Unsaddled: Haibun by Ray Rasmussen12 Apr 2017, Posted by Fiction in
UNSADDLED BY RAY RASMUSSEN
Breakfast without a newspaper is a horse without a saddle.
—Edward R. Murrow
I am six months into my experiment of not reading the daily newspaper. Instead I read essays, including one by E.B. White, who, in response to Murrow’s metaphor, called breakfast “the hour when we sit munching stale discouragement along with fresh toast.”
Breakfast is now more enjoyable, but I at times feel I’ve missed something important—others know about events that I don’t, but should.
Stretching Murrow’s metaphor, it’s me that’s unsaddled—riderless. This morning, as I walk the dog on a berm overlooking the freeway, there’s the usual tangle of commuters, all hurrying somewhere.
the cat mews
over her empty bowl
1) First published in Haibun Today, January 6, 2008.
2) Both the Murrow and White quotes are taken from E.B. White, “Newspaper Strike,” The New Yorker, December 12, 1953.
Author’s Commentary on “Unsaddled”
My sense of the haibun genre is that it’s different than other popular short forms (flash and short fiction in particular), in that haibun is clearly autobiographical – the characters and situations are drawn from the writer’s life, not made up. Thus a reader should feel that “Unsaddled” is about a real time in my life.
A caveat is that fiction writers aim at making events and lives seem real. While most readers become involved in the fictional characters and their situations, we readers also know the work is made up which establishes a distance.
A second caveat is that whatever the genre, there is always a degree of embellishment. Some facts may be left out; other less than perfectly true things are put in. And some poetics are employed for effect. In the case of haibun, such alterations are in the interest of making a piece work to convey the essence of a story, not to create made up situations or fabricated persons.
A third caveat with which many writers and editors will agree with that while most haibun is autobiographical, there is room for experimentation and an evolution in the English-language genre. Indeed, in the last year I’ve seen haibun that are clearly fantasy and even some futuristic, sci-fi haibun are appearing. And there are dream accounts. While I would say that dreams, if reported fairly accurately as to content, are autobiographical, others might view dreams as excursions into fantasy.
Another caveat is that some writers are producing fiction as if they are writing factual accounts of their own lives. Recently, one writer so convincingly conveyed a suicide impulse, that I contacted the writer to ask if she needed help. The writer revealed the story was made up. In short, I don’t know that I can tell the difference between fictional work presented as autobiography, particularly when the writers are skilled.
Haibun also differs from most short forms including memoirs and travel journals in that that the prose is married to a haiku (or tanka) poem. Thus, haibun prose carries the burden of needing to work with a worthy haiku, and not just exist as an autobiographical story or travel account sans poem. Even in this case, there have been presentations in haibun journals of prose without haiku claiming to be haibun.
By work with a worthy haiku, I mean that my primary concern when composing a haiku is that it enhances the prose. Yuasa has suggested a two-way relationship:
“… the interaction between haiku poetry and haiku prose is haibun’s greatest merit …
The relationship is like that between the moon and the earth: each makes the other more beautiful.”
Various editors have indicated a number of ways this can occur, for example, while not containing a metaphor internally, a haiku poem may itself serve as a metaphor for aspects of the prose. Or it may serve to close off the piece with a small poem that encapsulates the dominant feeling of the storyline.
While some insist that the haiku must be able to stand on its own, without the prose, that’s a secondary concern of mine. I didn’t bother myself about whether the haiku in “Unsaddled” could find publication as a stand-alone in a haiku journal. I wrote the poem in the haiku form because I wanted it to fit with readers’ sensibilities of haibun as a coupling of prose and haiku. I don’t think it would be okay to couple a ditty, aphorism or a 3-line, free verse poem with the prose and call it haibun. I do want haiku poets to recognize my attempt as a haiku in structure, as a poem following the ‘rules’ of haiku so to speak. To name a couple of those pronounced rules, the poem should have the characteristics of succinctness and of showing more than telling. I further try to couple two distinct images that work together to form the haiku.
In short, I view haiku as a two-phrase (or two-image) poem. I have an urban sensibility, so I don’t concern myself with season words, another haiku orthodoxy. While the haiku in this piece does make a season reference to winter – an image fitting with aging and retirement – I’d not have minded a phrase that doesn’t so obviously reference a season. I don’t concern myself with syllable counts or line lengths except to work to keep my poems around 10-17 syllables or less. The 5-7-5 syllable count arose from the 5-7-5, 17 sound units count used by Japanese poets which, in length, would be similar to a 13 syllable English-language count.
In “Unsaddled,” the cat’s empty bowl references my feelings when I lack the daily news, particularly when others are talking about it. As such, it is meant to serve as a metaphor for the prose storyline.
This particular piece contains both an epigraph and an internal quote. A decade or so ago, one rarely saw either device being employed in haibun. While both practices are showing up more frequently in today’s haibun, there’s a danger in their use. For one thing, both Murrow and White have offered very clever quips about the daily news. So there’s a danger their words will become the story, as opposed to the one I wanted to tell. Have I added something to their words or merely gotten in the way of two quips that say everything? Despite this danger, I admire White’s writing and Murrow’s thoughts, and I wanted to bring these two luminaries from the last century back to life, so to speak, for today’s readers.
Finally, I’d like my haibun to offer the reader the possibility of introspection, as in, here’s something to think about in the context of your own life. While a young person or a non-retiree reading “Unsaddled” will not likely identify with my experience, I think that many retirees will. If I share something real about my inner world, perhaps others will find it to be of value. And today, with the entry of Donald Trump onto the world and US political stages, how could most people not identify with the awfulness of the news? Yet most of us are glued to that dismal news, daily through numerous outlets. And yes, I got back to reading the news, and I’m coming to regret it.
As a final point, no story is just a story. Many, but not all, of my pieces contain my thoughts about living a full life. In some cases, I offer challenges to an orthodoxy being advocated by another writer. “Unsaddled” is an example of didactic writing in that I’ve presented what I consider to be an expansion of the succinctly expressed ideas of Whyte and Murrow with the context of my experiences. A meta-message might be:
“Think about this in the context of your own life. Do you really want to keep reading the daily news?” And a warning: if you step aside from the news, you may suffer the same feelings as those I’ve experienced.
Notes: 1) For an expanded discussion of the relationship between prose and poem, read “A Haibun Editor Suggests,” an essay in Ken Jones Zen website.
2) The quote is taken from Nobuyaki Yuasa’s introduction to his book, Matsuo Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, Penguin Classics, 1966.
About the Author:
Ray Rasmussen lives with his partner, Nancy, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and in the Halton Hills of Ontario, Canada. He’s the General Editor of Haibun Today and Technical Editor of Contemporary Haibun Online. His writing has been published in numerous haiku genre journals and has been included in several anthologies. In a previous life, Ray dreamed that he was a university professor. Presently retired, he enjoys canoeing in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park, hiking in Utah’s Canyonlands and Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, and at his partner’s cottage in an Ontario mixed hardwood forest. A collection of his haibun, Landmarks: A Haibun Collection, and can be purchased through Amazon.
Ray’s Web: http://raysweb.net
Ray’s Haiku, Haibun and Haiga website: http://raysweb.net/haiku
Ray’s Photography website: http://raysweb.net/photography
Ray’s Wabi-Sabi website: http://raysweb.net/wabisabi
Haibun Today: http://haibuntoday.com
Contemporary Haibun Online: http://contemporaryhaibunonline.com
“You are what you think you are” by Matheus Formiga, Porto Serguro, Brazil @bozorio