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Summer 2009, vol 7 no 2

Contemporary Haibun, Volume 9
Edited by Jim Kacian, Bruce Ross, and Ken Jones
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


". . . a multi-voiced colloquy . . . "
The Editors

Haibun, a combination of haiku and prose, given to the world from Japan hundreds of years ago, has for some reason lost a lot of its popularity and appeal in modern Japan, perhaps due to differing tastes, warring schools of poetry, the desire for most to confine their poetic output to a minimalization of words. The reasons vary.

The world-wide English language Japanese short form poetry community has done much to revive this once thought-to-be-dying genre, influenced in part by the writings of Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Richard Brautigan, and other American writers/poets who in the spontaneity of their writings mixed prose and poetry into a rich stew gobbled up by students and academics in the 1960s.

Contrary to the claim made by Haibun Today Editor, Jefferey Woodward on the back cover of Contemporary Haibun, who feels that haibun is an art form that would not have survived were it not for the "vanguard role of this annual anthology," haibun is growing in popularity due to the efforts of several publications, including The World Haiku Review, Haiku Hut, Haibun Today, contemporaryhaibunonline, and Simply Haiku. In addition, scholars—including Donald Keene, Steven D. Carter, David Barnhill, Hiroaki Sato, and Burton Watson—have chronicled and exposed the world to the genius of this often misunderstood genre made popular by Matsuo Bashō and other Japanese poet travelers and diarists, for decades. Some of these diaries have been translated, especially those penned by Bashō—including A Haiku Journey, translated by Dorothy Britton; Back Roads to Far Towns: Bashō's Oku-No-Hosomichi, translated by Kamaike Susumu and Cid Corman; Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa; and The Narrow Road to Oku, translated by Donald Keene. The haibun genre was defined by the Haiku Society of America in 2004, in an HSA commissioned paper by Naomi Y. Brown, Lee Gurga, and William J. Higginson.

With this said, Contemporary Haibun, Volume 9 proves that haibun is alive and well in the English speaking poetic community. It exemplifies the spirit of the genre, and with a few exceptions, is a showcase for haibun. Dr. Makoto Ueda defines haibun as "prose written in the spirit of haikai. Poetic in both theme and style, it is interspersed with hokku ('the opening verse of a renga sequence, consisting of 17 syllables and including a season word') or haiku." Unfortunately, like many English language Japanese short form poetry journals and anthologies today, Contemporary Haibun interchanges haiku with senryu, seemingly forgetting they are two separate genres.

A few examples to whet your appetite:


How often do I dream of you, Daddy, always on a beach, in a fog. I try to reach you across the rugged sand. You stand by a boulder, swing the fishing rod, surfcasting.

I catch the shimmer of a silver lure on the edge of consciousness. How I yearn to stay as the sun burns steadily through the fog until I awake.

          stars on the sea—
          I dive
          Into the big dipper

Hortensia Anderson

          the dappling

She asked again, so I told her. About the white light, about the floating, about the voice. It seemed to make her feel better, so she closed her eyes, and waited for the morphine to take effect.

          the dappling
          between dark and light
          maple leaves

Michelle Harvey

          6 years and 103,000 miles

Just now it hits me that most of the major milestones in my life have occurred since I tacked on that first mile. I graduated college, got a real job, bought a house, found a wife, and witnessed the births of my first and second sons. If only there could be a speed limit for time.

          late night silence
          the motion of the wipers
          after the crash

Collin Barber

          Judas Kiss

Saturday at the Farmer's Market. Shoppers drift through the produce and craft stands clutching their purchases. Near the door, five gray-haired women dressed in black stand in a line. Their sign reads "Women Against Violence." I recognize Barbara Ann, a friend I've not seen for several years, in the line.

The sign doesn't say 'against male violence,' but, still, I feel targeted. My mind spins through scenes; the beatings she took prior to her divorce; TV shots of the slaughter in the middle east; my own vicarious enjoyment of the violence in sports, films and novels.

I approach her and say "Hi". She doesn't reply and I realize it's a silent vigil. So I open my arms for a hug.

          chill wind
          she offers her cheek
          for my kiss

Ray Rasmussen

* Rasmussen, it should be noted, has done much to promote English language haibun worldwide, and is tireless in this pursuit.

Some of the haibun are very long and space does nor permit me to cite them here. One of the most exemplary of the longer haibun is a piece entitled "My Father's Fence," written by Garry Eaton. It is a powerful, poignant, evocative autobiographical recollection of a time spent with the author's father before his passing; a man who was hard to please. This haibun alone is worth the price of the anthology. The two haiku Eaton includes in the haibun can stand alone as haiku, but combined with his haibunic prose, the result is a striking and memorable.

          First Bra

7th grade—she was different from us girls at the school bus stop. She was brand name; we were generic. She was wavy hair, cute nose and self-possessed. Most of us still were baby fat and self-conscious. Boys would cluster and speak in hushed tones all while casting furtive glances at her, and so would we. Something told me that being the first of us to have breasts had everything in the world to do with it.

          garden warmth
          a bee slips into the cup
          of a tulip

Yvonne Cabalona

All in all, the book is a good read, covertly teaches one how to write haibun, and is a nicely put together book. My biggest criticism is the statement on the book's back cover that claims: "Contemporary Haibun is a series dedicated to the best haibun (haikai prose) and haiga written each year in English from around the world," yet arrogantly includes haibun written by the anthology's three editors: Jim Kacian, Bruce Ross, and Ken Jones, who are good poets, but as editors of a publication claiming to showcase the best, the inclusion of themselves in this category is poor form.

I was surprised when I read on the back cover that Contemporary Haibun was also a showcase for some of the best English haiga. Most of the haiga in the issue, with a few exceptions, can be categorized into one of two types: photographic avant garde oddities, and childish squiggles. I suggest the editors of Contemporary Haibun stick with what they are good at, showcasing quality haibun.


Contemporary Haibun, Volume 9
edited by Jim Kacian, Bruce Ross, and Ken Jones
Red Moon Press
2008 $16.95
ISBN 1-978-893959-69-9