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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 8, Number 3, September 2014

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Jeff Streeby
Yucaipa, California, USA


On the structure of Guy Simser’s haibun "Winter solstice"

Introduction

Guy Simser is a Canadian poet whose work in eastern poetic forms has appeared in and has had influence on dozens of important journals and anthologies in Australia, Canada, England, India, Japan, Romania, and the USA. He has earned many honors and awards with his work, including the Diane Brebner Poetry Prize, the Carleton University Poetry Prize, the Keji Aso Senryu Prize, the Tanka Splendor Award for a Tanka Sequence, and the Hekinan (Japan) International Haiku Competition Special Prize and others. He has served as a co-chairman of the 2009 Haiku North America Conference in Ottawa and has been for several years an influential editor for GUSTS, a journal of tanka poetry. He is an acknowledged authority on Japanese poetic forms.

So what then are we to make of the unorthodox structure of the haibun “Winter solstice?” It is obvious at first glance that the work contains no prose section. What it contains instead are eight lines of apparently blank verse poetry that provide a context for the haiku to which they are perhaps even grammatically wedded.

But this unorthodoxy will immediately put off the traditionalists among his readers. Although “Winter solstice” is, rather than a haibun in a traditional sense, a blended-form poem, I contend that this characteristic does not strip the work of its identity as haibun. I argue in his favor that this poetic introduction performs the identical function of any headnote to any haiku of any master and performs the same context-forming function as the prose section of any conventional haibun. After all, what has the prose portion of any haibun (or the headnote to any haiku) to do but to shelter and to amplify its haiku?

His narrative design

Simser’s is a minimalist haibun of fewer than 100 words, and the language is poetic. This kind of treatment provides a dense, evocative environment for its haiku.

When the sun sets early and we go to bed late

when the mercury falls and our weight rises

Lines 1 and 2 are conventional scene-building exposition and offer as well the initial characterization of a conflicted speaker. Here Simser locates winter in a continental climate zone in the temperate latitudes and calls up in the reader through selection of appropriate physical details the corresponding emotional and psychological circumstances of such a winter. Simser’s characters are forced into an unnatural confinement by cold weather and this fact of existence causes predictable but unpleasant consequences.

when the skin tightens and reason lets loose


Line 3 completes the exposition’s catalog of physical details by closing out the weight gain imagery (the physical manifestation of seasonal frustration) introduced in the previous line. Simser’s use of an interesting tactic is emerging here. He is building character and plot incrementally using repetition of images that suggests a sort of anadiplosis using ideas or images rather than a conventional repetition of words or phrases. This layering allows him to insure line-to-line coherence and smooth transition from image to image. It allows him to work with the poetic weights of the images and language, too, so that he can offer in line 3 a conflict-producing psychological tension, one more plausible detail of winter. His remark that “. . . reason lets loose” contributes to a growing suspense.

when tempers shorten and body hair lengthens

In line 4 Simser completes the tension-building gesture which he began in the previous line and transforms the speaker (and all the readers who must share the “we” of the piece) into winter’s primitive creature, irrational, hairy and short-tempered.

when we fell a pine wishing for better times


Simser completes the exposition and characterization in line 5. This is the last repetition of the anaphoric “when” and supplies the last backgrounding conditions and circumstances. This line begins with the relatively violent act of cutting down the Christmas tree (a primitive pagan ritual) and moves to a brief meditation born of seasonal frustration or an even more disturbing spiritual cynicism.

and then with bacchanalian breath pray, while

bearing gifts, to witness a bright eastern star

I read lines 6 and 7 as the axis of Simser’s piece. Here he blends pagan Bacchus/Dionysus (the Greco-Roman twice-born god) of vineyards, fertility, and ecstasy with Christmas imagery to establish an interesting culturally confused or even culturally schizophrenic correspondence between the two.

we breathe in one last time in the somber void

Line 8 is the main clause of the poem’s one long periodic sentence. This line represents Simser’s first stage of resolution of the narrative arc through an attempt at erasure. This more or less anti-ecclesiastical resolution relies on diction for its effect, especially on “last time” and more especially on “somber void.” Although there are two commas in the work to control the pace of the only enjambed phrase, and although the first 5 lines are parsed in the line-breaks clause by clause, there is no end-punctuation anywhere in the work. That fact leaves the syntax open, fluid and equivocal. That means the sentence/poem might end with “void” and a notion of the last breath of a “dying god” or it might end more prosaically with “spinning.” Both endings have attractive resonances, but I argue for a stage 2 resolution at “spinning.”

the christmas tree

up and down to nowhere 

tin tinsel spinning

If we accept the entire poem as a single sentence with a slightly disjunctive syntax at the end, “we breathe in one last time” the scent of pine—the Christmas tree. Consistent with the ant-ecclesiastical coloring already noted, Simser does not capitalize Christmas; this is a tell. He has capitalized “Winter” in the title and “When” as the first word of the sentence. The last two lines complete more compellingly Simser’s "erasure through diction” with the tree, its tinsel, and its implicit message spinning into “nowhere.”

I regard this, by and large, as a very interesting minimalist narrative discharged to good effect in a more or less formalistic poetic mode. I do have to ask why it was presented in this form. I think the traditionalists would be more willing to accept it as haibun if it were presented to them in the following format:

When the sun sets early and we go to bed late, when the mercury falls and our weight rises, when the skin tightens and reason lets loose, when tempers shorten and body hair lengthens, when we fell a pine wishing for better times
and then with bacchanalian breath pray, while
bearing gifts, to witness a bright eastern star, we breathe in one last time in the somber void

the christmas tree

up and down to nowhere 

tin tinsel spinning

To justify his unorthodoxy, Simser must count on poetry to realize some aesthetic benefit that is not available through conventional haibun prose.


His syntax

The poem is one long sentence—a periodic sentence with a series of 5 introductory adverb clauses, the last one containing a compound verb with clusters of verb modifiers. The main clause is delivered in line 8 (the last line before the closing haiku) and contributes its sense-making force in retrospect to the preceding clauses. The suspense-building strategy is a function of his suspended syntax. The sentence may or may not end at the end of line 8. End punctuation, which would supply grammatical certainty in that regard, has been stripped from the sentence by design.

The two commas in the sentence pick out and mark off a prepositional phrase. Their presence within their respective lines introduces an attention-getting tactic of delay not seen before. They draw attention to themselves and draw attention and significance to the prepositional (adverbial) phrase. These two lines become important because of this difference.

I think Simser’s decision to focus reader attention on the prepositional phrase accounts for the fact that in line five “when we fell a pine wishing for better times”
he accepts a misplaced modifier rather than to restructure it and perhaps punctuate it for clarity. I can’t support his choice here to preserve the misapplication of the phrase because “when wishing for better times we fell a pine”
works as well or better.

The absence of end punctuation in the poetic version creates the haibun’s indeterminate resolution through grammatical equivocation. This quality can’t be achieved in the prose version. Punctuation must be supplied to the prose version or it can’t be read. The quality of the resolution is then something of some value achieved in the version presented by Simser that would be lost to a prose version, as would be the announcement, impossible to ignore, made through regularized line breaks that the piece is truly different from other haibun.


His rhetoric

The most conspicuous rhetorical feature of Simser’s haibun is anaphora. The patterned repetition helps him to marshal and deploy his resources of rhythm. In the case of “Winter solstice” anaphora resets to “default” the rhythm of each of these lines. This strategy allows him opportunity to tinker with the stresses of “Winter solstice” one clause at a time.

Each clause in the first four lines is also an exercise in antithesis—in each a pair of opposites that grate against each other and teeter in tense counterpoise:

When the sun sets early and we go to bed late
when the mercury falls and our weight rises
when the skin tightens and reason lets loose
when tempers shorten and body hair lengthens,

These lines teach us to look for antithesis in the next lines. We find it in the contrasted images of Bacchanalian drunkenness and the mix of pagan tradition and serious spirituality of the Christmas season:

when we fell a pine wishing for better times

and then with bacchanalian breath pray, while

bearing gifts, to witness a bright eastern star,

Both possibilities are erased in the nihilistic anti-climax of the next line: 


we breathe in one last time in the somber void

The haiku picks up again the device of antithesis:

the christmas tree

up and down to nowhere 

tin tinsel spinning

Anaphora is also part of the development of the emotional tension in the piece, giving separate focus to each set of conditions presented in each clause. Emotional tension is created incrementally by building anticipation, leaving it unsatisfied, and beginning again with “When.”

Anaphora, antithesis, and enumeration (the accumulating list of specific objects and conditions) also contribute to the climactic architecture that ultimately resolves in the main clause.


His prosody

In “Winter solstice” and in other works (see especially his reading of “Joya No Kane”), Simser pursues an accentual-syllabic strategy with roots in several pots—early Anglo-Saxon poetry, the odd Miltonian syllabics discovered by Robert Bridges in Paradise Lost, and the disjointed “sprung” rhythms of G.M. Hopkins. Simser mixes and matches these rhythm-building formulae to achieve a natural-sounding stridency appropriate to his speaker’s emotional state.

The result is that the rhythms of all lines jar and jangle against each other and against the baseline iambic pentameter of blank verse, strikingly ragged and discordant.

Line 1 is the longest line of the poem. It contains twelve syllables. In line 1 Simser offers us a choice between anapestic tetrameter, a sing-song “nursery rhyme” rhythm with four stresses, or a jarringly erratic pattern of six stresses dominated by iambic rhythm.

When the sun / sets early / and we go / to bed late

or

When the sun / sets earl / y and / we go / to bed / late

Lines 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 contain eleven syllables. Line 2 contains four stresses. Its unmistakable anapestic rhythms and terminal inversion teach us to accept the six stresses for line 1.

when the mer / cury falls / and our weight / rises

Lines 3 is the shortest line of the poem (not counting the lines of the closing haiku). It displays ten syllables with five stresses. This is the most heavily muscled line rhythmically summarizing as it does his framework for stress creation.

when the skin tightens and reason lets loose

Lines 3-7 contain invariably eleven syllables with five stresses although Simser takes care to impose a jumble and scramble of stresses on a template of natural iambic pentameter.

when tempers shorten and body hair lengthens
when we fell a pine wishing for better times

and then with bacchanalian breath pray, while

bearing gifts, to witness a bright eastern star

Line 8 arguably contains eleven syllables and seven stresses.

we breathe in one last time in the somber void

The haiku contains seven stresses in fifteen syllables.

the christmas tree

up and down to nowhere 

tin tinsel spinning

The cumulative effect of this design of rhythm structure is to act out through unpredictability the short temper of the speaker, his complicated agnosticism, and his catalog of emotional disappointments.


His diction

There are 79 words in Simser’s poem—twenty nouns, four pronouns, twelve verbs, thirteen adjectives, ten adverbs, and twenty function word (articles, conjunctions, prepositions). Of these, sixty are one-syllable words, seventeen are two-syllable words, one is a three-syllable word, and one is a five-syllable word. It is his use of so many one- and two-syllable words that allows him to achieve the ragged rhythms of this piece. Because so many of the words are so very short, the words seem to come to the reader in a rush. He turns this swift pacing to stylistic advantage by manipulating poetic stresses within each line to work against the natural rhythms of English speech to bring about the staccato effect discussed above.

Simser’s diction is simple and straightforward with only small instances of awkwardness that are the consequences of the artificial rhythms. The five-syllable word “bacchanalian” is notably uncharacteristic of the prevailing idiom and therefore draws some attention to itself, apparently by design. “Bacchanalian” represents a prominent value of the evolving tensions in the piece and as such it helps announce theme.


His theme

The poem is an expression of seasonal frustration of the speaker, which seems to be grounded in the failure of orthodox Christian religious teaching and practice to produce a recognizable benefit. He attempts to universalize his meditation through generalized references to elements of the scene, but the lack of specific details of setting makes the poetic lines too abstract and therefore a fairly weak vehicle for the effective conveyance of the weighty message.


His tone

The tone is angry and cynical but not powerfully authoritative. The ragged rhythms make the lines virtually tremble with anger and frustration, but all that goes literally “nowhere.”


His imagery

The imagery is the key to understanding his intent, I think. The imagery of the Christmas tree and bacchanalian revelry are blended and erased in a way that suggests a Yeatsian geometry. And the rhetoric of antithesis seems to confirm a Yeatsian world view as well as to suggest the eastern spiritual mechanics of balance in opposition—Yin and Yang. The Christmas tree spinning away into nowhere is a perfect metaphor of and allusion to Yeats’s core aesthetic concept of the “gyre.” And the interconnectedness of the twice-born god Bacchus/Dionysus and the twice-born Christ is a Yeatsian double gyre—an acting out of Yin-Yang. For a lucid and accessible discussion of the “gyre” in Yeats’s “A Vision” (see Neil Mann's essay). Simser’s allusion to Yeats is the most inspired and powerful organizing principle in the piece.


His music

He uses features of Anglo-Saxon poetics within and across lines—most notably (alliteration) and chiming vowels. The short e is most often used and the long i. In the last line the assonance shifts to short i and this shift in musical register and triple assonance helps to bring closure.

When the (sun sets) early and we go to bed late
when the mercury falls and our weight rises
when the skin tightens and reason (lets loose)
when tempers shorten and body hair lengthens,
when we fell a pine wishing for (better) times

and then with (bacchanalian breath) pray, while

(bearing) gifts, to witness a (bright) eastern star,

we (breathe) in one last time in the somber void

the christmas tree

up and down to nowhere 

(tin tinsel) spinning

It’s a rough music that is dominated by the requirements of Simser’s rhetoric and the demands of his imagery.


Conclusion

To give Simser’s critics their due, it can’t be successfully argued that there is no difference between poetry and prose. Prose exists primarily for exposition and poetry exists primarily for the exploration of ideas that aren’t accessible to prose treatment. And haibun prose with its unique qualities contributes to the character of traditional haibun. To give supporters of Simser’s innovation their due, the blank verse used in “Winter solstice” is prosaic enough to preserve the work’s identity as haibun. It can’t be successfully argued, Simser’s deft allusions and artful tactics notwithstanding, that the first eight lines of this piece are particularly elegant blank verse poetry. But what must be said, I think, about Simser’s work here is that by using a western poetic mode as a means of sheltering and amplifying the haiku, he has achieved a new dynamic and has produced new effects. In combining western poetic forms with eastern poetic forms, perhaps Guy Simser is exploring a unique category of mixed-form work that has yet to be named.


Winter solstice

When the sun sets early and we go to bed late
when the mercury falls and our weight rises
when the skin tightens and reason lets loose
when tempers shorten and body hair lengthens
when we fell a pine wishing for better times
and then with bacchanalian breath pray, while
bearing gifts, to witness a bright eastern star
we breathe in one last time in the somber void

the Christmas tree
up and down to nowhere
tin tinsel spinning


First published in Haibun Today V8, N1, March 2014.

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