Haibun: Some Concerns
As a co-editor of Contemporary Haibun Online from 2003 to 2014 I have been in a position to observe the evolution of the genre, and also to advise would-be contributors as to the kind of submissions we were looking for.
The standards against which I would measure contemporary haibun are those of the potential of the genre in terms of haikai no bunsho, writing in the style of haiku, the direction of travel being a deepening of that style, rather than a diverse and experimental thrust into a variety of styles which arguably sell short that potential and over-expose it to the influence of mainstream poetry. To haikai no bunsho I shall return shortly.
My expectations are coloured by haibun achievements in the early years of the present century as a Golden Age, or, less tendentiously a "classic period," mirroring a similar period in Western freestanding haiku. Previously, the earliest haibun had been characterised by haibun in which William Ramsey described the haiku as "pearls set in mud banks" of prose. Typically they amounted to the literal reportage of theme-less meanderings in "nature."
In Britain the shift can be quite explicitly traced to 2000, when Caroline Gourlay, the then-editor of Blithe Spirit, turned over to David Cobb and me the guest editorship of the summer issue dedicated to haibun. We went about our work with a will, to push through from the practice of literal to literary haibun, that is to say, haibun in a style which moves the reader's feelings and imagination . . . . And beyond that, to shift the haibun in the direction of haikai no bunsho. That means a prose of concrete imagery, with wording which carries readers beyond the conventional and expected, inviting their full imaginative participation. By and large most published contemporary haibun prose does achieve something of that kind, eschewing opinionated meandering and other egoism phenomena. Beyond that, again, we may find allusion, paradox and ambiguity with dark tongue-in-cheek humour, the whole light and nuanced, and with a thread of metaphorical resonance. Creatively disrupting conventional grammar and syntax where needs be, it remains a prose of directness and simplicity, reminiscent of the classic Japanese haiku, and enjoyable and accessible at one level or another when offered for public reading. Moreover the haiku need to be embedded in the prose so that they are in some way or other different and standing out from the prose, even if no more than dancing with it to a different music, and resisting any attempt to being folded back into it. Particularly noteworthy is the use of haiku as a basso continuo, a kind of Greek chorus, providing metaphorical comment on the unfolding prose, when, for example, offering imagery from nature to echo unfolding human emotions. In longer haibun the skilful writer will intersperse with plainer passages, to avoid the prose running too rich for too long.
The foregoing requires some knack, to say the least, but something of this kind is worth setting forth as the ideal for haibun characterised by haikai no bunsho. I believe this was the U.K. "project," as we called it, towards which David Cobb, myself and friends were working and endeavouring to popularise in the early years of the century. Names which spring to mind are George Marsh ("Emily Young at Kew," "How Little is Left," and "Cormorant Fishing"), Jim Norton ("The Cillin Chronicles"), and Arwyn Evans ("Ghosts"). The work of these and other pioneers was variously recorded in chapbooks and the like now difficult to get hold of, but which Jim Kacian's Haiku Foundation has been working to preserve digitally (contact Garry Eaton email@example.com). In particular David Cobb and I have maintained a succession of haibun chapbooks up to the present time, as well as having contributed two unusually long haibun celebrating the cultural and historical axis pioneered in Basho's Narrow Road to the Far North—Cobb's Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore (1997) for England and Jones's Stallion's Crag (2003) for Wales.
In North America the establishment of the genre was more complex and on a larger scale. Notable waymarks were the anthologies edited by Bruce Ross in his Journey to the Interior: American Versions of the Haibun (1998) and Wedge of Light, edited by Michael Dylan Welsh, Cor van den Heuvel, and Tom Lynch in the following year. In the latter, one of the contributors, Rich Youmans, observes that "most English-language haibun adhere to brevity, detachment and strong imagery," but adds, perhaps prematurely, that "the 'elliptical' style and deliberate ambiguity have been mostly abandoned." (Incidentally this distinction might be characterised as the lower and upper levels of haikai no bunsho). For me the high-water mark in American haibun is to be found in the work of William Ramsey and Michael McClintock in particular, combining clarity with an effortless sophistication. The fifty to sixty haibun McClintock wrote between 1998 and 2002 deserve exploration by all haibun enthusiasts, and justify his claim that ". . . haibun offers a kind of synoptic clarity and hybrid vigour that cannot be matched" (see his interview in Haibun Today 5:3, September 2011). For William Ramsey, somewhat more experimental, there is a convenient selection in his chapbook Ascend with Care (Leap Press, 2003).
It was exasperation on reading the March 2015 issue of Haibun Today that impelled this paper—which amounts to no more than some suggestions for further investigation. I have two concerns. The first is a self-conscious cleverness and obscurity in some contemporary (and mainly American) haibun, perhaps seeping in from mainstream poetry. In the offending Haibun Today issue this is for the most part confined to the haiku. The prose remains largely imagistic and concise. And if rarely reaching to the higher, allusive realms of haiku prose, neither does it fall into abstraction and opinionated speculation. To attempt to define and investigate what might be meant by cleverness and obfuscation is beyond the reach of this paper, except to suggest they occur where the inaccessibility of a haiku or prose passage would arguably baffle the audience at a public reading.
I shall therefore confine myself to an easier target, where something might be more readily achieved . . . . I refer to the current haibun norm of a long single paragraph or more, where a solitary haiku dangles insecurely from the end of the prose. And where the reader is required to do some hard thinking as to how it might connect with what has gone before, because of its obscurity or because it's meaning is too far removed to jump the gap, or both. Often it feels as if the writer felt the requirement for an end-stop haiku and pulled out something vaguely relevant from her ditty box as an afterthought.
It is not that end-stop haiku are unnecessary—quite the contrary—and they may be all that is needed in a very short piece. They can, if well-conceived, bring the haibun to a satisfying closure with an open metaphor challenging the reader's imagination—and something similar may be said of an opening haiku. The difficulty arises where they are clearly felt to be all that is required. My objection is that they have become formulaic and an excuse for abandoning haiku in the body of the prose altogether. Much has been written about the latter, but at the least, as remarked earlier, they keep the prose energised and dancing in a number of possible ways. A great wasteland of unremarkable prose with only an apology for a haiku dangling from the end makes the heart sink. Whereas internal and fore-and-aft haiku, even if no more than a change in the music of an already lively haiku-like prose, do at the least prevent the reading from getting stuck in a groove. Jeffrey Woodward has for long been banging this drum, (including earlier statistical investigation), as in, for example, "Prose and Verse in Tandem: Haibun and Tanka Prose" (in Modern Haibun and Tanka Prose 2, Winter 2009) and "A Question of Form" (Haibun Today 4:4, December 2010). It is only to be hoped that a sufficient volume of reiterated criticism will begin to have some effect on journal contributors.
The decline in the use of internal haiku is no small loss to the haibun project. However, unlike the more arguable and subjective questions of obscurity and accessibility, it is readily recognisable and, hopefully, remediable. I have been able to confirm my impressions by some closer examination.
Of the 43 haibun comprising the March 2010, v.4 (1) issue of Haibun Today, 41% of the haibun were end-stopped and without any internal haiku. This compares with 71% in the March 2015 v.9 (4) issue. For Contemporary Haibun Online, the comparable figures were 56% for the March 2005 issue compared with 81 % ten years later. For the annual, print volumes of Contemporary Haibun, with greater selectivity, the contrast is reduced though nonetheless still striking: 58% for the 2003 volume and 74% for the 2014 volume. In short, at least for predominantly American collections, the proportion of end-stop only haiku is high and has increased in recent years. A reference to the American journal Modern Haiku issue at time of writing showed all but one of the eleven haibun were end-stopped only. The comparable figures for the UK journal Blithe Spirit were half the twelve haibun end-stopped.
In short, if haiku have an important role to play in haibun, these figures suggest that they are impoverished, and progressively so, by the preponderance of end-stop pieces only, since these pieces play a more limited role than do haiku within the body of the haibun. So, are contributors and journal editors able and willing to reverse this tendency and to give much more prominence to fore-and-aft haiku?