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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 6, Number 2, June 2012


Jeffrey Woodward
Detroit, Michigan, USA

Thinking It Through or A Few Innocent Questions:
One Relation of Haiku to Prose in Haibun

It is often asserted that haiku within haibun must be able to "stand alone."[1] Is this expectation of autonomy for haiku a reasonable one?

If the haiku must show autonomy, why isn't the same demand made of the prose? Why is haiku enshrined and given this prominence? Furthermore, if an individual haiku does truly "stand alone," why encumber it with prose at all? [2]

Let us assume that the prose and verse elements respectively must both demonstrate autonomy. [3] Here is a clipping from my daily newspaper and here is an independent haiku. Let us put these two autonomous things together—prose and verse. Is the result haibun?

Is an expectation of autonomy for the haiku (or for the prose) any different than a proposal, say, that every paragraph of a short story must be detachable from the whole and capable of being presented alone?

If the haibun is one whole composed of two elements (prose and haiku), isn't the expectation of autonomy for the haiku equal to a demand that one part (prose) be subordinate to another (haiku) invariably? Isn't this to say, by implication, that the whole (haibun) is subordinate to a part (haiku)?

What of the related "rule" that the haiku, to show true autonomy, should not be capable of being "folded back" into the prose? [4] Is it possible to cite a convincing example of a haiku in a haibun that will resist every effort to rewrite it as prose and fold it back? Isn't it equally possible, in many circumstances, to rewrite a segment of prose that can be "folded out" as haiku?

Consider a design in stained glass, a simple design, such as an angel perhaps, an angel constructed of many cut portions of glass. If I remove one unit of glass from the wing say or the face, will this glass portion stand alone? And if such a part is removed, will the entire design not be diminished thereby?

Consider a collage where some of the borrowed pieces may be fragmentary and convey little meaning, where others may be figurative and relatively whole and may bring to the composition the denotation and connotations usually ascribed to the same. Once this representational fragment is placed in juxtaposition to the other hitherto foreign elements of the collage, once it is immersed in this alien environment, the figure's denotation is constant but the connotations change. Isn't this so with haiku in prose or, for that matter, with prose joined to haiku? [5]

Tentative haibun definition #1001: Haibun is an aesthetic whole that normally consists of two subordinate parts, haiku and prose. Good haibun enshrine neither the haiku nor the prose [6] but admit the necessary peaks and valleys in both components, with sometimes the prose, sometimes the haiku stepping to the foreground.


1. See, for representative examples, David Cobb, "Foreword" to Business in Eden, Braintree, Essex, 2006, pp. i-ii; Ken Jones, "Ken's Corner, Part 4," Contemporary Haibun Online 2:2, June 2006, at , last accessed April 15, 2009; and w.f. owen, "Editor's Welcome," in Simply Haiku 4:3, Autumn 2006, at , last accessed April 15, 2009.

2. This latter point I owe to Linda Papanicolaou, editor of haigaonline, who posed this rhetorical question in response to the ongoing discussion on autonomy for haiku within haibun at Ray Rasmussen's Writer's Workshop in the summer of 2008. That discussion, in turn, was a revival of an earlier controversy in the summer of 2007 in the same workshop on the same subject. This paper is drawn from postings I made on both occasions.

3. See Cobb, op. cit., p. i, where he offers as definition of haibun, "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."

4. Ken Jones, "Ken's Corner, Part 1," Contemporary Haibun Online 1:2, September 2005, at , last accessed April 15, 2009.

5. I'm indulging here in the time-honored literary pastime of drawing comparisons between poetry and music or the plastic arts, but beyond the heuristic value of such illustrations, one must recognize that, in application, an analogy has limits. Cf. Jeanne Emrich, in an interview with Linda Papanicolaou, "Starlit Mountain—How White Space and Imagination Work in Haiga," haigaonline 9:1, Spring/Summer 2008, at , last accessed April 15, 2009: "A haiga is like a cartoon, where you first see the visual rendering, then read the caption, and then look again at the visual image to re-imagine it in light of the new information gained from the caption. But in haiga, where the text is usually a haiku, there is another set of perceptions prompted by the middle step, the reading of the text." This method of reading image and text is roughly akin to the reader's reception of prose and haiku in haibun. The reader's reception and the poet's method of composition, however, are not equivalent processes.

6. One argument that seeks to preserve the unity of haibun by recognizing the subordinate role of prose and haiku is Bruce Ross' concept of "privileging the link." His view is dependent upon recognizing haibun and renga as analogous in structure, however, and while such a proposition is attractive at first glance, it strikes me as dubious, at best, to compare the operation of haiku and prose within haibun to the highly codified rules of linking upper and lower verses that guided renga composition. See Bruce Ross, "On Defining Haibun to a Western Readership," Simply Haiku 2:6, Nov.—Dec. 2004, at , last accessed April 15, 2009.

First published in Frogpond 32: 3 (Fall 2009)



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