A Boy's Seasons
Van den Heuvel, Cor. A Boy’s Seasons. Portsmouth, N.H.: Single Island Press, 2010, 205 pp., perfect softbound, 6 .5 x 7.5. ISBN: 978-0-97-40895-8-4, 24.95 USD <http://www.haikumuse.com/home.html >
Cor van den Heuvel is perhaps best known as the editor of the three editions of The Haiku Anthology. For over 40 years he has been a leader in the haiku movement and a tireless promoter of haiku and its related forms. He is a translator, a highly regarded critic and one of the haiku movement’s foremost poets. Past president of the Haiku Society of America, his awards include three HSA Merit Book Awards, a World Haiku Achievement Award presented to him at the World Haiku Festival (2000) in London and The Masaoka Shiki International Haiku Prize for 2002. Anyone interested in haiku ought to know who he is and should be familiar with his work.
A Boy’s Seasons is van den Heuvel’s tenth publication and is very well produced, the layout in particular. The subtitle on the cover, “haibun memoirs,” indicates that the work is autobiographical. There are no less than 28 substantial haibun, some of which contain shorter haibun, 250 poems, 15 pages of endnotes and a nine-page afterword. It is the length of a novel and has the same level of complexity you would expect to find in that genre.
There are four main sections: the one from which the title comes,“A Boy’s Seasons,” which contains 17 haibun about the various seasonal pastimes of van den Heuvel’s youth, anything from marbles to baseball; “The Paper Route,” a poem or sequence; “A Boy’s Fights,” divided into three haibun; and “A Boy’s Holidays,” consisting of eight haibun on the traditional American holidays from New Year to Christmas. Each haibun is distinct, as is “The Paper Route,” but they are all richly woven together with recurring themes of boyhood, growing up and coming of age, which, along with its length, makes A Boy’s Seasons a book in every sense of the word.
Many of van den Heuvel’s remarks about the book in the introduction are unnecessary since he repeats them so much more effectively in the opening haibun that immediately follows. The endnotes are complementary, interesting and informative. The afterword consists of a concise, accurate overview of the history of haibun, including its origins in English, as well as a tribute to those who introduced him to this form.
The prose is very well written, wonderfully lyrical, often beautifully lucid and at times the most marvelous poetry. The poems range from isolated, poignant moments in the narrative to some of the best haiku and senryu you will ever read.
The haibun have both similarities and differences with Basho’s original conception of it, what I will call “traditional haibun,” and the earlier Japanese poetic diaries. In the afterword, van den Heuvel also acknowledges the influence of Jack Kerouac. Ultimately, however, van den Heuvel’s haibun, like his haiku and senryu, are very much his own.
Carl Patrick says in his preface that A Boy’s Seasons is written as if everything occurred within the space of one year, regardless of the boy’s age; as if van den Heuvel has “suspended the activities of childhood in a kind of time warp, an eternal present.” However, this feature is only true of “A Boy’s Seasons” and “A Boy’s Holidays,” not the entire book.
Makoto Ueda calls haibun “haiku prose or prose written in the spirit of haiku.” Hiroaki Sato calls it “haikai prose” The principal characteristics of haiku prose, many of which are often lost in translation, are the following: the prose is brief; the sentences are short and crisp, filled with multiple, sensory images of everyday events; there are few abstract ideas; the language used is “concise, allusive and figurative;” they tend to be detached and restrained although thoughts, feelings and emotions are directly expressed; and there is almost always a sense of lightness or humour, some of which is irony.
Some of the haiku do not have the necessary independence to be a poem even though they may function like one in the haibun:
“go on home
your mother’s callin’ ya”
This quote appears toward the end of the second section of “A Boy’s Fights” and by the time you reach this point there is an established storyline with developed characters. As a result, this rather trite, juvenile taunt captures the moment, contrasts with the seriousness of the fight to the boys involved and functions as a lighthearted senryu. The poet is of course laughing at himself.
The following sequnce is from the “Easter” haibun:
dew on a cellophane wrapper
in the driveway
in the grass a soft
rain is washing
an Easter egg
not a crumb remains
of the chocolate rabbit
Each of these is a poem in its own right and together they form a fourth independent poem that is simply outstanding. Then there is the relationship with the prose to consider. This sequence emphasizes the dual nature of the work as a whole with its two levels of perception and interpretation: the boy’s and the adult’s, the literal suchness of the moment and the human implications of it. There are also longer sequences that follow each of the haibun introductions to the individual seasons.
These major shifts away from traditional haibun are found in contemporary English explorations with the form in which there are the usual divisions along traditional and non-traditional lines between writers and theorists over what defines a haibun and whether shifts such as these are acceptable or necessary. Regardless of these differing viewpoints, there are a lot of first rate, interesting and innovative haibun being written today and van den Heuvel, while firmly rooted in tradition, is at the forefront of these exciting developments. And without a doubt, he sets a very high standard of excellence for this genre as is seen in the following excerpt taken from the opening section “The Seasons.” After telling us he devoted all of his time and energy to repeatedly practicing his three favourite sports, van den Heuvel continues by saying:
This devotion was a kind of religion. With my mind and body totally involved in the practice or playing of these sports I felt a oneness with my surroundings, and by extension with the universe. The mind became clear. Set only in the direction of completing an act of beauty and grace—though never thought of in such sissy terms, but rather as a feat of strength and skill—it, the mind, became completely united with my body and together they moved through space and time to a pitch of motion that sometimes passed into the wonder of perfection, the perfect swing, the perfect pass into the end zone, or the perfect hookshot floating up in a flowing arc to fall with a whisper through the strings of the basket.
first warm day
fitting my fingers into the mitt
pounding the pocket
When it was warm and sunny enough for us to get out a ball and gloves for a game of catch, we knew winter was over. A baseball flying through the air was our sign of spring. We loved the sight of it the way a Japanese haiku poet loves to see the first plum blossom flowering in a still snowy landscape. A baseball was our plum blossom. Blossoming in the blue skies of early spring when snow and puddles still lingered along the side of the road, it would continue to bloom all summer long.
the long fly ball to center field
takes its time
When the leaves began to turn color and started falling, and there was a frostiness in the air, it was time to switch to throwing and kicking a football.
a football twirls through
the falling leaves
When the ground got hard and snow began to fall it was time to play basketball, hopefully in a gym, but if not, we shoveled out the snow around the basket in the backyard.
the sound of the basketball
in the empty gym
So for me there were three main seasons: baseball, football, and basketball. And the four natural seasons became their backdrop.
Van den Heuvel is masterful with lineation, sound, rhythm and cadence, from the beautifully long, flowing sentence of the first paragraph to the intricately woven sounds that cascade down through the prose and the haiku. Note as well how the sound of the bouncing basketball in the last haiku echoes the pounding of the glove in the first. Each of the extraordinary haiku in this haibun is the epitome of its season with literal, metaphorical and other levels of interpretation. As in the very best haiku, they also contain multiple sensory images.
As the mitt, the baseball, the football and the basketball reappear throughout the book, they take on a symbolic, if not archetypical significance:
I spin the basketball
on one finger
There is perfect balance and fragility. Even though the boy has the world at his fingertip and the image, like a statue, seems eternal, everyone knows it cannot last. I am reminded of Hercules, Rodin’s Thinker and Hamlet all rolled into one.
In addition to the haibun, there is “The Paper Route,” which van den Heuvel calls a haiku sequence, although around a third or more are senryu; and, as with some of the poems and the sequences in the haibun, there are verses in it that are not independent but work perfectly as stanzas of a poem. It is dated the winter of 1944-45, which would mean that van den Heuvel was in his early teens. It is written as if everything occurs in one evening and the excellent haiku and senryu embrace many of the themes in this book.
leaving one walking towards
Adolescent intimations of sexuality:
the darkness between houses
I dream of the young widow
wearing only her slip
As always, basketball and baseball:
dodging around a snowbank
I sink a long shot
for the silent stars
the snowy field
where we played baseball
Just beginning to understand things more deeply:
just visible in a dark window
the gold star flag
And the comfort of domesticity:
sounds of supper
I shut the door quietly
on the evening news
Perhaps the reader by now may have noticed that van den Heuvel’s poems are quite long. The majority of them are 15 syllables or more and a number of them are over 20, with 24 being the maximum. I have always seen the length of a haiku as a matter of choice although around 17 syllables seems a reasonable limitation. The longer form permits more detail and greater attention to sound and lyricism. Redundancy, which is really the curse of a specific syllable count and not the number of syllables as such, is hard to find in this book; and even when it is arguably present, the poet has made a clear artistic choice, not a mistake. The longer poems also work well with the longer prose.
There is tremendous diversity in this book, as we have already seen, and the following two excerpts, one from “Memorial Day” and the other from the “Halloween” haibun are just two more shining examples:
The parade would end up at the town’s biggest and oldest cemetery on the Dover Point Road, where prayers and speeches were given in praise of those who had died for freedom in all our wars and somebody would always recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. With their rifles pointing at the sky, squads of soldiers would fire salutes to the war dead, and then taps would sound sad and long under the blue May sky, stretching over the wide lawns of the cemetery, and fading into the surrounding pine trees. The crowd would slowly disperse, some people staying to decorate the graves:
after the speeches
the honored dead return
to their silence
in the deserted cemetery
Then we might wander up the dark country road who-whooing like an owl or moaning like a ghost until we came to the next house, where a pumpkin-headed figure stuffed with straw was propped up on the lawn. We walked under a large bat hanging from the dark porchlight, and then jumped three feet in the air when the door suddenly opened and a monster holding its own head under its arm shook a long (rubber) knife at us.
the chimes ring deep in the house
but nobody comes
The following is the “Spring” haibun. Like many of the introductions to the individual haibun it is written in the third person and we move from the general to the particular, another technique found in traditional haibun:
Spring is mud . . . and baseball. Warm sunlight and warm breezes mingling with a coolness from the still cold earth and the melting snows of winter. It’s a white ball flying through the air, from one leather glove to another—back and forth—until, missing one of the gloves, it lands on the spongy lawn among patches of dirty snow—or splashes into a mud puddle in the driveway. Spring’s an open window in the classroom and a strange restlessness in the class. Sweaters tied around the neck or the waist. The softness and glitter of girls coming out from under coats hats and fluttering in the sunny breezes. It’s your dog running through puddles and chasing nothing at all back and forth across the front lawn. It’s standing in the outfield waiting for the ball to come your way while the cries float out from the infield: “Atta boy, Lefty . . . No hitter up there.” It’s marbles and bubble-gum cards and pussy willows. It’s riding your bike off ramps made with boards on heaped-up dirt and flying through the air with a sinking feeling in your stomach. It’s swinging like Tarzan from limb to limb through the trees budding with new leaves. It’s hanging out on street corners, dreaming in the library, running on a baseball field, going fishing in the pond, getting tongue tied in front of a pretty girl. It’s a feeling of loosening bonds, rising energy, wild abandon—freedom. And baseball.
spread out on the bed
This beautifully poetic prose is a little closer to the brevity of traditional haibun. The haiku contrasts sharply with the prose after which you would expect a home run not the game rained out. But the boy’s enthusiasm for baseball, like spring itself, cannot be contained. The baseball cards and the game are all brought to life by the boy and the April rain.
The final section involves “Christmas haibun:
Whatever was lost in growing up, a little glimmer of it still shines for me in the lights and decorations of any Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, even if it is standing in the middle of a crowded airlines terminal, in a hotel lobby, or draped in snow in a small-town square.
on a train
Christmas lights in all the towns
flicker into the past
As the last one in the book, this haibun provides the perfect ending.
A Boy’s Seasons is certainly one of the best haiku publications you are going to read, both in breadth and scope, although I cannot imagine it necessary to recommend highly to the haiku community any book written by Cor van den Heuvel.
1. Doubleday Anchor, 1974; Simon & Schuster, 1986; Norton, 1999.
2. Miner, E.. Japanese Poetic Diaries. Univ. of California, Press, 1976.
3. Ueda, M. Matsuo Basho. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1982, p. 112..
4. Sato, H. Basho’s Narrow Road. Berkeley: Stonebridge , 1996, p. 19.
5. Most of this paragraph is found in Higginson, W. & Harter, P. The Haiku Handbook, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985, p. 211 as well as in Matsuo Basho, p. 142; although the qualifications and opinions are mine.