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.
Now, before my review of Cobb’s Commentaries on Marching with Tulips, I think the first and foremost important thing is to understand his view of haibun. At the beginning of the second section, “The Haibun form,” of Introduction, he states that “a haibun is a confection (possibly poetic or some other unusual style of prose) that has haiku built into it or around it” (p. 5), and also emphasizes in his lengthy note 2 that “until we have some solid achievements to show in the way of haibun containing haiku, we are well advised not to be distracted by a minor and inferior variant” (p. 14). This description shows his narrow view of haibun, compared with that of haibun included in the first important collection of haibun, Fuzoku Monzen, edited by Morikawa Kyoriku, 5 Basho's gifted disciple, and that of haibun conveyed by Woodward in his above-mentioned essay. Furthermore, Cobb uses the metaphor of a box of matches to describe the relationship between prose and haiku: the prose is the box while the haiku are the matchsticks (p. 5). This metaphor clearly indicates that “[just] as a matchbox needs its matches to make fire, a haibun needs one or more haiku to ignite it” (p. 6), and also that the “excellence of a haibun depends on the quality of the friction” (p. 6) between the prose (the matchbox) and the haiku (the matchsticks).
Cobb’s metaphor of a box of matches for a haibun is unsatisfactory, focusing mainly on the relationship (“friction”) between the haiku and its immediately surrounding prose, and most importantly, in his ill-conceived metaphor, Cobb treats the prose containing one or more prose paragraphs and the haiku containing one or more haiku as homogeneous entities, paying little attention to the relationships between prose paragraphs or between haiku, and to the functional or structural roles that the haiku may perform in haibun. This means if a haibun contains three haiku, Cobb’s commentary usually has three paragraphs for evaluating every “friction” between the haiku and its immediately surrounding prose as indicated in the following italicized manner:
the last prose sentence placed above the haiku
the first prose sentence placed below the haiku
The main criteria for his evaluation is first to decide if the poet David Cobb uses the link-and-shift technique, and then to tell the reader the effectiveness of the employment of this technique. In addition to these evaluations of frictions between the prose and the haiku, he sometimes gives brief comments on stylistics of the haibun with an emphasis on the employment of sound devices that add to the aural appeal:
Below is a good example of what readers may expect in Commentaries on Marching with Tulips:
At the Rec
lee side of the fence
of the frost
Onlookers huddle at the end of the pitch where they think most goals will be scored. Shuffle from foot to foot in their muddy boots and tread falen leaves deeper into the mud. From time to time, through the fog, the wraith of greasy football and shouts of "Pass! For fart's sake, pass!"
A heavier thud and the ball skitters across the goal line and on through a gap in the net. One of the spectators, stiff in the legs, sets off to fetch it from a bush, wipes off the dog muck.
Thin chants of support, muffled clapping of woolen gloves, sucking of humbugs, first in one flushed cheeck then the other, a spasm of yellow coughing . . .
. . . on the touchline
a fresh gob of catarrah
(Marching with Tulips, pp. 27-8)
"At the Rec"
The two haiku in this rather grimly humorous short haibun (a little like a Lowry sketch?) are simply juxtaposed: they "link" but they don't "shift." The first haiku has a strong kigo (season word) "frost," and would just survive on its own, but needs help from the subsequent prose to make the location of the fence more precise.
lee side of the fence
of the frost
. . . at the end of the pitch
The second haiku, which ends the haibun, is predicated by the line of prose before it, and might easily be "folded back in;" yet it seems to gain something by its isolation in three-line form.
. . . sucking of humbugs, . . . a spasm of yellow coughing
. . . on the touchline
a fresh gob of catarrah
The alliteration of goal and gob is in keeping with the vulgar imagery in the prose (frost, mud, gap in the net, dog muck, humbug) (What Happens in Haibun, p. 35).
Once again, the concluding comment reveals Cobb is not well-versed in literary terms (see the note below). According to The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, “alliteration (head rhyme; initial rhyme) [is] the repetition of the same sounds -- usually initial consonants of words or of stressed syllables -- in any sequence of neighbouring words: ‘Landscape-lover, lord of language’ (Tennyson)” (p.8).
Structurally speaking, "At the Rec" is close to what Woodward terms a verse envelope, where the prose is sandwiched between two haiku. As Woodward emphasizes in his essay mentioned above, “a careful reading must account for the further complication of how the opening and closing haiku relate not only to the prose, but also to one another.” But Cobb says nothing about the relationship between the haiku. Functionally speaking, in relation to this “rather grimly humorous short haibun,” what kind of roles, such as theme / tone / mood-setting / changing, do these two haiku perform? Again, he says nothing. The first and foremost important thing in the mind of the critic David Cobb is first to find out the relationship between the haiku and its immediately surrounding prose paragraph, one that is prescribed by the poet David Cobb, and then evaluate its quality. Therefore, it’s no wonder that there is no comment on the possible relationships established between the haibun through theme, imagery, setting, . . . etc.
-- 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.
Note: There is something unusual about What Happens in Haibun. In this slim book (88 pages in total, including 5 pages of the information regarding copyright, acknowledgement, contents, etc.), there are 3.3 pages (pp. 83-86) or 4% of the text, dedicated to a glossary of Japanese terms, some of which are given a relatively lengthy description situated in the different contexts, Japanese and Western (mainly Anglo-American). This shows that David Cobb places a special emphasis on the functional role of a glossary of literary terms: a touchstone for important aesthetic concepts and ideals. This unusual feature of his book maybe is intended to partially achieve one of his goals: to “provide useful material for newcomers to haibun, perhaps tutors of creative writing courses and their students for whom this may be a wholly new field of literature” (p. 5).
However, of his 21 Japanese literary terms, five -- “haibun,” “karumi,” “nikki,” “senryu,” and “zappai” -- are seriously misunderstood...
For more information about other misunderstood terms, see my “To the Lighthouse” post, titled “Misunderstood Japanese Literary Terms”