Haibun Today

A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Editor
Volume 4, Number 4, December 2010

A Question of Form

The current issue of Haibun Today, unlike previous numbers, has a specific critical focus, that of an inquiry into haibun form. Three essays herein examine the structural aspects of the genre at the macro and micro levels. Their findings are by no means exhaustive but afford a foundation for a broader examination of and dialogue about the role of form in relation to haibun content.

Ken Jones, in “Writing Reality: Fictional Haibun Stories” (2007), acknowledged the strides made in haibun content while simultaneously lamenting the restricted but common view of acceptable matter as being autobiographical, experiential, and factual:     

The haibun has come a long way in recent years. Bald narrations of country walks, rendered in flat, deadpan prose, and enlivened only by their haiku  (“diamonds in mud banks”) are now mercifully few—though still occasionally published . . . . It is increasingly appreciated that mere reportage of experience is not enough if we are truly in the business of literature.

Why not, Jones asked, admit fiction to haibun to supplement, if not to wholly replace, the entrenched practice of memoir and confession? Why not, we might add, admit poetry also? For haibun, if it is literature, may easily encompass narrative and lyric.

Haibun has advanced farther down the road that Jones advocated in his essay four years ago; its content today shows greater variety and its execution greater sophistication. What remains unclear, and what in part motivates this issue’s critical emphasis, is whether the understanding and application of form have kept pace with this recent expansion of content.

One purpose of form—not separable, in absolute terms, from content—is to facilitate and to perfect expression. When we read a haibun of several hundred words, one with multiple characters, lively dialogue, and a complex setting, that concludes with a thin and solitary haiku, or conversely, when we read a haibun that prefaces a pithy but expansive haiku with prose that is small in quantity and quality—when we read such examples of the genre, we sense a failure of form and a failure, on the author’s part, of an understanding of form.

Those haibun that readers are most likely to encounter in print or online share the basic structure of one paragraph, one haiku, fini. Does the public record, however, accurately reflect current practice? Or, to pose the question in another way, do editorial biases and, in the case of print journals, space limitations contribute substantially, by a suppression of departures from the one paragraph plus one haiku norm, to what is often a depressing uniformity of look in your favorite journal’s haibun selection? Furthermore, aren’t newcomers to the genre, when confronted with page after page of haibun written to this same simple order, likely to conclude that it is, if not the only model for composition, the invariably appropriate one?

One justifiable reason for the pervasiveness and resilience of this most simple of haibun structures lies in the nature of haibun itself. Haibun weds the two modes of writing, prose and verse, and one paragraph plus one haiku is the minimal representation of the standard haibun’s two components. Another reason for its effectiveness arises from the fact that many subjects and themes assayed in haibun are compatible with the brevity of this form.

No one would sensibly argue for the elimination of this basic form; many excellent haibun have been written in it and many will continue to be so. Not every subject, however, can be adequately explored within the limitations of one paragraph plus one haiku and that consideration alone should elevate the question of form to a position of vital interest to haibun practitioners and readers.

Jeffrey Woodward
Detroit, Michigan
17 November 2010


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