Haibun Today
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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Editor
Volume 5, Number 2, June 2011



Bob Lucky
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

 

On Stanley Pelter's An Abundance of Gifts

An Abundance of Gifts by Stanley Pelter. Easton, Winchester, Hampshire, U.K.: George Mann Publications, 2010. 6" x 9", perfect bound, 134 pp. ISBN 9781907640056. Enquiries: Stanley Pelter, 5 School Lane, Claypole, Newark NG23 5BQ, U.K. Email: spelter23@aol.com. For members of the British Haiku Society, please enclose a cheque for 1.50 pounds; or $3, or 2 Euros for the cost of a padded envelope and postage. For the public, the price is 8 pounds + 1.50 pounds p&p.

Although Stanley Pelter's new collection of haibun, An Abundance of Gifts, is part of an ongoing series—this is the sixth in the series—I will be treating it alone, eventually. There are certain things the reader needs to know about the series. It is meant as a gift, literally, as Pelter says in the preface to the first volume, and if you like it you can share it. And if you feel inclined, you can make a donation to the British Haiku Society. Pelter is aware that most readers of his book will be in one way or another connected to some haiku group or at least interested in the form. He is obviously, and rightly so, less certain that even among that select group, many will not know much of the haibun form.

Consequently, in the introduction to volume 1, past imperfect, Pelter gives the reader some definitions of both haiku and haibun and forewarns of the breaking of rules, not to start a revolution but "to delimit parameters, raise questions, extend boundaries, and covertly glance at issues that drift about behind the shadows of acceptable consensus" (9). In volume 2, & Y Not, Pelter forcefully argues that times have changed. This is where one gets the sense of some sort of revolution stirring, partly because he raises more questions than he answers. Whenever haibun, my own, start to smell a little off, I go back and reread this introduction. One may not agree with all he says, but it makes you think, and if you're writing without thinking, or at least not thinking about what you're feeling, well, I'm not sure that's writing. To bolster his point and echo part of what he said in the introduction to volume 1, Pelter quotes Jacques Derrida on genre: "As soon as the word 'genre' is sounded, as soon as it is heard, as soon as one attempts to conceive it, a limit is drawn. And where limit is established, norms and interdictions are not far behind" (3).

As if to smooth a few ruffled feathers, Diana Noel begins her introduction to volume 3, insideoutside, by reminding the reader that "Conventionally, haibun, a genre in its own right, is a hybrid that combines the poetry of haiku with prose of at least simple language and short sentences" (1). However, only occasionally does she refer to the work in this particular volume as haibun, preferring instead to call it prose/poetry, story poem, and story. This is an important theoretical point in the series. The author and others familiar with the project are at pains to make clear what haibun is while simultaneously demonstrating how Pelter's work is enhancing that form by delimiting the parameters. Readers have to be taught or somehow learn to read genres unfamiliar to them. Haiku rarely resonate with readers unfamiliar with the form. And haibun? The often narrative and autobiographical nature of the prose can allow the reader access to the form, but do readers of Pelter's work need to know anything of haibun to appreciate them? I would say no. But to better appreciate them, yes. It's one of the many layers in his work.

John Daniel wrote the introduction to volume 4, slightly scented short lived words and roses. We are back to calling Pelter's pieces haibun but are now describing haibun as prose plus haiku and/or tanka. And this volume does include a fair number of tanka prose pieces as well as pieces that incorporate both haiku and tanka. Daniel brings up the multiplicity of definitions that writers and readers of haibun have to contend with and the thorny issue of how much allegiance the writer must show to the Japanese origins of the form, but primarily focuses on the work itself, the theme of "the ravages, lusts, loves and aspirations of the male in Western society" (2). In the introduction to volume 5, Vermeer & a stony beach, Izzy Sharpe continues this trend of focusing on the work itself, only once reminding the reader that haibun is "a definition, rule-laden genre" (2). Sharpe also addresses the visual arts aspect of Pelter's haibun, something that clearly puts his work in a unique relationship to haiku, haibun and haiga. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the visual aspects add to the uniqueness of Pelter's haibun.

Pelter has written the introduction to An Abundance of Gifts. It's a bit like a warning to the reader that the haibun within are going to be challenging. Many of Pelter's haibun are challenging, and not just those in this volume. He forces you to read differently—to read aloud so that you hear it, to tilt the page one way and then the other, to squint, to twist your lips and tongue into positions they don't often go, to focus, even to close your eyes. As he himself advises, "Underwater swimming, eyes sometimes open, sometimes not, is as good a way to approach them as any, and as with visual arts, 'messages' may be multi-layered" (2).

An innovation in this collection is a series of found prose and music haibun that the author likens to the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp. His selection of various prose (and poetry) and musical pieces, to which he adds haiku, usually, is predicated on their "propensity toward some kind of haibun vision and ethos" (1), allowing that this may distort things too much for some readers and stimulate others. The distortion will be in direct proportion to one's own haibun vision and ethos, assuming the reader has one. Personally, I found these found haibun stimulating, inspirational. I already have an idea for one; the risk is in letting the inspiration sink into poor imitation. I doubt if anyone will ever write haibun the way Pelter does, and I doubt that is what he would want. He's tearing down the walls, so to speak, and has no intentions of taking the bricks to build another.

At the far end of this distortion of vision, which is just another way of seeing, are two of the found music haibun. "Little Bird" is part of a score by Edvard Grieg (6/8 time, key of F, I believe) accompanied by four haiku, two single-spaced and two double-spaced, as well as sketches, possibly clip art, of musical instruments and a musician at the end. Now, I can only read music if I know the melody—in other words, not really. Nevertheless, the relationship between the score and the haiku seems very haibun-like to me. And when I read the haiku and look at the score, "shapes on a page/notes reform themselves/into a near bird" (42). I look at the clusters of 32nd notes rising and falling and see flocks of small birds. I get my wife out of bed to play it for me on the piano and I hear bird song—"music abstraction/makes a deflected image/trill soundalikes" (42). This is the multi-layered aspect to which Pelter refers. However, I can't access the 'messages' in "polonaise op 40 no 1," a partial score with sketches of instruments and musicians. No haiku or tanka here to help the 'reader.' Moreover, it's not grouped with the found haibun or even identified as such.

But this is part of any art experience. Not everyone is going to decode a work in the same way. In fact, sometimes the reader will find 'things' the author didn't know were there, which is why I wish Pelter hadn't in the introduction given us a run-down of "the contents and interior themes" of some of the haibun. "3 bears—or what!" is a case in point. I won't tell you what the author says it's about, but to me it's a clear indictment of the hollowness or illusion of choice in contemporary global culture. Poor Goldilocks (who doesn't appear in the haibun, by the way) would still be trying to choose a porridge if she went shopping today.

If Pelter had put Goldilocks into that haibun, chances are good she would have been having a dialog with someone, or at least an internal dialog. This is a prominent feature in Pelter's haibun and something that quickly draws the reader in. There's a little Samuel Beckett in the exchanges between characters, a little Spike Milligan, as in the following excerpt from "is nothing sacred, even?"

"What do you mean what do I mean?"
"What do you mean? What do...?"

"I mean disputatious. I mean unable for all time of time to stop even questioning questions. Have I, perhaps, got it wrong? If I have, then Moses is possibly as good a masked-up guy as anybody to ask".
"Surely you mean Moses as a metaphor, a stand-in fall guy."

"Does it matter? Just let me beg to differ."
"You really are something else."
(66)

Such dialogs occur in several of the haibun here, including "lost seal," "mostly most days," "the man who would be king," and "rumours, of course." Characters in search of meaning, you might say. I think to experience fully much of Pelter's work it pays to approach it as one would Kafka—submit to the irreality, enter the landscape and abandon the desire for meaning. Remind you a bit of reading haiku and tanka?

One of the enjoyable aspects of reading Pelter, at least for me, is indulging in 'influence spotting.' The author helps by listing many of his influences in the introduction. I'm in no way qualified or even competent enough to comment on the visual aspects of Pelter's haibun. I can point out, of course, his use of various fonts and the inclusion of portraits and what for a lack of better words might be called Rorschach-like doodles. I would blush to tell you what I sometimes see in those. Nevertheless, I sometimes see the ghost of Mervyn Peake, the late illustrator and novelist, especially in the drawing for "Notebook series—number 1" (and more so in earlier volumes than in this one). And if someone pushed me to describe Pelter's literary style, I would say he is to haibun what the Icelandic painter Erró is to painting. Both, in the consistent juxtaposition and superimposing of images, tell tales that demand to be 'read' in more than one dimension. One might argue that Pelter's haibun are a type of super-haiku. Challenging? Definitely. Rewarding? Only if you take the challenge.

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