Before any consideration of what genre any piece of creative writing might be fitted into, that piece of writing has to engage the reader’s interest in itself. It must succeed or fail initially on its merits and on its own qualities. However, anyone reading Travelling Light will probably have picked up the word ‘haibun’ along the way and may have noted that in the acknowledgements page credit is given to several haibun magazines, collections and anthologies in which some of these pieces have previously appeared. Beyond this hard-copy presence there exists a variety of web sites, on-line workshops, forums and discussion networks, all devoted to exploring the possibilities presented through writing haibun.
Some readers will wonder what exactly is being referenced here in using this word, which, unlike the word haiku, does not even appear, at present, in English dictionaries. In short, many will be wondering ‘what is a haibun? What is its origins and history?’
Simply put, haibun is a blend of prose and haiku which had its origins in the Japan of the seventeenth century. It has followed haiku in establishing an expansion of interest to a world-wide following. Its origin is usually traced to the classic works of poem-filled travelogues by Matsuo Basho. The most famous of these is the one best known in the translation by Nobuyuki Yuasa (first published Penguin 1966) as The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It was originally written in 1689.
Shortly after in 1706 Kyoriku Morikawa published Honchō Monzen (Prose Collection of Japan), which has been cited (by such scholars as Hisamatsu and Shirane), as the first Japanese anthology of haibun. At this point we may suppose that a personal style was becoming more of a national genre. In the intervening centuries this vein of poetic prose has continued in Japan with changing vigour slowly diminishing towards the present time until the recent interest in haibun in the West has re-fired Japanese enthusiasm for this way of writing and of perceiving that Basho found for himself over three hundred years ago.
In the West the fascination for haibun has for many writers involved going back to the roots and taking inspiration from Basho’s own work. Our knowledge of Japanese practice is, in fact, based on very little source material as, until recently, few other classical Japanese haibun other than Basho’s work have been available in English translation. Others, such as Issa’s Oraga haru (My Spring) may be found, but in general they require a little effort to discover and western writers of haibun seem to have found more suggestive inspiration from their fellow contemporary enthusiasts writing in English than from hunting down Japanese translations.
In order to find out more about haibun readers have been reliant on specialist publications concerned with haiku and Japanese poetry. It happens that there are an increasing number of these. Almost every western country has its haiku society, most with an associated magazine and there are also many independent publications, like the poetry ‘little presses’, which have a small but tenacious following. In America alone there are upward of thirty publications devoted to Western style Japanese poetry, many of which now include an interest in haibun.
Haibun-inspired works written in English have a very short history. Elizabeth Lamb claimed, in A Haiku Path (Haiku Society of America publication), that the first English language haibun to be published was a piece by Canadian writer Jack Cain which appeared in 1964, but a wider interest cannot be discerned until much more recently. The collection credited by American writer Michael Dylan Welch with being the first haibun anthology in the English language is Journey to the Interior: American versions of Haibun (Tuttle, 1998), edited by Bruce Ross. Since then there have been many regular anthologies and collections, particularly in the USA.
The aims and style of Basho’s writing have, in the intervening centuries since his death, become a recognised genre of its own. It combines the qualities of diary and travelogue, and includes observations of nature and existential suggestiveness that creates an emotional link between the human lives and the things of nature as perceived through the senses. It takes a form that finds a balance of simple and direct but poignant prose and haiku poetry. His work arguably offers some criteria for writing haibun as elucidated by Makoto Ueda in his work on Matsuo Basho and by Yuasa in his translations.
The ‘Journey into the Interior’ that Basho undertook was as much a search for history and for cultural memory as it was a spiritual search. Basho’s journey, both physical and spiritual, encompassed visits to sites of both sacred and literary meaning.
For most modern writers a haibun, simply put, is prose written in the style and spirit of haiku. It’s qualities have become recognised as including a desire to present a realistic truth-like response to the natural world, experienced in the present tense defined by the limits of personal experience. At least one twentieth century Japanese poet has seen a connection between the Japanese haibun and the Western prose poem, and many western writers have also suggested that this interest relates to the recent resurgence of interest in the short story and in prose-poetry; that its brevity and ‘snapshot’ clarity accord well with present interests and sensibilities.
In the short time that Western writers have been experimenting with original haibun in English several different approaches have begun to emerge. Some are objectively descriptive in style, some are more narrative, offering something like a short story with a climactic plot; some take the form of a journal. Whilst many of these pieces observe what might be defined as the three classical unities of time, place and action, most of them aspire to some other level of understanding which might be variously characterised as poetical or spiritual, metaphorical or existential. Whatever the attraction for individual writers it's clear that haibun in English has become increasingly popular and is slowly gathering an interested readership.
“Postscript” was first published in Travelling Light (London: RAM Publications, 2010).