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A Hundred Gourds 3:1 December 2013
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Essay: Haibun Composition: Jeffrey Woodward’s Haibun ‘Institute of Arts’’


by Ray Rasmussen


When I opened Jeffrey Woodward’s new collection, Evening in the Plaza: Haibun and Haiku1 , I expected to be impressed by the writing and was. His haibun, “Institute of Arts,” brought to mind several issues that are often on my mind as a writer and editor.

The first issue is how to kick off the prose. As Ken Jones has noted, “in the early days many haibun were written in a flat, deadpan prose (as some still are) and it could be said of the haiku that they stood out like ‘pearls in mud banks’”.2 In short, the prose resembled a mudbank. Not so with Woodward’s introduction. He brings his subject to life with this intriguing counterpoint:

Whenever I visit the Detroit Institute of Arts, when I tire of taxing my mind and my eyes with contemplation of Cézanne’s portrait of his wife, Hortense, or Botticelli’s Resurrected Christ, or even the rather grandiosely didactic but celebrated Detroit Industry mural by Diego Rivera, I relax by visiting those rare puppets on display from the Paul McPharlin Collection.


What is it that can serve as a refreshing break from the likes of Cézanne, Botticelli and Rivera? I’m hooked and want to read on.

A second issue has to do with one of the more difficult challenges in haibun composition – providing background information about a subject without making it come across like one of those abstract lectures that made us fall asleep in high school and college classes. Many haibun are necessarily a mix of expository and narrative material, where the expository parts supply background information, and the narrative describes characters, atmosphere, dialogue. The challenge is to find a proper balance and to keep the exposition, which is largely functional, to a bare minimum. Woodward’s second paragraph is pure expository, telling us who McPharlin was and what the puppet collection is about:

McPharlin, an American authority on puppetry in the first half of the 20th century, was a highly skilled puppeteer and puppet-maker himself, and founder of the Marionette Fellowship Troupe during the Great Depression in Detroit. He also authored The Puppet Theatre in America, still considered a standard reference in the field. McPharlin, unfortunately, died in 1948 at the age of 45.


As an editor, I would readily have accepted this piece and yet might have asked Woodward to consider cutting some of the detail in the above paragraph. For example, in the next paragraph we learn that McPharlin was a puppet maker. That said, the piece is so strong overall that this amount of expository detail is quite acceptable. With a lesser introductory paragraph or lesser prose in what follows, it might not do.

The third issue concerns the usual business of most haibun – the narrative – a description of what the writer sees, feels and thinks. Here’s Woodward’s closing paragraph:

It is no small thing to master an art, even if that art is rarely appreciated. So, again, I visit McPharlin’s collection, the puppets carefully suspended under glass, looking now at an exquisite Chinese marionette, now at a rare French clown or even at one of McPharlin’s own original and delicate creations.


The job of such narratives is to take us into the writer's place in a way that makes us feel as if we are there. This passage is noteworthy in terms of how well Woodward did that. For example, did it make you want to see the Chinese marionette or the French Clown? Did images of puppets and marionettes you’ve seen come to mind? The answers for me were “yes” and “yes”.

While Woodward is talking about McPharlin and the puppets on display, it’s worth asking how this material might be self-referential. McPharlin’s art was practiced in what might be called the small pond of puppetry and his collection may not attract much attention beyond those few who share his art and the occasional viewer like Woodward who evidently happened to wander through while primarily visiting to see mainstream art. It comes to mind that Woodward may be sharing his feelings in attempting to master his own, may we say ‘small pond’ haibun art where (forgive me for pushing the metaphor) we readers fishing haibun’s pond are very few at this early stage of English-language haibun.

A final issue is the consideration of the relationship between the prose and poem. Professor Nobuyuki Yuasa, in the introduction to his translation of Basho’s Narrow Road, maintains that “the interaction between haiku poetry and haiku prose is haibun’s greatest merit … The relationship is like that between the moon and the earth: each makes the other more beautiful.”3 Here’s Woodward’s closing haiku:

for the marionette
deprived of its falsetto,
a dream of dancing


Ken Jones has said, “A reader’s interest is attracted by some underlying theme or focus, and interest is sustained if the theme is skilfully unfolded, moving to a climax, perhaps in the final capping haiku, where matters might take an unexpected turn.”4 Woodward’s prose has a solid theme, unfolded in an interesting way and his capping haiku does indeed take an unexpected turn. While it’s dangerous to think that we can correctly grasp a poet’s meaning, we might ask, who is it that dreams of dancing? Certainly the puppet master who makes the marionettes dance and talk. And who is it that is deprived of its falsetto? Certainly the puppet hanging by strings in a glass cage. And is it also us, the writers of haibun suspended in our own small, and often lonely worlds? Do we too dream of escaping our cages to dance for a live audience? And what will remain of us after we pass? Will someone collect our writing in paper cages called books? Will there be readers? Perhaps audience, loneliness and mortality aren’t what Woodward had in mind in offering these images. Regardless, a key to a good haiku is that it extends the prose and provides us with a contemplative moment.

A final issue to consider through this piece is the relationship of the title to prose and poem. Many writers seem to approach the title of their haibun as something to be gotten out of the way – say something about the context and then get at the prose. Increasingly, editors are paying attention to how writers title their pieces. A good summary of the importance of the title in haibun composition is provided by Modern Haiku’s Haibun Editor Roberta Beary:

In haibun, the wrong title is like a wrong number. It makes the reader want to hang up the phone. A haibun’s title should be strong enough to draw the reader into the prose and make the reader want more. Let the title be a link to the prose and the haiku, not give away the rest of the piece. After reading the entire haibun, the reader should be able to look at the title and see more than one meaning.5


In other prose forms, the title is viewed as a bit of bait used to lure a reader into spending his or her time with the writing. Woodward’s title, “Institute of Arts,” didn’t do it for me. Does the name of the institute where the puppet show appears matter that much? And the name is there anyway in the first paragraph. Why not something more intriguing like “Dance of the Marionettes” or something provocative like “We Who Live in Glass Cages.”

Writers who wish to further explore the various roles of titles in haibun composition might wish to read the article on the subject by Joan Zimmerman in Contemporary Haibun Online. 6

Overall, Woodward has given a lively poetic voice to his visit to the Detriot Institute of Arts. While this commentary isn’t a review of Evening in the Plaza, I can highly recommend the book for the usual enjoyment of reading well-crafted haibun and particularly to those writers who want to look more closely into how one of our unique and more poetic voices approaches haibun composition.






Following is the full text of “Institute of Arts” with permission to reprint given by Jeffrey Woodward.

Institute of Arts

Whenever I visit the Detroit Institute of Arts, when I tire of taxing my mind and my eyes with contemplation of Cézanne’s portrait of his wife, Hortense, or Botticelli’s Resurrected Christ, or even the rather grandiosely didactic but celebrated Detroit Industry mural by Diego Rivera, I relax by visiting those rare puppets on display from the Paul McPharlin Collection.

McPharlin, an American authority on puppetry in the first half of the 20th century, was a highly skilled puppeteer and puppet-maker himself, and founder of the Marionette Fellowship Troupe during the Great Depression in Detroit. He also authored The Puppet Theatre in America, still considered a standard reference in the field. McPharlin, unfortunately, died in 1948 at the age of 45.

It is no small thing to master an art, even if that art is rarely appreciated. So, again, I visit McPharlin’s collection, the puppets carefully suspended under glass, looking now at an exquisite Chinese marionette, now at a rare French clown or even at one of McPharlin’s own original and delicate creations.

for the marionette
deprived of its falsetto,
a dream of dancing






1. Jeffrey Woodward, ‘Institute of the Arts’, from Jeffrey Woodward, Evening in the Plaza: Haibun and Haiku, Tournesol Books, 2013, p. 16.

2. Ken Jones, ‘Ken’s Corner #4’, Contemporary Haibun Online, Resources pages: http://contemporaryhaibunonline.com/pages_all/KensCorner4.html

3. Nobuyuki Yuasa, Introduction to Matsuo Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, Penguin Classics, 1967. Quotation taken from Ken Jones, “Ken’s Corner #4.”

4. Ken Jones, 'Ken’s Corner #3' , Contemporary Haibun Online, Resources pages: http://contemporaryhaibunonline.com/pages_all/KensCorner3.html

5. Roberta Beary, ‘Sorry, Wrong Number’, as part of ’The Lost Weekend’, Frogpond, Volume 34:3, Modern Haiku, 2011.

6. J. Zimmerman, 'What Haibun Poets Can Learn From Non-haikai Western Poetry Practices: The Valentine’s Day Skywriter Spells Out His Own Name' , Contemporary Haibun Online, 9:3 October, 2013.


* Woodward’s haibun is a revision of a piece first published in Lynx XXII:2, June 2007.


About Jeffrey Woodward:

Jeffrey Woodward is one of the strongest advocates of the haibun and tanka prose forms. He founded and is general editor of the online journal Haibun Today and his many editorials have sounded an important call for a critical literature related to the two forms. Due to his gentle persuasive push, a number of writers have stepped into the role of writers of literary criticism of haibun. It’s safe to say that Haibun Today is now a very good (and still growing) repository of articles, reviews and interviews from which new and experienced writers alike can inform their understanding and practice of the forms. Woodward has also served as editor of Modern Haibun and Tanka Prose and as adjudicator for the British Haiku Society’s Haiku Awards. And he has a deep background in other poetic forms and literature.





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