Simply Haiku: An E-Journal of Haiku and Related Forms
November-December 2004, Volume 2, Number 6

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Feature: Bruce Ross, "On Defining 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.

In 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.

Typically, 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.

In 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.

Since 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.

A 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 concluding haiku.

In Journey 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.

So 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.

As 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 visit:


It 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.

................................................summer solstice
................................................the motionless aphids
................................................on a lupine stem

The 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.

It 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.

Currently, 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.

Also, 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 also appearing.

In these circumstances, the guides of “flow of sensibility” and “privileging the link” should be useful.

To 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.

I 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.

As 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.

Bruce 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.

Another article on haibun, "Narratives of the Heart" was recently published in the World Haiku Review.

Bruce lives with his wife in Maine where they climb mountains, cross-country ski, and birdwatch.

In this issue of Simply Haiku some of Bruce's haiku are also featured -> "Bruce's Haiku"