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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 7, Number 3, September 2013


David Cobb
Shalford, Essex, England

Transmissions of Haibun

The process of embedding haibun into English literature might have taken place at the same time as serious efforts were being made to assimilate the haiku, that is, back in the 1960s. There had been a surge of interest then, aroused by the Beat poets; but when the charm of their generation began to dissipate, enthusiasm for haiku pretty much went to sleep for twenty years. In fact when, as a callow writer of haiku in the late 1980s, I sought an opinion of my haiku from a poet who was held at the time to be a very reliable guide to the current poetry prospectus, he replied, frankly and scathingly, that I had missed the boat. Haiku had long since sailed over the literary horizon into its final sunset.

During that 'first dawning' in the 1960s writers had never really got around to producing haibun, unless one allows that Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums and On the Road have certain resemblances to haibun, in attitude if not in execution. It was not until about 1990 that interest in writing haiku rekindled in the British Isles, and it was not until the year 2000 that English haibun began to establish itself as a regular feature of dedicated print magazines and specially created on-line journals, occupying a great deal of space. There was, then, a lag of about ten years between the 'return' of haiku and the 'arrival' of haibun.

One reason for this delay may have been the neglect of haibun in the works that, in the 1960s, began to claim the attention of readers in the West. Powerful among these, on both sides of the Atlantic, and a particular inspiration to Kerouac, was the British (all but naturalised Japanese) writer, R H Blyth (1898-1964.) His History of Haiku, in two volumes, came out in 1963 and its immediate popularity can be judged from nine reprints within its first year of publication. In Britain, it received a friendly review in the Times Literary Supplement of 8 October 1964.

Blyth's History of Haiku devotes a whole chapter to Bashō, but in the course of 25 pages Blyth does not mention the word 'haibun' even once. He elucidates many haiku taken from Bashō's famous travel haibun Oku-no-hosomichi, usually describing the context in which they were composed, but gives no adequate description of the kind of journal Bashō was writing, beyond this single perfunctory statement: 'Bashō spent most of his life in travelling, and most of his works are diaries; even the haiku are a kind of poetical diary.'

In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac's alter ego, Japhy Ryder, is bitten with the same sense of mission: 'This,' he said (meaning The Dharma Bums) 'is really a book about religious vagrants . . . rucksack wanderers . . . Zen lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason.' We might accept this, right down to the present day, as not a bad description of what haibun means to a good number of those who are intoxicated by the form.

From 1968 onwards, in British schools, some flicker of interest in haiku was kept alive by Geoffrey Somerfield, who published a series of school poetry anthologies with Penguin Education, under the general title Voices. Somerfield was clearly taken with the haiku and included a generous sprinkling, both of English translations of Japanese poets by Harold Henderson—unfortunately marred by the translator's persistent use of rhyme─and original English haiku, by American writers among whom J W Hackett's reputation has best stood the test of time. Somerfield's books were popular at both primary and middle school levels and were reprinted numerous times.

A curious fact is that, in 1966, actually two years before Penguin Education's publication of Voices, Penguin Classics had published Nobuyuki Yuasa's English translation of Bashō's most famous haibun, Oku-no-hosomichi, under the title Narrow Road to the Deep North. It has never been out of print since then, and is still valued for its inspiring vision of the possibilities of the haibun form.

Over the years since Yuasa's version was published, a number of other editions have appeared, none of them better, in my opinion; and only the inferior version by Dorothy Britton is perhaps at all easy to find in UK bookshops.

  • Nobuyuki Yuasa, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Penguin Classics, 1966
  • Dorothy Britton, A Haiku Journey—Bashō's Narrow Road to a Far Province, Kodansha, 1974
  • Cid Corman, Back Roads to Far Towns, White Pine Press, 1986 (but in 1970s by Mushinsha)
  • Hiroaki Sato, Narrow Road to the Interior, Stone Bridge Press, 1996
  • Donald Keene, The Narrow Road to Oku, Kodansha, 1996

Yuasa's translation did have a defect, though. To make the meanings of the haiku more transparent for the Western reader, he felt it necessary to create extra space by adopting a four-line form. He has told me that, with hindsight, he wished he had stuck to the usual 3-line form. Nevertheless we had, for a time, a rather anomalous situation: schoolchildren were being introduced to haiku as a three-line form with rhyme, but knew nothing of haibun; adults, on the other hand, were meeting haiku as a four-line form, and as an essential part of a haibun.

This is not to say the Beat legacy was totally spent in the British Isles. There were still isolated beneficiaries, such as Bill Wyatt, who kept unusual records of botanical field excursions that he undertook with a small group of bosom pals. His writings were a medley of quasi-scientific records of wild plants they had found, happenings of the day which not infrequently ended with revels in a pub, and the chance haiku. Wyatt himself referred to these records as 'haibun', as well he might.

The Nobel Laureate for Literature, Seamus Heaney, was also aware of haibun as the bedrock of haiku. After reading Yuasa's translation, Narrow Road to the Deep North, he often drew attention to the concentrated power of the tiny haiku, which he compared with the short verses Irish monks of the C9th were prone to write in the margins of manuscripts they had spent a long day copying. Flying out to Japan on a British Council tour, Heaney passed the time on the plane re-reading Yuasa's Narrow Road to the Deep North, and on arrival in Tokyo immediately enquired if Yuasa were still alive, and if so, could arrangements be quickly made for him to fly to Hiroshima to see him.

In 1990 the British Haiku Society was formed. It may be a shameful admission, but while the founder members were quickly able to agree on some kind of consensus about the nature of English haiku, 'haibun' never entered into their discussions. We may fairly assume that the majority—and I reckon myself as one of them—were almost completely ignorant of haibun. The exception was Stephen Henry Gill, who knew a great deal more about Japanese literature than most of us. In 1994 he organised a group of intrepid walkers who tackled the Offa's Dyke Path from south to north. The winds up on the ridge were so severe that, legend has it, one of the party was unable to speak for two days. But the rest spent evening hours in various hostels, sharing haiku they had composed during the day. For months afterwards Gill and one of his companions, Fred Schofield, sought to weave these haiku into a prose journal, effectively a haibun. The result, entitled In the Autumn Wind, was later published as a chapter in Gill and Gerstle's Rediscovering Bashō (Global Oriental, 1999.)

It was perhaps no bad thing that, in the early days of the British Haiku Society, haiku pioneers—often little more than novices—did not get involved with haibun, for some solid achievement as a writer of haiku is a prerequisite for writing haibun. In June 1995 I see, in a letter to the wonderful Kathleen Basford, she who had ignited interest in the Green Man and now whipped me on with applause from the bed where she lay an invalid, a first mention that I had taken on, with overweaning confidence, the challenge of 'a putative haibun'. Gradually, as I worked on it over some eighteen months, I embedded 50 haiku into some 7,000 words of prose, and a good many of those haiku had a previous life on their own. The finished account purported to describe a five-day solo bicycle ride across East Anglia from south to north.

I seem to recollect some kind of perverse reaction, as if it were a personal challenge, to the statement in William J Higginson's The Haiku Handbook (1985): 'Relatively few Western writers have written anything resembling haibun.' (He goes on to astonish us with the speculation that George Seferis and T S Eliot might just qualify.) My impudence was vindicated, I thought, when I entered a lengthy extract of the work for the 1996 Woodnotes International Haibun Contest (claimed by its American organisers in San Francisco to be 'the first-ever haibun contest in the English language') and I was notified that a distinguished jury, Cor van den Heuvel and Tom Lynch, had declared it worthy of a prize. That extract was published in America, in an anthology of awarded pieces called Wedge of Light. In January 1997, at a public meeting of the Blue Nose Poetry group in London, I read sections of The Spring Journey draft to an audience of 70-80 people, who seemed not to be bemused, even gave some impression that they liked it. Feeling that publication might now be timely, I self-published the whole haibun in 1997 as The Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore.

Any informed reader of The Spring Journey will realise that it is a frank attempt to adapt the model of Bashō's Narrow Road to the Deep North and contextualise it into a contemporary British setting. I won't affect modesty, but say that of all the pages I have expended on haiku and haibun, these seem to me the best spent.

The Spring Journey, one can't avoid saying, was for a small number of people a catalyst. Among these, Ken Jones rapidly became better known for his haibun than for free-standing haiku, and he developed into surely the most prolific writer these islands have as yet produced. Over years, Jones and I have regularly shared criticisms of each other's haibun darlings; and it was not a matter of surprise when, in the summer of 2000, the then editor of Blithe Spirit, Caroline Gourlay, stepped aside for one issue and allowed Vol. 10, No. 3, to be a 'haibun special' issue, with the two of us as guest editors.

This turned out to be a 'dew point' for haibun in the British Isles. This can be shown statistically. Whereas, in the ten preceding issues of Blithe Spirit haibun averaged little over one per issue, and the majority of these were contributed by the three 'old soakers', Wyatt, Jones and Cobb—in the next ten issues the average went up almost fourfold to over four haibun per issue, and the number of different authors increased in proportion.

By 2002 Ken Jones had built further on his reputation as a haibun pioneer. The British Haiku Society had set up its own international haibun contest, called the Nobuyuki Yuasa International Haibun Contest with Yuasa as patron, and Jones was appointed to assist Yuasa in the adjudication. By this time Jones had also enlisted as co-editor of an annual volume, American Haibun and Haiga, published by Red Moon Press in Winchester, Virginia.

Furthermore, collaborating with Irish authors, Jim Norton and Sean O'Connor, the three had brought out a collection of haibun, Pilgrim Foxes, in 2001, and Jones successfully entered his portion of this for the 2002 round of the Sasakawa Prize for Original Contributions in the Field of Haikai. Lucien Stryk, chairing the jury, declared Jones the winner and 'a very gifted writer.'

An intriguing situation now arose. It was a condition of the Sasakawa Prize (open to entries from Britain or Japan) that the winner should use the prize money to visit the other country and there present the 'original contribution' that had won the prize. This immediately necessitated a fresh haibun collection, one solely composed of pieces by Jones; and in time for his visit Jones put together Arrow of Stones (2002) and the British Haiku Society published it.

Then Jones went to Japan, where he gave a haibun reading at a meeting in Osaka organised by the Hailstone Haiku Circle. He discovered that outside this group there was no more than slight, polite interest in the haibun form, and that no Japanese poets actually practised it any more. Haibun was to all intents and purposes moribund in the land of its birth!

There was, however, an astonishing but gratifying outcome. Nobuyuki Yuasa retired from his patronage of the BHS Awards, freeing himself—with the assistance of Stephen Henry Gill—to launch the annual Genjuan International Haibun Contest, with its administration based in Japan. Gill, as founder of the Hailstone Haiku Circle centred on Kyoto, has over the years encouraged English haibun submissions for the anthologies published by his group of largely Japanese authors. Thus the plant, originally native to Japan, then cultivated for a while in the West, has now seeded itself back whence it came.

These developments may, after all, not be so surprising, for it may well be that haibun, internationally, has 'reached its time', and is an expression of current global Zeitgeist. Rather than lament contracting attention spans, haibun authors might take advantage of their skills to produce pithy short pieces that even those unfamiliar with haiku can appreciate.

There is burgeoning interest in prose poetry that will sit comfortably beside more easily recognisable types of poem. One thinks, for example, of the fully achieved prose poems of George Mackay Brown, such as Magi. There are writers of both prose and poetry who are keen to test the boundaries between them. New forms of writing have sprouted and are becoming increasingly popular: 'flash fiction', the 'short-short story'. For the Bridport Prize, 2013, for the first time in the 40 years it has celebrated, there is now a third category, in addition to poems and short stories: 'flash fiction'.

So what is 'flash fiction'? This is what Bridport's flash fiction judge, David Swann, has to say: 'I'm not looking for flash fiction to any set formula.' You won't find any more exact definition in Wikipedia than that, either. So 'flash fiction' is at present a very loose genre, and haibun, related in spirit, is far better defined. Haibun also bridges the gap many writers wish did not exist between poetry and prose.

Where might haibun stand in relation to these experimental forms? We seem to agree that haiku is a poem conceived (observed) in a flash; some also hold that it is also best recorded (written down) in a flash, though more of us—from Bashō onwards—demur that haiku should be crafted carefully over any length of time. Kerouac also, though we may associate his method with 'action writing' and 'stream of consciousness', is on record as saying 'haiku is best reworked and revised.' 'Flash writing' is not to be confused with 'first thoughts, best thoughts', better left untouched. The 'flash' is a loose measure of the time it takes to read a piece, but not the time it took to write it, or the time needed, after reading it, to absorb it. All this applies equally to haiku and haibun.

Of course, haibun is not 'flash fiction'. From the point of view of subject matter, most haibun are 'flash-faction', an umbrella for sub-sets such as 'flash history', 'flash legend', 'flash myth', 'flash memoir', 'flash essay', 'flash diary', 'flash journal', 'flash travelogue', 'flash prose poem'; though there are indeed examples that we might call 'flash story' and even 'flash fairy tale' and 'flash science fiction'. Ken Jones has aimed to broaden his readership by calling some of his output 'haiku stories'.

The triviality of the gap that divides us may perhaps be indicated by my quirky decision, some years ago, to enter a haibun for the Bridport Short Story Prize. I removed the haiku first! Unrecognised by the judges as a mutilated haibun, it did not win a prize; but it was 'long-listed', that is, it had been winnowed down into the final 70 from a total entry of (I was told) some 3,500 short stories.

Interest in 'short writing' exists not least in creative writing courses—among students, and among tutors. It is for that reason it seemed to me timely to offer, in tandem, Marching with Tulips—a very varied collection of different types of haibun—and What Happens in Haibun—a study which tries to pinpoint whatever roles haiku may play when embedded in prose.

Quite a few years ago, when Robert Hass, an American Poet Laureate, was asked how he could justify the place of haiku as yet another shaft in the poet's quiver, he replied: 'The case for haiku is that it does what no other verse form can.' The case for haibun is an extension of that: it can do what no other combination of prose and very short poem can. In addition, it enables prose and poetry to associate on equal terms.



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