Saturday, November 23, 2013

To the Lighthouse: Fanciful Haibun ?!

Ihara Saikaku (note: 1642 - 1693, Basho's contemporary) employed an experimental, dramatic form of haibun, or haikai prose, for which there was no precedent in the prose literature of his time.

-- Haruo Shirane, Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, 1600-1900

Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.

-- Georgia O'Keeffe

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.


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.

Holiday Affairs

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.

sultry dusk
on the veranda
           the erotic
           rocking chair

(Marching with Tulips, p.30)

“Holiday Affairs”

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 . . .

sultry dusk
on the veranda
            the erotic
            rocking chair

(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; see my critique of Cobb's definitions, "To the Lighthouse: Misunderstood Japanese Literary Terms" ). 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.

the stillness
of this morning . . .
tenth winter

-- excerpted from my Haibun Today essay, titled "What Happens in [David Cobb’s Conception of Haibun: A Critical Study for Readers Who Want More,"  a 30-page thematic, textual, and perspectival analysis of David Cobb's What Happens in Haibun.

Below is my response haibun:

A Dedication To You, the Reader

It is your interest in my haiku that has enabled this slim volume to continue its journey into the promised land of old souls. The NeverEnding Story of imagination carries us further...

The hunter's moon cracking in the attic window. And water stains on his unfinished manuscript, the one not for the faint of heart or for those who are loyal subjects of the totalitarian shasei regime.

On the Road leans
against Essential Haiku
his cold breath

Note: For those who are new immigrants or seasonal workers, the shasei regime (euphemistically) means the objective realist regime.

Editor's Note: For more information about David Cobb's conception of haibun and my critique, see To the Lighthouse: Haibun as a Box of Matches?

1 comment:

  1. A Dedication To You, The Reader is a sequel to Winter Thoughts (for Mary Oliver), whose opening haiku and prose paragraph are as follows:

    rejection slip
    a sunflower bending
    to the wind

    I often get editorial advice like this:

    "You will notice that we veer away from authorial comment, abstract language, and the imposition of human qualities on the natural world. Instead, we choose haiku that achieve resonance through the juxtaposition of disparate images, credibly present in the same place at the same time."


    You can read its full text at