Friday, March 14, 2014

To the Lighthouse: Orthodox Style of Haibun Based on That of Basho?

The critic is beneath the maker, but is his needed friend. What tongue could speak but to an intelligible ear, and every noble work demands its critic... Next to invention is the power of interpreting invention; next to beauty the power of appreciating beauty.
--Margaret Fuller

Below is excerpt from my review essay, 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: A Critical Study of an Innovative Literary Form, which was first published in Haibun Today, 7:3, September 2013


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...

In addition to failing to correctly understand the “various roles haiku may perform in haibun” (as the prime focus of his study) (p. 6) and to offer well-defined and structured material to support his thesis (that “adventitious haiku may sometimes enliven a haibun”) (p. 7), the most disappointing thing about Cobb’s so-called “critical study” is his complete misrepresentations of two key issues related to the stylistics of haibun: “haibun as a derivative of haiku” and the so-called “orthodox style of haibun prose based on that of Basho” (pp. 8-9).

When Cobb discontinues the discussion of his thesis, he not only jumps to the irrelevant topic, “The Japanese experience of haibun as it has come down to us in the West,” the fourth section of Introduction, but also changes the point of view, from “I” (individual voice to make one’s own comments) to “we” (collective voice to convey communal opinions or concerns), starting from this section, through the fifth section, “Is haibun a derivative of haiku?,” and ending at the middle of the first fourth of the sixth section, “Is there an orthodox style of haibun prose, perhaps based on that of Basho?” (pp. 7-9).

After pointing out that poets in the West had received a “very few, mainly ancient examples in translation” (p. 7), such as those of Basho’s work, as the main source for studying haibun, and that many of them “[started] by writing haiku and only later [graduated] to haibun” (p. 8), Cobb stresses that “it may be easy to fall into the way of thinking that haibun is a derivative of haiku” (p. 8). Suddenly, he shifts the focus from discussing the pitfall that many of the poets in the West might experience to expressing the communal concern that “we sense (emphasis mine) that Makoto Ueda (the scholar known for his study of Basho’s work and haiku-related literature) is thinking along these lines when he writes, ‘A haibun has the same sort of brevity and conciseness as haiku. There is a further hint when he continues, ‘Another characteristic of haibun is the extent of its dependence on imagery. Abstract, general, conceptual words are shunned in favor of concrete visual images” (p. 8).

The two quotes, both of which are not given page numbers, come from the passages regarding the stylistics of haibun (pp. 121-124) in Chapter 4, titled “Prose,” of Makoto Ueda’s well-known book, Matsuo Basho. In these passages, Ueda gives an in-depth analysis of the stylistics of Basho’s haibun. He outlines the following four characteristics: the “same sort of brevity and conciseness as a haiku" (p. 121), a "deliberately ambiguous use of certain particles and verb forms in places where the conjunction ‘and’ would be used in English” (p. 122), the “extent of its dependence on imagery” (p. 122), and the “writer’s detachment” (p. 123), all of which are used to prove that “the haibun is a prose equivalent of haiku” (emphasis mine, p. 124). In terms of stylistics, what Ueda emphasizes here in Section 1, titled “The Haibun: Haiku in Prose” (pp. 113-24), is that in the context of literary Japanese prose (“to be sure, literary Japanese prose has always tended to be imagistic rather than logical in all genres”) (p. 122), a haibun is prose with a haiku spirit, the same conclusion reached by scholars such as Haruo Shirane (Traces of Dreams, p. 212) and Lawrence Rogers (p. 280). Furthermore, Ueda points out that Basho’s prose is known for “its poetic beauty” (p. 112) and “Basho’s haibun carry that [imagistic] tendency to an extreme” (p. 123), and most importantly that “for one thing, Basho apparently thought of prose and poetry as complementary, as two modes of writing serving a single aim” (p. 112). Ueda never says anything about “haibun is a derivative of haiku” (p. 8) as Cobb claims through a collective voice (“we sense that Makoto Ueda is thinking along these lines . . .”) (p. 8).

What comes after the section “Is haibun a derivative of haiku?” is another surprise: “Is there an orthodox style of haibun prose, perhaps based on that of Basho?” Under this rhetorically problematic heading, Cobb begins with the following three passages replete with glaring instances of misunderstanding and misrepresentations of his references:

    Shirane 8 quotes Basho as saying that “haibun should have, in accordance with the Chinese model, an even and balanced rhythm, stressing paired words and parallel syntax.” He goes on to comment, “Basho’s new haikai prose (read for this haibun prose) was, at least in Kyorai’s opinion, graceful and gentle in expression.”

    Basho urged his disciples to write haibun, not only with Chinese prose as a model, but in the spirit or style of haikai (he did not himself use the term haiku, but may have intended his karumi style of haiku which he favoured in his mature style).

    Whichever translation we may prefer, we are able to see that Basho did not write consistently in a single style, but selected as appropriate to the context from a variety of styles. 9

Once again, there is no page number given to any of the quotes or references above. Cobb’s so-called “critical study” is poorly cited. And the two parenthesized statements above reveal that he is not familiar with the terminologies used in Japanese haikai literature: haikai prose means haibun (see Shirane’s General Index: “Haikai prose, see Haibun,” p. 365; “Haibun (haibun prose),” p. 364). Throughout Traces of Dreams, Shirane clearly points out that “haikai [is] . . . . Broadly used to refer to genres deriving from haikai such as the hokku [later called haiku, p.2], haiku, renku, haibun, haikai-related travel accounts and narrowly used to refer to haikai linked verse” (p. 294). Cobb’s misunderstanding of haikai-related terms is also revealed in the 10th statement of his “few bald statements about [his] own practice (p. 9): “In the unlikely event of being asked for a maxim, I shall not say that haibun should be written in the spirit and style of haikai. I might say, in the spirit and style of English haiku and English senryu” (p. 10). Historically and aesthetically speaking, based on the broad definition of haikai Shirane describes above, which is also adopted by other scholars, such as Peipei Qiu, 3 Cobb’s statement doesn’t make any sense.

In the beginning of Chapter 8, titled “Remapping the Past: Narrow Road to the Interior,” Shirane emphasizes that Basho wrote haikai prose throughout his life but “consciously strove to develop haibun or prose with a haikai spirit” only shortly after his journey to Oku (p. 212), and that he began to use the word haibun after the journey, which first appeared in his 1690 letter to his disciple Kyorai (p. 212). And there is no textual evidence or scholarly reference offered by Cobb to support his own claim that “[Basho] may have intended his karumi style of haiku which he favoured in his mature style” (p. 9); most importantly, according to his own description given in Glossary of Japanese Terms (p. 84), Cobb misunderstands what the karumi style really is, which will be fully explained below in the passages regarding misunderstood Japanese literary terms.

The second quote (with no note given) in the opening paragraph comes first (p. 216), and its meaning should be understood in the context of the stylistic comparisons between Saikaku’s and Basho’s work: “In contrast to Saikaku’s haibun, which combined classical prose and vernacular Japanese but which Basho considered coarse or vulgar in both content and expression, Basho’s new haikai prose was, at least in Kyorai’s opinion, graceful and gentle in expression, it had the flow of classical prose even as it incorporated the words and rhythms of vernacular Japanese and Chinese” (p. 216). And the first quote should also be understood in the context of the stylistic comparisons between classical poetry or classical prose and Basho’s haibun: “In contrast to classical poetry or classical prose, which was based on an alternating 5/7 syllabic rhythm, haibun should have, in accordance with the Chinese model, an even or (not “and” in Cobb’s quote) balanced rhythm (such as 4/4, 6/6) (this part omitted by Cobb), stressing paired words and parallel syntax, as in the following passage on the Tsubo Stone Inscription (Tsubo no ishibumi) in Narrow Road to the Interior” (pp. 217-8). This Chinese-influenced style (Six Dynasties parallel prose, “p’ien-wen”) is just one of the Chinese models explored by Basho. Most importantly, the thesis statement of Shirane’s in-depth analysis of Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior is clearly written at the beginning of Chapter 8: “Basho remapped the cultural landscape of the Interior, or the northern region of Japan, through haibun, or haikai prose, a new genre that combined, in unprecedented fashion, Chinese prose genres, Japanese classical prototypes, and vernacular language and subject matter, thereby bringing together at least three major cultural axes . . . Oku no hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Interior), which may best be understood as an attempt to reveal the different possibilities of haibun in the form of travel literature” (emphasis mine, p. 212). Shirane never says anything about or hints at the so-called “orthodox style of haibun prose based on that of Basho” (p. 9) as Cobb claims.

Read in the context of Basho’s attempt to “reveal the different possibilities of haibun in the form of travel literature” (p. 212), the first quote above merely indicates the first stop of Basho’s journey into this literary territory: new haibun, not old haikai prose. As his journey continues, the Chinese model in the quote evolves into models: a variety of different Chinese expository genres, “among them, rhapsody (fu), preface (hsu, J. jo), eulogy (sung, J. sho), record (chi, J. ki), biography (chuan, J. den), essay (wen, J.bun), treatise (lun, J. ron), inscription (pei, J. ishibumi), encomium (tsan, J. san), admonitions (chen, J. shin), lamentation (tiao-wen, J. chobun)—which became models for many of Basho’s haibun, including travel diaries” (p. 219). And most importantly, Basho’s creatively interweaving Chinese poetic motifs and stylistic techniques with haikai humor, and vernacular or classical Japanese transformed old haikai prose into new haibun (pp. 213-23). As Shirane emphasizes at the end of the first section, titled “Haikai Prose,” of Chapter 8, “the end result is that the reader journeys from one type of language and prose genre to another, exploring the diverse possibilities of haibun” (p. 223).

Strategically speaking, Cobb first reverses the order, chronological and logical, of the two quotes from Shirane’s Chapter 8, then uses the second paragraph to enhance the reader’s impression of Basho’s “orthodox style of haibun prose” as perceived by Shirane, and finally in the third paragraph, he offers the scholarly support for the textual evidence from Donald Keene as indicated in his note 9, which is the same conclusion reached by Shirane. And at the beginning of the following paragraph, the fourth of the section, he cries out that “No! Don’t let’s go any further down that winding path. After some thirty drafts arguing this way and that what relevance Basho’s dicta might still have for us, 300 years and a totally different culture later, I give up” (p. 9). After this crying out, the first-person singular is resumed, and through a “rather symbolic act” (he “went out into the garden . . . clipped twenty yards of overgrown hedge . . . [he] came in again”) (p.9), he offers “a few bald statements about [his] own practices” (p. 9), the aim of which is “to make haibun prose and haiku companionable, responsive to each other like bedfellows, and not to reduce both to any kind of common denominator” (p. 11).

Strategically speaking, Cobb first uses the first-person plural to misrepresent Ueda’s and Shirane’s studies of Basho’s haibun, especially of the stylistics of the prose of haibun, then he resumes his first-person singular to offer 10 statements about his own writing practice, which reveals his true agenda, one that is at least intended for one of his goals: offering “sufficient criteria for selecting haibun to publish” (p. 5). Most importantly, in his statements (pp. 9-11), he discusses only the stylistics of the prose of haibun, and shows no interest in exploring any structural aspect of a haibun, such as the different placements of haiku and prose paragraphs that can have influences on the quality of a haibun as discussed in Jeffrey Woodward’s thoughtful essay, titled “Form in Haibun: An Outline,” 4 and none of these statements mentions the possibilities of using different types of prose or any mixture of them in an innovative way as Basho did in Narrow Road to the Interior. As a critic, David Cobb fails to take readers beyond the text horizon inscribed by the poet David Cobb as clearly indicated not only by his own statement—a “few bald statements about my (the poet’s) own practices” (p. 9)—but also by my comments mentioned above.....

Editor's Note: For  an in-depth analysis (structural and stylistic) of Basho's travel journal, The Narrow Road to the Interior, see A Poet's Roving Thoughts: The Narrow Road to the Interior by Basho

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