Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Though not literarily educated, I take issue with the conditioned adoption of any one literary style simply because it is believed (and constantly disseminated as) best. The best standard narrative writers are, I feel, those who can slip readily and seamlessly from one tense or style to another when felt appropriate. I see no reason why different rules should apply to writers of haibun. Fragmentation of sentences, noun-phrasing, word-block association, literary allusion and so on are not solely confined to present tense writing; and I regard it as largely a myth that the use of present tense brings ‘a kind of power to words that is unusual’. For myself, once immersed in a narrative, having quickly accepted its conventions, I am largely oblivious to the tense of its writing. Certainly, writing in the present tense does carry a certain brightness; and when Phillip Marlowe says (as he might have done) …so I turn the corner, and there’s Moose with a loaded gun pointing right at me …we do have the impression of being at Marlowe’s shoulder in the act of discovery; but the sense of being in the action – a planned illusion – is no more than that generated by Ruth Rendell writing in the past tense. And try re-writing these first lines of a Seamus Heaney poem in the present tense – then ask yourself how much difference it makes in terms of affect,

Inishbofin on a Sunday morning.
Sunlight, turfsmoke, seagulls, boatslip, diesel.
One by one we were being handed down
Into a boat that dipped and shilly-shallied
Scaresomely every time. We sat tight
On short cross-benches, in nervous twos and threes,

Here, for instance, the imagery far exceeds any thought of tense; and in fact one might feel that the alliterative fight between d’s and s’es over the whole piece makes the use of past tense in l.4 undeniably the correct aesthetic. The use of present tense involves more than just wanting to create an I was there illusion. It involves consideration of overall context and desired tone of the writing, and perhaps how the use of any tense might affect sound qualities and awkwardness of line construction. Current use of present tense in haibun is, I feel, more than just cliché; its much asserted effectiveness seems largely myth – mythic ‘truth’ being the foundation of didact, dogma and ideology. Already we are seeing the emergence of the exclusive high rhetoric of mystification with terms like haibunic prose and templum effect. Reiterated clap-trap ultimately obfuscates that which is essentially simple – in this case, the learning how to write effective prose. Use of the present tense must be decided by aesthetic and technical judgement – not by the fact that one is writing a haibun.

What is of paramount importance in haibun is the dialogue between haiku and prose. Not merely illustrative, certainly not repetitive (as Mr Eliot would have said, don’t write in poetry what can be better expressed in other ways), each haiku should, at least, enlarge its immediately adjacent text; and at best (I speculate), the whole text might be charged with visions of the moment that touch the raw edges of some prevailing mood. In fact, there may be more to it than that; since if strong haiku are gathered as a preliminary to writing some emergent prose, as I believe they should be (unless, perhaps, the haibun is an imaginary creation), then the haiku may well alter the nature of any such previous emotional conditioning. Indeed, otherwise un-placed haiku may well instigate the writing of the wholly factitious.

It occurred to me back in the ‘90s, that haibun is, perhaps, not dissimilar to Van Gogh’s letters to Theo. These were not infrequently illustrated. But why? VG was certainly no slouch at writing; and to illustrate would have taken him longer, perhaps, than to find the necessary words. No doubt he was, in part, proving his abilities to Theo; but might he not also have been finding windows to the heart – to better illuminate the text of the day?


Dear God, not again! Like a nuisance caller in the night, my upper respiratory tract is once more alerting me to its existence: Do something, or you’ll regret it. Each day, I wake and think It’s gone, It’s really gone … then this. I put down Auden, locate my dressing gown and grope downstairs. Boil water, squeeze lemon, spoon out cut-price honey – no Orange Blossom for a bloody cold – add boiling water and return to bed where I sip cautiously at the magic brew and pop a Night Nurse torpedo for good measure. Eight weeks! Eight sodding weeks now; and I sip away to the dregs until my eyes close … and Auden slips unnoticed to the floor …

… bees in morning clover … floppy-hatted, armed with two baskets each, we are gathering strawberries at some local farm … my spine is nagging and I am on my hands and knees – but by 10 o’clock the sun is generously warm and our baskets soon topple-tilting with the tart and jammy fruit. Someone’s in his heaven if there’s coffee and Cointreau on the terrace and fresh hard-worked for strawberries to look forward to …

a taste of honey
in the strawberry fields –
slugs too

… the swelling sun glitters redly through the tops of the tallest skyline trees as we take them finally from their place of cold and dark confinement. Carefully, we pile them into pyramids and dress them with drizzles of honeyed crystal; leaving them to sweat while we feast on meat and wine … until at last we bring them – glistening – to the table for the slow anointment with rivulets of cream, our nostrils incensed by the warm sweetness of their flesh. And when our gods speak, we raise the implements of scooped steel and seek some sign to begin the chase and slaughter … to see their pinkness run out into the white bowls … to hear our stained mouths murmuring mantras of devotion. Only briefly do we stop to decide which ones will be the last – the chosen ones.

images on TV.
All the swollen bellies –
one sort or another

… and now, the three of us are sitting out on a warm, stone-flagged patio; and alcohol is working its analgesic miracles. We watch the garden dissolve away at the edges as light decays to other wavelengths, and conversation frays into silence and the drugged amnesia of honey suckle … and the slow drip of Bacardi to my brain goes unchecked until, as one pain drowns, others bloat their way back to the surface … abruptly, it is time to leave … and the fixed stars above the tarmac mile stretching back to my lodgings seem less steady than on other occasions.

a sky full of stars –
how great the gulf between us.
Only a mile to go

… but it is a long mile … ‘for nothing now …… bees in morning clover …

In transposing Strawberrying, I first tried putting everything just as it was into the present tense. Frankly, I didn’t think it made much reading difference to the two outer sections. As for the middle section, I think I’d already realised that that had present tense potential, but felt that while partial change wouldn’t work, complete change would make it difficult to fit the result into a larger structure largely written in past tense. Ultimately, I found that ‘major adjustments’ were needed to produce something coherent in itself and in agreement with the original intended tone of the whole. I’m pleased enough with the result; not so much because I have improved the middle section by changing the tense (although I think some ‘ceremonial tone’ has been lost in the rephrasing) but because doing so has ‘forced’ me into finding a new technical approach – a different door to the same required effect. So I’m grateful to Jeffrey for his friendly push; at my age one needs it.

Present tense writing can be used in several ways:

....As a tool,eg for structural or tonal reasons. (Diary of a Bad Year; JM Coetzee, I found a good read)

....As fashionably or doctrinally ordained method.

....As a cosmetic to tart up poor content or style, (though you’d have to know first).

....As an attempted cleverness.

....For no particular reason.

Only the first makes for ‘good’ writing. We might, perhaps, best follow Pope’s precept: the final effect should echo the sense or the intent.

I suspect that the supposed effects of present tense writing in haibun probably owe as much to conditioned (even thoughtless) reading habits as anything else. Journey, generously reviewed in Haibun Today (11/2007) was written entirely in past tense; yet its third paragraph gives a present tense feel simply by a change of action. And while the piece appeared to suggest a ‘trance-like state’, it was actually written in a very un-trance-like state of mind. Good readers will, to some extent at least, imagine their own scenarios from any worthwhile narrative. For myself, I find that the ‘overuse’ of present tense by other writers becomes something of a boring affectation; while I believe that exposure of ‘novice’ haibun writers to the same, risks encouraging lazy habits and avoidance of intelligent enterprise. Why walk on one leg, when we are given two?

by Bamboo Shoot
Salisbury, Wiltshire, England

No comments: