Haibun Today

A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Editor
Volume 5, Number 4, December 2011

David Cobb
Shalford, Essex, England

A Few Timely Heresies About English Haibun


A working definition

Haibun is poetic prose, from a handful to thousands of words; whatever the length, usually with a single haiku at the end; if long, often with a number of haiku embedded at fairly regularly intervals, as well as one at the end. There's a wide variety of possible subject matter, embracing description, narration, exposition in small doses, recollection, introspection and even fantasy. The one essential stylistic feature is harmony between the prose and the haiku, which should in some way amalgamate.

The Japanese legacy

In the English-speaking world, knowledge of Japanese haibun lags behind our knowledge of haiku. Few classical Japanese haibun are readily available in English translation. Bashō's Oku-no-hosomichi, in no less than 5 translations in print, all with different titles, and Issa's Oraga haru (My Spring), are the glorious exceptions. In only Yuasa's edition, Narrow Road to the Deep North, is Oku-no-hosomichi accompanied by translations of some of Bashō's earlier, less mature travel sketches. The haibun by Bashō, Buson, Shiki and Soseki in this issue are, we believe, appearing in English for the first time. To be sure, Bashō's Genjūan-no-fu is in Donald Keene's Anthology of Japanese Literature (Penguin) as Prose Poem on the Unreal Dwelling: the prose reads well, but the haiku are lacking. And an excerpt is also translated in Makoto Ueda's Matsuo Bashō, but the major part is simply paraphrased. So, as Ueda rates it 'one of the finest haibun of all time', we now publish a full translation, by Nobuyuki Yuasa, retitled An Essay on the House of Visions.

For a functional understanding of Japanese haibun we have to rely on a very few descriptions (see references at the end). Of these, several are based on earlier statements, and in particular on a 4-page exposition by Ueda in his Matsuo Bashō of 1970. Another key source is Yuasa's Introduction to his 1966 Penguin Classics translation of Oku-no-hosomichi. The theory of haibun, as understood in the West, is therefore largely an analysis of Bashō's own practice.

Whether this paucity and narrowness of information about Japanese haibun leave us at a disadvantage when we set out to write haibun in English is, I dare to say, debatable. To know more might be to inhibit us and render us more vulnerable to mere pastiche. It may well be enough that we have, thanks to the Japanese, the confidence that haiku will amalgamate with a certain style (or styles) of prose, and produce an original and (in literary terms) worthwhile effect. The rest is pretty much up to us to discover for ourselves.

In fact Bashō, whose own haibun style was a continuous development based on earlier Japanese and Chinese models, would almost certainly have been the first to agree that if haibun is to be successful in English, it has to be re-invented.

Have we any right to call such re-invented things haibun at all? Maybe not. But what else can we call the new genre? Haiku prose and haiku prose poem have been tried, and I have myself flirted with haikuic prose pieces. Whatever term we use, our attempt must be to fill what Ross' calls "a vacuum in English literature, because there is no strong tradition of truly poetic prose." (See, however, Defrosting Edward Thomas, in this issue, which you might think calls that statement into question.)

From here on I intend to quote certain statements about Japanese haibun by such as Ueda, Yuasa, and Haruo Shirane, as well as by Bruce Ross about American English haiku, and try to see how applicable they might be to haibun in English written in Britain.

1. Whether the haibun is a journal of many episodes, or just a single incident, the final haiku will always "leave the reader with a feeling of incompleteness and the opportunity for expansion." "Bashō never explains the meaning of his haiku." (Ueda)

Ueda's remark seems to apply only to the haiku in haibun, not to the prose. More explicit prose combining with more implicit haiku might make for an interesting blend. (You will discover early that I am partial to diverse things that mix without losing their identity, rather than homogenisation, whilst recognising that other people may take a different view.)

It is worth adding a note about haiku sandwiched between passages of prose. Here, the best perform rather like verses in a renga, which carry both the 'scent' of the preceding verse and also turn the nose towards the succeeding one. Their function—so difficult to grasp!—is not to summarise, that is, give the same images back; not just to reflect the images, twisting them in some way, as in a plain mirror; but to serve as a looking glass from Wonderland, both reflecting and at the same time allowing us to pass through to a different scene. Such a link might also, in a rather linear narrative, seem rather like a side-step, beneficially holding up the onward thrust of narration for a moment. "A crooked road is a work of genius," said William Blake.

2. "A haibun has the same sort of brevity and conciseness as a haiku." (Ueda)

Ueda makes it clear that Bashō's prose style isn't like normal Japanese prose, but "often omits words that would be necessary in normal syntax." Conjunctions are conspicuously absent. This leads to ambiguities which Bashō uses for artistic ends.

Twentieth century English prose style has liberated itself from classical ideas of grammar and sentence structure and haibun offers scope for going further. But, as in haiku, we need to be on our guard against mutilating the English language. Writers of haibun, no less than writers of any other literary form in English, inherit a language with what Mimi Khalvati calls "an extraordinary range and power of finite verbs and glorious possibilities of syntax," and we are custodians of this.

There are authors of haibun in English who think nothing but the baldest of clipped prose will do. The next section proposes something for them to reflect upon.

3. "(Bashō is quoted as saying) haibun should have, in accordance with the Chinese model, an even and balanced rhythm, stressing paired words and parallel syntax." "Bashō's new haikai prose was, at least in Kyorai's opinion, graceful and gentle in expression." (Shirane)

You can't achieve 'balanced rhythm' or 'graceful expression' with a welter of sound bites. We simply shouldn't overlook the variety of styles which Bashō uses to create different effects, even allowing himself the occasional 'purple passage' strategically placed; and, as Gurga points out, haibun should give aesthetic pleasure to the English reader.

A uniform prose style may well be best for a short, single-episode haibun, but in an extended haibun (e.g. a travel journal) use of the same style throughout is liable to be wearisome. Harmony is consistent with what Yuasa calls "unity in diversity."

The acid test of a successful haibun, as for haiku in general, is that it should be easy to read aloud, revealing enough of its meaning immediately to satisfy the listener.

Helpful to oral performance is use of direct speech (something Bashō appears from translations rarely to have used, and never exploited as continuous conversation). Dialogue not only contributes to diversity, liveliness, lightness and humour, but may also ward off self-centredness. English traditions, e.g. dialogue in Edward Thomas's The Icknield Way, might inspire us.

4. "Another characteristic of haibun is the extent of its dependence on imagery." "Abstract, general, conceptual words are shunned in favour of concrete visual images." (Ueda)

This statement is so like one of our most cherished principles of haiku, that one might be misled into thinking that, in haibun, prose and haiku should resemble each other closely; the prose being reserved, perhaps, for those moments when there are just too many images to pack into the haiku format. But it is too severe a restriction of Yuasa's principle that diversity is no obstacle to amalgamation, and curtails the scope for variety which all good writing needs. Bashō does in fact make some use of abstractions and is occasionally judgemental, using expressions like "the fatal sinfulness of these people's nature."

Ueda thinks that an imagistic style of writing is 'decorative' and as such heightens emotional effect. He quotes an example from Bashō that would surely surprise those who believe that haiku prose is uniformly concise. Instead of remarking baldly, "My return to Edo in the autumn was tinged with regret," Bashō writes, "I was back again to the east of the river in Edo where, sorrowfully gazing at the water that flowed in two different streams on an autumn day, I shed nostalgic tears over yellow chrysanthemum flowers."

It is evident from such a passage that haibun aims to be literature and is much more than a brief record of events, just as haiku itself has a much more complex focus than the snapshot.

Shirane makes interesting comparisons with modern film technology (various 'shots' combining into one 'scene' which the viewer perceives as having been taken at the same location.) "The prose and the hokku (haiku) are juxtaposed in montage fashion." Intercutting, too, perhaps?

What kinds of imagery? In Bashō, says Ueda, we find "nature images and classical images. Classical images create associative effects; they lead the reader to see the passage in the light of Japanese or Chinese classics." Today the writer in English has an even wider fund of images at his disposal: from the urban-industrial scene, indoors and out, as well as a natural world that hasn't been reduced to a catalogue of recognised season words. Allusions to literature, history and myth will be an interesting field to explore. I think that English haibun should not be timid about stepping beyond the bounds of logic and reality.

5. "The writer's detachment is a characteristic of haibun. No good haibun is an emotional outburst or logical persuasion. The writer, standing back from his subject matter, coolly examines his feelings and casually records them." (Ueda)

Here one encounters the 'slippery slope', down which the unwary, or those with an insufficient grasp of Zen perhaps, slide from detachment via 'selflessness' into self-negation. What is to be avoided? Self-display, self-concern, self-indulgence.What is to be allowed? Self-compassion that sees oneself sharing the common problems and weaknesses and pleasures of humanity. Individuality, by which I mean truth to oneself. A personal 'voice'. Writing in the first person is not taboo in haibun, as it never was in haiku either.

6. "The interest of travel literature, at least in the Anglo-European tradition, generally lies in the unknown, in new worlds, new knowledge, new perspectives, new experiences. But for mediaeval (Japanese) waka and renga poets (up to and including Bashō) the object of travel was to confirm what already existed, to reinforce the roots of cultural memory." (Shirane)

Spiess (echoed by Ross) complains that so far in Western haibun there has been "too much recording of stimuli rather than creative in-depth work." The 'haibun of a recent outing' is liable to be an unrooted and disorganised as holiday snaps. What we have need of, as Japanese haibun show us, is journeys into cultural memory, into our roots and into our souls. Haibun needs to be deeply imbued with spirit of place.

7. "The emerging concerns of contemporary American haibun (are) to poetically chronicle events as they happen." (Ross) "Bashō took such liberty as to change the natural course of events, or even invent fictitious events." (Yuasa)

Yuasa confirms that the haibun writer is not a journalist. Ross leaves the possibility more open. Like Yuasa, I view the haibun writer as a literary artist, someone who has high regard for authenticity, but not afraid to bend facts when it suits, setting poetic truth above a factual narrative, and free to rearrange chronology.

Haibun writers sometimes give us a kick by turning conventional priorities on their heads, elevating the trivial, and creating irony by relegating to the sidelines what the world proposes as big and important events. A nonce example: 'Lying on the narrow pavement was a homeless person, asleep or at least playing doggo in a bag of such limp cloth that it would have been shapeless but for the body packed into it. Only half the face poked out, with a 'dewdrop' hanging from its nose. He had shrugged himself—I think it was a 'him'—back into the shadows, making the minimum demands on public space a human being can. Then we saw the Millenium Dome.'

8. (continuing the Ross quote from 7) ". . . to explore poetic experience lodged in one's memory, and to express moments of deep personal revelation; these concerns, moreover, often centre on the natural world and childhood."

English-speaking authors have extended the autobiographical, 'confessional', anecdotal scope of haibun beyond what is common in Japan, not only writing about their own childhoods, but also examining human relationships and moments of stress. These topics are welcome, so long as detachment is preserved. Sadly, rather a lot of Western haibun are surrogates for a trip to Dr Freud's couch.

9. "(Haibun is) humorous; while seriousness and beauty concern the writer, a haibun demonstrates the light touch." (Higginson) "(Bashō's haibun is) superb for its tragi-comic effect." (Yuasa)

Our supposedly typical national characteristics of 'looking on the bright side', 'keeping a stiff upper lip' and 'laughing at difficulties' equip us British well to produce a tragi-comic effect. Our traditional sense of humour, visiting the poles of sly understatement and outrageous hyperbole, might invigorate haibun. We are also masters of keeping satire and irony light.

Humour hasn't been conspicuous in the majority of haibun written in English so far. I wonder if this isn't because of over-regard for the literal truth? Things just don't often happen as funny as they might do; so I reiterate, literary license is allowed us to improve on the mere diary of fact. Especially to make life even funnier. Coleridge's dictum, that "poetry has for its immediate object pleasure, not truth," or Blyth's, that "the secret of life consists in being never and always serious," could apply very well to haibun.

In Edward Thomas's prose travelogue, In Pursuit of Spring, we find examples of the irony that would grace English haibun, e.g., "came to a villa which had trimmed the waste outside its gates and decorated it with an inscription, Keep off the grass." "I knew enough of English inns to prefer not arriving at one wet through." "The stream here flows as clear as glass over its tins and cutlery." "Altogether Nether Stowey offered no temptations to be compared with the road leading out of it." "I went into the church—a delightful place for a retired deity."

Yuasa's use of the word 'tragi-comic' is appealing, for it seems to reflect the nature of journeys and holidays, with their almost inevitable ups-and-downs.

I feel like adding a few more points unprefaced by quotations.

  • In haibun, as in all good writing, there must be a sense of proportion, and in this case particularly in determining the ratio of prose to haiku. It appears to me (perhaps contrary to my initial expectation) that it may 'work' if you have quite a lot of prose to each haiku, but it doesn't 'work' if you pack in the haiku rather frequently (that is, successively, with no more than, say, 20 or 30 words of prose between them.) Only occasionally does it seem a good idea to present more than one haiku at a time, or you divide your forces; that three-liner has got to justify itself against a visually greater weight of prose. It doesn't help matters if one haiku has to bear cheek-by-jowl comparison with another standing next to it.

  • In haibun of any considerable length the Western reader is likely to expect development or a climax. You won't find much of a model for this in Japanese haibun, or in the "what-Katie-did-next" type of haibun published all too often in our little magazines.

  • We should try to glean pointers to poetic-prose style from our own traditions, e.g. from The Bible, where pairings of words and parallel syntax are often employed. Richard Jefferies' notes and journals might teach us something about compression, though they are on the whole too telegrammatic to serve as models; but they offer stimulating examples of the way an alert and creative mind flits about between the major and the trivial, between the chance observation and obsession.

  • I guess the idea of senryu in haibun would be anathema to most in Japan. For Western writers of haibun this need never be a problem.

  • In Japanese, we are told, tense is often obscure, or rather, a matter for the reader to interpret. Writers in English can't avoid tense, so we might as well make use of it. Try haiku in present tense embedded in past tense prose, for example? Maybe the function of the haiku is to ground things? Another question that comes to mind: borrowing the musical sense of the terms, haiku prose tends to concern itself with development, the haiku (in haibun, but no only in haibun) are concerned with transformation?

  • A common weakness of haibun is that the haiku appear to have been dragged screaming out of the narrative, and would recompose themselves peacefully in it, if allowed to. This suggests to me one should first collect strong haiku that can stand alone, then build the prose around them.


David Cobb; introduction to The Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore, Equinox Press, 1997.
Lee Gurga; review of Shadow Patches by Janice Bostok et al, in Blithe Spirit, Vol 7 No 3, 1998.
Sam Hamill (tr. and ed.) Issa's The Spring of My Life, Shambala Centaur, 1997.
William J. Higginson; The Haiku Handbook, Kodansha, 1985.
Bruce Ross (ed.); Journey to the Interior: American Versions of Haibun, Tuttle, 1998.
Haruo Shirane; Traces of Dreams, Stanford University Press, 1998.
Makoto Ueda; Matsuo Bashō, Kodansha, 1970.
Nobuyuki Yuasa; introduction to The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Penguin, 1966.
Michael Dylan Welch, Cor van den Heuval and Tom Lynch (eds.); Wedge of Light (anthology of Woodnotes International Haibun Contest of 1996, with introduction by MDW and 'a concise history of haibun in English' by CvdH), Press Here, Foster City, 1999.

First published in Blithe Spirit V10, N3 (September 2000).

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