I have friends who ask me why I add haiku to my prose. They’ll point to haiku separating blocks of text in the same way they might point to speed bumps: Can’t these be removed, please? Or they’ll ask about a haiku that, to them, dangles from the end of the prose like a small, vestigial tail—cute, but purposeless—or introduces the prose like some nonsensical epigraph. Really, they’ll say … why?
Oh, so many reasons. I first began writing haibun in the early 1990s because (1) it allowed me to express thoughts and experiences in ways I couldn’t with haiku alone, and (2) the haiku allowed me to express more that I could with prose. Today, although haibun has grown in scope to cover everything from brief biographical episodes to surrealistic prose-poem narratives and “flash” stories, the haiku still serve an essential role: They create leaps that, rather than interrupting or dangling like useless appendages, actually enrich the reading experience. If the prose is a river, then the haiku are islands that permit the reader to pause, to dwell, to contemplate, to reflect and see anew. They offer different vantage points and new strains of thought—maybe a dash of humor, or a touch of wonder or poignancy or mystery—that complement and deepen the prose. And because they are poems, they have a charge, a succinct potency, that can’t be achieved through prose alone.
Of course, the best haibun don’t just have a bunch of haiku strewn about like so many decorative buttons on a coat. Yes, some of those buttons might be quite beautiful in their own right, but ultimately only a few really serve to keep the coat closed and the body warm. In my experience, the same standard applies to haibun: Those pieces that resonate most deeply have only “purposeful” haiku. When writing a haibun, I’ll sometimes ask myself, “If that haiku were removed, would the haibun suffer in any way?” If the answer is no, then chances are I have a bad haibun on my hands. I also might ask a corollary: Could that haiku have been rewritten as prose? If the answer is yes—and especially if it’s yes, to better effect—I know I have to try harder.
But when the balance is right, and the interplay occurs, then something like a chemical reaction ensues—a + b = c, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s the beauty of haibun. So when any friend asks me why I muck around with this haibun form, I give the only answer I can: Really, why wouldn’t I?
jump shot arcing
from star to star
Evening shadows steal across the low concrete buildings, the cracked-slab courtyards, over fast-food wrappers and bottle shards. He feels the air on his face, moist and cool, as he looks up at the day’s last colors: Crimson streaking thin clouds, pale blue fading to violet, soft as smoke. His basketball, like a low-hanging moon, rests beneath his palm. He closes his eyes, imagines it again: the court, the tiered crowd, the ticking clock, the ball rolling off his fingertips and rising over every shout and whisper, every wide eye, rising and rising and then falling falling falling into that final sound of entry, passage, deliverance . . .
a boy’s chalk outline
facing all the stars
Rich Youmans has been writing and publishing haibun for almost 25 years, and he still wonders where the time went. His work has appeared internationally in various journals and anthologies,. His is collection of linked haibun with Maggie Chula, Shadow Lines won a Merit Book Award from the Haiku Society of America in 2000. His most recent collection, All the Windows Lit, was a Snapshot Press eChapbook Award winner; it can be downloaded for free (or read as an e-book). He currently lives on Cape Cod with his wife, Belle.