Thursday, December 11, 2008


The Tanka Prose Anthology. Edited with an Introduction by Jeffrey Woodward. Baltimore, MD: Modern English Tanka Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-9817691-3-4. Perfect Bound, 6” x 9”, 176 pp., $12.95 USD.

Reviewed by Ray Rasmussen

The Tanka Prose Anthology edited by Jeffrey Woodward features 75 works by 19 good writers whose pieces I selectively read in whichever genre they appear. As someone who is well published in the haibun genre, but not very familiar with or published in either tanka or tanka prose—in short, a ‘non-expert’—I offer my thoughts about the anthology.

Woodward’s 17-page introduction and the bibliography of tanka prose serve as an useful introduction to the history of tanka in Japanese literature and of the present status of English-language tanka. It covers the relationship, historical and present, between haiku, haibun and tanka. Having already published numerous reviews and essays, Woodward is a thorough researcher and is serving in an important educative role for writers in any of the haiku genres.

I started with the suspicion that what the anthology presents as “tanka prose” is simply prose with tanka instead of haiku. However, Woodward clearly states that tanka prose is distinct from haibun prose:

“... In comparing tanka prose to haibun, I stated that it would be reasonable to anticipate that the prose element would be “written in the spirit of tanka.” This implies that tanka prose differs qualitatively from haibun—not only that tanka and haiku differ, but that their prose accompaniment does as well.”

So I read with the thought that the difference between tanka and haibun prose would become obvious as I read through the collection. I’ll begin by examining a few pieces in chronological order to address the difference issue.

Hortensia Anderson’s piece, “Maybe You Can Come Home,” leads off the anthology. Anderson presents either a fantasy based on historical record or a remembered event followed by two 5-line poems and one 3-line poem. While fantasy and remembered events are less usual in published haibun prose, as Ken Jones has aptly pointed out, they have a place in contemporary English language haibun:

“It (the haibun prose subject) may be the vivid recollection of a long forgotten childhood episode. It may even be a dream, a myth, or an imagined story collaged from fragments of our own real life. Such experiences may feel more real, more truthlike, than anything in our mundane daily round. Many fine haibun are poetic fancies, inspired imaginings, and yet the imagery is so direct and fresh and vivid, our imagination is so awakened, our feelings so stirred, that we are drawn into and enriched by the poet’s “reality”. (Ken’s Corner #3, Contemporary Haibun Online, March 2006, vol 2 no 1).

Thus, the fact that the provenience of the piece is ambiguous doesn’t lead to the conclusion that it is not haibun prose and instead might qualify as tanka prose. We can find pieces akin to this in many of the journals that publish haibun.

Marjorie Buettner’s piece, “The Presence of Absence” is a touching account written in present tense about her home empty of children. It wouldn’t be a surprise to find this piece in any of the haiku-genre journals under the haibun section. Strip the 5-line poem of its last two lines and it would be called a haibun. I’m not a journal editor, but I believe that most editors would readily accept this piece as a haibun.

Goldstein’s piece “Tanka Walk” (along with several by other writers) is an example of unusualness for published haibun in terms of its length and form. However this may simply be due to the fact that most editors would prefer to publish a number of small pieces than use a lot of space with several lengthy ones, however compelling. The piece is a mix of Goldstein’s practice of walking written in alternative paragraphs, one in the present tense describing his walk (as is the case with most contemporary haibun), the second containing his thoughts about his practice of tanka-walking practice (some philosophizing is also found in most contemporary haibun). The descriptive paragraphs easily fall into the category of typical haibun prose. It’s unusual to find a published haibun that relies extensively on philosophical meanders. Again, this doesn’t disqualify the piece as haibun prose.

The only difference I can distinguish between Larry Kimmel’s evocative pieces and haibun that I read elsewhere is that each is followed by a 5-line poem. The 5-line tanka form allows much more leeway than haiku in terms of permitting thoughts to be expressed (telling rather than showing) and therein is the key difference.

Perhaps one of the greatest deviations from “the usual” haibun that I read are Gary LeBel’s pieces. For example, in "Sea-change” we see a series of letters from his fictional character Captain William Horton to his wife. But “unusual” doesn’t equate with “not haibun.” This sort of creative work, likely based on LeBel’s imaginings about what it was to be an Englishman living in America in the 1700’s and perhaps based on LeBel’s visits to historical plantations in his region (my guess) does go beyond what I see as an important distinguishing characteristic of haibun from fiction, namely that the reader can sense the presence of the writer and feels that the account is about personal experience. The key here is whether the presence of the writer is found in the tanka used throughout the series of letters. Here I have the sense that LeBel brings us his own experiences.

Bob Lucky, one of my favourite storytellers, is clearly present in his pieces. Again, the key difference I can find is not between tanka and haibun prose, but simply in the presence of a 5-line instead of a 3-line poems. I do think that this series of pieces are among the most inventive I’ve read of Lucky’s work. In some cases, as with the other pieces in the anthology, one might ask the question whether the tanka could as easily be expressed as a haiku. For example:

all night
tick tick tick tick
from the clock—
I can’t sleep
without the tock

Would work as well, in my view, as a more understated haiku, although the haiku I’d suggest below lacks the wit of the more explicitly stated tanka:

all night
tick tick tick tick
from the clock

And so it goes with each writer. My reading of these pieces begs a question not raised by Woodward, namely, does a tanka poem that permits both greater expressiveness and expansiveness than a haiku produce a piece that is so distinct from haibun that it merits its own genre—tanka prose? I think not for reasons I’ll get to below.

Up to this point, I’ve discussed the work of a few of the 17 writers in the alphabetical order presented in the anthology. Skipping ahead, several of Patricia Prime’s and Jeffrey Woodward’s pieces deviate from the typical published haibun in that they offer a series of three or more tanka sometimes interspersed with prose in paragraph style. With respect to the tanka, we might ask the same question of these works that Ken Jones addresses to a haibun writer:

“... try folding it (the haiku) back into prose. If it reads just as well there, then leave it there; better strong prose than a “haiku” which is really no more than three chopped up bits of prose. On the other hand, if your haiku stands out as somehow different from the surrounding prose, then leave it as a haiku. (Ken’s Corner #4, Contemporary Haibun Online, June 2006, vol 2 no 2)

In these pieces I could imagine the tanka as being written in the more typical haibun prose style—as paragraphs. Whether the impact of reducing a series of tanka to one or several prose paragraphs would substantially change the piece is open to question. Certainly there’s a difference between free verse poetry and haibun, in that the line breaks are essential parts of the reading. Similarly, a series of tanka demand more of a reader than a prose paragraph does and the line breaks and two theme structure produce signals for a reader different than prose. A series of tanka, or for that matter of haiku, causes the reader to take a break between each tanka to absorb the individual tanka, but also to consider the relationship between the tanka in the series. Here perhaps more than anywhere else in the anthology, I do sense a difference between the prose typically offered in a haibun and what Woodward calls tanka prose. This begs the question as to whether the editors of journals publishing haibun would accept these pieces as haibun. I’d guess the answer is ‘yes’. And here I am suggesting that in its present stage of development, the arbitrators of what is and isn’t a good haibun are particularly the editors of our good journals who themselves have gotten to their positions by years of successful writing in one or more of the haiku genres. Of course, some of these editors accept more experimental or different work than others.

Elsewhere, haibun has been described as a unique form of poetry and writing, different than free verse poetry, essays, journals and fiction, not just because the prose tends to be whittled down to the bare essentials and descriptive in feel, but also because of the presence of a haiku. In addition, Ken Jones suggests that haibun prose is akin to haiku. I would add that by implication such prose is itself different than these other forms:

“This is the haiku-prose of haibun, where all the work is done by careful and feeling observation expressed in concrete imagery. As in haiku there is little that is superfluous and almost every word has work to do.” (Ken’s Corner #2, Contemporary Haibun Online, Part 2, December 2005, vol 1 no 3)

In my view, it’s not just the distinctiveness of the prose style or the presence of a worthy haiku that makes a haibun. There’s also the break between prose and haiku that causes the reader to shift from one kind of receptiveness (as in reading a short story or account) to being receptive to a presentation of an image, brief like a snapshot, that carries an association with the prose. Reflective time must be spent not only with the haiku (or tanka), but also with the relationship between haiku and prose. In my experience, the shift from one form (prose) to another (short poem) causes a shift in the reader’s mental state. I don’t experience this need to shift when reading free verse poetry or fiction.

Coming back to the present volume, my experience in reading the pieces in this anthology is much the same as in reading haibun in any of the contemporary journals. The need to shift receptive states is strong when the short (5-line) poem is encountered and is not essentially different as I read these pieces than when I read haibun and encounter a haiku. However, I do generally find tanka poems more assessable than haiku poems – perhaps because tanka, as I read them, are often a mix of showing and telling. This is not meant to denigrate the tanka form which I find quite refreshing and in which this anthology has sparked my interest.

I might have suggested that this excellent anthology be labeled “The Haibun with Tanka Anthology” (yes, that’s a very awkward title) so as to avoid adding yet another genre to the collection of works written by today’s haiku-genre poets. Trying to distinguish between the prose found in this collection from that found in any of the haibun journals is a difficult exercise at best and perhaps best left to more scholarly minds than mine. Such speculation might be important in the haibun vs. tanka prose question; it’s just that there’s not been a convincing case made that there is an essential difference. To make the case, I would suggest that Woodward produce an essay that shows similarly themed pieces, one tanka prose the other haiku prose, and let us see the difference (show us) rather than simply tell us. The anthology doesn’t permit this sort of comparison.

This isn’t to suggest that Woodward’s introductory essay is trivial speculation nor that the collection isn’t worthwhile. The essay is not only an addition to the understanding of the history of tanka, haiku and the practice of combining prose and short haiku-genre forms. It also invites an examination of the issue whether there is a difference in the prose found in what this collection labels as ‘tanka prose’ and that found in haibun. The more important question of how haibun/tanka prose differs from the various other genres such as free verse, short stories, flash fiction, personal and travel diaries, essays, etc. is not addressed in the essay, but it has been and will continue to be addressed elsewhere. Speculation about the differences in tanka and haibun prose may eventually lead to a distinction between the two forms that goes beyond “one has a tanka, the other a haiku.” Meanwhile, the number of haibun writers, while growing, remains small and to split that genre into two separate sub-genres is premature at best and perhaps even counter productive. In short, there is a need to grow the readership and understanding of the haibun form whatever the type of short poem is utilized with the prose.

In closing, I do want to congratulate Woodward and his colleagues in bringing out this volume. There needs to be more print and online space devoted to the haibun form for the genre to grow and more critical analysis is needed for the understanding of the genre to grow among haibun writers and people who read the more established forms of poetry (e.g., free verse), but not haibun. This volume contains a collection of creative writing that is unusually good and that goes well beyond the normal descriptive prose found in the great majority of published haibun. One would hope that Woodward would continue to edit and publish similar collections. Perhaps a good reason to call the collection “tanka prose” is that the writers were evidently motivated to submit what Ken Jones calls “literary haibun” or what I’d call experimental or unusual haibun. In short, the anthology breaks us out of the orthodoxy that is already being established in the relatively short life of English language haibun and allows us to consider greater variation in both form and content. That being the case, I’m all for such collections whatever the collection is called.

by Ray Rasmussen
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

From what I know, Haibun is a combination of haiku and prose which looks to me like a form of literature where prose is the underlying thing and poetry is used at regular intervals