Haibun Today

A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Editor
Volume 5, Number 4, December 2011

Rich Youmans
North Falmouth, Massachusetts, USA

Depth Charges:
A Q&A with William M. Ramsey about the Art of Haibun


How would you compare the current English-language haibun being written today with the traditional examples from Basho, et al?

In that they include haiku and sometimes favor travel or excursion narrative, today's English-language haibun have some superficial resemblances to Basho's work. Basho's classic, Oku no hosomichi [roughly translated as Narrow Road to the Deep North], is really an eon apart from what is being done today.

The relevance of Basho for me is how he faced the difficulties of a new, hybrid form. My surmise is that he sensed the immense difficulty of harnessing expository prose to poetry while effecting an aesthetically coherent expression. In a haibun, two communication modes compete and somewhat resist each other, and the result of that divergence can be disaster. On one hand, prose narrative tends to carry expository freight, i.e., to be factual and information based. On the other, haiku's packed lyricism jumps suddenly into a poetic mode. This is very disruptive to readers unacquainted with haiku arts. Imagine Reubens painting women's flesh tones half in oils and half in colored pencil—two media normally occupying separate aesthetic modes and requiring separate frames (literally). When I see a contemporary haibun fail aesthetically, it's because the two frames of expression fail to coalesce into one imaginative world. It just doesn't work for chatty, newsy travel exposition to jump abruptly into a snatch of verse. It's like mixing apples and hockey pucks.

How have you attempted to achieve that "aesthetically coherent expression" in your own work?

I begin a haibun trying first to step into what I would call a "metaworld"—an imaginative, "composed" world that is about reality but not literally in and of it. It's what creative writers do in fiction, poetry, and drama, and it's different from expository communication. About half the time my topics are from personal experience, and about half the time I compose something wholly or partly fictional, with a created character and an authorial point of view regarding that character. My strategy is to write nonfiction prose as if it were imaginative fiction, creating a "world apart." Consequently, my prose has some affinity with prose poetry.

Why not just write prose poetry, then? What does the haiku add?

Well, try taking the haiku out of Narrow Road to the Deep North. The medium is the art. Haibun lovers know well the special excitement of encountering Basho's one-two punch: his gracefully evocative prose shifting into the deeply entwined, limpid beauty of his haiku—all manifested in his tightly understated yet unifying psychological resonance. I see the prose mode as a freighter on the sea, bearing its cargo of declarative sentences. I see the haiku mode as a descending submerged depth charge. Prose carries loads. Poetry bursts. Yet the explosions are subtle, nuanced, and quiet.

Only when a haibun is mediocre can its haiku be safely removed. A haibun must need its haiku. In fact, a haiku must be so organically one with the aesthetic whole that its excision would be deeply harmful—like losing an arm or leg. An arm (a haiku) and a torso (the prose) have very different functions, yet they are of one intact person.

You incorporate haiku in different ways. In "Gurdjieff, Zen, and Meher Baba" the haiku actually are part of the sentences preceding or following them. How do you decide how the haiku should be used?

This was an early haibun and for me a breakthrough one, for here I first clearly saw the issue of reconciling two competing expressive modes—the expository and the poetic. That's why the prose was written according to Hemingway—vivid sensory stuff and laconic, emotionally charged juxtaposition (an equivalent of haiku requirements). I suppose the close splicing of haiku into surrounding sentence structures was an attempt to make the two modes work together in the same imagined world; I didn't want the haiku to be disconnected, and appear like those annoying Internet pop-ups.

"Twelve Proofs" is one haibun that definitely pushes the limits of the genre; some, I imagine, might not even consider it a haibun. Describe why you chose to end with a haiku, and why "the skiff's prow / a white moth resting / as I pole" is more powerful as a haiku than a declarative sentence.

I wrote this haibun in as close a resemblance to a contemporary poem as I could make it, masking it as prose. That's pushing the limits and may take it out of the haibun genre. The whole piece is self-collapsing chaos where no order rules and logical absurdities jump by in a succession of tomfooleries.

More seriously, I think there are some power and lyricism in the final moth haiku. Here is a spot where definitely I want a shift of modes, with poetry being more, well, poetic. And declarative sentences here would be too, well, logical, when what I seek is the supra rational. Finally, there is subliminal tension between the moth's resting and the more strenuous poling, as if all human endeavors were absurd and misdirected striving. Now tell me, could all that be suggested by one meager declarative sentence?

"The Ants" has some very powerful writing. Describe specifically how the haiku "such awkward grace" and "a computer screen" add to the prose.

Grace, a theological desire, and the computer screen, a technological machine—their clash is the haibun's central tension. In a postmodern world, faith and grace are increasingly "awkward" or "unnatural." By that I mean that knowledge is now taken to be the social constructs of local groups rather than universal, transcendent, and natural verities. That is a consistent implication in much of my writing.

"The Ants" presents this condition in the parable of a postmodern Saint Benedict. What would Saint Benedict be, I wonder, if he lived today rather than in 480-547? What I am rendering here is the anxious edge of postmodern faith, not the blithe and amorphous nebulosity of zennish uplift that haiku is sometimes taken to be about.

If the "computer screen" haiku were removed the haibun would lose one of its legs. Like a computer monitor this haiku displays a virtual reality, a mere simulacrum of real ants—a mockery of the insect's "essence." The whole notion of simulacrum, of externals, without depth, is what Ben Abbott wants to repudiate. He has reached a crisis where no longer would he take more pleasure in writing code for electronic images of moving virtual ants than in stepping outside to observe the real, live things.

If the lizard haiku were removed the haibun would lose its second leg, and then it couldn't run. The desert iguana, an objective correlative for Ben Abbott, is clumsy-looking yet somehow effectual in running, i.e., it has "awkward grace." In the end, we leave Ben when he has committed at least to the theological urge for depth. You see, it's that "depth charge" again.

This interview was first published in Ascend with Care: Haibun by William M. Ramsey (Leap Press, 2003). Copies of this chapbook are still available for $8.50, including shipping/handling, from Leap Press, P.O. Box 1424, North Falmouth, MA 02556.

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