenly new to old skin. The uphill ache of my body sets in. Snow fell the winter I thrilled to be twenty. It's melt I ford these decades later. Time for a breather.
among the polished stones
The rest makes me cold. I spill through these woods for their bounty of kindling. Where else to warm my heart but at the campfire story it's my turn to tell?
silhouette in the hemlock
Here is how it appears in my chapbook:
My bottle filled with mountain runoff
chills me suddenly new
to old skin. The uphill ache sets in.
Snow fell the winter
to be twenty. Its melt I ford
these decades later.
Time for a breather—
on polished stones.
The rest makes me cold. I set
stones in a ring and spill through these woods
for their bounty of kindling.
Where else to warm my heart but at
the campfire story it's my turn to tell—
silhouette in the hemlock all ears.
From its publication in the 2008 spring/summer edition of Frogpond to its chapbook publication three years later, there is no substantive change to this haibun/poem. The lines of the poem closely track the sentences of the prose, and the lines of the two haiku retain their mid- and end-positions, though now they are presented as lines of poetry. In its present form, "Birthday Hike" would not be recognized as a haibun or published in a haibun journal, even though in content and wording it is virtually identical to the haibun that was published. Sometimes we judge a form by what it looks like. But ultimately it doesn't matter whether a journal will or will not publish a haibun variant. The important thing is what the practice of writing haibun can bring to writing of all kinds, including poetry and fiction. I am now at work on a novel. My writing is very scrappy. I get only phrases and fragments and have to string them together into sentences. This is how I write a haibun, up close rather than in overview. And this is why breaking the sentences of my haibun into lines of poetry does not feel as if I am taking the sentences apart so much as arranging them in a way that more accurately reflects how they came to me.
Having a stand-alone book is a delight. For both haibun and poetry, the ratio of opportunity to practitioner is dismal. There are certainly more books of poetry than there are books of haibun, but there are also a lot more poets than haijin. Rewriting haibun as poems is not a way to improve the odds. In my case it was simply a way to improve the end result. But this has to do with my haibun in particular, and not haibun in general.
Most poetry books and chapbooks are published by independent or university presses, often through annual competitions judged by guest poets. My manuscript won the Apprentice House Chapbook Award and was published in affiliation with Loyola University in Baltimore. Design, layout and marketing were handled by students in their communications department, while the manuscript itself was selected by a credentialed poet (NEA fellowship, two full-length books, various prizes and awards). She cited the following lines for the blurb on the outside back cover:
Some times of day don't show themselves direct.
They're just reflected on
the surface, skittish
moments slinking down to drink, rippling
indistinct the instant
that we see them.
Those lines are adapted from "Slant," a short haibun (four sentences in a single paragraph) published in Frogpond in 2008. The adaptation involves line break only—not a single word is changed. This holds true for the rest of the haibun and the concluding haiku as well. With this single difference of line break vs. paragraph, "Slant" provides the perfect example for comparing prose haibun (at least the kind I write) with a linear poem.
Some times of day don't show themselves direct. They're just
reflected on the surface, skittish moments slinking down to drink,
rippling indistinct the instant that we see them.
Certainly the prose captures the image, actually an imagined image or metaphor likening moments in our lives to some form of wildlife. What the line breaks add is a separate reading of the individual lines. In isolation, the lines bring an overlay of meaning to the sentence. They're just reflected on suggests the definition of "think, ponder, or meditate." Not until we drop down to the next line do we read this as a mirrored reflection. And in that line—the surface, skittish—we think at first that the instability lies on the flat pool of superficial reality, and we read it this way not just for the pause of a line break, but for the extra length of a stanza break. Then, in the next stanza, we have the line, indistinct the instant, and now we have a sense that the instant itself, the instant of realization, is uncertain. But as we drop down one more stanza we have the completed sentence and the completed thought: the moments are indistinct the instant that we see them. We can have our realizations and understanding, our insights when we actually see clearly, but they are ephemeral. Our perception of phenomena (the moment) and our insight of understanding (the instant) are the same.
It takes attentive reading to pick up on the nuance of line break, an ability to read both the sentence as it is unfolding and the individual parts of the sentence as they are laid out in their lines. The form works because the linear breaks themselves predispose the reader to give them a closer reading than might be given to prose. But even if a reader's explication falls short of the poet's full intent, the line breaks can still deliver the mystery of the poem. That's part of the magic. We don't necessarily have to understand how it works.
A shorter version of this article appeared in Green Fuse News (January 2011) titled "Prose as a Catalyst to the Poem."