haibun

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July 2018, vol 14 no 2

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Jeffrey Woodward

Stray Memoranda on the Art of Haibun

An ability to fashion memorable haiku and supple prose paragraphs is a prerequisite of successful haibun composition. The art of the genre, however, lies in the subordination and joining of these two elements into a greater whole.

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The would-be writer of haibun should look upon every reputed rule of the genre with suspicion. "That which has always been accepted by everyone, everywhere, is almost certain to be false," wrote Paul Valéry.

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Follow the Master's road faithfully. The journey is far. You will learn, in doing so, that Bashō's style is inimitable. Then you will eschew imitation and write something else.

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Common shortcomings of haibun today:

A one-size-fits all, cookie-cutter aesthetic (one paragraph, one haiku and invariably in that order) in lieu of formal curiosity and innovation.

A flat depiction of one's domestic environment and daily routine in lieu of significant matter or theme.

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A fisherman, drawing his net up, peers into the deep.
The vivid atmosphere of a dream briefly lingers and invades first light.
Lamb and dragon reside in one summer cloud.
A woman, unlocking the door to a long vacant room, is met by a strange presence.

These things resemble poetry. Haibun is a type of poetry.

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Less is more? That's a pauper's recipe for haibun. More apropos is William Carlos Williams' argument in The Wedge (1944): "There's nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words. When I say there's nothing sentimental about a poem I mean that there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant."

Every word must be justified or, failing that, cut away. It's a ruthless business, this poetry.

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Poem and paraphrase are not synonyms. Poetry flies before the explication and after. Did I mention that the haibun is a kind of poem?

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51 cards
in the deck
summer rain

That is one way to play solitaire. And that is one way to write haibun.

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Odilon Redon's Christ in Silence (1897) stands with closed eyes and mouth. Some things must not be spoken. Rather show than tell.

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On first glance, good haibun lack finish. All of the elements needed, upon closer examination, are there to complete them.

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It is profitable to recall that Bashō was highly educated, well-acquainted with Japanese and Chinese classics, and that he was decidedly literary as well, making a profession among wealthy patrons with his haikai. Contemporary writers of haibun are unlikely to make a living from their art but they should still strive to read widely and beyond the narrow boundaries of haikai.

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If you have something to say, say it well. If you cannot, be silent and wise.


The Pivot

only the wind
in a wading pool
and yellow leaves

Neither a whisper nor a murmur really, neither a confession nor yet a secret alluded to, but only a slightly abrasive tick or dry rubbing, an indecipherable chatter of objects within that severe discrimination of light and shadow that marks late October, of objects suddenly animated and going about their business without interest in human presence or absence, the whole of matter one vertiginous flux and one act of change where the acrid smell of wood smoke, far from every pyre or offering, lies like lead upon the air.

the sound of a hammer
nailing something together —
leaves of autumn

first published in Frogpond 31:3, Autumn 2008


Biography: Jeffrey Woodward founded and formerly edited the journals Haibun Today and Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose. He served in 2010 and again in 2011 as adjudicator for the British Haiku Society's Haiku Awards. His selected poems, under the title In Passing,
were published in 2007 and he edited The Tanka Prose Anthology in 2008. In 2013, collections of his haibun and tanka writings were issued under the respective titles Evening in the Plaza and Another Garden.


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