Britain's leading independent haiku journal
Journeys 2017 – an Anthology of International Haibun, ed. Angelee Deodhar, Chandigarh, India, pp. 390, softcover, $24.99 (not incl. p&p)
review by Stephen Henry Gill (Tito)
This third in a series of hefty volumes showcasing haibun by many of the most prominent contributors to the genre, this may well be the best, for it contains a fascinating balance of English language haibun (both pioneering and more recent pieces) and English translations of Japanese precursors. We have for example Rod Willmot and Edith Shiffert in the first category, Michael McClintock and Jim Norton in the second, and Sōchō and Chodō in the third. The distinction between ‘Early Adaptors’ and ‘Contemporary Writers’ of haibun seems a little arbitrary. A case could be made for a reversal of RW and MMcC, for example.
Journeys (2014) contained 122 haibun by 25 poets; Journeys 2015 contained 145 haibun by 31 poets; and now Journeys 2017 adds another 133 haibun by 29 poets. The notable Indian haiku poet, Angelee Deodhar, must be congratulated for having pulled off one of the most ambitious of haiku publishing projects in recent memory and in such a short space of time. Any haiku poet able to see any of these three volumes would, I believe, wish to own at least one of them and this one has an interesting section of translations from Japanese and commentaries on some classical works, which the editor tells us “are vital to understanding the roots of haibun”. In order to write this review, I carried around the heavy tome for days, yet thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
In her Preface, the editor tells us that Bashō’s Narrow Road was the first haibun ever written, although Bashō himself wrote several earlier pieces. Later, referring to English language compositions, she explains that it is “difficult to find the work of some of the early adaptors of prose with verse” because “some journals that carried these early haibun forms ceased publication and many personal chapbooks were only printed in short limited runs.“ It must have been a labour of love indeed to have traced such pieces and obtained permissions from so many sources. We should be grateful that someone has bothered to do this.
Rich Youmans adds his own introduction to that of the editor, singling out the “chaotic volatility and inchoate promise” of the series as its “true genius”. He points out that rather than trying to define haibun herself through the series, Deodhar has preferred to give us all the material we need to make our own decisions about style and form. I agree that this is a notable achievement.
Jeffrey Woodward, ed. of Haibun Today, contributes an essay on the different ways of balancing prose and haiku—interesting enough, though I would have liked to have seen at least a mention of linking techniques employed in haibun, an aspect every bit as important as the ordering of haiku and prose parts. There are many ways in which prose and poems can be made to relate – counterpoint, refraction, condensation, narrative momentum, etc.
Due to his high placing in the alphabet, the first section of the book, ‘Early Adaptors,’ unfortunately kicks off with the most demanding and provocative so-called ‘haibun’---those by John Ashbery—and they proved to be about the only ones I really could not digest. “The sky is swathed in a rich, gloomy and finally silly grandeur, like drapery in a portrait by Lebrun … We are still valid creatures with a job to perform, and the arena facing us, though titanic, hasn’t rolled itself beyond the notion of dimension.” Well, isn’t this a bit too subjective and cerebral for haibun? And here is the concluding one-line haiku to his piece:
Water, a bossa nova, a cello is centred, the light behind the library
I found Paul F. Schmidt’s work prosaic and lacking in ellipsis—too cerebral, too. But, more fortunately, I then found a joyous piece by erstwhile Kyot-resident, Edith Shiffert, who passed away this year aged 102. I, too, had visited her in the home where she wrote Yama-Biko, Mountain Echo, so perhaps I am a little biased! The way in which she writes of the company of flowers, birds and snow is full of lyrical beauty. Interestingly, Shiffert states towards the end of the piece, “Haiku poets should feel free to use the haiku in whatever way seems appropriate to their creativity. There never were any rules, just fashions and preferences”. In the light of my above comment on John Ashbery, perhaps I too need to bear this in mind! Rod Willmot’s piece, The Ribs of Dragonfly, is excerpted next--and it is zany, yet enjoyable. By way of sectional headings, lacustrine boating terms are used, and in the section, ‘Duckweed,’ we have the memorable haiku:
spreads rain down my arm
Willmot’s approach to haibun is novel, but also somehow nicely in keeping with the spirit of earlier Japanese prototypes.
In the ‘Contemporary Writers of Haibun’ chapter of the book, I first especially enjoyed Melissa Allen’s moving haibun series on mortality and time. Most startling was ‘Misdirection’, about the sense of unreality she experienced when confronting her father’s corpse. There are two tremendous ‘period pieces’ which are almost historical documents – one by Chris Faiers featuring the Eel Pie Island commune in London about 1970; the other by Bill Wyatt about Throssel Hole Priory in Northumberland from about 1972, which would shortly become England’s first Zen monastery. Faiers’ piece is especially fun and I should perhaps quote from it:
Pub life in London reflected the British tendency to divide into classes and areas of interest. There were upper class pubs, right wing pubs, Irish Republican pubs, working class pubs, and one unique pub where all the regulars were very short, young males who only listened to Eddie Cochran on the jukebox. … The Three Fishes was a hippy pub, located on the corner next to the Kingston-Upon-Thames rail station. … It was just the sort of atmosphere I loved after a hard day of digging graves. …
in an old shawl
I think it is fair to say that, from early days, a fair number of North American poets and academics have been engrossed in charting the history of their reception of haiku and its development. Britain has been more reluctant to pursue this tack and most do not know much of the early haiku experiments by poets during the British Poetry Revival of the 1960s nor of the individuals writing haibun or renga in the 70s, long before the establishment of our own Haiku Society. Over the past few years, Angelee Deodhar has done some useful archiving in this regard. It is good to see some of the earlier British and Irish poets beginning to stand there beside the much-vaunted American and Canadian army. And some much younger poets, too. A nice cross-section.
A few pages later, for the first time, I met a haibun writer by the name of Charles Hansmann and felt his works were rather brilliant. His chosen haiku form is the two-liner. In one piece, ‘Camouflage,’ about looking after a neighbour’s parrot while she is away, we find the following:
“In for it now,” her bird kept saying with prophetic inflection, and I jotted it down. I was keeping a journal of cockatiel wit, and not just for amusement. I thought it would show how easy it is to find meaning where none is intended.
lit room, the window
looking back into it
‘How little is left’ by George Marsh an early member of B.H.S., is excellent in the way man, the sea and memory are interwoven. Michael McClintock’s superb ‘Raspados’ begins with a ten-line unstopped paragraph painting a glorious picture of the tired hours immediately after the workday has finished in a poor part of the city. The ensuing haiku brings a sharp focus:
muggy nights …
the child’s moon drawing
taped to the fridge
Is it not true that, in general, in contemporary English language haibun, not nearly enough of the haiku set therein would stand up on their own if detached from the prose? McClintock’s are, however, invariably true haiku in their own right. We should all perhaps take more care not to devalue haiku by including too many of our slighter attempts which depend entirely on the surrounding prose for life.
Jim Norton’s ‘Knockree’ invites us to imagine the scenes and the story, for we are only given snippets of prose. There is much haibun-style ellipsis here. I enjoyed the sensory richness of the piece, with so many sounds and smells to savour, and not just sights. Richard S. Straw’s use of literary allusion appealed to me, too, for it is another important way we can link our modern haibun with the Japanese models of the past. Bashō made reference in his works to many great poems and great poets who preceded him and, in ‘Desert Places,’ Straw, as he scribbles new marginal notes in the second-hand book he has just purchased, associates strongly with these words of Thomas à Kempis:
“Everywhere I have sought rest--and found it nowhere, save in little nooks with little books.”
In Journeys 2017, as with our 2009-2014 Kikakuza and Genjuan International Haibun Contest books, we are also given the opportunity to compare works, or excerpts of works, by some of the Japanese classical paragons—Saigyō, Sōchō, Bashō, Issa, Chodō and Shiki. Rich Youmans adds a useful essay here—‘Travel Diaries and the Development of Modern Haibun’. At one point he says, “… and since so much of travel contains moments of new perception, the inclusion of haiku offers a perfect way in which to record and honor them.” I like that ‘honor them’ part, as whenever I compose a haiku poem I regard the place and day to be my co-authors. The travel sketch, kikōbun, is only one of the pre-existing genres feeding into the development of haibun, but it is the one upon which the Journeys series is chiefly focussed.
Mack Horton’s translated excerpts of Sōchō’s Journal are fascinating for the light they throw on Bashō’s own writings 150 years later. This diary is a true precursor of Oku no Hosomichi , although there are waka as well as hokku included amongst the prose narrative. The editor has also included contextualizing excerpts and comments from Haruo Shirane on Bashō and by Makoto Ueda on Issa. Both are very well-chosen and illuminating.
Although Patricia Lyons’ translations are fine, I personally found the haibun of Chodō (Issa’s Matsuyama friend) rather clichetic in their sentiments and imagery, but perhaps I had already been spoilt at this point in the book! In a brief contribution, Janine Beichman shows us how Shiki remained playful in spite of his illness. Keiko Shiba and Motoko Ezaki’s ‘Women’s Travel Diaries in Early Modern Japan’ is full of fascinating insights, but after a number of pages it began to look like a list of place names with little vignettes of travel and tanka thrown in. Apart from the introduction to the piece, it was sometimes unclear what was translation and what were the translators’ comments. Normal lexical conventions seem to have been only intermittently applied.
And, finally, as the last piece in this largely excellent section on ‘Excerpts from Japanese Books,’ we have ‘the Slocan Diary,’ by a woman, Kaoru Ikeda, interned during the Second World War in a remote part of British Columbia in Canada. I felt the terms ‘nikkei’ (person of Japanese descent) and ‘issei’ (first generation settler) needed more careful defining. To me, it was a fairly insipid record of what must have been a very trying situation. If understatement is consistently satisfying, then this is for you. To be fair: this was a diary written for private consumption rather than public, and it does throw light on a forgotten side of the War. It is interesting to have a haibun example from the period. Three years after Pearl Harbour and her internment, after mentioning both purported American and Japanese army successes,.she signs off the diary excerpts with the statement, “I can only pray for good results.” One must presume that at this point she is still secretly rooting for a Japanese victory—natural, and poignant indeed. She died just one year after her nation’s surrender and her presumed release back into Canadian society. A word or two on that would have been helpful.
Leaves drift in
Through morning windows
I have been as critically objective as any reviewer might be, and I admit that I spied an unfortunate printer’s error or two with the duplication of certain pages, but overall this is a ‘must-buy’ book and a magnificent contribution to the cause of promoting haibun in English, truly helping, just as we try to do with the Genjuan Haibun Contest each year, to forge stronger connections for this emerging genre with its centuries-old roots in Japan. Hats off to Angelee Deodhar and her consultants!
Stephen Henry Gill