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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 8, Number 4, December 2014

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Ray Rasmussen
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada


Harriot West and Minimalist Haibun

Writing is not an exercise in excision,
it's a journey into sound.

                   —E. B. White

It's likely that most haibun poets consider their craft to be, in part, "an exercise in excision." Indeed, isn't haibun prose generally crafted to be haikai-like, and don't most haibun contain far fewer words than other literary genres including that other emergent genre, flash fiction?

Given this, it's odd that the term "minimalist haibun" appears from time to time in the haibun literature, as if most haibun aren't a form of minimalist prose coupled with the world's shortest poetry form, haiku. Yet, some haibun are thought to be more minimal than others.

Harriot West's published haibun, some of which will soon be released as a collection in her book Into the Light, are among the shortest and yet most compelling I've encountered in the haiku-genre journals, and I think of them as minimalist. They're short but, of course, there's more to it than that.

It's also likely that most haibunists want their pieces to read like "a journey into sound," that is, as prose with some poetic and even musical zest. And so I thought it worthwhile to explore several of West's haibun to consider what she's done with very few words to create that zest. The three I've selected have different storylines which permits the conclusion that it's not just the theme or story that counts.

Maybe

he's looking at me but I can't be sure. I feign interest in the drummer's solo, slide my index finger down the inside of my lover's arm.

candlelight
the horn player's
swollen lips

*

The Way Things Were

There she is on eBay—the doll mother never let me have—poor Barbie, dismissed in the house where I grew up as cheap, not for the plastic she was made of but for her perky in-your-face breasts.

sepia shadows
a young girl tugs
at her tee shirt

*

What Matters

You call to say your husband is dying. "He has lost the will to live." After a pause, you apologize for the cliché. I'm unsure what to say. People die every day—it's hardly worth the effort to put his struggle into fresh language. Rather save your strength for the constant changing of sheets, the preparation of small meals left uneaten, endless phone calls from well-meaning friends, and the gentle swabbing of his parched lips.

after the funeral
slowly rolling socks
into pairs

The issues to be covered are whether shortness and succinctness are the defining characteristic of minimalist work and whether such minimal work can have the aural/poetic quality suggested in White's aphorism. In addition, I'll explore some of the more frequently mentioned characteristics of haibun composition to see what it is that makes West's poems sing.

1. Short and Succinct

Numerous writers have stated that haibun prose should be short with just enough text to convey the writer's intent. Consider as examples the following terms: "terse" (Paul Conneally), "brief and concise" (Jim Norton), "short and crisp" (Ken Jones), "economical in wording" (W.F. Owen).1 Shortness might be defined by the number of words and, as some have suggested, the length of sentences.

West's "Maybe" has 34 words; "The Way Things Were," 52; and "What Matters," 84. Contrast these with a recent issue of Haibun Today (8:1) where 48 haibun average 166 words and Contemporary Haibun Online (9:4) where 67 haibun average 141 words. "Maybe" with 34 words would be the shortest piece published in either issue.

A passage by Ken Jones emphasizes both shortness and succinctness by discussing how best to avoid being long-winded:

The most common mark of the amateur is to try too hard, with fruity, overblown writing, sinking under the weight of its adjectives . . . . (Haibun) 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. If you want to write about love or any other such emotion, then the feeling needs to be expressed in appropriate imagery drawn from experience and not by simply expressing your thoughts about the matter or by creating a fictional romance story (emphasis mine).2

To be clear, Jones isn't calling for short word counts. His own haibun are among the longest in the same two issues (209 and 335 words).

With respect to short and crisp sentences, two of West's are relatively long coming in at 30 or more words. And some very good haibun fall into a stream of consciousness style with very long sentences. Surely long sentences can be crisp with an easy-going flow. Consider this passage from "What Matters":

Rather save your strength for the constant changing of sheets, the preparation of small meals left uneaten, endless phone calls from well-meaning friends, and the gentle swabbing of his parched lips.

I can't think of anything in this paragraph that I'd cut. Would you, for example, cut "constant," "small," "endless," "well-meaning" or "gentle"? Or would you cut any of the phrases? Or would you replace the commas with periods to shorten the sentences? My answer is no to all of them. This said despite the fact that with a full 90% of the submissions I've received as an editor, I could easily have suggested one or more significant cuts and I often recommended breaking up overlong sentences to create a better flow. And I've seen and received comments by other editors on my own work to the effect, "Cut this by 50% and I'll consider it."

If a short word count and crispness of style are defining characteristics of minimalist haibun, then West's pieces certainly fit the bill. What else makes her work so effective?

2. The Aural Aspect of Poetry: Journey into Sound

Haibun prose has also been described as more than short and succinct, for example, as a "short prose poem."3 Indeed, while many of the above terms used to describe haibun seem to focus solely on shortness and succinctness, it's taken for granted that a haibun must also be well written, if not poetic. Even common definitions of these terms indicate that more is needed than brevity. For example, terse is defined in Merriam-Webster Online as "the quality or state of being marked by or using only few words to convey much meaning (emphasis mine)" and prose poetry has been defined as prose plus, that is, prose that contains some or all of a focus on images, instances of poetic meter, language play such as repetition, and image driven metaphors and similes.4

Thus, the call is not just for shortness, but also for shortness with narrative quality or even poetic flair.

The emphasis on succinctness in modern writing was established early on by the book, Elements of Style, which has been called, "The little book that has done more to shape writing in the English language than any other guide in modern times." In it Strunk wrote:

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 (emphasis mine).5

It's important to keep in mind that Strunk's later co-author in the "no unnecessary words" police force is E.B. White, one of the best short story writers of his generation. White evidently felt differently about what sounds like an imperative to cut, cut, cut. Here's a letter White wrote to a reader inquiring about his thoughts on the matter:

Dear Mr. –
     It comes down to the meaning of 'needless.' Often a word can be removed without destroying the structure of a sentence, but that does not necessarily mean that the word is needless or that the sentence has gained by its removal.
     If you were to put a narrow construction on the word 'needless,' you would have to remove tens of thousands of words from Shakespeare, who seldom said anything in six words that could be said in twenty. Writing is not an exercise in excision, it's a journey into sound (emphasis mine). How about 'tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow'? One tomorrow would suffice, but it's the other two that have made the thing immortal.
     Thank you, thank you, thank you for your letter.
Yrs,
E. B. White6

"Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" is the beginning of one of the most famous passage in Shakespeare's works. When Macbeth learns of Lady Macbeth's death, he delivers it as his response. The soliloquy is a prime example of poetry as music, as an aural as well as visual experience. Try reading it aloud to get the gist of White's usage of "journey into sound":

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

It's been noted that when most people think of poetry, the first things that come to mind are sound and meter. Indeed, for thousands of years, poetic form has been defined by its cadence, its song-like rhythms, and its sound effects.7 Consider this first stanza from Kipling's "Mandalay" where rhyme and repetition serve to make the poem aural, even when read silently, and almost like a song when read aloud.

By the old Moulmein Pagoda,
lookin' eastward to the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin',
and I know she thinks o' me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees,
and the temple-bells they say:
"Come you back, you British soldier;
come you back to Mandalay!"
          Come you back to Mandalay,
          Where the old Flotilla lay:
          Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin'
          from Rangoon to Mandalay?
          On the road to Mandalay,
          Where the flyin'-fishes play,
          An' the dawn comes up like thunder
          outer China 'crost the Bay!

Jeffrey Woodward has suggested that published haibun may be roughly divided into two types:

I offer narrative and lyric . . . as two common tendencies in haibun—the poet's focus, on the one hand, upon an event or action and the poet's interest, on the other hand, in the aesthetic properties of the language proper.8

I think it's safe to say that most haibun poets use a rather straightforward narrative style with little attention to poetic devices. But haibun prose, at its lyrical best as practiced only by a few, tends to be more like free-verse poetry. As Woodward suggests, various poetic devices are used to make the words more than a simple narrative. These include repetition, assonance, consonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia, accent and pause. In a commentary, for example, I explored Woodward's conscious use of repetition to create a lyrical feel. His "Time with the Heron"9 surely is what White meant by "a journey into sound."

Does West's work have an aural quality via poetic techniques? In a private correspondence, Jeffrey Woodward offers this take on West's three haibun:

There's some alliteration and assonance in "The Way Things Were," e.g., eBay/Barbie/breasts, plastic/perky, tugs/tee shirt (alliteration) while the long /e/ of she/cheap in the prose forms a significant link to sepia/tee shirt in the haiku (assonance).

"What Matters" has the concealed rhyme of cliché—say—day that binds together sentences 3, 4 and 5. It also has the grammatical parallelism of

Rather save your strength for the constant changing of sheets, the preparation of small meals left uneaten, endless phone calls from well-meaning friends, and the gentle swabbing of his parched lips.

where we have the implied anaphora of "Rather save your strength for . . ." that links the four clauses. That structure is so common in prose, however, that many readers may be deaf to its music.10

Yet as I read West's haibun both silently and aloud, it strikes me that it's more the well-crafted succinctness and easygoing flow that make her work sing.

Perhaps, as Paul Conneally puts it, if haibun poets do a sufficient job of the basics, their work will also resonate:

I favor haibun where the prose element is 'haikai' in style—terse, imagistic—often with elements of shortened syntax leading to some phrase and fragment type phrasing . . . 11

3. Reporting from Experience: Honesty and Disclosure

Beyond the potential of achieving an aural quality through haikai-like phrasing, there are other aspects of West's work that lend insight to why her minimal pieces work so well. Paul Conneally writes:

Many believe that all haikai writing should be of, from and about direct experience—well yes—but more than anything I feel it should be about honesty—and this does not mean that there is no room for fiction or empathetic writing—but that all such writing should strive for an honesty of feeling—feeling that comes directly from a linking with the writer's own experiences both directly with the external world that we all inhabit and their internal world, the world of emotion, thought and yes, dreams.12

As a starting point, consider fiction, defined in the Oxford Online Dictionary as "literature that tells stories which are imagined by the writer." Of course, most writing, even published haibun which on balance dwell in the non-fiction camp, is modified from factual reality in order to avoid overwhelming readers with detail and, thus, keep them engaged. Unlike other literary genres, most haibun tend to contain narrative accounts of experiences the writers have had in the recent or distant past. If haiku is about a moment of time, a haibun is about an experience over time, even one linking past and present, real or dreamt. These might include travel journals, nature walks, conversations, small events, something read or seen in a film, remembered dreams, fantasy, and inner (unspoken) mental dialogues. And, of course, recently there has been a trend toward haibun prose that is clearly fiction.

In all three haibun, West uses imagery drawn from experience—or at least her stories read as if they are related to real events and people she's encountered. In "What Matters," she both provides reportage about a telephone conversation and presents her unspoken inner dialogue about how the situation should be handled. I've taken the liberty of putting the reportage in plain text and the inner dialogue (or what Conneally calls descriptions of the writer's "internal world, the world of emotion and thought") in italics:

You call to say your husband is dying. "He has lost the will to live." After a pause, you apologize for the cliché. I'm unsure what to say. People die every day—it's hardly worth the effort to put his struggle into fresh language. Rather save your strength for the constant changing of sheets, the preparation of small meals left uneaten, endless phone calls from well-meaning friends, and the gentle swabbing of his parched lips.

West's "Maybe", presented below as a series of phrases, fits Conneally's key characteristics. It contains 1) a series of shortened phrases, 2) in the present tense, 3) that are well linked and 4) are about a personal experience. These work together to create a sense of "being there" for the reader.

Maybe

he's looking at me
but I can't be sure.

I feign interest
in the drummer's solo,
slide my index finger
down the inside
of my lover's arm.

candlelight
the horn player's
swollen lips

4. Clarity and Ambiguity

Billy Collins, past Poet Laureate of the United States, writes that readers crave "a mixture of clarity and mysteriousness."13 We want clarity about what is happening in the story and the sense that it's a complete story. Yet we also need a sense of ambiguity following the adage that a writer shouldn't tell all, that room should be left for readers to relate the story to their own experiences. Canadian author Lisa Moore expands on this:

Stories never belong to the author who happens to write them down, they are also the creation of each individual reader. I sometimes imagine stories and novels are like the transparent film of soap that coats a child's bubble wand—and the breath that blows it into a bubble, is the breath of the reader. The reader's imagination gives a story shape and substance. It is a private and secret bubble of experience belonging solely to the reader, lasting for as long as the reading of the book lasts, ending with the turn of the final page, when the bubble bursts, and the 'real' world becomes solid again.14

Ernest Hemingway, who was known for short, declarative sentences devoid of flowery description, is thought to have written this seemingly simple six-word story:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.15

Three short pieces of descriptive detail, and, as Moore puts it, "immediately, my imagination takes over, filling in the backstory." Does yours?

Despite their shortness, West's haibun feel clear and complete. I don't need to know more or have anything further explained or described to understand them. This doesn't mean that there's no ambiguity. For example, in "Maybe," the word "he" allows me to imagine who "he" might be. Is it the drummer? The horn player? A man at another table? Her lover? And why is she 'feigning' interest in the drummer? Does she not want to appear obvious to the horn player or to her lover?

While we don't know what happens next in West's story, I'm comfortable with imagining outcomes. Do she and her lover go home and frolic under the covers? If they do, will she be fantasizing about the horn player? Will they have a fight because her lover caught her being overly interested in the horn player? All are possible in my reader's imagination. But what if my imagination has misled me or is different than yours? Does it matter? I think not. West has provided sufficient information to stir my interest and I've enjoyed taking the story to my own conclusions.

5. Disclosure

The Oxford Online Dictionary defines "disclosure" as the action of making new or secret information known. In "A Secret Life," Steven Dunn explores the place of secrecy in our lives:

The secret life
begins early, is kept alive
by all that's unpopular
in you . . . 16
(emphasis mine)

I think it's safe to say that we all have secrets, even from our spouses and most cherished friends. Most haibun tend to be personal (to use a pejorative, some are even called "confessional"), revealing thoughts and behaviors not normally spoken of, except, of course, in fiction where anything goes and one can't tell whehter the writer is talking about him or herself. In choosing personal experiences, we are at some level telling secrets about our lives and thoughts. Some secrets are more often hidden than others, and thus, perhaps more compelling.

In my interpretation of West's "Maybe" there's an attraction to a musician while dining with her lover, a transfer of the sensuality of the music and that attraction to her lover whom I'm sure wouldn't be happy being a surrogate for another man. She's feigning interest, in order to keep this, her secret.

In "What Matters," a friend has called to say that her husband is dying. Instead of offering up the usual placations and platitudes, West reveals to her readers (if not to her friend) her inner dialogue, the secret things we think about the behaviors and experiences of our friends, but normally keep hidden: "People die every day—it's hardly worth the effort to put his struggle into fresh language." Such thoughts are unpopular to express at such times, and yet are what many of us might think, while diplomatically offering a conventional bit of sympathy.

In "The Way Things Were," West reports the experience of not being allowed to have a Barbie Doll, of the doll's perky breasts. As a boy, I remember secretly inspecting my sister's dolls, disappointed to find they had neither breasts nor other particulars of the female anatomy. When my partner read through this commentary on West's haibun, she asked: "Did you really do that?" That was my secret, until now that I've put it in print. West's haiku is about a memory of herself or an observation of a young girl she's seen tugging at her tee shirt (I assume either to check out her own budding breasts or hide them or both?). Part of the charm of this piece is in its candor. Male readers might not know about these young girl behaviors, although having inspected our own bodies for signs of sexual maturity, we can well understand both the behavior and the impulse for secrecy.

6. Authenticity

The Oxford Online Dictionary suggests "Made or done . . . in a way that faithfully resembles an original." West's haibun feel as if they happened to real people. As I read "Maybe" I had the feeling that I was there at the jazz club. It doesn't matter so much whether West was actually at a jazz club or whether the piece was fantasy. What matters is that most readers have been in situations where they are attracted to someone other than their mate and have responded sensually to the music they're hearing.

In "The Way Things Were," women readers will readily identify with playing with dolls and the psychological and physical transitions from girl to woman. And even I, as a male reader, can identify with things our parents "never let (us) have." In my case, it was a pellet gun for becoming a big game hunter and shooting birds in the backyard. That Christmas I got socks, underwear and a book on birding, possibly as punishment for having announced my murderous intentions. (There goes another of my secrets).

In "What Matters," I felt as if I was on the phone line, and could identify with both parties. Or at the bedside of an ailing parent, experiencing the deadening routines of palliative care and the agony of the person receiving care. Who has not been in a situation where a friend calls to lament loss? Who has not called a friend with a lament about infirmity and death?

7. The Haiku

In my view, the more minimal the prose, the more important the haiku. This is not to say that the haiku are ever unimportant. As Nobuyuki Yuasa puts it:

. . . I should like to impose one severe restriction on haibun: that it has to be a blend of haiku poetry and haiku prose; the interaction between these is haibun's greatest merit. In good haibun, the prose deepens the understanding of the poetry, and the poetry gives greater energy to the prose. The relationship is like that between the moon and the earth: each makes the other more beautiful.17

West's haiku add new dimensions to the story and are complete stories in themselves. Take the haiku in "The Way Things Were":

sepia shadows
a young girl tugs
at her tee shirt

"Shadows" suggests a subject that is usually kept in our shadow (unrevealed) lives, and "sepia" suggests memory and age. The young girl tugging at her tee shirt is a vivid "show" about the behavior of a young girl. No need to "tell" us what it means. We can let our reader's imagination run with it.

The haiku in "What Matters"

after the funeral
slowly rolling socks
into pairs

takes us a step ahead in time, to post funeral. The widow has a new set of challenges, her life no longer akin to a rolled set of socks (a metaphor for a tightly bonded couple), but instead is to be lived as a single person.

In all, it's little wonder that West was included in A New Resonance 5: Emerging Voices in English Language Haiku.

8. Titles

Increasingly, there's a call for focus on titles in haibun composition; a haibun is seen as a form that links title, prose and haiku. Roberta Beary, haibun editor of Modern Haiku, for example has written:

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.18

"Maybe" is the first word in the first sentence of the prose. By isolating it as the title, West has placed extra emphasis on her inner world . . . she isn't sure, perhaps she's hopeful?

"The Way Things Were" links in various ways with the prose and poem. We know two things that mattered to the girl. The piece is about the way things were, about the past of most families where things were more hidden, sexuality made less obvious. The phrase could be read as a statement about the present day's "anything goes," a title and song of portent by songwriter Cole Porter who himself was a precursor of today's sexual freedom or promiscuity, depending on one's perspective.

"What Matters" also links to both prose and poem suggesting that the details of care matter in the palliative life of an infirm or dying partner and, after death, what matters is the new life of being single, no longer a pair.

9. Minimalism

Minimalist haibun are not just about brevity. Their focus, as practiced by West and others, is on small scenes or snippets of life expressed in crisp, haikai-like phrases. "Maybe" represents a few moments at a Jazz club; "What Matters," a short conversation coupled with thoughts about palliative care; and "The Way Things Were," memories triggered by an observation (seeing a Barbie on e-Bay and/or a young girl tugging at her shirt) embellished with a memory. They use an economy of words to tell a story whole enough for the reader to feel that story's completeness and yet leave room for the reader's imagination.

Should we all write in a minimalist style? My answer is yes and no.

Yes, with a caveat. West's minimalism has led me to consider making my writing more succinct but not necessarily toward very short. When serving as the chair of the World Haiku Club's haibun section, Paul Conneally recommended that after completing an early often wordy draft, a writer might: 1) strip out the key phrases, 2) eliminate redundancies, 3) piece the fragments back together to attain the easy going flow that Jones talks about.19 This would make any piece shorter and crisper, even if not focused on a minimal scene. And if more poetics are needed the writer could add back one or two excised "tomorrows" or consider employing poetry techniques such as repetition or assonance.

And my answer is no. As any reader of the genre can see for him or herself, there are very few longer haibun in the published works. If anything, the genre would benefit if more writers, at least on occasion, reached for narratives that encompassed more of a life, larger experiences, a series of linked scenes.

Conclusion

Hemingway wrote:

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer (emphasis mine).20

With a very limited use of words, West has created pieces that made me feel as if her places and people belong to me; her experiences matter not only to her, but also to me, the reader. She's led me to ruminations about my own, similar or related experiences. That's what she's given to this reader.

While this comment on three of West's pieces and discussion of minimalism does not serve as a review of her forthcoming book, Into the Light, having read a draft, I can strongly recommend it.


Acknowledgments

Haibun by Harriot West are reprinted with her permission.

Harriot West's book, Into the Light, will be published soon by Mountains and Rivers Press, Eugene, Oregon.

Her haibun and haiku have been published widely and anthologized. She is one of the haiku poets featured in A New Resonance 5: Emerging Voices in English Language Haiku.

Thanks to Jeffrey Woodward and Nancy Hull for offering helpful suggestions. And particularly to Jeffrey Woodward, whose background in classical and modern poetry forms enables him to keep me on track when I delve into those areas.


Footnotes

1. Examples taken from the Haibun Today Resources page.

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

3. Haiku Society of America's Definitions Page.

4. Megan Pryor, "Prose Poems: Definition & Famous Examples," Education Portal website, taken October 17, 2014.

5. "The Elements of Style," taken from Wikipedia on October 16, 2014.

6. E.B. White, Letters of E.B. White, Originally edited by Dorothy Lobrano Guth, and revised and updated by Martha White, Harper; Revised edition, 2006.

7. "Introduction to Sound and Meter," taken from Purdue Poetry Website on October 16, 2014.

8. "Terra Incognita: The World of Haibun and Tanka Prose, An Interview with Jeffrey Woodward," Contemporary Haibun Online Articles Section.

9. "Jeffrey Woodward's 'Time with the Heron'—Poetic Techniques in Haibun Composition," Contemporary Haibun Online 9:3 October 2013.

10. Jeffrey Woodward, Private Correspondence, September 28, 2014.

11. Paul Conneally, "Editor's Introduction," Simply Haiku.

12. Paul Conneally, ibid.

13. "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.

14. "Lisa Moore on taking February from page to stage," Canada Reads Website, taken on October 16, 2014.

15. "For sale: baby shoes, never worn," taken from Wikipedia on February 20, 2014. According to the Wikipedia page, "(This passage) is the entirety of what has been described as a six-word novel, making it an extreme example of what is called flash fiction . . . Although it is often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, the link to him is unsubstantiated and similarly titled stories predate him."

16. Stephen Dunn, "A Secret Life," from Landscape at the End of the Century (W.W. Norton and Company). The entire poem can be read on The Writer's Almanac website.

17. Quoted on the Haibun Today Resources page from Blithe Spirit 10:3, Sept 2000.

18. Roberta Beary, "The Lost Weekend," Frogpond 34:3, 2011.

19. Paul Conneally, Private correspondence, December, 2008.

20. Quote taken from Goodreads website on October 16, 2014.


Readings

Readings of Kipling's "Mandalay."

Ian McKellen discusses and then reads MacBeth's soliloquy.

Two readings of MacBeth's siloloquy by Brett Underwood.

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