Haibun to a Western Readership
Kenkyusha’s New Pocket Japanese-English Dictionary defines
haibun as a “terse
prose-poem.” The “hai” part relates the form to
haikai or a loose style of writing. The “bun” part designates
it as some sort of composition. Haibun does not appear in English
dictionaries and, probably, as well in other non-Japanese dictionaries.
Japan it is apparently thought of as an ancient form of diary, say
from the 10th-century “Tosa Diary” of Ki no Tsurayuki,
which incorporated tanka into its prose to Basho’s 17th-century
Narrow Road to the Interior, the masterpiece of world literature,
to Shiki’s early twentieth-century diaries of his illness, although
Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) adapted the form to fiction writing. Only
very recently have Japanese writers, inspired by worldwide contemporary
experiments with haibun, begun to practice the form anew.
the form had a lightness of expression characteristic of Japanese
literature. The natural world and human world as they were experienced,
along with occasional imaginative embellishments, became the subject
matter of haibun. Like most traditional Japanese literature there
was an accent of feeling connected with nature. The form is unusual
in its linking of prose and poetry, usually haiku. As in a haiga which
establishes a link of sensibility between a haiku and a drawing in
one artistic work, haibun in various direct and indirect ways links
its prose and poetry.
the 1950’s the so-called Beats turned to the form along with
other explorations of Eastern culture, such as Gary Snyder’s
diaries or Jack Kerouac’s fiction. Since then and with an initial
focus on travel writing, beginning with a haibun on Paris in 1964
by the Canadian writer Jack Cain, there has been a flurry of international
haibun activity, including book-length travel journals, novel trilogies,
neo-classic approaches, expressionistic experiments, and the like.
In Journey to the Interior, American Versions of Haibun (1998)
I documented some of this activity.
then I have watched Western haibun evolve further and have rethought
my ideas about haibun, what it is and what it isn’t, partially
as a result of editorial duties, leading an online international haibun
competition, leading a haibun panel discussion, conducting numerous
haibun workshops in varied educational contexts, reading my haibun
at poetry gatherings, and through my own evolving practice.
typical extended haibun workshop would include exercises in nature
haibun, narrative haibun, travel haibun, and diary haibun, with various
numbers of prose paragraphs and haiku. A simple exercise would consist
of writing a haibun consisting of a title, a few sentences, and a
to the Interior I took the high road and described haibun as
the “narrative of an epiphany” and haiku as “an
epiphany.” In my article “Narratives of the Heart: Haibun” (World
Haiku Review 1:2, August 2001) I advised avoiding “a
too prosaic and plodding narrative as if one were simply writing
a narrative account” and that “the narrative should
be a flow of sensibility.” I emphasized the poetic nature
of both the prose and the haiku. Finally I resolved the issue of
whether the prose or the haiku were more privileged in haibun through
the idea of “privileging the link” between them. As
in collaborative renga form, where the link between two adjacent
stanzas of poetry is highlighted, or as in haiga where the link
between a haiku and a drawing is highlighted, the link between the
prose and haiku in a haibun comes to be highlighted.
as with the so-called “ah” moment of a haiku which is
naturally elicited from presentations of insight, beauty, awe, recognition,
surprise, and so on, the narrative of a haibun usually leads us to
such occasions as a “narrative of an epiphany,” both of
greater or lesser intensity. This is accomplished through a “flow
of sensibility” in which feeling takes precedence over a simple
recording of an event. The haiku in their link to the haibun prose
are part of this “flow of sensibility.” Moreover, the
haiku are not just another step in the chronology of a prose narrative.
They are a poetic interchange with that narrative. Here highlighting
a particular feeling evoked by the narrative, there extending the
implication of the narrative, and so forth.
an example, I offer my “Motionless,” which was originally
posted on an internet haibun list and picked for quality, if I remember
correctly, for the online World Haiku Review. The background
for the haibun was a conversation I had just about a year ago with
a gardener whose wife is Swedish. He told me about going up to New
Sweden, Maine for the summer solstice festival. That got me going
and I ruminated about long summer days while I prepared for my brother’s
is the summer solstice and north of us in New Sweden the revelry modeled
on Swedish customs includes frenzied dancing around a Maypole. I discover
a tiny beige moth sleeping on our beige rug. Later I gather flowers
for my brother’s visit on this longest day of the year.
a lupine stem
form is simple: a title, three sentences, and one haiku. Notice the
present tense perspective as in haiku. The concluding haiku is not
the next step in the prose narrative but resonates in its link to
the long, lazy summer day, the longest in the year, the sleeping moth,
and, in opposition, the frenzied dancing. Presumably those sleeping
aphids make for an “ah" moment in the haiku and an overall “ah” response
to the haibun as a whole when the haiku links the prose.
seems over time that, as for American haibun, I would value sincerity
and simplicity as well as mental focus and depth, ranging from a childlike
style to postmodern existential overtures. Likewise I would find inappropriate
parodies of certain established prose genres and styles that, minus
the haiku, would probably have a hard time finding their way into
magazines and journals specializing in those genres and styles.
most haibun are published with titles that also provide a link to
the prose and haiku of a haibun, although many haibun are being published
without them in online and hard copy haibun venues. Most haibun are
fairly short, from a one paragraph and one haiku format to a few short
paragraphs interspersed with haiku. There are also pages of prose
and interspersed haiku being published, usually of travel diaries.
haibun are, more and more, being attempted and published, including
individual collections of haibun, in varying styles, tones, and focuses.
Experiments, as appropriate to a linking form, in collaborative “renbun” are
these circumstances, the guides of “flow of sensibility” and “privileging
the link” should be useful.
speculate how world haibun might evolve is anyone’s guess. I
would not mind finding a gifted novelist in whatever native language
finding himself in the international literary spotlight for creating
a superior haibun-styled novel. Nor would I mind the broader recognition
worldwide of a form that fills an enormous and obvious gap in literature:
the relationship between prose and poetry.
originally thought of haibun as a way that haiku could be understood
within the context of a prose narrative. Now I see that haibun is
an art unto itself.
it goes I am especially delighted to see the high quality of this
art form in some of the haibun experiments in English and beyond.
From Simply Haiku,
November-December 2004, Volume 2, Number 6
Ross is the editor of Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary
North American Haiku (1993) and is co-editor of the journal American
Haibun & Haiga. He authored Journey to the Interior,
American Versions of Haibun (1998) and How to Haiku, A Student's
Guide to Haiku and Related Forms (2001). He has published three
collections of original haiku: thousands of wet stones (1988), among
floating duckweed (1994) and Silence: Collected Haiku (1997).
He is a past president of the Haiku Society of America. His haiku,
senryu, haibun, collaborative renga, haiga, reviews, translations,
and articles have appeared in haiku journals worldwide. Bruce lives
with his wife in Maine where they climb mountains, cross-country ski,