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John Tranter

Half a Dozen Haibun

This piece was first published in Southerly vol.52 no.3, 1992, p.182—183, with six haibun: ‘The Narcolept’, ‘Smoke’, ‘Two Views of Lake Placid’, ‘Snip’, ‘Chicken Shack’ and ‘April Surprise’. It is 800 words or about 2 printed pages long.
    The four poems that make up ‘The Seasons’ consist of four traditional haibun. Another large group of ‘reverse haibun’ were published in the book At The Florida and in the booklet Gasoline Kisses.


The haibun is a form developed in seventeenth-century Japan, consisting of prose and verse mixed; traditionally a short prose passage is followed by a haiku.

The 1974 edition of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics says that Matsuo Basho (1644–94) was ‘a master at the mixed genre of hakai and prose, haibun’ and that in the late 1700s ‘collections of hokku, or of separate stanzas intermingled with prose (haibun) were common’.

I first came across the form in John Ashbery’s 1985 collection of poems A Wave, where half a dozen haibun appear, as well as 37 separate haiku. In Ashbery’s hands the form is more or less traditional and consists of up to a page of prose followed by a single-line haiku.

With the ‘reverse haibun’ (published in the book At The Florida and in the booklet Gasoline Kisses) I inverted and re-engineered the form for my own purposes, settling on a twenty-line stanza of free verse, followed by a paragraph of prose up to half a page long. The poem is meant to sit well on a single page, with the verse optically centred and the prose stanza justified to both margins.

The inclination to see the poem develop like a sonnet is an interesting tension for both writer and reader to deal with. In these haibun I’ve deliberately gone against the grain of much of my earlier writing, where I often try to tie up the concerns of the poem in the last line or two, sometimes returning to an image or idea presented at the start. I have allowed the prose, with its more meandering agenda and its looser rhythms, to take over and unravel the poem as it concludes. In many cases the poems seek to drift off in new directions towards the end.

I was looking for a new form, trying to wade out of the tar-pit of habit, at the same time as I was looking for a way of avoiding the patterns of meaning that the forms of verse themselves impose on a piece of writing. A text that uses chess notation can only communicate meanings that lie within the realm of chess; a discourse beginning ‘A vote given in accordance with the terms of an instrument of proxy shall be valid notwithstanding the previous death of the principal or revocation of the proxy’ can only have a range of meanings within the boundaries of Articles of Association of public bodies. The dismantling of such encrusted limits around the leading borders of verse is a perennial process; Victor Shklovsky’s concept of ostranenie, the compulsion to take the doors of perception and reframe, rehang and clean the glass, is at least as old as Sappho’s verse.

I find it’s the first draft that locks me into a direction and a form of rhetoric. The subsequent drafts can only struggle to unshackle themselves. With these poems, I was looking for a way to create a totally fresh first draft: a piece of text I normally would not have written myself, with a texture and flavour unfamiliar to me. The ploys I most often used involved taking another piece of text—a letter, a story outline, something I’d overheard on the radio—and transforming each work with a thesaurus. Once a text is on your screen, it’s easier and faster to use an electronic word-processing form of thesaurus, but a printed Roget’s will do just as well.

Each example of that draft process has three useful qualities, related to meaning. First, I would never have written it; it is free of my usual stylistic tics and responses. Second, it has weak sequential meaning at the scale of phrases, sentences or stanzas; or rather it has only the fragmented remains of an original meaning, the pattern of which has been disrupted. Third, each word has strong local fragmented meanings; each word contrasts with the adjoining words, and its normal lexical meaning is heightened because it lacks the usual smooth links with the surrounding text that occur in undistorted text.

And putting these three qualities together with the fact that the work is seen as a draft for a poem, it is a text that appears to seek meaning. In the terms of Gestalt psychology, it is a pattern looking for an observer to complete it.

My task is to help it find its way home to the haven of meaning, while leaving room for the reader to assist in this process. For isn’t that where a poem finds its purpose, not in the act of being written, but in the process of being read?