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September 2017, vol 13 no 3

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Bob Lucky

Oh, Haibun! Haibun!: A Word or Two

In my review of Journeys 2017, I made a comment about John Ashbery's inability to write haiku for his haibun. I assumed, and I hope I was correct, that most readers know that Ashbery knows exactly what a haiku is. (Sadly, there needs to be a slight verb tense adjustment. Ashbery died on 3 September.) My comment had to do specifically with his haiku in the haibun under review. They are, all things considered, poetic attempts to capture the essence of haiku. Is that the same thing as a haiku? More and more that becomes, at least for me, a central issue in the ongoing debate on what a haibun is. The real question, however, as it appears to be shaping up, is whether or not the term haibun is going to refer specifically to the prose + haiku form that traces its roots back to Basho (and even a bit beyond) or generically to any prosimetric form that includes 'verse' that is haiku-like. Classifying or categorizing literary works is a bit of a crapshoot with many contemporary pieces. If Ashbery claims that a set of his prose poems are haibun, who's to argue with him?

Allow me to be self-indulgent for a moment. My prose poem "The Color of Clouds" is a bit like Ashbery's haibun in form: a block of prose followed by a much shorter block of prose (both blocks poetic to various degrees). My haibun "Sing to me, Bird" is more akin to the kind of haibun the poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil writes. Both Ashbery and Nezhukumatathil refer to their compositions as haibun. I distinguish between my two pieces. But why?

Nezhukumatathil is clear:

Haibun combines a prose poem with a haiku. The haiku usually ends the poem as a sort of whispery and insightful postscript to the prose of the beginning of the poem. Another way of looking at the form is thinking of haibun as highly focused testimony or recollection of a journey composed of a prose poem and ending with a meaningful murmur of sorts: a haiku. The result is a very elegant block of text with the haiku serving as a tiny bowl or stand for the prose poem. (read more).

In other words, with some variation on exactly what the prose is or is supposed to do, I have more than one foot in the "prose poem + haiku" camp.

But how tenable is that position when many poets are publishing haibun slightly off the path? And it's interesting that those haibun off the path of the journals that regularly publish the form often contain the word 'haibun' in the title, in effect expanding the parameters of what may conventionally be considered an English-language haibun. And the haiku range from good English-language haiku to imagistic tercets of poetry, from continuations of the prose broken into three lines to 5-7-5 lists of adjectives, etc. 

At heart, I'm more a descriptivist than prescriptivist, which makes being a content editor interesting. Having said that, my preference as an editor is still for haibun that contain haiku; and haiku is the one thing many writers new to haibun haven't spent enough time studying and practicing. I think that among experienced haibun writers the real innovation and experimentation is happening with the prose. Next year? Who knows?