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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 8, Number 1, March 2014

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Ray Rasmussen
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada


On Ken Jones' "An Existential Encounter"

With the release of The Elements of Style in 1918, William Strunk Jr. became a prophet for well crafted writing:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.1

In the guidelines for submissions to Contemporary Haibun Online, Ken Jones' suggestions mirror Strunk's demanding injunction:

The most common mark of the amateur is to try too hard, with fruity, overblown writing, sinking under the weight of its adjectives. Haibun are members of the haiku family, calling for a style of prose "written in the spirit of haiku", as Makoto Ueda puts it. The sentences are often short and crisp with an easy-going flow, and may eschew the niceties of grammar to achieve this effect. Abstract ideas and opinions, and anything else that is writer-centric have no place.2

The subject of this commentary is Jones' "An Existential Encounter"3 which at 324 words is far longer than the average haibun (177 words) that appears in the current issue of Contemporary Haibun Online. Indeed, only two other writers' haibun come in at over 324 words. Thus one might suspect that Jones is not practicing the conciseness that he preaches. But bean counting isn't a good way to assess a work. Better to examine it for whether the prose is written "in the spirit of haiku," whether there's an "easy-going flow," and for its "conciseness." Here's Jones first paragraph:

It happened on one of those bright French trains which seem to have been designed to lift the heart, with that touch of art deco about them. Taking a window seat on the scenic side, at first I hardly noticed her. And then it struck me…How strange, that plastic ID tag, worn as it were a brooch. Proclaiming to the world the personnel manager of a care home somewhere in Metz.

Most haibun contain a mix of descriptive detail along with a storyline. Many shorter haibun have so much detail that, as Jones suggests, the prose tends to "sink under the weight of its adjectives," thus sinking the storyline and reader's interest along with it. The details in Jones' first paragraph have done a good job of stage setting and not sinking the ship. I'm being taken on an interesting train ride.

Overall, there's also nothing in the remaining four paragraphs where a greater economy of words is called for. I say this even when I have no trouble figuring out what might be cut from the far shorter haibun that I see on a day-to-day basis as an editor at Haibun Today. And thus this commentary allows me to focus on what has been done well, on how well Jones unfolds his story.

Billy Collins, past Poet Laureate of the United States, writes that readers crave "a mixture of clarity and mysteriousness."4 Jones' writing throughout this piece is quite clear—no lapses into obscure passages or questionable allusions. What about mystery? In the first paragraph we already have a bit of mystery: What motivates Jones' interest in her and what's this business about the woman managing a care home? Jones' second paragraph adds to the woman's mystique:

She has many other toys, but each offers her only a few minutes of distraction. "Le Monde" is glanced and soon dismissed. She plays with her iPhone a little longer, before thrusting it back into what appears to be a Vuitton handbag. Finally, with fierce concentration, she attacks the pages of a novel, pauses, and with a little sigh lifts her eyes to our window. But with a trapped, inward gaze, oblivious to the splendid scenery flying past. And, it seems, oblivious to her fellow-passenger on the other side of a narrow table.

By now we know that Jones is by no means oblivious to her. The passage contains two shifts toward the mysterious. Her "little sigh" and "trapped, inward gaze" tell us that something may be wrong. What man can resist an attractive woman's sigh? Is this an invitation to a conversation? If so, will Jones act on it? And there's the provocative last line that she's "oblivious to her fellow passenger."

It might be that Jones simply enjoys reading people as he travels in public conveyances and yet, he at least wants to be noticed by her. Social invisibility is a phenomenon known only too well by women. Consider this statement by Tira Harpaz:

It's the feeling you are no longer vital or important or noticeable to others, a constant nagging pain you can neither avoid nor forget. It hits you in areas where you feel most vulnerable—a loss of attractiveness and sex appeal, the end of fertility, a glimpse of a slow, lingering decline.5

Harpaz is a graduate of Princeton and Fordham Law, a senior attorney at a prestigious firm, the founder/owner of a company and mother of three. If she can feel invisible, anyone can. While her well-written essay hits us over the head with the theme, Jones' passage more subtly relates the "invisibility" theme as a man experiences it. Despite his sense of invisibility, like many men observing a woman, he seems compelled to take his observations to a more 'erotic' level:

And yet she clothes and presents herself without the dowdy indifference one might expect. There is an erotic stylishness about her, from the expensive French Twist hair-do down to the high-heeled court shoes. And the black skirt is rather short for une femme d'une certaine age. No detail is neglected, from the dingle-dangle earrings to the ornate finger nails.

This isn't Tira Harpaz' invisible woman—he's clearly taken with her, and she can't help but notice. Instead, he's invisible, likely older, and not the younger man that Harpaz has in her essay:

The first time I felt invisible was on a train to New York City, about nine years ago. As I eased into the end seat of a three-seat row, the 30-something man sitting in the window seat glanced up at me. It was a brief glance, but it conveyed disappointment and complete disinterest. After flinching inwardly, I made a mental list of reasons for his look that didn't involve me: Maybe he had hoped for a row to himself, or maybe he was waiting for someone he knew to sit down. But as days and years went by, I realized that the look was everywhere.6

Another step in assessing Jones' haibun relates to what Billy Collins says of his own writing strategy:

I'm trying to write poems that involve beginning at a known place, and ending up at a slightly different place.7

Jones led off in the first two paragraphs with observations anyone might make of another passenger, hinted at a romantic fantasy, and then stepped into a different place with the theme of Invisibility. In the next passages he continues with the "different":

At last the train slows. She gathers together her things. With a strangely chaste gesture, she wraps her shawl around her. I hazard a faint smile. She responds with a smile of sunshine through dark clouds. In a soft voice: "Monsieur, c'est la vie, n'est-ce pas?"

Open mouthed I watch her leave, to the announcement "Mesdames, messieurs, en quelques instants nous nous arriverons . . ."

The opportunity for sympathetic communication or flirting has passed, certainly there will be no affaire de coeur, and perhaps it was never intended. But at least an attractive woman has noticed him noticing her. She returns his smile which he likens to a burst of "sunshine through dark clouds."

Jones is taking us two places. Her comment, "This is life," invites an exploration of what she might mean in the context of the prose. Perhaps she's simply happy to have been noticed and regrets that she can't offer the same level of interest in return. But perhaps Jones' wants us to consider the existential question: "What is the meaning of life?" The announcement, "We have arrived," suggest that we consider where we've arrived. The answer comes through the closing haiku taking us a poignant step further, a reflection on his day:

Love and dread
thinly spread
to spice the day

By "love" he means that sensual spark between a man and woman. But what is dreaded? Is it the fear of making an approach and being rejected, or simply of not being acknowledged as an actor on life's stage? Both men and women receive invisibility signals of increasing intensity as they approach the end of their journeys. Harpaz spells out the signals she receives in a given day:

Invisibility is found in the small daily cuts. When the radiologist no longer asks if there's any chance you're pregnant. When the cashier at the movie theater, glancing indifferently at your gray roots, suggests you might want the senior discount (years before you might qualify). When people in the subway don't really look at you as they politely offer you a seat.8

So where have we arrived? Is a quick comment and smile from an attractive woman all it takes to spice Jones' day? Is it that at this stage of his life (and our lives), this spice of love and dread are so "thinly spread?"

Beyond my obvious enjoyment of Jones' closing haiku, what of the other two? Common pronouncements about English-language haiku are:


• A haiku should stand alone.
• A haiku is written in 17 syllables or less.
• Haiku should show and not tell.
• Most haiku contain two distinct phrases, e.g., not three phrases and not one sentence.

As for haiku in haibun,

• The haiku should not repeat words or phrases found in the prose.

And Jones has said that:

• If a haiku can be folded into the prose, that's where it belongs.9

Yet the other two haiku run 19 or 20 syllables (depending on whether you count the pauses), are like full sentences, could arguably be folded into the prose and it could be argued either way as to whether they stand alone.

With a vehement biro
she attacks the work schedule
query – delete – correct

Out of the corner of my eye
blurring the sunshine
a solitary tear

Jones is a master of both prose and haiku composition. So we might ask ourselves, what's going on?

English-language haibun writing was taken up much later than English-language haiku and the present practitioners are far fewer than haiku poets. Thus the pronouncements above likely stem from what has evolved in English-language haiku and it's reasonable to suggest that they should be applied to haiku in haibun.

However, it may be that the haiku rules might not apply to the demands of the haibun form. Jeffrey Woodward, for example, has challenged the stand alone pronouncement:

If the haiku must show autonomy, why isn't the same demand made of the prose? Why is haiku enshrined and given this prominence? Furthermore, if an individual haiku does truly "stand alone," why encumber it with prose at all?10

Neither of Jones' first two haiku repeats words found in the prior paragraph. Because they are a bit more clipped than the prose itself, both provide a pause and serve as an intensification of the feeling of what has come before. In short, lengthy and complex haibun prose is enhanced by this sort of break. Perhaps they'd also be enhanced by a 13-syllable stand alone haiku, but that's beside the point.

After reading a haibun, I like to return to the place where it begins. Most titles that I see can be thought of as a shoehorn—a simple word or phrase used to help the reader step into the writer's story.11 However, Robert Beary, Haibun Editor of Modern Haiku, thinks a title should be more than that:

In haibun, the wrong title is like a wrong number. It makes the reader want to hang up the phone. A haibun's title should be strong enough to draw the reader into the prose and make the reader want more. Let the title be a link to the prose and the haiku, not give away the rest of the piece. After reading the entire haibun, the reader should be able to look at the title and see more than one meaning.12

Does the title "An Existential Encounter" provide extra meaning? Initially the title didn't draw me in. It was Jones' reputation that did. I have an aversion to the term "existential" stemming from my college English classes. As young people without much life experience, we were made to struggle with Sartre's oblique treatises about the "existential attitude." We might ask, is the word "existential" important? Why not just "An Encounter?" Jones has aptly shared his notion of the meaning of life. The title serves as a signal for a deeper meaning to this piece and most of us readers have a good deal of life experience to draw on in relating to his existential theme. We can ask ourselves, in an otherwise meaningless world, what else is there but thinly spread moments? This is an existentialism to which I can relate.

In closing, I'd like to share these thoughts about writing commentaries. In his editorials in Haibun Today, Jeffrey Woodward has commented on the need for a critical literature on English-language haibun.

If haibun is to survive and develop as a viable genre, bibliographies, anthologies, monographs, book reviews and critical essays will play a role that is only slightly less central than the writing of haibun itself. Nor may haibun poets cast their eyes about the larger environment and blame their relative obscurity, with any justice, upon an indifferent "mainstream" literati or broader haikai community. Writers in any arena have an obligation not only to write well but to work, also, to promote that writing, to secure an audience and to improve, thereby, the odds of their art's survival.13

I've found that writing commentaries takes me further into a writer's haibun than one or two readings would. There's an intensification of appreciation and understanding. And reading commentaries on haiku and haibun, such as those provided by the editors of The Heron's Nest, helps me to learn how to read these genres. Reading haiku and haibun is, after all, an acquired skill—one that has to be worked at. And then there's this: Deconstructing a piece of fine writing leads me to feeling the want in my own writing. It's a bittersweet process, a time of love and dread.


Notes

1. William Strunk, Jr., The Elements of Style, Press of W. P. Humphrey, Geneva, N.Y., 1918. Taken on Dec 12, 2013 from Crockford's website.

2. Ken Jones, "Guidelines for Our Would-be Contributors," Contemporary Haibun Online.

3. Ken Jones, "An Existential Encounter," Haibun Today, 8:1 March 2014. 4. "Collins Values Approachable Poetry, Not Pretension," Transcript of an Interview, NPR Books Website, April 06, 2011 1:00 PM, taken from the Internet on December 8, 2013.

5. Tira Harpaz, "Women over 50 are Invisible," Salon (a website), posted Friday, April 5, 2013, taken Dec. 13, 2013.

6. Tira Harpaz, ibid.

7. Billy Collins, ibid.

8. Tira Harpaz, ibid.

9. Ken Jones, "Guidelines for Our Would-be Contributors," op. cit.

10. Jeffrey Woodward, "Thinking It Through or A Few Innocent Questions: One Relation of Haiku to Prose in Haibun," Frogpond 32:3 (2009), p. 85. Also reprinted in Haibun Today 6:2 (June 2012).

11. Ray Rasmussen, "A Title Is A Title is A Title, or Is It?—The Unexplored Role in Haibun, Frogpond 33:3 2010.

12. Roberta Beary, in "The Lost Weekend," Frogpond, Volume 34:3 2011.

13. Jeffrey Woodward, "Haibun Tomorrow? Maybe, Maybe Not." Haibun Today (March 12, 2008).


An Existential Encounter

It happened on one of those bright French trains which seem to have been designed to lift the heart, with that touch of art deco about them. Taking a window seat on the scenic side, at first I hardly noticed her. And then it struck me…How strange, that plastic ID tag, worn as if it were a brooch. Proclaiming to the world the personnel manager of a care home somewhere in Metz.

With a vehement biro
She attacks the work schedule
Query - delete - correct

She has many other toys, but each offers her only a few minutes of distraction. "Le Monde" is glanced and soon dismissed. She plays with her in-phone a little longer, before thrusting it back into what appears to be a Vuitton handbag. Finally, with fierce concentration, she attacks the pages of a novel, pauses, and with a little sigh lifts her eyes to our window. But with a trapped, inward gaze, oblivious to the splendid scenery flying past. And, it seems, oblivious to her fellow-passenger on the other side of a narrow table.

Out of the corner of my eye
Blurring the sunshine
A solitary tear

And yet she clothes and presents herself without the dowdy indifference one might expect. There is an erotic stylishness about her, from the expensive bouffant hair-do down to the high-heeled court shoes. And the black skirt is rather short for une femme d'une certaine age . . . No detail is neglected, from the dingle-dangle earrings to the ornate finger nails.

At last the train slows. She gathers together her things. With a strangely chaste gesture, she wraps her shawl around her. I hazard a faint smile. She responds with a smile of sunshine through dark clouds. In a soft voice: "Monsieur, c'est la vie, n'est-ce pas?"

Open mouthed I watch her leave, to the announcement "Mesdames, messieurs, en quelques instants nous nous arriverons . . ."

Love and dread
thinly spread
to spice the day

line

end

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