Conversation 90: Introducing Haibun Where Prose and Haiku Meet


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Haibun (pronounced “hai- boon”) is purported to have been first created by the Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho, evidenced in a letter to his disciple Kyorai in 1690. It is a prosimetric literary form which combines prose and verse, in this case haiku, to form a prose poem.

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Haibun is a stunning form which feels cinematic, sensory and involves the recording of a highly descriptive moment or something more imaginative oscillating between wide angle and close up shots.  The prose and haiku are interlinked but crucially not an explanation of the other or a linear continuation. The haiku is seen as a distillation, climax or epiphany to the prose. The key is the juxtaposition between the prose and the haiku. Compact micro-haibun limit the prose text to 20 to 180 words with the continuation of one or more haiku. 

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David Cobb wrote a whole poetry collection in haibun form ‘The Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore’ a travelogue of 10,000 words relating to a five day bicycle ride across East Anglia. This extract offers an insight into haibun.

“Cottage walls here, chunked together from pieces of brick, flint. Also clunch, with its curdles surface. As by a child that has jumbled several jigsaws. Colour of sheep’s cheese.

 

Barbecue –

Hairs on the cook’s belly

Sprinkled with salt”

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Another extract I want to highlight is from Issa’s wonderful ‘Oraga Haru’ travel journal

“Still clothed in the dust of this suffering world, I salute the first day in my own way. And yet I am like the priest, for I too shun trite popular seasonal congratulations. The commonplace ‘crane’ and ‘tortoise’ echo like empty words, like the actors who come begging on New Year’s Eve with empty wishes for prosperity. The customary New Year pine will not stand beside my door. I won’t even sweep my dusty house living as I do in a tiny hermitage constantly threatening to collapse under harsh north winds. I leave it all to Buddha, as in the ancient story.

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The way ahead may be dangerous, steep as snow trails winding through high mountains. Nevertheless I welcome the New Years just as I am.

 

New Year greeting-time

I feel about average

welcoming my spring”

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I like the possibilities that haibun offer to combine a sense of diary writing and journaling evident in both these examples where prose and haiku reveal the nuances of the observed moment and emotion. This feels like an accessible way to get into haibun by sharing ones own day, journey, walk… where the narrative revealed in the prose is crystalised in the haiku.  

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Haibun invite us into another world, one we thought we knew, perhaps the first day of a new year as with Issa or a typical rural English scene and a barbecue as with Cobb; then the Aha moment, those jewelled details that make us wish we had been the ones to write them. 

 

A general clutch of advice on writing haibun focuses on writing clearly and concisely but with particular detail where the present tense is the preferred option. Most importantly the haiku has to add meaning.  

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Bruce Ross in How to haiku says that “haibun is prose writing that is expressed poetically, with figures of speech and rhythmic sound values, and is full of emotion, like the writing of a diary… sometimes the haiku will illustrate the insight of your narrative and sometimes it will extend the implications of your narrative”

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Basho’s Oku No Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Interior) is written in haibun form and heralded as a masterpiece of classical Japanese literature describing with vivid impressions and pathos an extraordinary journey made on foot covering over 1500 miles in the Spring of 1689.  

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Here is the stunning opening paragraph and haiku, although it should be noted that there are many differing translations:

“The months and days are the travelers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float away their lives on ships or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them. Many of the men of old died on the road, and I too for years past have been stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind to ceaseless thoughts of roaming.

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       Last year I spent wandering along the coast. In autumn I returned to my cottage on the river and swept away the cobwebs. Gradually the year drew to its close. When spring came and there was mist in the air, I thought of crossing the Barrier of Shirakawa into Oku. I seemed to be possessed by the spirits of wanderlust, and they all deprived me of my senses. The guardian spirits of the road beckoned, and I could not settle down to work.

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       I patched my torn trousers and changed the cord on my bamboo hat. To strengthen my legs for the journey I had moxa burned on my shins. By then I could think of nothing but the moon at Matsushima. When I sold my cottage and moved to Sampû’s villa, to stay until I started on my journey, I hung this poem on a post in my hut:

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kusa no to mo
sumikawaru yo zo
hina no ie

Even a thatched hut
May change with a new owner
Into a doll’s house.

Translated by Donald Keene (The Narrow Road to Oku, 1996)
(An earlier and slightly different partial translation appeared in Keene’s Anthology of Japanese Literature, 1955.)”

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Do please add any links to useful resources on haibun and of course share your own haibun, advice and thoughts.

 

Links:

http://area17.blogspot.com/2021/03/haibun-and-bloo-outlier-journal-special.html

https://poets.org/text/more-birds-bees-and-trees-closer-look-writing-haibun

https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-write-haibun-poetry#quiz-0

https://thehaikufoundation.org/omeka/items/show/45

5 Comments on “Conversation 90: Introducing Haibun Where Prose and Haiku Meet”

  1. Oh Alan this is utterly brilliant. Wow. Love love love love it. It took me right back to New York, loved the sassy urban vibe and philosophical breadth, some killer haiku in there, adore
    different uniforms
    the condensation
    of all things
    Eliotesque in parts, punk in others. A triumph!

  2. Many thanks Amanda! The research I did in depth during my Masters degree about The Beat Culture certainly helped give this its mix of a 1950s person and that culture alongside a contemporary timeline.

    Delighted that you feel it’s Eliotesque and punk too!

    warm regards,
    Alan

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