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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 7, Number 3, September 2013

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Melissa Allen
Madison, Wisconsin, USA


On Jeffrey Woodward’s Evening in the Plaza: Haibun & Haiku

Evening in the Plaza: Haibun & Haiku by Jeffrey Woodward. Detroit, MI: Tournesol Books, 2013. Paperback, 92 pp. $12.95 USD, £8.50 UK, €10.00. ISBN: 978-0615834757.

Writing a review of a book of haibun by Jeffrey Woodward is a daunting task because of the very prominent role Woodward has played in the recent renaissance of the haibun genre. As the founder of Haibun Today, Woodward vastly expanded the publication market for haibun, wrote many thoughtful and enlightening articles about the genre and published the writings of many others on the subject, and provided invaluable editing and mentoring for numerous writers (including myself) as they developed their haibun-writing muscles. It’s no exaggeration to say that the landscape of English-language haibun would be far duller without Woodward’s presence, even if he had never written a single haibun himself. But he has written many over the years, and now a large portion of these are gathered in one place, allowing us to survey his achievement as a practitioner rather than a proponent of the genre.

Woodward has said that, “Haibun, after all, is a form of poetry, not of journalism,” and has described his haibun as typically “exhibiting the bare skeleton of a narrative only while lavishing attention upon prose cadence and disguised rhymes, upon repetition, assonance, consonance, alliteration and other efficient features that determine verbal rhythm and harmony.”i Indeed, these pieces are lush and rhythmic, often to the point where they almost tempt one to begin scanning them for poetic meter. Woodward uses poetic devices, particularly repetition, effectively to reinforce and enlarge the message of his prose. In “Dust Upon Dust,” three paragraphs of prose each start with the phrase “Day beginning,” allowing the day to begin again and again, insinuating, perhaps, the back-and-forth fluttering of the monarch butterfly that makes an appearance both at the end of the prose and in the haiku. In “Time with the Heron,” likewise, the repeated phrase “Time will allow” gives a sense of the extended meditation of the solitary fisherman described in the piece.

Perhaps as a result of Woodward’s interest in shaping his haibun as poetry, in most of these haibun, the diction is heightened, even elegant, with a sturdy, at times esoteric vocabulary: very clearly, the voice of a highly educated and intellectual person. This voice, I feel, is more effective with some of Woodward’s subject matter than with others. The range of subjects is vast in this volume, incidentally, straying widely across the fields of literature, history, and natural history. There are references to ancient and medieval literature (both Western and Japanese), to classical music and art, to the sacred literature and traditions of both Christianity and Buddhism—and also to the wilder, more lonely parts of United States history (the Donner party, the Dust Bowl), to rough-hewn workers in the outdoors, and to the natural world itself—often its darker and foreboding aspects, like storms and birds of prey. (The breadth of Woodward’s interests and the vastness of his canvas gives this book something of the feeling of a kasen renku, with its deliberate sweep through multiple aspects of the natural and civilized worlds and across the seasons.)

In haibun like “Institute of Arts,” a first-person account of a visit to an art museum, full of name-dropped cultural references, Woodward’s elegant style is entirely congruent:

Whenever I visit the Detroit Institute of Arts, when I tire of taxing my mind and my eyes with contemplation of Cezanne’s portrait of his wife, Hortense, or Botticelli’s Resurrected Christ, or even the rather grandiosely didactic but celebrated Detroit Industry mural by Diego Rivera . . .

And, in “Following the Brush,” a character sketch of the ancient Chinese calligraphers Wang Xizhi and Zhang Zhi, it seems entirely natural to read sentences like, “Who, even if blessed with long life, uncommon talent and leisure to study diligently, might ever rival the free brushwork of Zhang Zhi?”

In other haibun, this style sometimes seems unnatural and unnecessarily distances the reader from the subject matter. “Shorty” is a stream-of-consciousness account of a summer in the remote past when the narrator worked in a country sawmill alongside the title character. The narrative technique would seem to be making an attempt to conjure up the mindset of the narrator as he was at the time—much younger and presumably less sophisticated—and yet the vocabulary and rhythms of the language are not really noticeably different than in other haibun where the narrator / observer is clearly the older and more eloquent man:

. . . parallel rows of corn inscribing the shortest distance between any two given points acre upon acre so irredeemably flat as to tempt neither carpenter’s nor mason’s level the equidistant straight lines a formal study in perspective their deep affinity drawing them into an intimacy that gradually but definitively invoked a proof for that ancient theorem all is one . . .

As the piece moves on, the focus shifts toward describing Shorty; an attempt is obviously being made to understand and explain this man whose background and mindset are very different from the narrator’s, but the fact that we never actually hear Shorty’s voice or anything resembling it keeps us at a distance from him. This seems all the more regrettable because in several haibun, Woodward shows that he has a keen ear for the rhythms of other people’s speech and a facility for reproducing them effectively on the page. In “Big Sandy,” a Prohibition-era moonshiner advises his grandson,

Best watch your step in those hollows, son, and up those ridges . . . a bit of copper lining’s all the white lightning boys left but their kin up there hacking, hanging grass for a cash-crop, they don’t favor strangers . . . and those copperheads, they’re everywhere, long and thick.

The piece I found most affecting in this book is “The Sweet Wild Grass.” It narrates the encounter of a “gang of boys, on a hot midsummer day” with a funeral party in the cemetery the gang is using as a gathering place. It’s a simple story, deceptively simple, like the best haiku, told in quiet but well-crafted language. The tone is noticeably different from the ironically distant tone of many of the other haibun in the book. The encounter—perhaps their first one with the trappings of death?—is clearly one that has an obscure emotional impact on all the boys and that they will remember for the rest of their lives. But we see and feel this through the boys’ actions, rather than being told it. And the concluding haiku, also deceptively simple, reverberates more powerfully in the reader’s mind the more she reads it:

going quietly
into the deep
grass of summer

I and some other lesser poets might have thoughtlessly broken L2 after “grass” rather than “deep,” but Woodward’s lineation is clearly the more powerful one, setting up multiple readings, both physical and metaphysical. In general, Woodward’s approach to the haiku in his haibun is minimalist. He is not trying to construct the most impressive haiku possible or to draw more attention to them than the prose; he is trying to balance prose and poetry, which is a wise approach when your prose is so poetical to begin with. That being said, several of the haiku in this collection memorably enlarge the meaning and effect of their haibun, acting on them, in my mind, like the focusing feature on a camera; suddenly the entire picture is clearer, brighter, more worth looking at. Among these haiku is the poem in “Parade,” a simple description of a few of the colorful participants in an impromptu street procession, which might not otherwise linger long in the mind:

a squeezebox—
that’s where it begins,
the spring wind

In “Questions for the Flowers,” the poet-narrator’s lengthy and somewhat abstruse meditations on religious symbolism, art, prestige, come to a clear and stunning conclusion with the haiku:

a crumpled paper
on the writing desk,
my chrysanthemum

And the somewhat frivolous-toned prose of “Garden Party,” with its slightly mocking descriptions of middle-aged ladies who lunch, is given both increased seriousness and greater satirical punch by its haiku:

counterclockwise—
the courtship of four or five
white butterflies

Most of the five sections of Evening in the Plaza end with a few pages of stand-alone haiku. Although Woodward’s haiku are well worth reading, I wasn’t sure that this juxtaposition was well-advised. After reading so many haibun, it’s oddly difficult to bring one’s attention to bear on a single poem without imagining or longing for some kind of narrative to accompany it. I couldn’t help wondering whether some of these haiku were the phantom limbs of haibun, their prose having been deemed wanting and chopped mercilessly away:

two chairs
with one table in common—
a winter evening

the walking stick
the stick of a man
walking on

51 cards
in the deck
summer rain

Despite some quibbles, overall, this is a deep, rich collection of poetry. It’s Woodward’s response, I suspect, to a problem he noted in an essay as he launched Haibun Today in 2007:

Haibun is richly varied, by its foremost practitioners, in matter and technique but paradoxically Lilliputian in character when this achievement is measured against what appears to be its inexhaustible promise.

Haibun is terra incognita—vast and only marginally explored.ii

In Evening in the Plaza, Woodward has vastly expanded the territory explored by English-language haibun and has also, one hopes, enlarged its literary reputation. All of us who hope for and work towards the continuing improvement and expansion of haibun as an English-language genre can be grateful for his efforts both as editor and artist.


Notes
i Jeffrey Woodward, interviewed by Ray Rasmussen in “Terra Incognita—The World of Haibun and Tanka Prose, An Interview with Jeffrey Woodward.” Contemporary Haibun Online 5.4, December 2009.
ii Jeffrey Woodward, “Haibun Today? And Your Point Would Be . . . ?Haibun Today, 11/22/2007.

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