Minimalist Haibun by Harriot West #2

Short and Succinct:

Numerous writers have stated that haibun prose should be short with just enough text to convey the writer’s intent. Consider as examples the following terms: “terse” (Paul Conneally), “brief and concise,” (Jim Norton), “short and crisp” (Ken Jones), “economical in wording” (W.F. Owen).

West’s “Maybe” has 34 words; “The Way Things Were,” 52; and “What Matters,” 84. Contrast these with a recent issue of Haibun Today (8:1) where 48 haibun average 166 words and Contemporary Haibun Online (9:4) where 67 haibun average 141 words. “Maybe” with 34 words would be the shortest piece published in either issue.  

A passage by Ken Jones details emphasizes both shortness and succinctness by discussing how best to avoid being long-winded:

The most common mark of the amateur is to try too hard, with fruity, overblown writing, sinking under the weight of its adjectives. . . . (Haibun) sentences are often short and crisp with an easy-going flow, and may eschew the niceties of grammar to achieve this effect. Abstract ideas and opinions, and anything else that is writer-centric have no place. If you want to write about love or any other such emotion, then the feeling needs to be expressed in appropriate imagery drawn from experience and not by simply expressing your thoughts about the matter or by creating a fictional romance story (emphasis mine).2

To be clear, Jones isn’t calling for short word counts. His own haibun in those same two issues fall at 209 and 335 words and are among the longest in the two issues. But then, Jones is a literary haibunist, a writer who knows how to effectively write prose poetry.

With respect to short and crisp sentences, two of West’s are relatively long coming in at 30 or more words. And some very good haibun fall into stream of consciousness style with very long sentences. Surely long sentences can be crisp with an easy-going flow. Consider this passage from “What Matters”:

Rather save your strength for the constant changing of sheets, the preparation of small meals left uneaten, endless phone calls from well-meaning friends, and the gentle swabbing of his parched lips.

I can’t think of anything in this paragraph that I’d cut. Would you, for example, cut “constant,” “small,” “endless,” “well-meaning,” or “gentle”? Or would you cut any of the phrases? Or would you replace the commas with periods to shorten the sentences? My answers are No, No, No! This said despite the fact that with a full 90% of the submissions I’ve received as an editor, I could easily have suggested one or more significant cuts and I often recommended breaking up overlong sentences to create a better flow. And I’ve seen and received comments by other editors on my own work to the effect, “Cut this by 50% and I’ll consider it.”

If a short word count and crispness of style are defining characteristics of minimalist haibun, then West’s pieces certainly fit the bill. What else makes her work so effective?

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