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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & Owner
Ray Rasmusssen, General Editor


Definitions of Haibun

Editor's Note: This little anthology of haibun definitions is offered as a resource to poets and students of the genre and will be updated whenever new glosses come to our attention.

Makoto Ueda, Matsuo Basho, 1970

Haibun can be said to be haiku prose, or prose written in the spirit of haiku. When it is applied to Basho’s works the term usually refers to short occasional prose pieces…. What distinguishes a haibun from an ordinary essay? One answer that comes readily to mind is that a haibun usually (though not necessarily) ends with a haiku.

William J. Higginson, The Haiku Handbook, 1985

Like haiku, haibun begins in the everyday events of the author’s life These events occur as minute particulars of object, person, place, action.

Patrick Frank, Editor of Point Judith Light, 1993

Haiku embedded within a relatively short prose piece.

Bruce Ross in Introduction to Journey to the Interior, 1998

In haibun the narrative direction of the prose is almost always specific enough to make its aesthetic intent, and that of any accompanying haiku, clearly evident. At its best, haibun offers us a narrative of the process of arriving at a given revelation which is highlighted by the figurative and sound values of its prose and the depth of its haiku. In this understanding of the form a haibun is a narrative of an epiphany. Haiku, on the other hand, offers us an epiphany, a revelation.

Nobuyuki Yuasa in Blithe Spirit, V10, N3, Sept 2000

Today, haibun means any kind of writing about any subject, so long as it is written in 'the spirit of haiku'. Depending on what you mean by 'the spirit of haiku' the nature of your haibun is determined. Followers of Shiki, for example, equate haibun with shaseibun, 'sketching in words'. Such haibun set store by objective detail. Compared with this, Basho's haibun are highly subjective. In fact, variety is an important feature of haibun.

However, I should like to impose one severe restriction on haibun: that it has to be a blend of haiku poetry and haiku prose; the interaction between these is haibun's greatest merit. In good haibun, the prose deepens the understanding of the poetry, and the poetry gives greater energy to the prose. The relationship is like that between the moon and the earth: each makes the other more beautiful.

Jim Norton in a review of Wedge of Light in Blithe Spirit, V10, N3, Sept 2000

...haibun is autobiographical prose, usually but not always accompanied by verse, and with the same brevity and conciseness as haiku. It is characterised by dependence on imagery and a sense of detachment which eschews emotional outburst and logical persuasion. Economy of language is of prime importance with each word carrying rich layers of meaning.... It is a detailed narrative of experience, whereas haiku is one such moment ….

… prose and verse should mirror each other without duplication, the haiku appearing out of the blue with an intuitive logic beyond the rational, giving us as it were glimpses of a skylike space for which the prose is the ground. Ueda is quoted as saying that this relationship should be like those of the juxtaposed elements within haiku ― a leap left unexplained ….

George Marsh from Introduction to Pilgrim Foxes, 2001

Illustrators define the relationship between their drawings and the texts that they illustrate, deprecating the mere "illustration," which repeats what the story has already given the reader. They use terms like "interpretation" and "complement" to indicate that in translating the themes into another artistic medium they have to re-imagine them and offer something new, a different kind of vision. The relationship between the prose and the haiku in haibun is like this …. A new haibun cannot afford any sentence that does not contribute to the effect at the ending, and builds to its last words, as a short story does …. So why is the haibun not a short story? Ken Jones believes you could write haibun without haiku in them, because the key to a haibun is its haiku-like prose principles. And why is it not a poem? …. You cannot introduce a new character in the last line of a short story. But in the haibun we have two parallel realities, related, but with different rhythms.

Ken Jones, From A Review of Up Against the Window: American Haibun and Haiga, Volume 1, ed Jim Kacian and Bruce Ross, Blithe Spirit, Vol 11 No 2, June 2001

A haiku collection can be reviewed within a broad consensus of discourse. But in the more eclectic haibun tradition there are no such recognised markers …. Here I have used four sets of criteria. They are based on Basho’s view of haibun as haikai no bunsho --- ‘writing in the style of haiku’. First, I would expect direct, concrete, economical imagery, infused with life and energy and eschewing abstraction and intellection ….

Second, I would expect haibun prose to be light handed, elusive, open-ended, playful and even ironic, ‘in the style of haiku’ …. Third, just as haiku are literature in miniature, with their own internal and external disciplines, so should we expect haibun also to have the complexity, subtlety and unfolding of literary artifacts ….

Finally, at least as a bonus, we might hope to find something of Haruo Shirane’s ‘vertical axis’ of myth, literature, history - and life in the postmodern...

Bruce Ross, “Narratives of the Heart: Haibun,” World Haiku Review, V1, N2, 2002

Haibun is now obviously an open form. I had once defined that form, reaching for the deepest connection such a form could hold, as a “narrative of an epiphany.” This definition was juxtaposed to the accompanying definition of haiku as “an epiphany,” making here a distinction between haibun haiku and other haiku….

Overall, there seems to be three important issues that need to be discussed in relation to contemporary haibun: Which comes first in haibun composition, the prose or the haiku? What are the implications for haibun of haikai-style prose? What are the implications of linking haiku and prose in haibun?

Michael McClintock in an interview with Susumu Takiguchi, World Haiku Review, V2, N2, July 2002

[Haibun’s] potential is enormous and hardly explored. There need be few or any constraints at all, except that it be written as an aesthetic whole, not a fragment. And that it include haiku as a part of that whole, not as a mere attachment …. Beyond that fundamental proposition, we should not encumber ourselves with any assumptions about the content or style of delivery for English-language haibun …. The haibun is open to a huge range of expression: from the surreal and dreamlike to straight discursive narrative -- even journalism: from impressionistic writing to exposition and storytelling, meditation and the personal diary …. Unusual effects can be achieved, to the say the least, if compared to prose or poetry alone. In my opinion, haibun offers a kind of synoptic clarity and hybrid vigor that cannot be matched.

Janice M. Bostok in an interview with Rosanna Licari, Stylus Poetry Journal, August 2003

It is commonly considered that whether one is a traveller or a non-traveller, their haibun must move through some type of reasoning and come to a conclusion and a better understanding of a problem or of life in general. Therefore, the journey may be a physical one or an emotional one…. It is usually accepted that the haibun should end with a poem. But there is no restriction on the number of poems within a haibun. There may be many, one, or even none! The one rule, which seems to have come down over the years, is that the poem should not qualify the prose. As with the linking of verses in renga, the haiku should 'leap' to a subject which might compliment the prose by juxtaposition.

Stanley Pelter, Introduction to past imperfect, 2004

No self-respecting haibun shows its face in public unless haiku is incorporated as an integral part of the structure. That, until recently, has been an unquestioned, sacrosanct core feature. This hybrid marriage of haiku poetry and connected prose is seen as the essential defining link. It is in the application that creativity, expansion, opportunity and additional expression lie. In my view, rather than being a necessity, this is a mind barrier. It is quite possible for a haibun, replete with haiku qualities, to be diminished by haiku.

The Haiku Society of America as adopted at the Annual Meeting of the Society, New York City, 18 September 2004

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.

Stanley Pelter in Blithe Spirit, V 16, N1 March 2006

A combination of a small (or smallish) prose composition and relevant haiku (or equivalent) that, possibly using autobiographical bits and pieces as base content for the journey, unifies (including a unification of opposites, or close partners) and provides an opportunity for something small with the attributes of something big to try and get out to the exterior from the interior.

David Cobb, Foreword to Business in Eden, 2006

A literary work consisting of an indeterminate amount of prose that is open as to form (though typically a travel journal, a diary, an essay, or an anecdote) and haiku interspersed irregularly among the prose. The writer’s aim, involving choices of style, is to juxtapose the two elements so that they counterpoint each other, and together form an aesthetic whole that is more than the sum of the two parts. To be fully justified, prose and haiku need to be essential to each other and at the same time perfectly capable of standing on their own.

w.f. owen, Editor’s Welcome, in Simply Haiku, V4, N3, Autumn 2006

A haibun is a linked form. The link is between narrative, prose sections and one or more haiku…. One criterion is to limit or eliminate repetition of words and phrases. Just as haiku are sparse and economical in wording, so too are good haibun …. So many fine narratives fail to be good haibun because the haiku do not stand alone as solid poetry. And there is more. Haiku, especially those that end a haibun, need to relate to previous prose sections yet not be an extension of the prose. The oblique but relevant association between haiku and prose is the defining moment of the haibun. Thus, I look for an ending haiku that does not repeat, nor does it seem so unrelated as to leave the readers scratching their heads. The haiku link offers readers a springboard to multiple, and often unexpected, meanings.

John Brandi, Introduction to Water Shining Beyond the Fields, 2006

Haibun might traditionally be regarded as a series of in situ prose descriptions (sans metaphor, abstraction, generalization), each of them concluded by a haiku. I have often thought that a function of the haiku might be to punctuate the prose, i.e., revealing an unexpected flash, core, essence, of what the prose didn’t quite capture or describe. The haiku thus becomes a kind of imagistic, miniature, sixth-sense portrait of something not described in the prose ….

Stanley Pelter, Introduction to & Y Not?, 2006

Most haibuneers accept as read that haibun is a marriage of prose and haiku …. No relevant ‘story’ can be so imbued with haiku qualities and particularities that it may be self-sufficient without their physical presence …. Two other accepted norms are that haibun are written in the present tense to give immediacy and lightness and have to resonate with the spirit of haiku. What can this new genre incorporate into it and call its own? After all, it is haibun, not haiku! It is more than haiku, more than a story. With similarities, it is different. Not worse, not better! And these differences are precious, are critical, and deserve examination.

Ray Rasmussen from Ray'sHaikuWeb, 2007

Haibun is a combination of prose and haiku poetry …. Haibun prose is largely descriptive utilizing terse, poetic prose and abbreviated syntax to convey a stream of sensory impressions. For the most part, the style avoids philosophical comment. It is involved more with 'showing' rather than 'telling'…. The one or more haiku that accompany haibun prose are of two types. The first summarizes the feel of the prose, but without repeating words or phrases or images already contained in the prose. The haiku may be a juxtaposition—seemingly different yet connected. The second is a haiku that moves beyond the prose passage taking the reader yet one step further in the narrative.

Ray Rasmusssen, "Characteristics of English Language Haibun," in Haibun Today, December 9, 2007.

Jeffrey Woodward in “Haibun Today? And Your Point Would Be …?”, Haibun Today, Nov. 22, 2007

Haibun as a genre is fluid and ill-defined, volatile and subject daily to change, invisible to the public-at-large and widely misapprehended by haiku editors and commentators…. Haibun is terra incognita – vast and only marginally explored.

Paul Conneally (date & venue unknown)

Prose that has many of the characteristics associated with haiku — present tense …, imagistic, shortened or interesting syntax, joining words such as 'and' limited maybe, a sense of 'being there', descriptions of places people met and above all 'brevity'. The haiku ... should link to the prose but is not a direct carry on from the prose telling some of what has already been said ― no ― it should lead us on ― let our mind want for more, start traveling.




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