a horse urinating
next to my pillow!
is only a world of dew—
and yet, and yet . . .
wonder what were the circumstances surrounding Basho¯’s
humorous, but unfortunate, encounter with insects and the
horse and Issa’s poignant reflection on mortality. We
of course know the circumstances because of the classical
form of autobiographical poetic prose that incorporates poetry,
haibun. In Basho¯’s travel diary Narrow Path
to the Interior (1694) , a classic of world literature, we
find how Basho¯ found himself in such lowly lodgings,
and in Issa’s My Spring (1819), a two-year journal of
his life, we find that Issa is grieving over the loss of his
was president of the Haiku Society of America I had two goals.
One was to promote the haibun form and the other was to encourage
the educational awareness of haiku, haibun, and other related
Japanese poetic forms. I realized these goals by publishing
the first non-Japanese haibun anthology, Journey to the Interior,
American Versions of Haibun (1998) and How to Haiku, A Student’s
Guide to Haiku and Related Forms (2001). I continued these
goals by becoming co-editor with Jim Kacian of the journal
American Haibun & Haiga (1999). One of my initial thoughts
in wishing to realize these goals was that new writers of
haiku might get a better understanding of the sensibility
underlying haiku by following a prose account of the circumstances
surrounding a haiku. Since then I have come to appreciate,
through my own attempts at the form and my reading of others’ work
in the form, that the prose and poetry of a haibun together
provide a unified poetic expression. In other words, a haibun
is not simply a narrative with an appended haiku.
been told by a Japanese professor that in Japan haibun is
considered a classical form and is no longer practiced there.
Be that as it may, and we must qualify this statement in a
moment with reference to modern Japanese literature, let us
look at a few examples of where haibun came from.
example of the classical haibun is an entry from Ki no Tsurayuki’s
The Tosa Diary (935) which chronicles the return of a court
official from an assignment in Tosa back to Kyoto, the capital:
18th February, 13th day. At daybreak the rain was gently falling
but then it stopped and we all went to the nearby place for
a hot bath. I looked over the sea and composed the following
the clouds overhead
look like rippling waves to me;
if the pearl divers were here
“Which is sea, which is sky?”
I’d ask and they’d answer
it was after the tenth day, the moon was especially beautiful.
After all these days, since I first came on board the ship,
I have never worn my striking bright red costume because I
feared I might offend the God of the Sea. Yet . . .
the very light tone in which this diary entry is expressed.
It is in fact a poetic flow of sensibility. The red costume
and the humor of the tanka particularly support that tone.
And we see how the tanka is composed and linked to the narrative:
the narrator looks out to sea and noticed the clouds overhead.
Thus he created a simile that compared the clouds to the sea
and then had some fun with his simile. Such linking of poetry
to prose is part of the Japanese literary tradition. Perhaps
the first novel in world literature, Murasaki Shikibu’s
The Tale of Genji (c. 1000), uses the exchange of tanka as
a narrative device in its fictional prose account of the ways
of court sensibility.
period of Basho¯, came what is known as the haikai style
of writing, a less literary and more homespun manner of writing
in general. Look at the light, playful tone in Basho¯’s “A
Ball of Snow” (1686):
Sora had moved in nearby, and we visit each other anytime,
night or day. While I am preparing a meal, he breaks up branches
for the fire; when I boil tea, he breaks up ice for the water.
He likes the solitary life and our friendship is as strong
as iron. One night after a snowfall he came visiting:
you make the fire
and I’ll show you something wonderful:
a big ball of snow!
Notice how the prose “I”/”he” parallelism is
repeated in the haiku’s “you”/”I’ll” but
in a reversed order and how the surprise and whimsy of the haiku’s
last line opens up and extends the sensibility evoked in the haibun.
is a worldwide form taking various modes of expression. To
name several examples, there are: the New Zealander Richard
von Sturmer’s A Network of Dissolving Threads (1991);
the Russian Alexey Andreyev’s Moyayama, Russian
Haiku: A Diary (1997), the Croatian Vladimir Devide’s
Haibun, Words & Pictures (1997); and the Romanian
Ion Codrescu’s A Foreign Guest (1999) and Mountain
Voices (2000). Most experimentation with the form, however,
has been in the United States, although the first published
North American haibun seems to be the Canadian Jack Cain’s “Paris” (1964).
An early example is Gary Snyder’s diary as a fire-spotter
in earth house hold (1957). Another figure in the
so-called Beat School, like Snyder, was Jack Kerouac who experimented
with the application of haibun values to the novel. Sections
of his Desolation Angels (1965) contain prose narrative
segments accompanied by relevant haiku that complete or expand
the segments. The Canadian Rod Wilmot in Ribs of Dragonfly (1984)
presented in a highly dense prose style a fictionalized account
of a love affair with relevant haiku appended in groups at
the end of each chapter. Such attempts harken back to The
Tale of Genji’s overture and the fiction of Natsume
Soseki (1867-1916), such as The Three Cornered World,
that incorporated a haiku and a haiku sensibility to fictionalized
narrative. Shiki’s (1867-1902) incorporation of tanka
into his personal diary entries is also suggested. D.D. Lliteras has
produced a trilogy of novels (1992-1994) with a somewhat Zennian
tone in the haibun form and David G. Lanoue has recently authored Haiku
Guy (2001), an account of a fictitious student of Issa
that explores the writing of haiku. In line with Snyder’s
diary and directly linking to Basho's Narrow Path to the
Interior in its travel journal sections on nature as
well as interesting characters and situations encountered
on the road is Tom Lynch’s Rain Drips from the Trees,
Haibun along the trans-Canadian Highway (1992).
is now obviously an open form. I had once defined that form,
reaching for the deepest connection such a form could hold,
as a “narrative of an epiphany.” This definition
was juxtaposed to the accompanying definition of haiku as “an
epiphany,” making here a distinction between haibun
haiku and other haiku. I have often thought that there was
a need for something like haibun in English-language
and world literature, notwithstanding the presence of prose
poetry. I had in mind what Wordsworth was after in The
Prelude and Whitman in Leaves of Grass. But
what was needed was that special relationship between a poignant
poem, say haiku, and a poignantly expressed poetic prose narrative.
aspect of such prose and poetry linking, one might look to
the haikai style of linking one verse to the next in a renga
or the image to the haiku in a haiga, as opposed to a solitary
haiku that stands alone in a sense of completion.
to me, as an editor of contemporary haibun, that two things
need to be considered in writing haibun. The first is to avoid
a too prosaic and plodding narrative as if one were simply
writing a narrative account. The second, which derives from
the first, is the issue of sensibility. The narrative should
be a flow of sensibility, of haikai style, if you will, that
incorporates the haiku accompanying it in that sensibility.
That said, there is room for all manner of approaches
and subjects in haibun: nature, urban, simple narrative, travel,
diary, dreams, expressionistic, dreams, persons, places, things,
love, death, etc.
seems to be a spectrum of latitude in haibun, from the dense, “high”-dictioned,
deep, serious, postmodern style of William M. Ramsey as in
his “Prayer for the Soul of a Mare,” which is
collected in my Journey to the Interior, American Versions
of Haibun, to the simple, naive, colloquial style of
Sally Secor’s “A Garden Bouquet,” which
is collected in up against the window, the first volume of American
Haibun & Haiga (1999).
there seems to be three important issues that need to be discussed
in relation to contemporary haibun: Which comes first in haibun
composition, the prose or the haiku? What are the implications
for haibun of haikai-style prose? What are the implications
of linking haiku and prose in haibun?
I had organized
a forum on haibun at the 2001 meeting of Haiku North America
in Boston at which I brought up these questions for discussion.
I introduced each question by reading from discussions over
these issues that were posted on the World Haiku Forum. With
regard to whether prose or haiku come first in haibun composition,
Allison Williams notes that she is “most happy when
the haiku and prose seem to come as a whole rather than either
prose first or haiku first.” Paul Conneally disagreed
with the findings of the British Haiku Society that a haiku
usually comes first and that this makes for a better haibun and
felt Allison’s view was closer to the truth, stressing
the value of retaining a sense of immediacy in the prose narrative.
He suggested that journal haiku might put one back to the
experience and writing the prose account would generate more
haiku. Marjorie Buettner concurs and suggests that writing
a haiku before the haibun would “feel awkward . . .
and artificial.” Debi Bender also concurs that her haiku
and tanka formulate after the prose but adds, echoing Alison,
that often “the genus of the haiku and the story or
narrative seem to mull about together as a unit and appear
together.” During the discussion of this issue
at Haiku North America both panel members and other attendees
seemed to in general favor the prose as coming first, although
there was a strong insistence on an organic relation between
prose and haiku, sometimes coming from different experiences.
Nonetheless, my proposed definition of haibun as a “narrative
of an epiphany” covers this approach by emphasizing
the prose narrative’s importance. Left undecided, the
general view seems to be that haibun is first and foremost
a narrative that is presented as prose although the prose
and the accompanying haiku are often formulated together at
the time of or out of the narrative event. This makes good
sense since narrative is at the heart of haibun, however experimental
question focuses on the prose itself. Bob Spiess, editor of Modern
Haiku, once told a haibun writer that a haiku makes or
breaks a haibun. One senses the wisdom in this. But this issue
is better looked at under the issue of linking. As an editor
of an anthology of haibun and a co-editor of a journal of
haibun, I find that too little attention is paid to the nature
of the prose. The two biggest problems seem to be plodding,
tonally flat narrative and stylistic sentimentality rather
than sentiment. After all, haibun is, according to its haikai
roots, composed in a poetic style. A haibun is meant to be
a poetic experience in its inception, composition, and reception.
Paul Conneally, accordingly, prefers prose that has the characteristics
of haiku: “present tense (and shifts of tense though
predominant voice in the ‘present’), imagistic,
shortened or interesting syntax, joining word such as ‘and’ limited
maybe, a sense of ‘being there’, descriptions
of places & people met and above all ‘brevity’.” Susumu
Takiguchi emphasizes the need to focus on the nature of such
poetic prose by warning that there are “pseudo-haibun” that
are “no more than long-winded haiku in disguise.” So
haibun prose should be haiku-like but not an “expanded” haiku.
At the Haiku North America haibun panel there seemed to be
a consensus that haibun prose should be “poetic.”
I have noticed
two successful prose styles in English-language haibun, both
of which incorporate the haikai values. One is a dense, “high” dictioned,
deep, serious style, often postmodern in its attempts to mediate
the spiritual malaise surrounding us. The writer William M.
Ramsey characterizes this style as in his “Prayer for
the Soul of a Mare” which is collected in my Journey
to the Interior, American Versions of Haibun. The other
is a simple, naive, colloquial style, often written out of
a simple faith in and acceptance of the nature of things.
Sally Secor’s “A Garden Bouquet” and
Cyril Child’s “Pantry Shelf,” both collected
in up against the window, American Haibun & Haiga,
Volume 1, are good examples. In responding to a question about
haiku embedded within haibun prose posted on the World Haiku
Forum, Paul Conneally notes: “I think the whole thing
is about balance – prose-poetry – not just prose.” He
then characterizes such haikai prose in Basho’s Narrow
Path to the Interior as opposed to “classical,” “vulgar,” and “mundane” prose.
If one needs an example of a master’s haikai style of
haibun here it is.
question of linking haiku to prose in haibun, the use of analogy
is helpful. Paul Conneally suggests one should link haiku
to prose “’renku’ style – not a direct
carry on from the prose telling some of which has already
been said – no – it should lead us on – let
our mind wander more, start travelling. Linking by ‘scent’ will
be greatly valued!” Anyone who has participated
in a renga will understand how perfectly that form’s
linking procedures apply to haibun. I once offered a haiku
of mine about and abandoned house and blossoming lilacs to
Kaji Aso at his studio in Boston . His haiga consisted of
flowing kanji and kana for the haiku and off to one
side a simple drawing of a sprig of lilacs. During the haibun
panel I presented this analogy from haiga as well as other
examples of haiga linking, some more direct, some more subtle.
The discussion that ensued was a tug of war between proponents
of privileging the prose and those of privileging the haiku
in linking. I spoke of a gestalt of linking that incorporated
both the prose and haiku and resolved the issue in the concept
of “privileging the link.” By so “privileging
the link” the haibun avoids the various pitfalls of
haibun writing and becomes a true haikai or “poetic” style
and more writers worldwide are becoming fulfilled as writers
through this wonderful form, this “narrative of an epiphany.” I
can only see infinite possibility in the future for haibun
and an opening that will provide a lasting and renewed contribution
to world literature.
from The World Haiku Review, vol 1, no 2, 2002.
is the editor of Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary
North American Haiku and Journey to the Interior:
American Versions of Haibun, and co-editor of the journal American
Haibun & Haiga. He has authored three collections
of haiku, most recently Silence: Collected Haiku,
and has forthcoming How to Haiku: A Student's Guide to
Haiku and Related Forms.