North Falmouth, Massachusetts, USA
Can a Haibun Live Without Its Haiku?
A Personal Exploration into the Prose of Haibun
Before we begin, let's take a quick test. First, select and read any haibun in this issue of Haibun Today.
Now read it again, but without its haiku.
Here's the test: Is it still a haibun? And if so, why?
These aren't trick questions. Theoretically, the answer should be yes. Here's the official definition of haibun, developed in 2004 by a special committee of the Haiku Society of America:
A haibun is a terse, relatively short prose poem in the haikai style, usually including both lightly humorous and more serious elements. A haibun usually ends with a haiku.
Note that the mention of the haiku doesn't appear until the end, as an add-on sentence. Moreover, it's watered down by the insertion of "usually"—meaning that, in some instances, a piece might not include a haiku and could still be classified as a haibun if the prose met the criteria in the first sentence.
That's the theory, at least. Realistically, I'm not sure it's practical, even though there have been some haiku-less pieces published as haibun. One such piece is "Dead Letter Office," written by the founding editor of Haibun Today, Jeffrey Woodward. It originally appeared in a series of related haibun titled Quartet: A String of Haibun in Four Voices, and was later reprinted in his own collection, Evening in the Plaza.
Dead Letter Office
Although you may count me among that number who are inclined to say, I would prefer not to, midway in my journey I do not find myself disoriented in a forest but here, in the Dead Letter Office, where the Fates, busily foreshortening somebody's thread, have secured a position for me.
I often hear those white-robed and pale sisters over my shoulder, softly humming the Te Deum while employed at their spinning. Good Greek girls, they, too, are converted.
Meanwhile, my position is secure, for the sorting of this mail will not end. I almost said my purgatorial business but, in this trade, there is no cleansing. Instead, letter after letter with a bad or illegible address, with an intended recipient long departed—judgments for debts overdue, offerings of condolence, confessions of love: the destiny of every petition, no answer.
I like this piece a lot, but after reading it, I still have to wonder—why is it a haibun? In an interview conducted by Ray Rasmussen ("Terra Incognita: The World of Haibun and Tanka Prose," Contemporary Haibun Online, December 2009), Woodward noted that in such haiku-less pieces, "some other technique or feature is substituted to compensate for the loss of juxtaposition of prose and verse elements
. . . [A] turn in mood or thought—similar to the turn that separates a sonnet's octave from its sestet, for example—meets the formal expectation that a concluding haiku would otherwise provide." What Woodward said makes sense, and the juxtaposition of the sisters, immersed in their hymns of praise and religious beliefs, and the despondent clerk performing his near nihilistic chores is powerful indeed. But it also seems that the same criterion could be applied to so many forms of writing (and not just sonnets). So much good prose, and particularly short prose, relies on just such turns for their power. Some critics have described these moments as "epiphanies," realizations that pull all of the previous sentences together into a unified meaning, in the same way that the strings of a musical instrument unite into a melodic chord. But these epiphanies are not solely the domain of haibun. To me, "Dead Letter Office" is an exceptional piece—but if I hadn't encountered it in the context of haibun, I simply would have thought of it as well-written poetic prose.
So, is there really such a thing as "haibun prose"? To help answer that question, I decided to parse that first sentence of the HSA definition. "Terse" and "relatively short" are pretty clear—and in case of any confusion, accompanying notes say that most haibun "range from well under a 100 words to 200 or 300. Some longer haibun may contain a few haiku interspersed between sections of prose"—sections that presumably would fit within the prescribed word count.
Things get a little murkier after that. Take the part that says a haibun includes "both lightly humorous and more serious elements." Again, the "usually" leaves room for outliers, but what is this really saying? Presumably, that a typical haibun focuses on serious topics, but offers touches of humor while doing so. In his seminal work The Haiku Handbook, William J. Higginson also noted humor as one of the key elements in haibun, adding that "while seriousness and beauty concern the writer, a haibun usually demonstrates the light touch."
Humor, lightness . . . those characteristics also lend themselves to explaining the "haikai style" reference. As has been noted by many haiku historians, the Japanese term "haikai" relates directly to playfulness, wit, sometimes even parody, and the style is generally acknowledged to have gained prominence with Basho. Although he was not the first to write haikai or haibun, he injected a new spirit into the form, invigorating the aristocratically rooted "classical" Japanese prose common before him with vernacular Japanese and Chinese words, which he combined into a polished poetic whole. In essence, he created a new "school" of haibun and prose writing. In Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, Haruo Shirane noted that one of Basho's disciples, Kyorai, characterized Basho's haibun prose as "graceful and gentle in expression," and Basho himself described his school this way: "if we borrow Chinese phrases, we use them in a smooth, soft fashion, and if the subject matter is vulgar, we express it in a gentle manner."
Lightness, gentleness, smoothness, softness . . . a pattern is emerging. Is this at the heart of haibun prose? And was there something in the use of vernacular versus "classical" language—perhaps, to advance the concept a few hundred years, the difference between a common tone and a highly poetic one? Some observers have also cited objectivity and detachment, as well as a reliance on imagery, as being among the key aspects of the haikai/haibun style, which makes sense: those qualities have all been ascribed to haiku as well. Others have interpreted "haikai style" as clipped, almost staccato prose, without conjunctions or "unnecessary" words. Makoto Ueda, in his biography Matsuo Basho: The Master Haiku Poet, talks about how this paring of conjunctions forces readers to "leap" between sentences, much as they would between parts of a haiku. This is definitely not something you find in standard prose writing.
There was one more part of the definition I haven't yet explored, that of haibun being a "prose poem." This characterization is used a lot; the journal Modern Haiku, in its definition, also refers to the haibun as a prose poem, as does Hiroaki Sato in his introduction to his translation of Basho's Oku no Hosomichi. So if a haibun is a prose poem—well then, what is a prose poem? In the introduction to his anthology The Best of the Prose Poem: An International Journal, editor Peter Johnson tackles this question. He begins by quoting the Romanian philosopher and essayist Emil M. Cioran: "To embrace a thing by definition . . . is to reject that thing, to render it insipid and superfluous, to annihilate it."
Johnson goes on to quote the definitions of several prose poets, most of whom use metaphors (a box, gumbo) to describe something that can basically hold almost anything. The most direct definition is given by Michael Benedikt, whose working definition is "a genre of poetry, self-consciously written in prose, and characterized by the intense use of virtually all the devices of poetry."
Except, of course, when it doesn't. Some "prose poems" actually read more like short stories, and in fact have appeared as such in collections of "sudden" or "flash" fiction. Carolyn Forché's "The Colonel," for instance, has been anthologized in both Models of the Universe: An Anthology of the Prose Poem and Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories. It's no wonder that Johnson notes further in his introduction, "For every definitive statement I make on the genre, when pontificating on the prose poem, I feel like one of the Three Stooges, alternately slapping myself in the face with each hand."
Obviously, classifying a haibun as a "prose poem" doesn't really clarify the issue. Given what we do know, then, perhaps the HSA definition of haibun prose could be expanded in this way:
Terse, descriptive prose of no more than 300 words that focuses on serious topics with an objective, detached viewpoint and a light, gentle, sometimes humorous tone, in a style that eschews unnecessary words and even conjunctions, often creating "leaps" between sentences.
To see how well this might be applied in today's world of haibun, I looked through the work in Haibun Today 8:4, the most recent issue as I write this. Here's the prose, in its entirety, of "Polar Vortex" by Melissa Allen, the first haibun in the issue:
My grandmother, in her youth, taught in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Canada. I have heard no testimony to her teaching style but I suspect it of being badass. I inherited her unnaturally strong teeth and her sense of superiority. Her first husband died of polio and her second husband was my grandfather, meaning that I owe my life to polio. When the second husband died she dug furiously in her garden all the following spring, planting with a vengeance, mad as hell about the whole thing, probably thinking, I have no problem keeping things alive, God, what's your damn problem?
It's definitely short (101 words), and while I wouldn't say it's particularly descriptive or imagistic, it does present nice details (I especially like the reference to unnaturally strong teeth). The writing is very taut—where someone else might have had as a third sentence, "She had two husbands, both of whom died," Allen collapses those two deaths into sentences that advance the narrative crisply. Adjectives are usually the main culprits when it comes to overwriting; I don't see one I would remove. There are also nice humorous touches, such as the unexpected and perfect use of the word "badass" (Basho would appreciate such vernacular) and the grandmother's railing at God. The piece does end with a haiku—"prevailing winds/someone at the front door/selling echoes"—but it doesn't need it. Overall, this piece fits the definition of "haibun prose" pretty well. However, there aren't any real "leaps" between sentences; the nearest is when the narrative jumps from the grandmother's teaching style to the narrator's inherited features and back to the grandmother's marital history. In general, each declarative sentence simply builds upon the previous one, propelling the story forward quickly—a notable trait in itself, but not one specific to haibun. Should that lack of "leaping" disqualify it as "haibun prose"? I'd like to think not, but perhaps it's why, as with "Dead Letter Office," I could picture this piece being published anywhere as, say, a prose poem (whatever that is).
I have the same reaction with other haibun in that issue—many fine ones, but none that make me say, "Aha, haibun prose!" To me, they're prose with haiku, and the haiku make them a haibun. Take, for instance, "Winter" by Seren Fargo. This is it in its entirety:
I still have arguments with him—seven years after his death. So many unresolved issues.
lingering cold spell
frozen in space
Again, a very fine piece, in which prose and haiku serve each other nicely: the prose sets the context, and the haiku delivers a beautiful metaphor for the speaker's sense of loss and interrupted love. But without the haiku, this haibun would be just two declarative sentences with no resolution.
While the other haibun in that issue did not have such an extreme reliance on their haiku, in general I felt the same way about them. The writing styles ranged from plainspoken narrative to descriptive, almost poetic prose, and the pieces themselves included memoirs, ekphrastic haibun (including at least one outright fictional piece), and, by Anita Virgil, an essay on the British use of pigeons as "spies" during World War II. But with all of them, my opinion was the same: no haiku, no haibun.
Which made me wonder: Is that really all it took to create a haibun, adding a haiku to any form of prose? Was it like adding leaves of lettuce to a plate of meat and potatoes, allowing a diner to point to the greens and say, "See I'm eating healthily"—did adding haiku just allow one to say, "See, this is now a haibun?" And if so, was there any limit to what the prose should be? Take, for instance, what Ken Jones, the Welsh poet and former co-editor of Contemporary Haibun, has called "high poetry" haibun. This type of writing is exactly what the name implies: A very elevated, literary writing style. Here's an example by Clare McCotter called "movanagher moon," which was published in Contemporary Haibun Online 5.2:
low over movanagher wood this new year's new moon is a mercury quill inscribing diamond distances in the blue baize between of day and other as I wonder if it is a prayer or a salutation that I offer as you offered monthly until your eighty-fifth year unobstructed by any glass
off the gravel path
the old man's uplifted face
a white lunar psalm
And another by Johannes S. H. Bjerg, which appeared in Haibun Today 8.2:
there's no change
after the pills so you wonder why you still take them and why you call yourself "you" and decide that you're infected by the drama bug using 2nd and 3rd person instead of "I" hoping 1) it'll make you more interesting (to whom?) 2) it'll create some distance (but it doesn't), and you wonder why you sometimes consider yourself your normal "you" and at other times you're a different "you" and you're besides yourself which causes trouble for the understanding of "you" and you give up and accept the thought that "you" in all its meanings is an illusion; and you look up 'side effects' on the web side effects from the pills you're supposed to take to be normal and you end up being nothing but a side effect of life
lonely moon where else could I hang?
Obviously, these two haibun land at the far end of the "poetic prose" scale. In fact, if it weren't for the haiku, I'm not sure how either would be viewed as a haibun if viewed by the traditional definition. Which begs another question:
Should a piece be viewed as a haibun, just because it has a haiku?
For me, the answer is yes. And no.
Personally, I applaud how McCotter, Bjerg, and others are pushing the limits of the form. Just as Basho shook up the classical Japanese haibun form and turned it into something far more enduring, these writers are creating pieces that will keep the form from stagnating. Sure, call them haibun, just as Basho continued to classify his pieces by that same term. If you're truly a purist and want to abide by the definition, then perhaps simply "haiku prose" might be preferable, a sobriquet some writers have already adopted.
On the other hand, adding a haiku shouldn't necessarily earn a piece the "haibun" title. Too often, I've seen haibun in which the haiku are mere appendages—the salad on a plate. (I've written a few myself that, if I'm honest, really aren't worthy of the title.) The true question is why a haiku should be added to the prose. Does it help to express the writer's vision better than prose could? Does it add a new dimension to the writing? If the answer to those questions isn't an emphatic yes, then a piece shouldn't be called a haibun.
So, let's go back to the question in the title of this essay—can a haibun live without its haiku? From what I've seen, it shouldn't want to live without it. The combination of two genres offers so many new possibilities to explore, and can bring in so many different dimensions. What's really needed right now, I think, is not to create a better definition of haibun, or debate whether the prose can stand on its own, but for the form to mature. This may sound strange for something that's been in existence for a few centuries, but English-language haibun have been around for only a few decades. And the only way for it to mature is for writers to continue to push those boundaries, take chances, and take full advantage of the haiku's power to advance the writer's vision. If that experimentation and risk-taking occurs, then I for one look forward to seeing what new "school" of haibun may take shape.
1. "Dead Letter Office" by Jeffrey Woodward originally appeared in Quartet: A String of Haibun in Four Voices by Jeffrey Harpeng, Patricia Prime, Diana Webb and Jeffrey Woodward (Post Pressed, 2008); reprinted in Evening in the Plaza: Haibun & Haiku by Jeffrey Woodward (Tournesol Books, 2013). Used by permission of the author.
2. "Polar Vortex" by Melissa Allen originally appeared in Haibun Today 8.4. Used by permission of the author.
3. "Winter" by Seren Fargo originally appeared in Haibun Today 8.4. Used by permission of the author.
4. "movanagher moon" by Clare McCotter originally appeared in Contemporary Haibun Online 5.2. Used by permission of the author.
5. "there's no change" by Johannes S. H. Bjerg originally appeared in Haibun Today 8.2. Used by permission of the author.