A Quarterly Journal of Contemporary English Language Haibun
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September 2007, vol 3 no 3

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Haibun: Union of Prose and Poetry
John Dunphy

Some authors write prose, while others write poetry. A few try to distinguish themselves in both fields, with varying degrees of success. As a haiku poet, I have the option of writing works that combine prose and poetry in one unique form.

Haibun (pronounced ‘hai-boon’) is a haiku-related literary genre that consists of taut prose accompanied by one or more haiku. When written well, a haibun delivers the power and insight found only in the best prose and poetry.

The subject matter of a haibun can be drawn from one’s personal experiences.

Battered Customers

My book shop’s original location was two doors away from a shelter for battered women. To ensure the security of its temporary residents, no sign identified the building. Of course, I was always painfully aware of its existence.

Many times I saw women, frequently accompanied by their children, emerge from cabs or police cars and enter the building. Occasionally the women carried a suitcase. More often, she and her children had only the clothes on their backs.

When these woman learned that my book shop was a safe place and that I would never betray their whereabouts, they stopped by to browse and temporarily forget the misery that forced them to seek refuge at the shelter. Even after so many years, I still recall particular customers.

on reading a joke book
her bruised face
tries to smile

The prose in a haibun is terse. The use of strong, carefully selected nouns and verbs should minimize the need for adjectives and adverbs. Think Hemingway at his best.

Off-White Supremacists

The Ku Klux Klan has held several cross burnings in my community. I observed one from a safe distance. About 150 figures in pointed hoods and long robes were gathered around a huge wooden cross that had been set aflame. A speaker harangued the crowd. A wind came up, and the brilliant robes rippled and shined at first, but grew duller as the rally went on, sullied by the oily smoke.

a cardinal perches on
the charred cross

The haiku following the prose should provide a powerful denouement that leaves no loose ends. When writing this haiku, there are two important maxims to keep in mind: The haiku should never be a mere reiteration of some point made in the prose, and it should be able to stand on its own as a literary work.

While personal experience surely provides the most riveting material for a haibun, its subject matter can also be derived from an incident one has learned about.

Last Day of Deer Season

I know a woman who has recently taken up hunting. Last autumn she went deer hunting with her father and a few of his buddies. They sat behind some brush near a deer trail for a considerable time but saw no prey. Suddenly, they heard dogs barking and decided to investigate.

A dog pack had surrounded a young doe. The animal bore a shotgun wound just above its left front leg. The woman’s father estimated the wound was two days old. Its eyes were glazed over with pain.

My friend’s father chased away the dogs, and the doe took refuge behind nearby brush. The hunting party encircled its hiding place and flushed it from cover.

Her father took careful aim at the animal’s spine and squeezed the trigger. The doe dropped, gasped three times and died. He quickly dressed the animal, removing even its liver and heart for future meals.

It was getting late, and the hunters were about to leave in their vehicles when one of the men spotted a buck some distance away. He didn’t have a clear shot in the fading light but, disappointed that he had bagged nothing, decided to risk it.

The buck ran into the woods. When the hunters examined the spot where it had stood, they found fresh blood. Since encroaching darkness made tracking the buck impossible, the hunters returned to their vehicles for the journey home.

snarling dogs surround
a wounded deer

As a humanist activist, I have often written about my experiences while working in movements for justice and equality. This haibun was born when I was assisting an organizer for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), a labor union that seeks to better the lives of migrant farm workers. While “Enrique” is a composite character, a grower indeed made such a comment to a union organizer when asked the question posed in this haibun.

Land of Opportunity

Enrique works a 12-hour day six or seven days a week during the growing season, for less than minimum wage. He is exposed to dangerous chemicals, lacks hand-washing and toilet facilities, lives in a squalid, unsanitary shack. His life expectancy is 25 years less than mine.

When a union organizer asked a grower how he could treat Enrique and other migrant workers so shamefully, the grower shrugged and replied, “It’s easy. They’re the new niggers.”

migrant farm worker
his own bit of land
in the potter’s field

When I heard John Updike speak at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville some years ago, he criticized literary works that push a social or political agenda. “Who reads the proletarian fiction of the 1930s these days?” he asked rhetorically.

With all due respect to the late Mr. Updike, I believe that authors can and should write works that draw readers attention to injustice. “Land of Opportunity” underscores the plight of migrant farm workers but without descending into moralizing. Slogans belong on signs and banners at demonstrations — not in works of literature.

Some incidents are so poignant that the haibun virtually writes itself, as was the case with the following selection. The prose is like a highway leading to a destination that is the haiku.

Battlefield Memento

I recently learned of a Vietnam veteran whose battalion was overrun during a battle in the Ia Drang Valley. His company suffered a casualty rate of over 90 per cent during a 24-hour period of hand-to-hand fighting.

In the early 1990s this man and a few other Ia Drang veterans returned to Vietnam and walked that long-ago battlefield. He wanted to find some memento of that conflict, such as shrapnel or a shell casing, to leave beside that panel of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — “The Wall” — that contains the names of his comrades killed during that battle.

But he found no war relics. Over the years nature had effaced all traces of that horrendous engagement. Beautiful flowers now bloomed where once men had died. Still, this veteran wanted some memento to lay at The Wall panel listing his fallen comrades.

next to names of war dead
pressed flowers
from their last battlefield

Many haiku journals publish haibun, while some web sites are devoted exclusively to this fascinating genre. The world of haibun awaits your exploration. With this essay as a passport, you are ready to begin your journey.


All haibun in this essay were written by the author and have been previously published. For an introduction to haiku, see his earlier essay for this blog at: http://www.stltoday.com/blogzone/book-blog/book-blog/2008/07/what-is-a-haiku-and-what-isnt/

This essay was published in cho with permission of the author. Originally published by the Saint Louis Dispatch Online, March 21, 2009.