Our Five Questions interview this month is with Jeffrey Woodward of Haibun Today. (For those who haven't heard of the haibun before, it is a writing form that incorporates prose writing with haiku-- sometimes one of each, sometimes more than one of each.)
Let's see what he has to say...
1. There are obviously formal/technical differences between the haiku and the haibun. What would you say are some of the "spiritual" differences, or the differences of effect?
Haiku is remarkably democratic. The literate person who learns its basic principles and techniques has a fair chance of composing passable examples and, in “seventeen syllables or less,” of convincing his contemporaries, occasionally, that he has said more than he, in fact, has. Roland Barthes, in Empire of Signs, offered a lucid explanation for why this is so when he wrote, “While being quite intelligible, the haiku means nothing, and it is by this double condition that it seems open to meaning in a particularly available, serviceable way...”
Haibun cannot mean everything by meaning nothing, as Barthes implied haiku might, and it cannot do so precisely because it invites the many complications that haiku, by its brevity, forbids. The margin for ambiguity shrinks with each added syllable, sentence or paragraph and with each narrative or expository turn that haibun admits. Writers
of even a modest haibun of one or two hundred words are unlikely to convince an intelligent reader of their profundity, therefore, unless what they have written, in fact, is profound. One distinction between haiku and haibun is the degree of difficulty. Haibun must accept and compound risk even as haiku seeks to avoid or minimize the same. Consider haibun as a journey over unexplored terrain, the destination undetermined or unknown.
2. In your 2009 interview with Contemporary Haibun Online, you discuss haiku's "escape" from the orthodox English 5-7-5 structure. How has this benefited haiku and haibun?
This communal shift, if you will, from observation of a syllabic rule to today’s free treatment is a matter for the literary historian of haiku. The characterization of this change as an escape from orthodoxy, on the other hand, belongs to my interviewer and not to me. What the majority of practitioners did yesterday or does today can be only of relative interest from the point-of-view of haiku as literary art. Significant poets have always been in the minority and what they write, whether it accomodates or violates a syllabic norm, inevitably commands the serious reader’s attention.
3. Earlier in the same interview, you joke about your initial experiences with haiku and how you came to know the form as having "consisted of 17 syllables—neither one more nor one less." After the breaking of the orthodox mold, is there a place for counting syllables or morae/on to fit a fixed form?
A strong poet will adopt the form that is most suitable for his current purpose, whether that form is free or fixed. The existence of any form is an invitation to the poet to attempt to master and exploit it. A haiku will be judged strong or weak, in my opinion, not according to whether it has or does not have x-number of syllables but according to the genius of its composer. Counting syllables will continue to have a place in haiku as long as one poet can demonstrate its place by his good practice.
4. Building on the previous question, what is your take on New Formalism?
New Formalism is a convenient handle for literary critics and publicists. One need only remember that Imagism, to cite a well-known example, was broad enough to contain Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell, H.D. and Richard Aldington, in order to remind oneself that little of substance can be learned from the simplifications that are employed in naming and marketing a literary school. New Formalism reinvigorated the flagging debate about poetic form and its place in modern or post-modern poetry that the New Criticism had initiated in the 30s and 40s. Important formalist poets, however, were publishing long before the advent of New Formalism; Stanley Kunitz, Yvor Winters and Howard Nemerov might be cited nor should we forget the examples of Robert Frost or Edwin Arlington Robinson, of Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore or Hart Crane. No art is without form. It should not be considered a provocation, therefore, to observe that there is little that is new in New Formalism’s advocacy of form.
5. What advice would you have for burgeoning poets who have written some haiku but have yet to try the haibun form? What might motivate them to try it?
Study the best haibun available in print and online. Try, when you happen upon an appropriate and powerful model, to learn the author’s techniques by imitation. When you have learned all that you can through imitation, do otherwise. And what might motivate the burgeoning poet to try haibun? An opportunity to discover the New World-- by traversing the globe itself or by looking closely around his own room.
Let's start off by discussing what this book isn't: it isn't a polemic from either a pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian perspective. (The very idea that there's only one Israeli or Palestinian perspective itself is a gross simplification. But this book doesn't fall into either general camp.) This book was not written with an axe to grind.
And not grinding an axe was one of the struggles Black went through in writing this book. As he explains in his forward, "I have always struggled to reconcile haiku's non-judgmental, Zen-like approach to life with my own deep-seated need to protest against life's injustices. I have an ongoing argument with God about the world's imperfections. Simply to accept the world as it is, as Zen philosophy requires, does not come naturally to me, especially when I am in a country at war." That Zen requirement brings to mind for me the image of a placid Abraham simply documenting the aroma of brimstone as it falls on Lot's head.
So as much as this book examines conflict within peoples and the land, it reveals conflict within the author's own perceptions. These contradictions and paradoxes give us meaningful snapshots, such as in the following pair of poems from the "peace" section of the book (more on that in a minute):
smashes an olive tree--
still in bloom
old armored vehicles rust
beneath cypress trees
In the first we have the force of military action overcoming nature. In the second (and in my opinion, more provocative), we have a seemingly placid image. Despite this feeling of peace, though, natural action is overcoming the military equipment. A different kind of struggle manifests itself in the "War" section of the book:
a mortar shell explodes
a sonic boom
sets off the car's alarm:
The struggle here is not the fight between metal and wood but the fight between moment and memory. Especially in the second poem, the memory of war comes into the moment for just an instant, but an instant can be all it takes to trigger a flashback. (Along those lines, if you haven't seen Waltz with Bashir, do so.)
So which of these themes-- war or peace-- takes primacy in this book? Well, that's just it: the binding doesn't really let you decide. The work is bound dos-à-dos, so neither theme is "first" or "last." Normally I wouldn't call the binding of a book out as such, but I think this method of presentation helps reveal the deconstruction of such stark terms. Saying a book has "ended" is a lot easier than saying a war has "ended."
Unfortunately, in this format I can't just place these poems back-to-back to let you pick one to read first. They are each the last poem to a side. So I inserted a little of my own bias in ordering the two to leave you with.
We've already reviewed a Young Adult book in haiku here at the journal, but Raczka and Reynolds's Guyku is our first children's book. And that brings up some questions: do you use the same sorts of standards in reviewing a children's book that you do in a book for adults? Let's take a look at the authorial intent (dangerous, right?), or, um, in this case the illustratorial intent. As illustrator Reynolds explains, "My mission is also to help people defy stereotypes-- to think creatively and bravely. The invitation for boys to swim in the 'poem pond' needs to be issued more often, and more loudly. I want to shout, 'Come on in! The water's fine!'"
And at that goal, this book hits spot-on. Several quintessential experiences from boyhood are succinctly called back to mind in its pages:
In a rushing stream,
we turn rocks into a dam.
Hours flow by us.
Pounding fat cattails
on a park bench near the pond,
we make a snowstorm.
Does Raczka occasionally cheat? Sure. Filling in syllables is an easy way to make a haiku work, as in this example:
Skip, skip, skip, skip, plunk!
Five ripple rings in a row--
my best throw ever!
That one comes off as a little cheesy, but I'm willing to give him a pass because of the bucktoothed grin borne by the rock-skipper. These would be nice haiku in general, but the illustrations just make them. I'm a sucker for spot color anyway, and Reynolds picks a separate one for each of the seasons: green for spring, yellow for summer, sepia for fall, and cyan for winter. The result is a classic children's-book look.
So yeah, it absolutely succeeds as a children's book. But I also want to examine the real poetic value of some of these haiku. Take for example these two:
Lying on the lawn we study the blackboard sky connecting the dots.
With the ember end
of my long marshmallow stick
I draw on the dark
Along with creating a book for children, Raczka and Reynolds have created a vehicle for adults to relive some of those precious moments of boyhood, regardless of how long it has been since we spent them by the pond or gazing at the stars. Call me sentimental, but this book did some good for my heart. I've read enough haiku about death and suffering... sometimes I just want to look up in the sky and think back to a time when I had fewer worries.
So I'd like to see this book show up in elementary school classrooms from time to time. Boys need someone cheering them on, and I can think of some younger cousins who I will be re-gifting my review copy to. But I'd also recommend it to any jaded adult who would do well to take a short vacation to age nine. Don't worry, death and suffering will still be around after reading the book.