Ajax, Ontario, Canada
What Happens in [David Cobb’s Conception of] Haibun:
A Critical Study for Readers Who Want More
What Happens in Haibun: A Critical Study of an Innovative Literary Form by David Cobb. Uxbridge, UK: Alba Publishing, 2013. UK 12/US 16/EUR 14; also available from Alba Publishing as an e-book. ISBN: 978-0957526518.
Being a reader, I love to read the haibun written by the poet David Cobb, which are crafted in a variety of subject matters, styles, and accompanied with visually and aurally appealing images. However, being a critic, I’m more interested in what kind of a study or how a study is done by a fellow critic David Cobb, according to his stated goals and thesis statement (pp. 5-7). . . . Throughout What Happens in Haibun, the critic David Cobb thinks and acts more like a literary guide who takes readers into the mind of the poet David Cobb. His vision of haibun and his set of critical skills for literary analysis are limited, and he fails to take readers to see beyond the text horizon inscribed by the poet David Cobb or to trespass the boundary prescribed by “gatekeepers” of the genre, haibun.
Renowned poet and a founding member of the British Haiku Society, David Cobb, has recently published two books, Marching with Tulips and What Happens in Haibun: A Critical Study of an Innovative Literary Form, simultaneously. The second one uses the subtitle “A Critical Study for Use in Tandem with the Haibun Collection, Marching with Tulips” on its front cover, different from the one on its inside cover, which I think is mainly for a practical as well as an advertising purpose.
Thematically speaking, What Happens in Haibun is divided into two parts; the first one consists of Introduction (pp. 5-15) and Conclusions (pp. 75-83), which provide Cobb’s reflections on the literary genre, haibun, practiced in Japan and in the West and his thoughts on the craft of haibun writing, and the second one Commentaries on Marching with Tulips (pp. 16-74), which is made up of detailed comments made by the critic David Cobb on each and every haibun included in Marching with Tulips written by the poet David Cobb.
Cobb’s study of haibun is a rather slim volume, 88 pages in total. Its main aim is to “provide useful material for newcomers to haibun, perhaps tutors of creative writing courses and their students for whom this may be a wholly new field of literature, one that blends prose and poetry, with few pointers how to meet its challenges” (p.5), and he also states that this study may “serve to concentrate some of [haibunists’s] thinking about the form, especially about the roles the haiku play in [their] haibun . . . may also be useful to editors and publishers of literary magazines, websites and anthologies, who sometimes admit they lack sufficient criteria for selecting haibun to publish” (p. 5).
To the best of my knowledge, David Cobb is the first writer in the field of English-language Japanese short form poetry to play two conflicting roles in evaluating his work: the critic and the poet. In her Contemporary Haibun Online review, 1 Naomi Beth Wakan emphasizes that:
Usually commentaries on texts are done by a variety of other writers, but in this case the commentary is by Cobb himself. This does present an unusual, rather schizoid, but strangely interesting situation in which Cobb speaks for himself in the third person, as “the writer.”
There is nothing new or unusual about this kind of writing practice. Wakan has no knowledge of commenting on one’s own work as a strategically effective way of engaging in the politics and poetics of a literary genre, such as in the case of one of the key figures of Third World Literature, Chen Yingzhen, whose harsh criticism of Chen Yingzhen, titled “A Discussion of Chen Yingzhen”, written in another penname, Xu Nancun, is a must-read for students and scholars of Third World Literature in general and modern Chinese literature in particular. 2 Most importantly, the author, David Cobb, of What Happens in Haibun, has no such understanding of this writing strategy either. In order to avoid giving readers the impression of “self-regarding and self-elevating” (p. 13), and being “liable to be a sneaking bias towards [his] own preferences” (p. 13), Cobb gives the following three reasons for why 40 (not “43” on p. 13) haibun he has chosen are his own (p. 13):
Why did I not gather together a corpus of exemplary haibun from a variety of different pens? Frankly, because I am in my “senior salad days” and did not have the stamina to seek permissions from a host of other authors (it is common knowledge that for the purpose of reviewing, the reviewer does not need to get permissions from the authors to quote their works), to engage with them in extensive correspondence about why they said this that way, and that this way (the poet’s work can speak for itself, otherwise no one can review the work by a dead poet, such as Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior); and in the process risk falling out with them if I felt I had to say something about their works that they could not accept (emphasis mine; the thinking behind this reason saddens me) .
Whether it is appropriate to be a critic of one’s own work is not at this point relevant. However, I’ll demonstrate in the following passages with scholarly references, remarks from haikai masters, and exemplary poems that Cobb’s so-called “critical study” is filled with a critic’s fragmented thoughts on the genre, misrepresentations of scholarly works on the key issues related to haibun aesthetics, and instances of misunderstanding. This lack of awareness of the importance of being a responsible and socioculturally-engaged critic contributes to his failure to achieve his goals mentioned above. Now, let’s examine the theoretical framework upon which his study of haibun is based.
Judging by the headings, which function like summary phrases / statements of the passages concerned, in Introduction and Conclusions, I can say without hesitation that Cobb’s reflections on the literary genre haibun practiced in Japan and in the West and on the craft of haibun writing are poorly organized.
The introduction is divided into 9 sections with the following headings:
• Is this study likely to be of interest to you?
• The haibun form
• The prime focus of the present study
• The Japanese experience of haibun as it has come down to us in the West
• Is haibun a derivative of haiku?
• Is there an orthodox style of haibun prose, perhaps based on that of Basho?
• Did I really mean to include senryu in my maxim?
• Sequences of composition
• About the corpus of haibun examined in this study
And Conclusions is divided into 10 sections with the following 9 headings:
• (there is no heading for his categories of the “roles” of the haiku may perform in haibun: 1 closely involved, collaborative; 2 adventitious, verging sometimes on being inessential; 3 contrapuntal, metaphorical; 4 coincidental, observations out of the corner of one’s eye; 5 reiterative, but with grace)
• Setting a scene or other context
• Interaction between title and opening haiku
• Link and shift
• Change of pace
• Matching tone
• Use of metaphor (and allegory)
• Closing out
• Excessive use of ‘adventitious’ or ‘coincidental’ haiku?
• Use of fancy (concrete) forms
Cobb’s thoughts constantly zigzag like an unpredictable snake through the grassy field of aesthetic issues or concepts without a thematic direction, and sometimes it just simply disappears into the field without any warnings, and then suddenly reemerges in another part of the field. Take, for example, the “various roles haiku may play in haibun” (p. 6), the prime focus of his study as indicated in the third heading of Introduction.
First, Cobb rightly points out that the issue regarding the interaction between haiku and prose is fundamental, and then he talks of his painful encounter with a fellow haibunist (“one with an international reputation as an excellent haibun writer and a selector and contest judge, proclaiming ‘if you have lots of good haiku, just stuff them in [the haibun]. The more, the merrier,’ ” pp. 6-7) to emphasize that the “mere presence of haiku among prose does not create a haibun . . . , they ought to justify their presence in the haibun by performing some identifiable role” (pp. 6-7). In the following very short paragraph, he states that “. . . Perhaps we might regard haiku playing a kind of on-the-side, non-purposeful but entertaining role as an unusual form of punctuation? I propose to call that kind of haiku ‘adventitious,’ using the botanical term meaning something ‘comes unexpectedly from another source.’ My thesis is that adventitious haiku may sometimes enliven a haibun, but if they are all the haibun has to offer it will usually lack sufficient cohesive fibre to impress” (p. 7). It surprises me that he ends this section abruptly with his thesis statement with no further discussion and jumps to another topic: “The Japanese experience of haibun as it has come down to us in the West.”
At the beginning of the third section under the heading, “The prime focus of the present study,” Cobb first emphasizes that “the aim of this study is to throw light on the various roles haiku may play in haibun” (emphasis mine p. 6), then he spends one paragraph to talk about his painful encounter with a fellow haibunist mentioned above, and concludes this section with the third paragraph I quoted above, where he mentions only one role (emphasis mine)—“a kind of on-the-side, non-purposeful but entertaining role as an unusual form of punctuation” (p. 7)—so-called “adventitious haiku” play. After this, he simply jumps to another topic, and never comes back to resume / further the discussion of the various roles (emphasis mine) haiku perform in haibun. After 67 pages (8 pages of Introduction and 59 pages of Commentaries on Marching with Tulips), at the beginning of the first section (with no heading) of Conclusions, Cobb presents his own study in the first-person plural with the following paragraphs that take up just one and half pages of space (pp. 75-6):
This study has yielded numerous illustrations of the diverse roles (emphasis mine) haiku may perform in haibun. We have observed that, where the vast majority of haiku in haibun are concerned, their roles fall into one of these main categories:
1 closely involved, collaborative …
2 adventitious, verging sometimes on being inessential: their link with the prose (emphasis mine) tends to be subliminal, i.e. it may not be easy for the reader to access the writer's mind and appreciate the lateral connection. They may nevertheless be entertaining and could be enough to justify their inclusion (because of its importance in Cobb’s thesis, I give a full quote here)
3 contrapuntal, metaphorical . . .
4 coincidental, observations out of the corner of one’s eye . . .
5 reiterative, but with grace . . .
These poetical yet elusive names and phrases described in his study are only briefly mentioned or explained in the following comments that appear in Commentaries on Marching with Tulips:
The second haiku is a simple extension of the preceding prose sentence . . . (p. 72)—explained in “1 closely involved, collaborative”
the link is not strong, so it appears to be a little more than "adventitious, coincidental . . . (p. 25)
the first haiku, which seemed no more than adventitious or inessential, might be making a sort of "retrospective link?" . . . (p. 29)
They might seem like responses from a chorus, with details that link but do not shift. To call them merely adventitious or punctuative would do them less than justice? . . . (p. 32)
The fourth haiku, not really seeming to link or shift, must be adventitious, or only subliminally contrapuntal . . . (p. 54)—mentioned in “2 adventitious, verging sometimes on being inessential”
The next haiku is distinctly contrapuntal, . . . (p. 51)
The fourth haiku, not really seeming to link or shift, must be adventitious, or only subliminally contrapuntal . . . (p. 54)—mentioned in “3 contrapuntal, metaphorical”
The haiku, . . . seems so close to repeating what has just been said in the prose that it is merely “reiterative” and inessential . . . (p. 56)—mentioned in “5 reiterative, but with grace . . .”
In all 59 pages of Commentaries on Marching with Tulips, there is no passage or sentence that mentions the key concept in “4 coincidental, observations out of the corner of one’s eye,” which is completely made up of Ken Jones’s words (with no page number given). This concept is also explained in the next-to-last section of Conclusions under the heading “Excessive use of ‘adventitious’ or ‘coincidental’ haiku?”
Based on their definitions and the comments quoted from Commentaries on Marching with Tulips, these five categories do not demonstrate “the diverse roles haiku may perform in haibun (p. 75), but merely reveal the relationships between the haiku and their immediately surrounding prose paragraphs. It is because the role, functional or structural, a haiku performs means its relation to the haibun, where it is embedded, as an artistic whole, not just its relationship with its immediately surrounding prose paragraph. Throughout Commentaries on Marching with Tulips, the common review pattern in Cobb’s comments on the so-called “roles” the haiku play in haibun is as follows (and the comments are italicized)
the last prose sentence placed above the haiku
the first prose sentence placed below the haiku
One of the main foci of commentaries by the critic David Cobb is related to his evaluations of the use or disuse of the link-and-shift technique employed by the poet David Cobb. Some of these evaluations are relatively thorough. I think they will be useful to beginning haibunists who are not familiar with the link-and-shift technique. However, they alone have little to do with the diverse roles, functional or structural, haiku may perform in haibun.
Most importantly, of these five categories of haiku, the category of “adventitious haiku” is supposed to be the most important, based on his own thesis: “My thesis is that adventitious haiku may sometimes enliven a haibun (emphasis mine), but if they are all the haibun has to offer it will usually lack sufficient cohesive fibre to impress” (p. 7). Based on his descriptions (pp. 7, 75) quoted above, related comments in Commentaries on Marching with Tulips (pp. 25, 29, 32, and 54) quoted above, and the relevant passages in the remaining sections of Conclusions below:
Link and shift
If the reader cannot find the link the writer intended, the haiku becomes "adventitious," an elaborate form of punctuation (emphasis mine, p. 78), . . .
Excessive use of ‘adventitious’ or ‘coincidental’ haiku? (which contains merely the following one passage) (p. 82)
In a haibun that describes a journey through space and/or time, a haiku may seem to need no further justification than the fact it was something that took the eye, ear, nose just at precise moment along the way. But haibun writers need to think of themselves as artists, not detectives or biographers. That means they enjoy poetic license to add, to leave out, to resequence events (as Basho did). Omission is often the hardest thing to do, and the result may be haiku that seem to hold up the telling of the tale rather than move it on. We aren't obliged to recount every single incident. Haibun of the "funny thing happened to me on the way to the Forum" type usually lack structure and fail to impress.
Cobb’s descriptions of “adventitious haiku” are ill-defined and the related comments or passages say literally nothing about how to support the thesis statement of his prime study. His failure is due to his misunderstanding of the function of the poet’s employment of the link-and-shift technique, which is mainly to delimit the relationship between the haiku and its immediately surrounding prose paragraph, not to prescribe the role the haiku may perform in its relation to the haibun as a artistic whole, such as that of scene-setting, context-setting, pace-changing, or tone-matching as described in the remaining sections of Conclusions, or that of tone-setting in the “Red Eagle” commentary (pp. 17-18), that of mood-changing in the “What We’ve All Been Waiting For” commentary (pp. 19-20), or the most innovative one, that of “counter voice” in the “Business in Eden” commentary (pp. 58-60), where “there are two different voices in the prose, accompanied by the haiku as a third voice, that of a cynic” (p. 58).
Before continuing my analysis of Cobb’s study, I would like to ask you to go back to the opening paragraph of Conclusions and ask yourself one important question: who are the “we” in “We have observed that, where the vast majority of haiku in haibun are concerned, their roles fall into one of these main categories” (p.75)? Strategically speaking, in writing his conclusions, the critic David Cobb uses the first-person plural to absorb the different viewpoints of individual readers into a collective opinion about his own study. As a reader, I dislike this strategic device (the sudden change in POV for a hidden purpose), and as a critic, I give you my detailed comments above to prove his failure: misunderstanding of the diverse roles haiku may perform in haibun. In the following passages, you’ll see once again he uses the same strategy in misrepresenting two important scholarly sources about the issue related to the stylistics of haibun to push his agenda: “a few bald statements about [his] own practice” (p. 9) for the purpose of offering “sufficient criteria for selecting haibun to publish” (p. 5).
In addition to failing to correctly understand the “various roles haiku may perform in haibun” (as the prime focus of his study) (p. 6) and to offer well-defined and structured material to support his thesis (that “adventitious haiku may sometimes enliven a haibun”) (p. 7), the most disappointing thing about Cobb’s so-called “critical study” is his complete misrepresentations of two key issues related to the stylistics of haibun: “haibun as a derivative of haiku” and the so-called “orthodox style of haibun prose based on that of Basho” (pp. 8-9).
When Cobb discontinues the discussion of his thesis, he not only jumps to the irrelevant topic, “The Japanese experience of haibun as it has come down to us in the West,” the fourth section of Introduction, but also changes the point of view, from “I” (individual voice to make one’s own comments) to “we” (collective voice to convey communal opinions or concerns), starting from this section, through the fifth section, “Is haibun a derivative of haiku?,” and ending at the middle of the first fourth of the sixth section, “Is there an orthodox style of haibun prose, perhaps based on that of Basho?” (pp. 7-9).
After pointing out that poets in the West had received a “very few, mainly ancient examples in translation” (p. 7), such as those of Basho’s work, as the main source for studying haibun, and that many of them “[started] by writing haiku and only later [graduated] to haibun” (p. 8), Cobb stresses that “it may be easy to fall into the way of thinking that haibun is a derivative of haiku” (p. 8). Suddenly, he shifts the focus from discussing the pitfall that many of the poets in the West might experience to expressing the communal concern that “we sense (emphasis mine) that Makoto Ueda (the scholar known for his study of Basho’s work and haiku-related literature) is thinking along these lines when he writes, ‘A haibun has the same sort of brevity and conciseness as haiku. There is a further hint when he continues, ‘Another characteristic of haibun is the extent of its dependence on imagery. Abstract, general, conceptual words are shunned in favor of concrete visual images” (p. 8).
The two quotes, both of which are not given page numbers, come from the passages regarding the stylistics of haibun (pp. 121-124) in Chapter 4, titled “Prose,” of Makoto Ueda’s well-known book Matsuo Basho. In these passages, Ueda gives an in-depth analysis of the stylistics of Basho’s haibun. He outlines the following four characteristics: the “same sort of brevity and conciseness as a haiku" (p. 121), a "deliberately ambiguous use of certain particles and verb forms in places where the conjunction ‘and’ would be used in English” (p. 122), the “extent of its dependence on imagery” (p. 122), and the “writer’s detachment” (p. 123), all of which are used to prove that “the haibun is a prose equivalent of haiku” (emphasis mine, p. 124). In terms of stylistics, what Ueda emphasizes here in Section 1, titled “The Haibun: Haiku in Prose” (pp. 113-24), is that in the context of literary Japanese prose (“to be sure, literary Japanese prose has always tended to be imagistic rather than logical in all genres”) (p. 122), a haibun is prose with a haiku spirit, the same conclusion reached by scholars such as Haruo Shirane (Traces of Dreams, p. 212) and Lawrence Rogers (p. 280). Furthermore, Ueda points out that Basho’s prose is known for “its poetic beauty” (p. 112) and “Basho’s haibun carry that [imagistic] tendency to an extreme” (p. 123), and most importantly that “for one thing, Basho apparently thought of prose and poetry as complementary, as two modes of writing serving a single aim” (p. 112). Ueda never says anything about “haibun is a derivative of haiku” (p. 8) as Cobb claims through a collective voice (“we sense that Makoto Ueda is thinking along these lines . . .”) (p. 8).
What comes after the section “Is haibun a derivative of haiku?” is another surprise: “Is there an orthodox style of haibun prose, perhaps based on that of Basho?” Under this rhetorically problematic heading, Cobb begins with the following three passages replete with glaring instances of misunderstanding and misrepresentations of his references:
Shirane 8 quotes Basho as saying that “haibun should have, in accordance with the Chinese model, an even and balanced rhythm, stressing paired words and parallel syntax.” He goes on to comment, “Basho’s new haikai prose (read for this haibun prose) was, at least in Kyorai’s opinion, graceful and gentle in expression.”
Basho urged his disciples to write haibun, not only with Chinese prose as a model, but in the spirit or style of haikai (he did not himself use the term haiku, but may have intended his karumi style of haiku which he favoured in his mature style).
Whichever translation we may prefer, we are able to see that Basho did not write consistently in a single style, but selected as appropriate to the context from a variety of styles. 9
Once again, there is no page number given to any of the quotes or references above. Cobb’s so-called “critical study” is poorly cited. And the two parenthesized statements above reveal that he is not familiar with the terminologies used in Japanese haikai literature: haikai prose means haibun (see Shirane’s General Index: “Haikai prose, see Haibun,” p. 365; “Haibun (haibun prose),” p. 364). Throughout Traces of Dreams, Shirane clearly points out that “haikai [is] . . . . Broadly used to refer to genres deriving from haikai such as the hokku [later called haiku, p.2], haiku, renku, haibun, haikai-related travel accounts and narrowly used to refer to haikai linked verse” (p. 294). Cobb’s misunderstanding of haikai-related terms is also revealed in the 10th statement of his “few bald statements about [his] own practice (p. 9): “In the unlikely event of being asked for a maxim, I shall not say that haibun should be written in the spirit and style of haikai. I might say, in the spirit and style of English haiku and English senryu” (p. 10). Historically and aesthetically speaking, based on the broad definition of haikai Shirane describes above, which is also adopted by other scholars, such as Peipei Qiu, 3 Cobb’s statement doesn’t make any sense.
In the beginning of Chapter 8, titled “Remapping the Past: Narrow Road to the Interior,” Shirane emphasizes that Basho wrote haikai prose throughout his life but “consciously strove to develop haibun or prose with a haikai spirit” only shortly after his journey to Oku (p. 212), and that he began to use the word haibun after the journey, which first appeared in his 1690 letter to his disciple Kyorai (p. 212). And there is no textual evidence or scholarly reference offered by Cobb to support his own claim that “[Basho] may have intended his karumi style of haiku which he favoured in his mature style” (p. 9); most importantly, according to his own description given in Glossary of Japanese Terms (p. 84), Cobb misunderstands what the karumi style really is, which will be fully explained below in the passages regarding misunderstood Japanese literary terms.
The second quote (with no note given) in the opening paragraph comes first (p. 216), and its meaning should be understood in the context of the stylistic comparisons between Saikaku’s and Basho’s work: “In contrast to Saikaku’s haibun, which combined classical prose and vernacular Japanese but which Basho considered coarse or vulgar in both content and expression, Basho’s new haikai prose was, at least in Kyorai’s opinion, graceful and gentle in expression, it had the flow of classical prose even as it incorporated the words and rhythms of vernacular Japanese and Chinese” (p. 216). And the first quote should also be understood in the context of the stylistic comparisons between classical poetry or classical prose and Basho’s haibun: “In contrast to classical poetry or classical prose, which was based on an alternating 5/7 syllabic rhythm, haibun should have, in accordance with the Chinese model, an even or (not “and” in Cobb’s quote) balanced rhythm (such as 4/4, 6/6) (this part omitted by Cobb), stressing paired words and parallel syntax, as in the following passage on the Tsubo Stone Inscription (Tsubo no ishibumi) in Narrow Road to the Interior” (pp. 217-8). This Chinese-influenced style (Six Dynasties parallel prose, “p’ien-wen”) is just one of the Chinese models explored by Basho. Most importantly, the thesis statement of Shirane’s in-depth analysis of Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior is clearly written at the beginning of Chapter 8: “Basho remapped the cultural landscape of the Interior, or the northern region of Japan, through haibun, or haikai prose, a new genre that combined, in unprecedented fashion, Chinese prose genres, Japanese classical prototypes, and vernacular language and subject matter, thereby bringing together at least three major cultural axes . . . Oku no hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Interior), which may best be understood as an attempt to reveal the different possibilities of haibun in the form of travel literature” (emphasis mine, p. 212). Shirane never says anything about or hints at the so-called “orthodox style of haibun prose based on that of Basho” (p. 9) as Cobb claims.
Read in the context of Basho’s attempt to “reveal the different possibilities of haibun in the form of travel literature” (p. 212), the first quote above merely indicates the first stop of Basho’s journey into this literary territory: new haibun, not old haikai prose. As his journey continues, the Chinese model in the quote evolves into models: a variety of different Chinese expository genres, “among them, rhapsody (fu), preface (hsu, J. jo), eulogy (sung, J. sho), record (chi, J. ki), biography (chuan, J. den), essay (wen, J.bun), treatise (lun, J. ron), inscription (pei, J. ishibumi), encomium (tsan, J. san), admonitions (chen, J. shin), lamentation (tiao-wen, J. chobun)—which became models for many of Basho’s haibun, including travel diaries” (p. 219). And most importantly, Basho’s creatively interweaving Chinese poetic motifs and stylistic techniques with haikai humor, and vernacular or classical Japanese transformed old haikai prose into new haibun (pp. 213-23). As Shirane emphasizes at the end of the first section, titled “Haikai Prose,” of Chapter 8, “the end result is that the reader journeys from one type of language and prose genre to another, exploring the diverse possibilities of haibun” (p. 223).
Strategically speaking, Cobb first reverses the order, chronological and logical, of the two quotes from Shirane’s Chapter 8, then uses the second paragraph to enhance the reader’s impression of Basho’s “orthodox style of haibun prose” as perceived by Shirane, and finally in the third paragraph, he offers the scholarly support for the textual evidence from Donald Keene as indicated in his note 9, which is the same conclusion reached by Shirane. And at the beginning of the following paragraph, the fourth of the section, he cries out that “No! Don’t let’s go any further down that winding path. After some thirty drafts arguing this way and that what relevance Basho’s dicta might still have for us, 300 years and a totally different culture later, I give up” (p. 9). After this crying out, the first-person singular is resumed, and through a “rather symbolic act” (he “went out into the garden . . . clipped twenty yards of overgrown hedge . . . [he] came in again”) (p.9), he offers “a few bald statements about [his] own practices” (p. 9), the aim of which is “to make haibun prose and haiku companionable, responsive to each other like bedfellows, and not to reduce both to any kind of common denominator” (p. 11).
Strategically speaking, Cobb first uses the first-person plural to misrepresent Ueda’s and Shirane’s studies of Basho’s haibun, especially of the stylistics of the prose of haibun, then he resumes his first-person singular to offer 10 statements about his own writing practice, which reveals his true agenda, one that is at least intended for one of his goals: offering “sufficient criteria for selecting haibun to publish” (p. 5). Most importantly, in his statements (pp. 9-11), he discusses only the stylistics of the prose of haibun, and shows no interest in exploring any structural aspect of a haibun, such as the different placements of haiku and prose paragraphs that can have influences on the quality of a haibun as discussed in Jeffrey Woodward’s thoughtful essay, titled “Form in Haibun: An Outline,” 4 and none of these statements mentions the possibilities of using different types of prose or any mixture of them in an innovative way as Basho did in Narrow Road to the Interior. As a critic, David Cobb fails to take readers beyond the text horizon inscribed by the poet David Cobb as clearly indicated not only by his own statement—a “few bald statements about my (the poet’s) own practices” (p. 9)—but also by my comments mentioned above.
Now, before my review of Cobb’s Commentaries on Marching with Tulips, I think the first and foremost important thing is to understand his view of haibun. At the beginning of the second section, “The Haibun form,” of Introduction, he states that “a haibun is a confection (possibly poetic or some other unusual style of prose) that has haiku built into it or around it” (p. 5), and also emphasizes in his lengthy note 2 that “until we have some solid achievements to show in the way of haibun containing haiku, we are well advised not to be distracted by a minor and inferior variant” (p. 14). This description shows his narrow view of haibun, compared with that of haibun included in the first important collection of haibun, Fuzoku Monzen, edited by Morikawa Kyoriku, 5 Basho's gifted disciple, and that of haibun conveyed by Woodward in his above-mentioned essay. Furthermore, Cobb uses the metaphor of a box of matches to describe the relationship between prose and haiku: the prose is the box while the haiku are the matchsticks (p. 5). This metaphor clearly indicates that “[just] as a matchbox needs its matches to make fire, a haibun needs one or more haiku to ignite it” (p. 6), and also that the “excellence of a haibun depends on the quality of the friction” (p. 6) between the prose (the matchbox) and the haiku (the matchsticks).
Cobb’s metaphor of a box of matches for a haibun is unsatisfactory, focusing mainly on the relationship (“friction”) between the haiku and its immediately surrounding prose, and most importantly, in his ill-conceived metaphor, Cobb treats the prose containing one or more prose paragraphs and the haiku containing one or more haiku as homogeneous entities, paying little attention to the relationships between prose paragraphs or between haiku, and to the functional or structural roles that the haiku may perform in haibun. This means if a haibun contains three haiku, Cobb’s commentary usually has three paragraphs for evaluating every “friction” between the haiku and its immediately surrounding prose as indicated in the following italicized manner:
the last prose sentence placed above the haiku
the first prose sentence placed below the haiku
The main criteria for his evaluation is first to decide if the poet David Cobb uses the link-and-shift technique, and then to tell the reader the effectiveness of the employment of this technique. In addition to these evaluations of frictions between the prose and the haiku, he sometimes gives brief comments on stylistics of the haibun with an emphasis on the employment of sound devices that add to the aural appeal:
Below is a good example of what readers may expect in Commentaries on Marching with Tulips:
At the Rec
lee side of the fence
of the frost
Onlookers huddle at the end of the pitch where they think most goals will be scored. Shuffle from foot to foot in their muddy boots and tread falen leaves deeper into the mud. From time to time, through the fog, the wraith of greasy football and shouts of "Pass! For fart's sake, pass!"
A heavier thud and the ball skitters across the goal line and on through a gap in the net. One of the spectators, stiff in the legs, sets off to fetch it from a bush, wipes off the dog muck.
Thin chants of support, muffled clapping of woolen gloves, sucking of humbugs, first in one flushed cheeck then the other, a spasm of yellow coughing . . .
. . . on the touchline
a fresh gob of catarrah
(Marching with Tulips, pp. 27-8)
"At the Rec"
The two haiku in this rather grimly humorous short haibun (a little like a Lowry sketch?) are simply juxtaposed: they "link" but they don't "shift." The first haiku has a strong kigo (season word) "frost," and would just survive on its own, but needs help from the subsequent prose to make the location of the fence more precise.
lee side of the fence
of the frost
. . . at the end of the pitch
The second haiku, which ends the haibun, is predicated by the line of prose before it, and might easily be "folded back in;" yet it seems to gain something by its isolation in three-line form.
. . . sucking of humbugs, . . . a spasm of yellow coughing
. . . on the touchline
a fresh gob of catarrah
The alliteration of goal and gob is in keeping with the vulgar imagery in the prose (frost, mud, gap in the net, dog muck, humbug).
(What Happens in Haibun, p. 35)
Once again, the concluding comment reveals Cobb is not well-versed in literary terms. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, “alliteration (head rhyme; initial rhyme) [is] the repetition of the same sounds—usually initial consonants of words or of stressed syllables—in any sequence of neighbouring words: ‘Landscape-lover, lord of language’ (Tennyson)” (p.8).
Structurally speaking, “At the Rec” is close to what Woodward terms a verse envelope, where the prose is sandwiched between two haiku. As Woodward emphasizes in his essay mentioned above, “a careful reading must account for the further complication of how the opening and closing haiku relate not only to the prose, but also to one another.” But Cobb says nothing about the relationship between the haiku. Functionally speaking, in relation to this “rather grimly humorous short haibun,” what kind of roles, such as theme / tone / mood-setting / changing, do these two haiku perform? Again, he says nothing. The first and foremost important thing in the mind of the critic David Cobb is first to find out the relationship between the haiku and its immediately surrounding prose paragraph, one that is prescribed by the poet David Cobb, and then evaluate its quality. Therefore, it’s no wonder that there is no comment on the possible relationships established between the haibun through theme, imagery, setting, . . . etc.
Generally speaking, throughout Commentaries on Marching with Tulips, the critic David Cobb seldom challenges the poet David Cobb to see his haibun from an aesthetically different angle; furthermore, in the cases of the poet’s “untraditional haibun,” such as “Holiday Affairs” below, the critic seems to be too reluctant to help readers, including editors (“gatekeepers” of the genre) to envision a different horizon, one that is not prescribed by the mainstream haibun aesthetics.
Room is very white in every part. Perfectly proportioned. Breathes conditioned air.
I am a torso braised by too much sun. Torpid. Buttered with lotion.
Room and I are sharing a day of rest, a day out of the sun, the third of our holiday together. Now we are doing a crossword. Under her cool breath Room supplies the answer to three-down. "Pervading atmosphere of a place." Ambience. of Course, my dear.
This success gets us on to swapping words in the different languages we speak. Room's is Italian (with a Sicilian twang) and she tells me her real name is Camera. Surely not a paparazzo, up there with an Olympus in the soffits? Tomorrow on page 2 of The Peeping Sun?
I rub my big toe along one of her four legs, stroke her white coverlet and plump up her pillows.
on the veranda
(Marching with Tulips, p.30)
Personification of a hotel room—difficult to follow with a haiku. Perhaps a fatally flawed concept from the outset, whimsy taken too far? Its haiku does "shift" us forwards in time, and out from the hotel room onto a veranda; and the protagonist's lecherous eye wanders from a bed to a chair—a different personification. Does the rhythmical effect of erotic rocking compensate at all for the general facetiousness of the piece?
I rub my big toe along one of her [Room's] four legs, stroke her . . .
on the veranda
(What Happens in Haibun, p. 37)
In Glossary of Japanese Terms, Cobb claims that “haibun . . . .[includes], at least in the West, . . . “[haibun] stories,” 6 which may be either anecdotal and imaginary, or a blend of both fact and fiction” (p. 83). Then, what’s the problem with the use of personification if he asks the reader to take off his / her old-fashioned pair of “shasei” (“realist”) glasses when reading this Felliniesque haibun with a psychological bent. By asking a timid yet technical question, he fails to challenge readers to broaden their view / stretch their imagination of the poetics of haibun. Under the oppressive gaze of the shasei regime, it is no wonder that my haibun below, which is more radical than “Holiday Affairs,” has been rejected time and time again for its unrealistic or fanciful characterization.
And the Spring Will Come
He can write in English, states the dog-eared Chinese-English dictionary on the coffee-stained desk. A German Shepherd lives with him, says the attic wall with an old map of Taiwan on it. But he can't stand Canadian food, observes a line of jars of salted bamboo shoots. Except food, everything looks OK, they say in unison.
of this morning . . .
Another failure of Cobb is that he mentions several times the “interesting feature” of the haibun, the use of different tenses, especially exemplified in “Vapour Trails.” “The reader may find it interesting to compare the more varied use of tenses in Vapour Trails, where use of present tense alone would not have been possible” (p. 44). However, this technique has been employed many times by contemporary haibunists. There is nothing new about this “interesting feature.” The main problem with the critic David Cobb is that he fails again to take readers beyond the text horizon inscribed by the poet David Cobb. Throughout What Happens in Haibun, he never “thinks big” to further challenge readers to stretch their imagination to think about something more “radical,” as shown in my haibun below, than just the use of different tenses:
Confucius Said, at Forty I Had No More Doubts 7
Every day and night, I ask myself what if? Whether things might have been different or better. If anything more could have come of it. But I died four days before my 40th birthday, on a moonless night.
distant sirens . . .
across the winter sky
a shooting star
The “interesting features” of my haibun are not only the more varied use of tenses, but also its “radical use” of POV and dedication, in which “劉鎮歐” is my Chinese name. In my view, the effectively combined use of different tenses, POVs, dedications, headnotes, and footnotes can have a great chance to transform haibun into an “innovative literary form” (p. 1) as indicated in the subtitle of the book.
Basically speaking, the critic David Cobb puts some effort into the art of titling. There is one section in Conclusions dealing with the interaction between title and opening haiku. Again, it’s mainly because the poet David Cobb wrote several haibun, such as “An End, a Beginning” and "Picnicking with Boudicca," where there is marked interaction between title and first haiku (p. 77). However, in the second paragraph of the section, he makes some good points about titling: "I believe, though, there are many occasions when the title of a haibun can (and should) challenge the reader with something more intriguing than facts about time and space. Allusions to other works are one possibility (like the title of my haibun above, “Confucius Said, at Forty I Had No More Doubts”). Ideal titles are those that gather extra meaning as the piece progresses (I concur!) (pp. 77-78). For his, relatively speaking, detailed comments on titling, see “What We’ve All Been Waiting For,” (p. 20), “Boundaries” (p. 26), and “An End, a Beginning” (pp. 32-3) commentaries. For more information on the art of titling, see my “To the Lighthouse” post, titled “The Art of Titling,” accessed at http://goo.gl/7dQQZb
There is something unusual about What Happens in Haibun. In this slim book (88 pages in total, including 5 pages of the information regarding copyright, acknowledgement, contents, etc.), there are 3.3 pages (pp. 83-86) or 4% of the text, dedicated to a glossary of Japanese terms, some of which are given a relatively lengthy description situated in the different contexts, Japanese and Western (mainly Anglo-American). This shows that David Cobb places a special emphasis on the functional role of a glossary of literary terms: a touchstone for important aesthetic concepts and ideals. This unusual feature of his book maybe is intended to partially achieve one of his goals: to “provide useful material for newcomers to haibun, perhaps tutors of creative writing courses and their students for whom this may be a wholly new field of literature” (p. 5).
However, of his 21 Japanese literary terms, five—“haibun,” “karumi,” “nikki,” “senryu,” and “zappai”—are seriously misunderstood. For example:
karumi Often translated as “lightness,” but not in the sense we use “light” in “light verse.” Rather it seeks the ability to deal with “weighty” subjects with philosophical detachment; not be “weighed down” by them. Treating good fortune and disaster the same (p. 84)
I do not know how or where Cobb got his idea of karumi that “it seeks the ability to deal with ‘weighty’ subjects with philosophical detachment “ (p. 84) because he does not offer any sort of textual evidence or scholarly reference. According to Basho scholar Haruo Shirane, in his last years Basho experimented with the karumi (lightness) style that "stressed everyday common life, contemporary language and rhythm, and avoided heavy conceptualization or allusions to the past" (Shirane, Early Modern Japanese Literature, p. 201), and for Basho, this salient characteristic of Japanese art meant "a return to everyday subject matter and diction, a deliberate avoidance of abstraction and poetic posturing, and relaxed, rhythmical, seemingly artless expression” (Shirane, Traces of Dreams, p. 26). And according to Christopher Drake, in terms of the linkage technique, “Basho's late notion of karumi or lightness, which refers more to linking than to verse content, is still based on a preference for relatively distant links and an exclusion of verbally dense verses” (Drake, p. 57). In the forward to Betsuzashiki ("Shomon Renku"), Basho considered this quality of "lightness" to be "like seeing a shallow sandy-bedded brook. The shape of the verse, the very heart of the linkage, both are light and refreshing." 8 Below are two of Basho’s hokku written in the karumi style that have nothing do with “‘weighty’ subjects with philosophical detachment” (p. 84):
under the tree
soup, fish salad, and all—
in the plum blossom scent
the sun pops up—
a mountain path
The first hokku is the first recognized poem written in the karumi style, the opening verse of a 1690 kasen written at a blossom-viewing party at Ueno (Ueda, Basho and His Interpreters, p. 286), and the second poem is the opening verse of one of Basho’s last haikai sequences that demonstrate the karumi style, "Plum Blossom Scent" ("Ume ga Ka"), composed with Yaba in Edo (Shirane, Early Modern Japanese Literature, p. 201). For detailed comments, see my “Poetic Musings” posts, “Basho’s First Hokku in the Karumi Style,” which can be accessed at http://goo.gl/W4spi and “Plum Blossom Scent, A Haikai Sequence in the Karumi Style by Basho and Yaba,” which can be accessed at http://goo.gl/73A3DG
zappai 1 A joky Japanese verse superficially resembling haiku, but intended to display wit or sentiment, possibly meant as an adage or aphorism. 2 A similar verse in a Western language and shunned by the “informed” haiku poet. Also known as “spam haiku,” though writers of these are usually sticklers for 5-7-5 (p. 86)
Cobb’s description is in the spirit of the 2004 Haiku Society of America (HSA) definition. 9 This is an “inappropriate and culturally offensive” representation of zappai, according to Richard Gilbert and Shinjuku Rollingstone’s 2005 point-by-point rebuttal essay, titled “The Distinct Brilliance of Zappai: and the Need to Reconsider Its HSA Definition.” 10 In their insightful essay, Gilbert and Rollingstone emphasize that “the linking of zappai to such writings as spam-ku and headline haiku in English is inappropriate and culturally offensive, as zappai has evolved directly out of the ancient haikai tradition. . . . and importantly, survives as a contemporary literary form of cultural expression, with composition groups, competitions, etc.” For more information about the socio-aesthetically contextualized understanding of the literary genre, zappai, see the “Zappai and Senryu” entry of The Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan composed by Japanese scholars. A three-page excerpt of this entry can be found in Gilbert’s Poems of Consciousness, pp. 244-7. For more information about other misunderstood terms, see my “To the Lighthouse” post, titled “Misunderstood Japanese Literary Terms,” which can be accessed at http://goo.gl/SIEEdP
Finally, being a reader, I love to read the haibun written by the poet David Cobb, which are crafted in a variety of subject matters, styles, and accompanied with visually and aurally appealing images. However, being a critic, I’m more interested in what kind of a study or how a study is done by a fellow critic David Cobb, according to his stated goals and thesis statement (pp. 5-7). Based on my thematic and textual analysis of David Cobb’s study, What Happens in Haibun: A Critical Study of an Innovative Literary Form is poorly structured and cited, and most importantly, infused with instances of misunderstanding and misrepresentation of his literary references to push his own agenda. One of the main problems with his study is that according to his stated reasons, which are completely unsatisfactory to me, he is never conscious of the need to assume the role of being a responsible and socioculturally engaged critic to help building a healthy poetry community, which consists of attentive readers, aspiring poets and thoughtful critics. Throughout What Happens in Haibun, the critic David Cobb thinks and acts more like a literary guide who takes readers into the mind of the poet David Cobb. His vision of haibun and his set of critical skills for literary analysis are limited, and he fails to take readers to see beyond the text horizon inscribed by the poet David Cobb or to trespass the boundary prescribed by “gatekeepers” of the genre, haibun.
Cobb’s real life story about the “painful” encounter with a fellow haibunist mentioned above is a hard lesson more about our community. If this haibunist, who proclaimed that “if you have lots of good haiku, just stuff them in [the haibun]. The more, the merrier” (p. 7), a flawed view of the interaction between haiku and prose as clearly pointed out by Cobb, really meant what he or she said, how come he or she could win “an international reputation as an excellent haibun writer and a selector and contest judge” (p. 7)? In my view, it is mainly because the poets and editors around this haibunist didn’t tell the truth about his / her flawed view for the same reason as the one stated in Cobb’s third reason for choosing his own haibun examined in his study. If this situation continues to be manifest in book reviews or commentaries published in haibun journals, then it can be expected that haibun will continue to be a minor genre, read and written by a small group of enthusiasts who read and write reviews for each other’s work.
1. Contemporary Haibun Online, 9:2, July 2013, accessed at http://goo.gl/56FhqP
2. Born in 1936, Chen Yingzhen (陳映真), is a Taiwanese author. Since the 1980s, he has been viewed by many as "Taiwan's greatest author", according to Jeffrey C. Kinkley's famous 1990 essay, titled "From Oppression to Dependency: Two Stages in the Fiction of Chen Yingzhen," which was published in Modern China, 16:3, pp. 243-68, and which now can be accessed at http://goo.gl/hHcfj3 For further discussion on Chen's work, see Cissy Sze Sze Yee, Chen Yingzhen’s Fiction and the May Fourth Literary Tradition, MA Thesis, University of British Columbia, accessed at http://goo.gl/gOwIEw For more information about Chen’s view of the Third Word, see, Chen Yingzhen and Liu Petrus, “What the ‘Third World’ Means to Me,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 6:4, December 2005, pp. 535-540.
3. Broadly speaking, it is used to “describe genres deriving from haikai or reflecting haikai spirit, such as haiku, haibun, renku, and haikai kikobun, literary travel account”. Peipei Qiu, Basho and the Dao: The Zhuangzi and the Transformation of Haikai, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005, p. 200.
4. Haibun Today, 4:4, December 2010, accessed at http://goo.gl/3BqXaJ
5. Donald Keene, World within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867, pp. 142-3. There are two haibun with no haiku, "Huzi no hu/Prose Poem on Huzi" by Matukura Ranran and "Minomusi no setu/On the Mantle-Grub" by Yamaguti Sodoo, written in the hu/"prose poem" and setu/"essay or monograph" styles respectively, included in Selections from Japanese Literature: 12th to 19th Centuries edited by F. J. Daniels, pp. 52, 146-149. For more information, see my “To the Lighthouse" post, titled "Haibun Myth," accessed at http://goo.gl/Kei7jY
6. I changed "haiku stories" to "haibun stories." It's because I couldn't find "haiku stories" in any of haibun-related articles/books. Therefore, I think it's a typo. As for "haibun stories," see Ken Jones's "Writing Reality: Fictional Haibun Stories," which was published in Contemporary Haibun Online, 3:3, September 2007, http://goo.gl/vY43Q0
7. The title comes from Chapter II of The Analects, one of the foundational texts of Confucianism: At fifteen my heart was set on learning; at thirty I stood firm; at forty I had no more doubts; at fifty I knew the will of heaven; at sixty my ear was obedient; at seventy I could follow my heart's desire without overstepping the boundaries of what was right. Confucius's retrospection of his own life has been the model for the Chinese people for more than 2500 years.
8. Accessed at http://goo.gl/yFjFMh
9. The 2004 HSA valuation of zappai states: Many so-called "haiku" in English are really senryu. Others, such as "Spam-ku" and "headline haiku", seem like recent additions to an old Japanese category, zappai, miscellaneous amusements in doggerel verse (usually written in 5-7-5) with little or no literary value. Some call the products of these recent fads "pseudohaiku" to make clear that they are not haiku at all.
10. Simply Haiku, 3:1, Spring 2005, accessed at http://goo.gl/DSI6I5 The essay argues for the removal of the term zappai from the 2004 Haiku Society of America definitions of both haiku and senryu.
Chris Baldick, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, Oxford University Press, 2012
Donald Keene, World within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.
Richard Gilbert, Poem of Consciousness: Contemporary Japanese and English Language Haiku in Cross-Cultural Perspective, Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2008
Peipei Qiu, Basho and the Dao: The Zhuangzi and the Transformation of Haikai, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005,
Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998.
----, ed., Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, 1600-1900, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002
Makoto Ueda, Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary. Stanford University Press, 1995.
----. Matsuo Basho, Twayne Publishers, 1970.
Christopher Drake, “The Collision of Traditions in Saikaku's Haikai,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 52:1, June, 1992, p. 5-75.
Lawrence Rogers, "Rags and Tatters: The Uzuragoromo of Yokoi Yayu," Monumenta Nipponica, 34:3, Autumn 1979, pp. 279-291.