Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
The Role of Modeling in Haibun Composition
What a good thing Adam had—when he said a good thing, he knew nobody had said it before.
When I first became interested in writing haibun, I followed the editors’ advice on their submission pages: I read the published haibun and tried to understand what made them work. And as I read I collected favourites—haibun that touched me deeply. After several years, I had my own body of published work and wanted to expand my range of style and subjects. I decided to try modeling the work of other writers—that is, borrowing the structure of their writing to produce a haibun similar in style, but with my own content. To do so I returned to the favourites I had collected. If someone’s poetry moved me, it likely spoke to important experiences in my own life’s journey and should serve as a suitable model.
I. Using Haibun for Modeling
I selected Bashō’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (1) because I had never given it a deep reading and because it’s so often cited both as an exemplar and origin of the genre. I chose the passage "Hiraizumi" (2) about the demise of the Fujiwara clan because in it I recognized themes akin to my own experiences in recent travels in the Southwestern United States. To prepare, I wrote a critique analyzing Bashō’s structure (3) and then penned a haibun entitled “Slickhorn Canyon”(4) which used my own content. One haiku employed a phrase from Bashō’s haiku “summer grasses / all that remains / of a warrior’s dreams” (as translated by Lucien Stryk) and I closed with a personal statement akin to the one he closed with: “I sat down on my hat and wept bitterly till I almost forgot time.”
Here, in this remote, twisted canyon, countless generations of Anasazi lived. One thousand years ago, they faced a 100-year drought, and lost out to it. It's likely that some farmers became nomads, raiding the produce of others who had struggled on; likely there were skirmishes in which one family battled another for survival.
scattered pot shards
all that remains
of a nameless family
I rest in an alcove's shade near crumbling walls of stone and mud located high on a sandstone cliff. Ghostlike handprints are painted above the doorway. Below is the wash whose intermittent waters fed their small plot. Where corn and squash once grew, there's nothing but cactus.
I listen to the wind whispering, imagine it's them speaking of their failing crops while eating a scant evening meal. I don't know who these tears are for.
on the sandy wash
Writing the critique and haibun helped me to identify with Bashō's journey through Japan. The plight of the Fujiwara Clan and the Anasazi people is one that has been repeated throughout our war-inclined and disaster-prone human history. After writing it, I felt as if I had had a deep conversation with a traveling monk who loved to write poetry.
Modeling doesn’t necessitate following an entire structure as I attempted to do with Basho’s piece. One of the favourites that I had gathered was Paul Conneally’s “Around the Rhubarb.” (5)
Around The Rhubarb
I miss them the rag-and-bone men of my childhood. Taking things out to them to be rewarded not with money but perhaps a balloon. In my head a green balloon although I know it wasn't always so. The smell of the horse and the wonderment when it chose to peacefully urinate outside the house. My grandmother's house. The steam.
I dig-in some fresh manure
around the rhubarb
I was particularly taken by Conneally’s introductory phrase, “I miss them . . .” and that he used this phrase as a gateway to a memory piece. The extreme leanness of his prose also attracted my attention. As moderator of the World Haiku Club’s haibun forum, I remember Paul recommending that haibun prose be stripped down to the bare bones. I asked myself, what might I write after that evocative phrase (I miss them . . .) and can I create a very lean prose piece? I subsequently penned “Warmth.”(6)
I miss them, my daughters when they were young. Reading The Hobbit in wintertime, snuggled in close, bodies and fire keeping us warm, rewarded with their pleas . . . just one more page. I've nearly forgotten my reluctance to pick up the book in the first place.
I don't remember being read to, but when I was sick, my mother sang lullabies while tucking me deep under the covers, only my nose and ears sticking out. I remember the melodies, but not the words.
I place more wood
on the campfire
Since the content was mine, I thought the piece was sufficiently unique to warrant submitting it. Of course, I mentioned that it was influenced by Conneally’s work and that I had borrowed a phrase that he used to open his piece.
II. Using Free Verse Poetry for Modeling
I next decided to explore modeling based on free verse poetry but written as haibun. I also wanted to explore the work of earlier period Asian poets and selected one of Tu Fu’s poems. (7)
Oxen and sheep were brought back down
Long ago, and bramble gates closed. Over
Mountains and rivers, far from my old garden,
A windswept moon rises into clear night.
Springs trickle down dark cliffs, and autumn
Dew fills ridgeline grasses. My hair seems
Whiter in lamplight. The flame flickers
Good fortune over and over—and for what?
Tu Fu’s piece again reminded me of Utah’s long-abandoned sandstone canyons and I penned my own “Day’s End.” (8) In this case, I employed a haiku containing phrases from Tu Fu’s closing lines: “good fortune over and over—and for what?”
Oceans once filled this arid land and then receded, leaving deposits of salt and layers of hardened sand.
Tonight a wolf moon rises left of Orion. My tent sits where the Anasazi grew crops. Their stone shelters look as if they were built yesterday, empty but for the occasional pack rat or black widow. Painted handprints float like ghosts above entryways. Pottery shards and corn cobs are scattered about.
Here and there, in meandering canyons and sandstone pinnacles, I find springs too small to nourish the Old Ones. I’ve brought food and shelter with me. All this sufficient to sustain one man.
in my silvered hair
good fortune, and for what?
I was also interested in modeling the free verse of contemporary poets. I selected William Stafford’s “A Certain Bend” (9) because its focus was on his relationship with his father and I had been wanting to pen a haibun about my father.
A Certain Bend
A certain bend in the road, swayed willows
beyond a fence, and a flat farmyard
waiting—we come around and that instant
freezes: years later I remember.
Why? Why did a lifetime pass, two wars,
a family move and scatter, the country
skid where it is—and only now
that scene return? I put my teacup
down to hold it all steady. Was that
the day I became the person I am?
Father, you should have held my face
in your hands and stared into my eyes. That farmyard
or one like it could be ours, in Kansas, or
Alaska, or anywhere. You would be there
now, I would hold out my hand
for whatever came, and the willows would bend
still in that picture we saw that day.
Stafford’s poem focused on an early event with his father, the ensuing years passing with but limited contact, and a ‘might-have-taken-place’ conversation with his father in Stafford’s later life. My modeled piece is “The Moonlit Trail” (10).
The Moonlit Trail
The moonlit trail curves through a stand of scrub oak. A wicker creel slaps at my side, and dried leaves crunch underfoot, as I, proudly carrying my first fishing pole, follow along behind my father.
At the lakeside, I catch minnows with a makeshift net. My father baits the hooks and casts the lines far out into the blue-black stillness. Eagerly I watch the tip of my pole, waiting for a fish to strike, then settle into the silence of the night.
As the years pass that silence grows into a great wall between my father and me. Recently, I heard myself saying to a friend about him, "Not more than 20 words ever passed between us."
Tonight, as I stand beside him, strapped into his hospital bed, he is consumed by dementia. He ruptures the silence with a rant against the nurses, his family, and against me, his son.
I think of that night long ago, of the quiet outdoors man who loved fishing. I want to go back to the lakeside, place my hand gently around the man's shoulders and say, "Speak to your son, speak to him before it's too late."
the sound of a splash—
the moon's reflection
Another modeling experiment with free verse was Ted Kooser's poem, "Selecting a Reader.” (11)
First, I would have her be beautiful,
and walking carefully up on my poetry
at the loneliest moment of an afternoon,
her hair still damp at the neck
from washing it. She should be wearing
a raincoat, an old one, dirty
from not having money enough for the cleaners.
She will take out her glasses, and there
in the bookstore, she will thumb
over my poems, then put the book back
up on its shelf. She will say to herself,
"For that kind of money, I can get
my raincoat cleaned." And she will.
Kooser’s poem appealed to me because having one’s writing published often feels to me like casting a bottle with a note into the ocean. There’s no way of knowing whether it will ever wash up to shore, much less be found and read.
So why not, I thought, a fantasy piece about my readers. Unlike Koozer, I focused my piece, “My Reader” (12) as a story about my partner. I didn’t attempt Koozer’s delightful touch of humour.
My reader . . .
will be in a meadow, feeling a bit daring, barefoot, wearing just a pair of shorts (for now), making daisy chains, one to weave into her silver-streaked curls, the other to drape like a necklace to cover (just partly) her still sweet bosom. She won’t mind having gone a bit grey and she’s set aside this day for herself—a celebration of sorts for having gotten beyond the empty nest and her ex who’s living with someone much younger. This is a time for good memories and to dream of things she’d like to do—a time to hold the day in her hands. A picnic is spread on a blanket patterned after one of my favourite songs, (13) with pastel turtle doves woven into shades of red and blue. The basket holds a bottle of Cabernet, a loaf of farmer’s 7-grain, a wedge of aged gouda, and an apple cut into thin slices. She’ll pour, swirl, inhale the bouquet and sip, then lay back, drift with clouds, feel the sun’s warmth, all things long absent from her life. she’d open a poetry book to one of my poems, read it, then read it twice more, and say to herself, “Oh! . . . I’d like to hear him read this.”
in a Navajo rug
III. Using an Essay for Modeling
As final example, I had been exploring Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writing and I strongly identified with the content of his passage “Outside.” (14)
My house stands on low land, with limited outlook, and on the skirt of the village. But I go with my friend to the shore of our little river, and with one stroke of the paddle I leave the village politics and personalities . . . behind, and pass into a delicate realm of sunset and moonlight, too bright almost for . . . man to enter without noviciate and probation.
Emerson’s passage took me to my own sense of alienation from my immediate neighbors and the solo walks I regularly take in a river ravine near my home. I modeled the passage and penned “Outsider” (15).
My house is located on the edge of town. For the most part, the neighbors and I leave one another alone or merely nod hello as we pass. But at election time, signs promoting the party I detest appear on their lawns, bringing an economic philosophy and style of politics I don’t respect to my door. At other times, there’s the offer of small talk—and I make myself smaller and pass on by. Still I remain, to avoid the trouble of a move and perhaps because I’d feel the outsider wherever I live.
I step out and walk to the nearby ravine, putting politics and urban turmoil behind me, and pass into a dense, canopied realm of poplars that conceal a meandering stream.
IV. Modeling: The Why of It Summarized
• One reason to model the work of others is to expand one’s subject range, for inspiration so to speak. In explaining how to write haiku, Jim Kacian suggests “You'll know it when inspiration strikes. Something moves you in a way that it hasn't before, or you see something in a light you've never before considered. It sticks in your mind's eye, and insists that you look at it. It's knotting, clotting, taking shape. All you have to do is attend to it.” (16) In similar vein, if someone’s writing has touched you there’s likely to be something important for you personally in it and if you attend to it, it can become the subject of a haibun just as a fresh experience can.
• A second reason is to increase ones range of style options. I think that our initial attempts at writing haibun prose are modeled on the practices we’ve experienced in novels, short stories, free verse, flash fiction, and so on. In short, we are already using the work of others as models. But such spontaneous intuitive modeling has limits. In my own case, my initial approach to writing was expanded each time I tried to structure my work in the way the writers of my favourites structured theirs. This rationale for modeling is inherent in the profusion of ‘How to Write” articles and books. When a “How To” book explains the importance of the opening lines of a prose piece or of a title and shows good and bad examples drawn from various greats and not so greats, they are inviting us to model the styles used in those works.
• A third reason is that by going beyond a surface reading of other writers’ work and delving deeply into how they accomplished it, you will also necessarily be delving more deeply into their own expressed experience. In short, to more fully understand Bashō, it may be useful, if not essential, to do much more than simply read his work.
V. Modeling: Is Derivative Writing Somehow Wrong? Should It Be Published?
There’s no doubt in my mind that trying to imitate a successful writer can improve one’s style range. But when writing these pieces, I was particularly concerned about sending them off to an editor who might view them as mere copying. Lurking like small dark shadows within this negative mental set are common pronouncements about writing such as “It’s important to be original” and “We should write in our own authentic voices.” And lurking large is the notion that modeling is the same as copying and plagiarism. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “derivative” as “imitative of the work of another artist, writer, etc.,” and adds, “. . . and usually disapproved of for that reason.” (17)
Counter to these pronouncements is the argument that all art is derivative—that in one way or another we have all been influenced by the literary canon that preceded the impulse to pen our own words. Indeed, an admonition editors are apt to give to aspiring writers when rejecting their haibun is one that I received in my first submission to Modern Haiku: “You should read a lot more haiku and haibun.” Isn’t this a short cut for saying “Let the style of your predecessors influence you and perhaps you too will be able to pen a worthy, aka publishable, haibun?”
In this context, Cor van den Heuvel has this to offer about haiku composition: “The writing of variations on certain subjects in haiku, sometimes using the same or similar phrases (or even changing a few words of a previous haiku), is one of the most interesting challenges the genre offers a poet and can result in refreshingly different ways of ‘seeing anew’ for the reader. This is an aspect of traditional Japanese haiku which is hard for many Westerners, with their ideas of uniqueness and Romantic individualism, to accept. But some of the most original voices in haiku do not hesitate to dare seeming derivative if they see a way of reworking an ‘old’ image.”(18) Of course, this begs the question as to whether the imitative writer should attempt to have his or her piece published. In deliberately penning a derivative piece, there are three things to keep in mind. The first is that an acknowledgment should be provided so that readers and editors can understand that the piece is modeled on the work of another writer. A typical way this is done is by adding a footnote such as “After Bashō’s ‘Hiraizumi.’” The second is to “own” the piece. This is accomplished by putting your own context and sensibilities into the other writer’s structure. A third is by specifically acknowledging passages that are direct copies of the other’s work.
VI. Modeling: How to Do It
If you wish to model someone else’s work and are not feeling hampered by the idea that you are merely copycatting, there are several things that I’ve found useful.
• As you read novels, short stories, haibun, haiku, free verse, etc., build a collection of pieces that touch you deeply for whatever reason.
• Ask yourself what is happening in your experience that resonates with the writer’s story, what stands out for you? It may be that a story about the death of a parent brings to the fore the death of a sibling or parent or animal companion in your own experience. Or it may bring to mind a near brush with death. Having done so, use this experience to pen your own story.
• Examine the structure of the work and determine how the writer’s style shaped the story. What passages or phrases stood out? What tropes did the writer use? What was the balance of ‘showing’ vs ‘telling’? How did the writer open and close the piece?
1. Matsuo Bashō , The Narrow Road to the Deep North: And Other Travel Sketches, trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa, Penguin Books, 1966.
2. Matsuo Bashō, "Hiraizumi," in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa, retrieved online at terebess.hu/english/haiku/basho2.html.
3. Ray Rasmussen, Commentary: “Bashō’s ‘Hiraizumi’: A passage from The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Ono no Hosomichi),” A Hundred Gourds 1:1, December 2011.
4. Ray Rasmussen, “Slickhorn Canyon,” Haibun Today 5:4, December 2011.
5. Paul Conneally’s unpublished haibun was used with permission. He was mediator of the World Haiku Club’s haibun forum as well as Haibun Editor of the World Haiku Review and Simply Haiku. He continues to write poetry and practice his artwork in Sheffield, United Kingdom.
6. Ray Rasmussen, “Warmth,” Modern Haiku 38.2, Summer 2007.
7. Tu Fu, “Day’s End” (trans. David Hinton), from David Hinton, The Selected Poems of Tu Fu, New Directions Publishing, 1989. Tu Fu was a prominent Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty.
8. Ray Rasmussen, “Day’s End,” Modern Haibun and Tanka Prose #2, January 2009.
9. William Stafford, “A Certain Bend,” The Missouri Review 1:1, Spring 1978.
10. Ray Rasmussen, “The Moonlit Trail,” Contemporary Haibun Online 1:2, September 2005.
11. Ted Kooser, "Selecting a Reader," from Sure Signs, 1980, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pa.
12. Ray Rasmussen, “My Reader,” Frogpond, 35:2 2012.
13. The favourite song is Ian Tyson’s "Navajo Rug." (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YGGXX0o3Bu4).
14. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Outside,” from The Harvard Classics, 1909-14.
15. Ray Rasmussen, “Outsider,” Haibun Today 6:3, September 2012.
16. Jim Kacian, “How to Write Haiku,” Retrieved February 12, 2013 from the New Zealand Poetry Society Website, http://www.poetrysociety.org.nz/node/405.
17. Retrieved January 28, 2013, from The Oxford English Dictionary. http://public.oed.com/how-to-use-the-oed/glossary/
18. Cor van den Heuvel, The Haiku Anthology: Haiku and Senryu in English, New York: W.W. Norton, 1999, p. ix-x as cited in Chen-ou Liu, “Make Haibun New through the Chinese Poetic Past: Bashō's Transformation of Haikai Prose,” Simply Haiku 8:1 Summer 2010.