Commentary: Glenn Coats’ “Witness”

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by Ray Rasmussen

Introduction

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

Glenn Coats began writing haiku in the mid-1990s and shifted his focus to haibun starting in 2009. In the ensuing years, he has had numerous haiku and haibun published in a variety of journals and anthologies.

I’m presenting one of his pieces here because I agree with Pinsky’s point applied to haibun: to improve your writing, it’s important to do deep readings and learn what the writer is doing.

To get the most out of my commentary, I suggest you first do a reading of Coat’s haibun “Witness” to form your own reactions, and then consider my comments.

I started by reading Coats’ piece twice, at least once aloud. And then, I asked myself some questions in order to  “access” the piece. The questions and your answers constitute what I call a “close reading.”

In my comments below, I’m following my own close reading guidelines. If you’ve not seen them, I suggest you try following them yourself before reading mine.

1. Quick Impression:

I like the topic, the fuzziness of memory and the carrying of trauma memories. My impression is that Coats’ had a fresh slant on writing about memories. It read well to me and it held my attention from start to finish.

2. Identifications:

Norvel Comet from Wikipedia Commons

Like Coats, I’ve sighed at the sighting of many a shooting star in moonless skies, but I can only bring up a blurred idea of them, quite unlike the sharp image above. Can you, reader, see a comet in your mind now that Coats’ and I have mentioned shooting stars?

As for schoolyard scenes, I had no trouble searching my early years for events of this type, many about bullying, but none of them are sharp. One stood out for me because it involved a betrayal of a child (me) by an adult (the school principal). I can see myself lined up in St. Barnabas’s school’s hallway waiting to enter class.  Two boys near me in line are shoving each other . . . and bumping into me. Sister Veronica plucks the two boys and me out of line for the long march to her office, there gives us the “hands out, palms up!” command, and administers slaps with a ruler. I can’t recall how hard or many slaps or the amount of pain. While I’m fairly certain as I write this that I wasn’t involved in the tussle, Coats’ piece has led me to wonder whether I was. I do recall that I felt betrayed – unjustly called out for the behaviour of the two nearby miscreants. Perhaps this was my first sense that there is injustice in the world, albeit from a young persons’s sense of “unfairness.” As I look back on it, it was a petty incident and I had none of an adult’s sense of a world rife with injustice.

Why share my story?  A memoir haibun can be judged in part by quality of the story about a life-shaping experience and in part by the extent to which we readers are prompted to revisit our own life experiences. Who cannot recall dramatic schoolyard scenes and the confusion that follows as we try to make sense of them?

Such memories however vaguely carried forward aren’t all negative. At the same school, the boys and girls had their own yards with an invisible line separating them. I remember one day a girl motioned me over near the dividing line and as I approached, she gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. It happened very suddenly and I remember that I simply stood in confusion while she retreated into the depths of the girls’ yard. I remember looking around to see whether we’d been observed. It was my first kiss from a girl.

3. The Prose:

I’d guess the the main story actually happened in some form and close to Coats’ storyline. The boy’s behaviour struck me as realistic. It’s the way my experience says most boys would behave in that situation. I think the Aussies or Irish would call it being gobsmacked. There’s a poetic feel to the piece in the way Coats’ unfolded the story, from general memories (shooting stars) and comments about memory, to increasingly specific detail as the story unfolded.

4. Theme:

I’ve read that most, if not all writing, expresses a point of view. Coat’s story is in part about memory, suggesting it’s not sharply defined and we carry painful memories into the future. And in doing so, we sometimes look back and try to resolve the incident by analyzing it.

5. Striking Passages and poetic devices:

The first lines of “Witness” are unusual in the way they invite readers into the narrative, in the sense that Coats’ is telling us what he cannot remember about general experiences in his life, whereas many writers, myself included, write a piece as if the memory is accurate.

I cannot remember the splash of a fish at dusk . . .

Ken Jones, considered to be one of contemporary haibun’s master writers, states that haibun prose is best written “in the style of haiku” – an emphasis of short, clipped descriptive phrases. Consider some of Coat’s phrasings, which could easily have been used as phrases in a haiku:

the splash of a fish at dusk

a falling star scratches the darkness

Prose can also be judged by the extent to which it anchors us in the writer’s experience and time. Consider:  

I am near the end of the line; only teacher and Billy are following me.

With his use of ‘teacher’ instead of “my teacher” and the child’s name “Billy” (instead of Bill), the feel of a boy’s schoolyard scene and age are more vividly conveyed.

6. Haiku

W.F. Owen writes:

“The oblique but relevant association between haiku and prose is the defining moment of the haibun. . . . The haiku link offers readers a springboard to multiple, and often unexpected, meanings.”

Although at first look, one wonders what a schoolyard scene and memories of shooting stars has to do with the main themes. In my reading Coat’s closing haiku offers a metaphor about the fuzziness of memory:

mountain lake –
on the bottom
the blur of rocks

I can’t know how Coats came to associate a visual experience from a time on a lake with his schoolyard memoir. Because I’m a canoeist, I can easily place myself in his haiku’s setting. Rocks and logs on lake bottoms are most often viewed through murky water. Even in crystal clear rivers and lakes, stones beneath the surface – go by in a blur.  And often when I’m canoeing, I’m musing about experiences, snippets of this and that – mind noise some call it – all carried forward for reasons the subconscious mind only knows and all suffering time’s change of sharpness into blurred images.

For me, the haiku serves as an apt metaphor for the way memory works, always a blur, nothing sharp, yet each stone hidden in the depths of memory is somehow significant, each returning in blurred focus for a moment, and then the mind sweeps it past to the next blurred stone. Despite Heraclitus’ oft-quoted statement “You could not step twice into the same river,” we can and do return to these unpleasant and, for that matter, even pleasant blurs of experiences many times.

Of course, one can’t be certain of the writer’s intent in either storyline or haiku or linkage between the two. After all, a haiku is the most succinct of the world’s poems, and when coupled with prose that is itself, haiku-like or free-verse-like, the piece is akin to prose or free verse poetry filled with images, and not necessarily telling us what to make of them.

My take is that there’s an implicit moral imperative: Don’t let your anger loose on children. It’s a form of betrayal that they will neither understand nor learn from. For that matter neither will our animal companions.

7. Title:

This title is straightforward. It provides an orientation which is that the haibun is about a witness or witnessing something. One expects the link between title, prose and haiku will become clear through reading the piece.

If you’d like to read more about titles in haibun, go to this link -> Titles

8. Structure:

I liked the structure of the piece. Most writers express memories as they’re precise and details are sharp. Coat’s opening is one of those phrases that catches my attention: “I cannot remember . . . “ as is the start of his second paragraph: “I do not remember all the details . . .” And so I also got into musing about the nature of memories, particularly my early childhood ones.

Coat’s statements get more precise at he moves through paragraphs 1 to 3. The first paragraph is about vague general memories followed by a statement (a tell) about memory:

I cannot remember the splash of a fish at dusk,
or the way a falling star scratches the darkness.
I cannot recall the green colors of pines that change quickly in the light.
These things are gone in an instant.

In the second paragraph, Coats shifts to a specific memory with the caveat that serves as a second foreshadowing that what follows is not distinct and may not be accurate:

I do not remember all the details.

The remainder of the second paragraph then presents some details about the experience.

It is either spring or autumn since we are not wearing heavy coats.
The fire alarm has gone off and we parade in straight lines
out two pairs of doors where we form lines with our teachers on the grass.

The third paragraph shifts to critical details that led to the experience sticking in Coats’ mind for so many years:

I see my teacher slap Billy down and then
just as quickly pick him up by the shirt.

And as Coats points out in the closing line, this isn’t in sharp detail either.

It is just a flash like a gust of wind.

And either at the time as a young boy or as the adult Coats recalling this situation, the next-to-final line is a statement in which Coats asks himself a question indicating his need to know what caused this unexpected and disturbing event?

Was Billy talking too much? Did he sass her back?

Coats closes his haibun prose with a further shift from then to now with a question containing a speculation about the feelings that teacher may still be carrying:

I know she saw my eyes. Does she see them still?

Betrayal by a trusted adult is perhaps the dominant theme of the piece. What adult cannot recall mistakes made and regrets carried through his or her adult life. In Coats’ story, what is the look teacher saw the eyes of the child when he realized that we trusted adults are, after all, only human? Mom and Dad and teachers can lose their tempers, fight, swear, smoke, drink and, unfortunately, be violent.

Coats’ closing with is with images from a seemingly different place than the childhood schoolyard. A mountain lake and a blur of rocks on the bottom. If the lake and rocks are metaphors for the mind, then the fit is perfect. Before these rocks found their way to the bottom of a lake, they may have been in sharp focus. Over time, sediment and the speed of a human moving over them from the surface creates a blur, and that blur is all we have from the past. And what stones to we tend to view again and again. I’d suggest both positive and negative emotional experiences.

Conclusion:

At the beginning I offered an epigraph of a statement by Robert Pinsky, author of Singing School: Learning to Write and Read Poetry by Studying the Masters.  In the book, Pinsky does offer “useful hints and suggestions,” about writing, but he states that the goal is more a “personal, unique adventure” — indeed, “the great work and the great adventure belong to the student,” he says, “not to me.”

Your adventure with Coats’ haibun depends on what you bring to it and what you take from it. You will take and bring more if you engage in deep readings than if you merely do a cursory reading of it. And having read Coats’ piece and with the commentary in mind, what of it can you consider applying to your own writing?

Will you continue, as I did initially of both haiku and haibun, to do quick cursory readings of many haibun or will you choose to focus in from time to time on a few that you or others have identified as exemplars of the haibun genre?

References:

This is a revision of a commentary on Glenn G. Coat’s haibun, “Witness” published in Haibun Today 7:1, March 2013. Coats’ haibun is included with his permission.

Glenn G. Coats, Snow on the Lake: Haibun and Haiku, Pineola Publishing, 2013, p. 56.

Robert Pinsky, Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying With the Masters, WW Norton, WW Norton, July 29 2014.

Ken Jones, From “A Review of Up Against the Window: American Haibun and Haiga,” Blithe Spirit, 11:2, June 2001

W.F. Owen, “Editor’s Welcome”, in Simply Haiku 4:3, Autumn 2006.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535 BC475 BC) in Plato, Cratylus, 402a.

Glenn Coats biography

Glenn G. Coats lives with his wife, Joan, in Carolina Shores, North Carolina, where they enjoy exploring the nearby waterways. Glenn’s haiku and haibun have been published in a number of magazines, journals and reprinted in anthologies. Glenn’s haiku collection about rivers, Furrows of Snow, was published by Turtle Light Press in 2019; it received an honorable mention in the 2020 Merit Book Awards competition sponsored by the Haiku Society of America (HSA). He is also the author of four haibun collections: Snow on the Lake and Beyond the Muted Trees (both by Pineola Press); Waking and Dream (Red Moon Press), which won a 2018 Merit Book Award for best book of haibun; and Degrees of Acquaintance (Snapshot Press). Along with writing, Glenn enjoys playing guitar with his children as well as in the band Chicken Bog.

Glenn Coats: Links to Some Recently Published Haibun:

Remembrance: https://contemporaryhaibunonline.com/cho-16-2/glenn-coats-remembrance/

Lonesome Valley: https://contemporaryhaibunonline.com/cho-issue-16-1/haibun-lonesome-valley/

Waiting for Maeve: https://contemporaryhaibunonline.com/cho-issue-16-1/haibun-waiting-for-maeve/

Paper Clip: https://drifting-sands-haibun.org/04/2020/paper-clip/

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