If you want to learn about poetry — if you want to “access” it — what you need to do is find great poems you like, figure out which are worth rereading and then reread them.
~ Robert Pinsky
On occasion, I choose to do close readings of haibun for several reasons:
– to better “access” the work,
– to learn from the writer’s style, and
– if I’m planning to write a commentary on the haibun.
I select haibun for close readings from three sources:
– When I’m reading a collection or haibun in a journal or blog, I come across pieces that I instinctively like and select them for a deeper look.
– I seek out the difficult-to-find work of the Japanese Masters like Issa and Basho as a way of getting to know the work of the Japanese origins of English-language haibun, and
– I search for haibun by contemporary haibunists whose names I see frequently in various journals. I use frequency and variety of publications because a variety of editors each is his or her own tastes and idea about haibun have accepted the writers’ works.
Below are questions you may find useful if you choose to do deep readings. They are the questions I’ve used to explore haibun by a variety of writers on the Haibun Commentaries: Work of Exemplary Writers pages.
Of course you may have your own way of doing deep readings or you may elect, as many readers and I often do, to simply read a piece, savour it for a few moments and pass on to something else. And if you want to take a historical excursion on “why do close readings” have a look at Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics thoughts -> go here
A close reading of a haibun is not an analysis or interpretation of the haibun. Haibun largely involves scenes from a lived life that may be related to distant memories (aka memoirs), or recent personal experiences (diary, travel journals, personal essays about current experiences), reported with narrative detail and some poetics.
Doing a close reading involves getting deeply into the haibun by applying it your own lived experiences. Below is a guide showing one way to do that.
1. Quick Impression:
What’s your off the top reaction. As a first impression, did you enjoy (or like) the piece? Opinions vary.
Most haibun are either short memoirs (distant past) or personal essays (present experiences). How does the content of the piece relate to your present life or memories of your past? Do you identify with the writer’s story or his/her point of view?
3. The Prose:
a. Was it accessible? Accessible doesn’t just mean easy to understand. It means that for the most part, you feel you understand much of it even if you’re not familiar with some references or there are passages you don’t understand.
b. Did it strike you as auto-biographical of fiction. Did the human behavior seem congruent, realistic with respect to what you know about human mental, emotional and behavioral life? Or made up?
What’s your sense of the theme or writer’s point? What’s it about in your own words? Some haibun may have multiple themes. If the theme makes a point that you agree or disagree with, note that.
5. Striking Passages:
Whatever your reactions, like vs. dislike, accessible vs. oblique, agree/disagree with the theme, what are a few parts of the haibun that you find enjoyable or memorable? Even if you don’t immediately like a piece or find it rather oblique and even if you disagree with the point being made, you may be able to find phrases or sentences that tickle your fancy, that speak to the poet in you, that spark associations with your own experiences in life.
How well does the haiku work for you as a haiku and as a link-shift to the prose?
a. Do you see it as a haiku or something else, e.g., a cliché, witticism, tell, aphorism, etc. Is it something short and structured like a haiku, but somehow not a haiku in your view?
b. Do you sense its relationship to the prose or is it a mystery?
c. Is it repetitive of the prose or does it shift in a way that it seems fresh, the way a good metaphor works in a prose passage.
d. How well does the poem work to enhance the prose storyline? Does it finish the prose with a little poetic sparkle? Does it serve as a metaphor for the feeling tone of the piece? Would you even say it’s necessary to the piece, that the prose would somehow be incomplete without it?
The title can be as important as the haiku. Some are straightforward providing a hint about what’s to come; others are oblique and like the haiku may lead to speculations on the part of the reader as to how they work with the prose and haiku.
If you’d like to read more about Titles in haibun, go to this link -> Titles
What structure is used to orchestrate the piece? Can you use the writer’s structure to create new styles for your own writing? I don’t mean “plagiarize” – of course using your own content and with acknowledgement to the source.
For information about close readings of poetry, visit the comprehensive Warwick University guide. But keep in mind that this is a scholar’s guide to approaching poetry.