A Hundred Gourds 5:2 March 2016

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Genjuan Haibun Contest Decorated Works, 2012-2014 –
Nobuyuki Yuasa and Stephen Henry Gill, editors

reviewed by Ellis Avery

book cover

Genjuan Haibun Contest Decorated Works, 2012-2014
Nobuyuki Yuasa and Stephen Henry Gill, editors
Hailstone Haiku Circle, 2015
ISBN 978-4-9900822-7-7.
1,000 yen in Japan; $13 cash
(includes package and airmail) from elsewhere.
Request from Hailstone Haiku Circle Publications,
c/o Hisashi Miyazaki, 54-16 Hamuro-cho,
Takatsuki-shi, Osaka-fu 569-1147, Japan.

The term “haibun” was first used by Matsuo Bashō to describe a then-new genre combining poetry and prose: the most famous work in the genre remains his 1689 Narrow Road to the Interior. The Genjuan Haibun Contest Decorated Works, 2012-2014, named for Bashō’s retirement cottage near Lake Biwa, offers a collection of thirty haibun in English by recent Genjuan contest winners, a sampling of haibun by Bashō, Kyorai, Buson, and Issa, and examples by the editors of this anthology, contest judge Stephen Henry Gill, retiring contest judge Nobuyuki Yuasa, and incoming judge Hisashi Miyazaki.

Haibun, Gill explains, is an obscure and overlooked form, “a small, slack backwater” of “the torrent of words that is the world.” Whether that is entirely true— both the number of haibun published regularly by this journal and Ray Rasmussen’s essay in the current issue suggest not—this claim gives the editors the rhetorical space to stake out what good haibun is or should be, and burnishes their winning selections with the force of exemplarity.

Highlights of the haibun in this collection include Grand Prize winners for each of three years, each in its own way embodying a focused commitment to the present moment, to fresh and lively imagery, and to a balance between a personal voice and a more-than-personal subject of inquiry. Although the prose of haibun appears familiar to readers of fiction in that it makes good use of the intimate address and vivid detail that fiction writers use to transport us, the winning entries in the Genjuan contest eschew the tenets of fiction (the three-act structure, the centrality of desire, the importance of suspense) in order to offer a cooler, more essayistic or poetic reading experience. It is enough that the jackdaws of D.J. Peel’s eponymous work banter, flaunt, swirl, and flap; that the devoted suitor of the cold and lovely Heian poet Ono no Komachi in Margaret Chula’s Well of Beauty wastes away for love in a snowstorm; that the grandmother and granddaughter at the beach in Jane Fraser’s Towards Burry Holms play in solemn earnest together, filling a red bucket with water and pouring it out to sea.

In their commentary on each of the winning entries and honorable mentions, the editors can err on the side of persnicketyness, however, this weakness is a strength insomuch as it gives their advice about haibun the grit of specificity, and challenges would-be writers of haibun to surpass even these award-winning efforts. Haibun should attempt, the editors enjoin, to offer the reader more than personal nostalgia. It should avoid obscure references, as Bashō strove to do toward the end of his life. It should strike a balance between the natural world and the world of human affairs, and should go beyond mere documentary reportage of the former or “slice of life” snapshots of the latter in order to at least gesture toward a deeper mystery or philosophy.

Most interesting, and most defining of the haibun genre, is the relationship it posits between its haiku and prose. Editor Nobuyuki Yuasa, in a swan song announcing his retirement from the Genjuan contest after a lifetime in haikai (the haiku arts), describes haibun’s prose/poetry juxtaposition by using the lovely image of “two mirrors placed somewhat obliquely to each other. In other words, they should not show identical images, but rather echo their images with some transformations, so that their infinite repercussions continue to reveal a new world.”

This slender volume offers a treasure-trove of haibun, old and new, and, in the offhand, elliptical fashion embodying the spirit of haikai, provides a handbook for writers exploring the genre.


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