The Use of “Sentence Fragments” in Contemporary Haibun

WHR December 2003

WHCessay – Jamie Edgecombe

The Use of “Sentence Fragments” in Contemporary Haibun

Jamie Edgecombe
Sapporo, Japan

A short time ago, there was an intriguing discussion on the WHChaibun mailing list concerning the nature of, and techniques, involved in the writing of haibun prose. Indeed, there were many references to and queries about the differences between haibun prose and “haibunic” prose. What is this “haibunic” prose, and how does it differ from what we may think of as haibun prose? To answer this question, I would like to briefly explore the work of Bradley University’s Seth Katz. At the same time, I will present how some of his observations could be useful to the writing of haibun prose.

Katz, in his essay, ‘The Poetic Use of Sentence Fragments’ (1997), doesn’t actually make direct reference to haibun, although he does touch on haiku during his explorations into the use of fragmented sentences in other forms and eras of poetry (basically American in origin). Katz examines how sentence fragments were a significant feature in the poetry of the American Transcendentalists, the Imagists and a range of Postmodern poets. However, despite aesthetic differences between these groups, a great many of their poetic practices can be seen as having a relevance to the writing of haibun.

Katz begins by examining the Transcendentalists, who used catalogues of fragments—consisting of pieces of experience, thoughts and presentations of the world—to create a sense of universal order. These list-like poems were supposed to transcend the nature of individual things, and ‘show how all things are manifestations of the divine plenitude’ (p.2). However, during the same era, other poets used such techniques to illustrate how such a destination could never be reached, leading to an perception associating fragments with dissolution. Both views can be seen as having a resonance with many Buddhist philosophies underpinning much of haiku’s origin, especially the theory of the Void, wherein everything is at once individual and isolated—while through this individuality, each is understood as part of a greater whole (Hass, 1998). Such catalogues, where distinction between self and the exterior world become blurred and even mixed, can also be seen as similar to the dissolution of the haijin’s ego. Furthermore, shifting sentence patterns can portray the impermanent (mujo in Japanese) nature of the physical world, the veil of illusion.

Another group of poets which used sentence fragments was the Imagists, who drew much inspiration from haiku and Chinese poetry. Disillusioned with the overly genteel, mundane, “flowery” language of the Georgian Era (Jones, 2001), they based their poetics upon a juxtaposition of images, in which the reader is meant to receive an ‘immediate clear sense of a particular thing’ (p.1). They shunned detailed description as such, stating that it should be left to artists. Instead, they concentrated their efforts on brevity, use of objective language and a focus on imagery. This approach mirrors Makoto Ueda’s characterisations of haibun, i.e.: 1) “brevity and conciseness of haiku”; 2) the use of ambiguous particles and verb forms where “conjunction would be used in English;” 3) “dependence on imagery;” as well as 4) the writers detachment (Ross. 1997).

In Imagistic poems, these aims were achieved through the use of terse fragments, presenting unadorned factual information, such as in Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’ (often regarded as a haiku; Higginson, 1984, p.135 /6), where fragments were supposed to give the poem a sentence of immediacy and, more importantly, sincerity and truth. Katz calls this ‘setting the scene’ (p.3), but goes on to explore how other poets of the era used fragmented juxtaposition, allowing the reader to enter into the poem, discovering for themselves the relationships between the images, therefore giving those images significance and heightening the reader’s sense of reality. Katz states that one of the best examples of this kind of “reader response” oriented poetry was T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”, a poem where the reader is said to fill-in the open spaces between the images and therefore come closer to the truth of the poem (Hibert, 2003), to engage in what Carson calls the “free space of imaginal adventure” (Carson, 2003).

Again, this style has relevance to haibun, for haibun also tries to create a sense of factual reality, often presenting otherwise everyday events from the poet’s life in which revelation—or the attainment of some form of truth or epiphany—has been achieved. However, presentation of this kind of revelation isn’t, or more accurately shouldn’t be told as, a story. Indeed, as Ross (1997) states, haibun writers should: ‘[P]oetically chronicle events as they happen, respond impressionistically to other writers’ poetic expressions, explore poetic experience lodged in one’s memory and express moments of deep personal revelation’ (p.52), wherein the haibun should act as a ‘node of emotionally charged images that record[s the] emotion felt in a given moment, in a given place without explanation, without narrative, without figurative adornment’ (p.61).

Of course, the use of a storytelling mode of writing would rob the piece of its conciseness and brevity. At the same time, the authoritative structure of storytelling (in which everything the reader needs to mentally process is given to them by the author) would prevent the reader from truly engaging in the piece, therefore effectively blocking those spaces of creative input. Thus, the sense of immediacy and truth that haibun and its haiku seek to incorporate, and indeed, recreate for the reader—is reduced.

Lastly, Katz looks at the most recent era, the Postmodern cannon, in which poets such as Robert Duncan and Weldon Kees have been influential (p.4). Here, the use of declarative sentence fragments, as used by the Imagists, are employed to give a poem the sense that it is reporting facts or clinical details, thereby portraying the truth of the poem’s situation. This relates back to Duncan’s beliefs in “kinds of reality”, where memory, cultural history, racial memory, religion and even the imagination can be seen as forms of reality—and therefore, truth (Fictive Certainties, 1985). In these situations, a sense of sincerity, immediacy and reader engagement can be gained through the use of sentence fragments. This opens many spaces for exploring the nature of human perception and what we deem reality. As Katz goes on to say, this is very similar to the practice of writing haiku, whereby:

‘[T]he poet uses fragments to imitate and so to make an assertion about the nature of human perception: perception consists of fragments, fragments are what we assemble into meaningful wholes (p.6).’

Many haibun, although written in the present tenths, are often written after the event has happened or has been recalled to, or triggered by, memory. Examples of this could include the gaining of insight into one’s childhood from watching one’s own children at play (see Tom Clausen’s New Sneakers, Brussel Sprout, 1994); or feeling a similar emotion from a scene or situation that the reader has encountered in someone else’s haiku (as in Tom Ticos’s Reaching for the Rain, Frogpond, 1992); and so on. It is in these situations that the fragment could be at its most useful, for the sense of immediacy and sincerity which they create can prevent the haibun from looking overtly contrived or story-like. They can also create a great many spaces where the imagination, the past, or even metaphor can intersect with the present; in a way similar to the “haiku moment” as described by Higginson in his Haiku Handbook (1992).

To Katz, sentence fragments mark one of the grammatically identifiable differences between poetry and prose, i.e. how in poetry, the use of such techniques is seen as viable, whereas when dealing with prose, this is not the case (p.1). Consequently, when one considers the prose section of haibun, the term `haibun prose` could be considered as a passage of text which follows a defined set of grammatical rules. In contrast, “haibunic” (or haiku-like) prose may be seen in a more “poetic” light, thereby enjoying a greater freedom from grammatical constraints, as seen in sentence fragments (like those used in haiku). However, I would dissuade people from over-stressing this distinction, or at least try to use a mix of the two styles, because if writers were to believe such an exclusive distinction were to exist, wouldn’t it mean that there is a danger that those wishing to compose “haibun prose”, would fall into the sedative story-telling trap, depriving their readers of those adventurous spaces desired for the creation of a sense of truth? Indeed, why should all the work be left just to the haibun’s haiku? However, having said this, overuse, or arbitrary use, of fragmented sentences could lead to a break down in the piece’s coherency, obstructing the reader’s interpretation of and engagement with the poem. Obviously caution is needed.

I leave these opinions open for others to debate…



This entry was posted in Haibun, Vol 3-2 December 2003 and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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