Why criteria? Three reasons. First, there's a reasonable consensus as to what makes a good haiku. Why should haibun not be treated with similar rigour? Second, editors, book reviewers and competition judges surely require well considered guidelines to assess fairly what is submitted to them. And they owe it to their writers to make clear the criteria by which their work is to be assessed. In all fields of literature, notwithstanding the shifting debates and fashions, there is a sense of standards by which quality is to be maintained. For haibun these are at present idiosyncratic, rudimentary or nonexistent. Third, many published haibun are so lacking in any kind of literary merit that they bring the genre into disrepute and detract from its potential.
In judging haibun, we consider the following:
- Does the haibun enlarge our imaginative sensibility?
- Does it have literary quality of some kind, with writing that's economical, direct and concrete, containing authentic imagery?
- Is there feeling in the haibun, expressed with appropriate musicality?
- Is there a worked out theme, crafted so as to show rather than tell?
- Is the haibun playful, elliptical, with space for the reader, in the haiku tradition?
- Are the haiku of good quality and do they interact successfully with the prose?
- Does the haibun contain more than one layer?
Below are two examples to demonstrate how we judge a haibun. Let's start with a haibun by Bill Wyatt [with his permission] which we've place in the "notable but not irredeemable failure" department.
Example 1: Scarlet Haibun by Bill Wyatt
Scarlet the cat is trying to turn my mind, she brings me moorhens, coots, bluetits, rabbits, mice, shrews, moles & lizards. Sometimes they arrive dead, or alive. Sometimes I am both dead or alive. The live ones, I release & see them off on their safe way. The dead ones, I offer them & myself to heaven & a better life. The old Master Dragon Fang said that even if we do not realise enlightenment here & now, we Should still constantly strive, In the days of old, before the Buddhas awoke to the Way, they were just as we are now, Once we become enlightened, then we become the same as the Buddhas of old. 1 try to tell this to Scarlet, that there is no need for all of this. But she being a cat, just smiles & purrs. Scarlet does not recognise my pain, like I recognise the pain of the world. When Buddha recognises Buddha, both me & the cat are liberated. Already liberated in the golden eternity are moorhens, coots, bluetits, rabbits, mice, shrews, moles & lizards. What can I say? Scarlet sitting on my lap, purring the summer afternoon away.
Still warm though lifeless
this mouse brought in
by the cat
Comment by Bruce Ross: This is what we would call an "interesting failure." The haibun is a wonderful meld of Buddhism, compassion for non-human life, and love of a companion animal. It is almost, nay is, a modern fable. Yet to be considered after the fine prose styling is the haiku. It is failed for its obviousness (it "repeats" the first few prose sentences and any irony is undermined by one of the last prose sentences). What is needed is a greater pushing out of feeling or wisdom, or, a more stunning simpleness. The lesson: Don't repeat in the (concluding) haiku what occurs in the prose.
Example 2: Buying a Soul by William Ramsey
"I ordered it from a catalogue," I said, opening the refrigerator. "That's hard to believe," he said eyeing it closely. "You still have that catalogue?" "Afraid not. Don't even know if they put them out anymore." I took out the milk jug and moved over to the blender. "How much did it cost?" "$19.95, I think. But that was about ten years ago." "It would cost more today," Todd said. I cracked an egg into the blender, then dropped in a banana.
What I had read in the catalogue, which had mainly cheap novelty items like squirting lapel flowers and rubber dog poops, piqued my curiosity:
SOUL: Just in time for the Christmas season. Light up your holiday and the lives of those around you. Walk into the new year with confidence and joy. For security and confidentiality, this product will arrive in plain wrapping. This was last year's bestseller, so only a limited supply is now available.
In a while an automated voice was telling me to pound #1 for Fall Catalogue purchases, then #3 for rush order shopping, then #1 for filling the order. I distinctly remember getting disconnected. Then I did all that again.
Something evidently got screwed up. First an invoice came stating that my product was on back order. Weeks passed. In December, after buying a Christmas tree, I prudently ordered a backup gift. My wife and daughter threw themselves into decorating the house the way they usually do with sprigs of spruce, red candles, and angels everywhere. They played the Christmas songs, the singing chipmunks, the singing nun, and the chanting monks. We were definitely getting ready.
on the mantel crossing Israel
Deep in the guts of February it arrived. Peering into the mailbox, I discovered a thick manila mailer. Printed on it was an informative word: MERCHANDISE. "Ah," I exhaled in the frigid air, "finally my seeds." I opened it and at first shake nothing dropped out but air. Then I saw it, pulled it carefully out, and stared.
"Say Bill, how's about letting me photocopy that," said Todd. "Naw Todd, I don't think it works that way." Into the blender I dumped two tablespoons of toasted wheat germ and a few drops of vanilla extract. Whirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.
It has been hanging on my refrigerator door for nearly a decade, pinned now to the corkboard between a shopping list and errand list. The novelty has worn off, and I can't say I look at it much anymore. But it's nice to have up there, along with my child's school artwork. I do notice it sometimes, like when the overhead fan is spinning and its soft, feathery edges flap like angel wings. Some days, rushing off to the supermarket and plucking the food list, I brush it with my fingertips. My talisman, my mail-order exhalation of God. Nonetheless I still tend toward depression, if you must know. None of that has changed--you can't greatly alter brain chemistry that is as screwed up as mine. Yet trudging out along the vacant cornfield's edge in a February dusk, in two feet of windswept snow, expecting nothing in the way of an upswing in personal happiness, sometimes I take sudden heart:
bursting from blackness
of ditch brambles at dusk--
wings crossing the moon
Comment by Ken Jones: We've placed William Ramsey's haibun in the "laudable success" department. In many respects this is a truly classic haibun, and for me something of an inspiration (see the angel in my "Visitation" in "Arrow of Stones"). There is a focused and evolving theme which engages the reader's interest throughout. And, in the best haiku tradition, there is something ambiguous and mysterious going on, which is heightened by the contrasting ordinary, everyday narrative. Examples are the mail order catalogue entry, "SOUL", the question of making a photocopy of the soul, the merest hint later that the soul is a winged, soft feathery thing (like some sort of angel), and the reference "my mail-order exhalation of God", which signals that we are moving into deeper waters. The interaction of the mysterious and the ordinary makes for several comic opportunities, but the treatment is always light and sometimes ironic .Throughout, the reader is given plenty of imaginative space to enjoy. In the closing paragraph and haiku the narrative moves into its existential climax, which lifts the haibun beyond just clever entertainment. Although we are explicitly told about the writer's "depression" the emotions are otherwise expressed entirely through imagery -- in the "show, don't tell" haiku style. The piece is well crafted both stylistically and structurally. The prose is almost entirely direct and concrete, with its domestic imagery of that whirring blender, and the high proportion of kitchen-table dialogue (dialogue is almost always a winner in haibun!). Reader interest is structurally maintained through sandwiching the dialogue passages between narrative ones, and adding the catalogue entry verbatim for further variety. This haibun exhibits another virtue of the genre, that of economy of means and the absence of material superfluous to the writers essential purpose. Here, as with haiku, "less (usually) means more." In my view the exception here is the space given to the Christmas episode in the middle. This also includes the kind of weak haiku which would be better folded back as the prose which it really is. (Fortunately there can be little doubt about the strength of the concluding poem.) Ramsey is undoubtedly one of our most interesting and stimulating haibun poets, but too many haiku that read as prose stand out as a striking weakness in his work. I have some sympathy here, since this is a problem with many of my own haibun. This raises the classic question of how to write effective haiku when the prose is so brilliantly haiku-like. It's easy with "mud bank" prose (as Ramsey calls it) where the reader is grateful for even weak haiku which stand out as "pearls." And unfortunately there is a whole tradition of bland, pedestrian, earnest "mud bank" prose in haibun writing which has stunted the growth of a LITERARY genre. But having got the prose right, we have to take another, higher level, look at how the haiku can relate to the strong prose. There are several possible approaches here which have so far been explored only tentatively.