by Ray Rasmussen
Very little has been done in the way of informed critical study of the haibun form, particularly when compared with the number of haiku studies. The likely reason is that only in the past two decades have we had a substantial body of work: Journals that publish haibun exclusively, haiku-genre journals that publish haibun regularly, numerous haibun anthologies, and a steady stream of haibun collections from various poets and presses. And because serious practitioners of haiku appear to outnumber their haibun counterparts, it seems natural that fewer writers are interested in producing critical comments at this early stage in the development of English-language haibun.
Within the small body of haibun criticism, the emphasis has been on describing its characteristics. An example is the Haiku Society of America’s curt definition that “Haibun is a terse, relatively short prose poem in the haikai style, usually including both lightly humorous and more serious elements. A haibun usually ends with a haiku.” 1 Noteworthy in this definition and consistent across all critical voices is a silence about the role of the haibun’s title (much less its existence).
Intuitively, a title is important; otherwise, why have one? An examination of a random selection of recently published haibun by 112 different writers 2 revealed that 97% have titles. It may be that the almost universal use of titles is simply an early orthodoxy adopted because writers feel a need to add one to what is, after all, a very short story. Perhaps haibun will at some point follow the practices of tanka and haiku. But given that most writers include titles in their haibun, what strategies do they employ when doing so?
Types of Titles
Two categories were adopted in classifying the 112 haibun:
Denotative Titles: These are words or phrases that provide a direct and obvious context for the prose and haiku. Examples include place names (“The London Bridge”) or descriptions of an experience (“A Walk by the Lake”). Denotative titles may cite certain objects that are important in the piece, they may provide a succinct summary, or they may simply repeat key phrases or words in the prose or haiku. 3
Connotative Titles: These contain an allusion — a reference to another writer’s work, to a significant place or time, or to symbols or archetypes.
The two categories resemble the avowed dominant strategies employed by writers in composing the two images that constitute most haiku — namely, that the relationship between them can be direct or indirect. Denotative titles are direct in their relationship to the prose, serving primarily as doorways to the prose and poem. Connotative titles are oblique to some degree and serve as more than an entrance. They represent the same sort of associative imagining as does the relationship between the images in a haiku.
The categories are not necessarily exclusive nor exhaustive. For example, the title of a haibun may be classified differently according to who the reader is. The title “Dover Beach and My Back Yard”4 would be recondite to a non-reader of English literature, but it would not be abstruse to a group of English literature majors or to an avid reader of British poetry. Readers bring their own personal histories to whatever they read. So, while some readers may assume a title has no connotations, others may read connotations into the title.
Most of the 112 randomly selected haibun of this study employed a denotative title (59%), while about half that number used a connotative title (29%). Some titles were placed in both categories (6%) — while one could read allusions into these titles, it wasn’t clear that readers would. The remainder either used “Untitled” or “Haibun” (3%) or the first few words of the initial prose sentence as the title (3%).
That most writers seem to prefer denotative titles may be a matter of default. Needing a title, they created one to introduce readers to the prose but without the intent of it doing much more than that and perhaps designed to leave them free to develop their own connotations from the prose and haiku. Many of them might have been composed by filling in the blank: “This haibun is about _____.”
In contrast, a connotative title raises a flag: “Examine the title carefully. It’s an important part of this piece.” It’s difficult to imagine that writers create titles with connotations without intending to do so. However, readers are likely to infer connotations into a title even when the writer did not intend them.
Ingrid Kunschke’s title “The Credenza”5 provides a straight-forward path to the poet’s prose, which is focused on the history of a credenza made by her grandfather and on its accumulated contents — the family memorabilia that her mother collected in it. These excerpts illustrate the main themes:
Years before grandpa’s masterpiece found the way to my parental home, it had taken on a place in my imagination. The credenza: I racked my brains over this word. Given his trade, it had to be some kind of furniture.
Mum … stored board games, cameras and photo albums. Heavy albums with black and white photographs, that peeled off at the slightest turn of a page, and small, battered ones from which grandpa, great-great-aunts and a girl with long plaits looked frankly at our new world. Now we had a family altar.
Alternative denotative titles for her piece might have been “Family Shrine” or “Memorabilia”. Sliding on a scale between denotative and connotative might be “Place of Memories” or “Touching the Past”. More toward connotative would be “Transformations”, which would ask the reader to consider what it is that has been transformed or changed, as in from wood to credenza, from an empty credenza to a safe place for keeping family artifacts, and from writer as child to writer as adult.
The purpose of providing these alternative titles isn’t to suggest that they are superior to the original but, instead, to offer examples of both denotative and connotative titles and the complexities associated with classifying them. An additional purpose is to show how a hypothetical author might choose one title from among several options.
David Cobb’s “Hole with a View”6 serves as a connotative title that can be read as an ironic evocation of E.M. Forster’s novel, A Room with a View. A few excerpts provide a feel for the piece:
… I can work out more or less where it will be. The ‘old half’ of the village churchyard, downside of the bank which in gently undulating Essex is styled a ‘cliff’, on the church side of the brook, admits no new corpses. Nowadays we of the village, when we are ‘called up’, reassemble on the top shelf, like a squad at drill.
… this is a prime spot. Not because the edge of the cliff has more sunshine, or is nearer the oaks and ash trees where the songbirds gather, or is closer to the bells that ring for weddings. Simply, it has the best view when the whole village, or most of it, comes together on Christmas Eve for carols by candlelight.
With a denotative title such as “Village Graveyard”, Cobb’s piece would be tightly focused on an aging man’s contemplation of death. It’s only the title that asks us to consider other readings. Forster’s A Room with a View describes a romantic relationship between two young people on holiday in Italy during the Victorian era and a room with a spectacular view of Florence. Cobb’s haibun is an end-of-life monologue on the narrator’s permanent resting place, which has a noteworthy view of his village at Yuletide. With a simple reference in the title, the fullness of life’s journey from first love to the lonely end faced by us all is evoked. Again, Cobb may not have intended these meditative connotations, and only readers familiar with A Room with a View might make the association.
Just 3% of the writers in our sample used a run-on title that doubles as the first few words of the prose, as is the case with Harriot West’s haibun:7
he’s looking at me but I can’t be sure. I feign interest in the drummer’s solo, slide my index finger down the inside of my lover’s arm.
the horn player’s
A run-on title may be intended to eliminate the possibility of the added connotations that an independent title might entail because it’s part of the prose. However, as with line breaks in free verse, a run-on title isolates and thus emphasises a particular word or phrase in the first sentence of the prose. The emphasis might not otherwise have been recognised by readers had it been part of the first sentence (as in “Maybe he’s looking at me…”) with a denotative title at the top (such as “Nightclub”). In this case, readers can hardly help but ask, “Maybe what?” Maybe the drummer is interested in the protagonist? Or maybe the protagonist is hinting at her attraction to the horn player (“his swollen lips”)?
In our sample, few writers used titles such as Jeffrey Winke’s “Keeps Hammering the Dull.”8 Winke’s title simply repeats a string of words in the prose: “The stupid thing keeps hammering the dull, grimy windowpane hell-bent on achieving a deadly concussion before a thwack will splat the life out of it.” Although many writers use words or phrases taken directly from the prose, Winke’s is different because when the reader first encounters it, it doesn’t make sense. Thus, it’s likely designed to evoke more interest than a denotative title, such as “Bar Scenes” or “Messing with the Boys”. It’s not until readers proceed further into the text that they discover that the phrase is taken directly from the prose and that it’s a fly that “keeps hammering the dull, grimy windowpane”. In this case, the title repeated in the text does invite the reader to ask, “Why did he pick this particular phrase?” An inference that could be made is that talk at a “good ol’ boy bar” tends to be dull and it’s at that dullness that Winke’s protagonist hammers with his order of chardonnay:
good-ol’-boy bar —
I mess with them,
order a chardonnay
Connotative versus Denotative?
A haiku enhances the prose in a haibun, making the piece something more than a haibun’s near relatives: A prose poem, flash fiction, a journal entry, or a short story. Does a haibun additionally need a title to do this? If not, then one could argue that a denotative title that creates a context for the prose, but that is unlikely to convey allusions in the minds of the readers, would best serve a piece. In short, let the prose and poem carry the work. On the other hand, why not use a connotative title to enhance a haibun? One could argue that writers who use connotative titles are creating greater interest or exercising greater creativity in alluding to a relationship among title, prose, and haiku. However, one could also reasonably argue that a denotative title containing very limited information might serve as the best pathway to the theme of the haibun and thus leave readers freer with their private interpretations — literal, figurative, moral, spiritual.
It’s not possible to be certain whether a writer intended a connotation, and writers can never be sure whether readers will infer unintended connotations for their titles. Thus, all titles can likely be arranged on a continuum between denotative (readers are unlikely to infer extra connotations) and connotative (readers can hardly help but ask how an unusual title relates to the prose and poem).
The two categories are best seen as serving to prompt the writer to ask, “What is it that I want to do with the title?” And just as readers ask themselves, “What is the relationship between haiku and prose?” they might also be prompted to ask, “Does the writer have something in mind with his or her choice of title?”
This is but the beginning of an exploration of the types and roles of titles in haibun composition. It is not a call for the increased use of connotative titles nor for the improved use of denotative titles. Instead, the central message is that no matter how titles are constructed, they are an essential part of the working of a haibun. The essay is meant to raise awareness of the issues associated with creating a title and to provide writers with alternative title strategies gleaned from the existing haibun literature. Although the discussion was initially focused on defining denotative and connotative titles in order to get a fix on the types of titles used by writers, it naturally shifted to a larger issue that writers might consider when composing their titles. Can a connotative title be usefully employed to add meaning to the work? What denotative title will work best to clear the path to prose and poem? When does a title tell too much, reducing the element of surprise in the prose and poem? Would it be useful to use a run-on title in order to emphasise an aspect of the prose? Can a title be created that engages the reader’s interest?
The reasons that writers use different types of titles are, at this point, a matter of speculation. It may be that neither writers nor editors pay much attention to titles — if the prose and haiku work well together, then any reasonable denotative title serves. Or perhaps writers and editors spend considerable time creating and evaluating the efficacy of titles. It remains for a second study to learn from the writers how they think about and compose titles for their haibun.9
It may also be that worth exploring the extent to which journal editors influence a writer’s choice of a haibun title. As an example, several well-published writers have indicated in private correspondence that some editors have insisted that titles be added when haibun are submitted as untitled pieces. Others report that editors discourage both run-on titles and those that repeat phrases in the prose.
In the end, one hopes that readers of this essay will conclude, along with Gertrude Stein, that a rose is not necessarily a rose.10 One also hopes that discussions of haibun titles, including their types and uses, will enter the critical dialogue.
The author would like to acknowledge the considerable help given by Richard Straw and Jeffrey Woodward in classifying haibun, creating names for the categories, and critiquing the text.
1. “Official Definitions of Haiku and Related Terms,” Haiku Society of America, September 18, 2004. Read it here.
2. The author, Jeffrey Woodward, and Richard Straw independently classified a random sample of 112 haibun by different writers from complete issues of four mainstream haiku-genre and haibun-exclusive journals. There was sufficient agreement between the independent assessments to provide reasonable confidence in the reported statistics. Each of the 112 titles was classified as “untitled”, “denotative” (where all three did not construe a connotation), “connotative” (where all three did infer a connotation), or “uncertain” (where one or more but not all three saw a connotation).
3. Another early orthodoxy often discussed in online haibun forums is that the title should not repeat words or phrases in the prose or poem. However, it’s not the purpose of the present essay to explore the pros and cons of such pronouncements.
4. Ray Rasmussen, “Dover Beach and My Backyard”, in Colin Blundell and Graham High (eds.), Dover Beach and My Backyard: British Haiku Society Haibun Anthology, 2007, p. 28.
5. Ingrid Kunschke, “The Credenza”, Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose, Issue 2, Winter 2009, pp. 30-31.
6. David Cobb, “Hole with a View”, Business in Eden. Shalford, Essex, England: Equinox Press, 2006, pp. 56-57.
7. Harriot West, “Maybe”, Modern Haiku, 39:1.
8. Jeffrey Winke, “Keeps Hammering the Dull”, Haibun Today, June 24, 2009. Read it here. Also see Winke’s I’ll Tell You So: A flash story/haibun collection, Ellison Bay, WI: Cross + Roads Press, 2010, p. 52.
9. The author would welcome comments by writers about how they think about and select titles for their haibun. Email Ray Rasmussen.
10. According to Wikipedia, the phrase “A Rose is a rose is a rose” is probably Gertrude Stein’s most famous quote. The original “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” is the first line of her poem “Sacred Emily”, Geography and Plays (The Four Seas Company, 1922, p. 187). The phrase expresses the notion that the name of anything appearing in a work evokes associations and thus a rose is not simply a rose.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Frogpond 33.3 (2010) and appears here with the author’s permission.
Ray Rasmussen resides in Edmonton, Canada. His haibun, haiga, haiku, articles and reviews have appeared in the major print and online haiku genre journals. He and Jim Kacian founded and he designed the website for Contemporary Haibun Online for which he serves as technical editor. Ray also designed the website and is general editor for Haibun Today. Visit his haiku and photo website.