Form in Haibun: An Outline

by Jeffrey Woodward

Introduction by Way of Simple Definition

The modest purpose of the present study is to offer the reader a concise outline of those forms commonly used in the composition of haibun. This objective can be achieved most readily by first drawing a distinction between standard haibun and haibun that depart from the norm. The standard is so dominant in haibun today as to justify the use of the adjective “anomalous” to describe those rare exceptions to its rule.

Standard haibun combine the two modes of writing—prose and verse. Haibun’s predilection for employing haiku as its verse component distinguishes haibun from other types of prosimetrum (i.e., mixed prose and verse writings). One can extrapolate from this circumstance a basic unit—one paragraph, one haiku—that defines the norm for haibun composition.

Because haibun is a hybrid genre that joins two modes of writing, and because its basic unit or building block is one paragraph and one haiku, it is reasonable to anticipate that variation in the number and placement of haiku in relation to the prose will have a bearing upon the final character of the haibun and upon its reception by the reader. Differences in the quantity and position of haiku, in fact, best define the various forms of standard haibun.

The role of the title, parenthetically, lies outside of the present investigation of haibun form, but well within any examination of an individual haibun’s meaning. A recent article by Ray Rasmussen recognises the corresponding relationships of the title to its haibun, the haiku’s fragment to its phrase, and the haibun’s prose to its haiku. The latter relation has largely occupied the attention of the genre’s critical commentators.

Anomalous haibun lack one of the two components of standard haibun, the prose or the haiku. An examination of these exceptional haibun, however, will reveal that there is compensation for the missing element. If prose is absent, a verse form other than haiku is juxtaposed to the haiku. If haiku is absent, a structural device of verse composition, such as lineation, or an organizational principle of haikai, such as internal comparison, is applied and one segment of prose finds itself juxtaposed to its neighbouring segment.

In the outline of standard and anomalous forms below, the format for each entry will be (a) the name and description of the form, (b) an illustrative example of the form from the current literature, (c) a commentary on the example, and (d) a list of other references or examples pertinent to or illustrative of the form.

The selection criteria for each haibun under discussion were that the sample fulfil the form’s promise by being well-written and that it be representative of the current practice of the form that it was chosen to illustrate. Examples are generally limited to one haibun per form in order to focus on formal properties and to restrict this paper to an acceptable length. The commentaries that follow each haibun, therefore, should be read in the spirit in which they were written, as provisional observations intended to spur further study and discussion, observations that are willing to confess the limits of our knowledge of haibun without surrendering the hope that continued curiosity may tomorrow enlarge our comprehension.


Standard Forms in Haibun

A: Preface, Headnote or Header – the paragraph precedes the haiku

Rose Madder

A few months ago the neighbors across the street lost their second child in late term. Their house stands empty this morning, the curtains drawn open, a few lights on, lifeless, sold. I hardly knew them. Upstairs our two teens are sleeping like royalty in their rooms: what do I know about sorrow?

morning twilight
I crack the ice
for thirsty dogs

Gary LeBel

Commentary: No form of haibun composition will be encountered more frequently than this, the basic unit of one paragraph and one haiku. The reader may verify this observation by a casual survey of any venue, in print or online, that promotes haibun. Various historical and aesthetic reasons for the omnipresence of this form might be posited; that one paragraph plus one haiku is haibun’s fundamental building block is certainly answerable, in some degree, for the form’s dominance.

Gary LeBel’s “Rose Madder” is representative of the basic unit at its best, offering, in the prefatory prose, a vignette that focuses upon detail carefully chosen for its significance to the motif and a closing haiku’s sensory perceptions compared with or contrasted to the imagery of the preceding paragraph. This form, while well-adapted for the abbreviated anecdote or descriptive sketch, may find its efficacy called into question with the introduction of greater expository or narrative complications. One concluding haiku will rarely balance well with a story that employs multiple characters and requires hundreds of words for the telling.

Selected Preface, Headnote or Header Examples:

  • Ruth Holzer, “Heimerzheim”, Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose 1 (Summer 2009), p. 43
  • Gary LeBel, “Rose Madder”, Haibun Today (December 19, 2007)
  • Richard Straw, “Dolor”, Haibun Today (March 28, 2008)
  • Jeffrey Winke, “Gathers the Volume Up”, Haibun Today (December 4, 2008).

B: Afterword, Footnote or Footer – the haiku precedes the paragraph

On the Path

on a bramble
puffed up
a sparrow

Morning without birdsong, boots shifting over the wetland’s sheet of snow—the right, alongside coyote tracks; the left, beside the rabbit’s.

— Tish Davis

Commentary: Inversion of the basic unit — placement of the haiku first — changes the tenor of a haibun by altering the relationship of haiku to paragraph. The prose and verse components are still juxtaposed, their respective imagery still compared or contrasted, but the emphasis of the two elements is not the same. In the preface or headnote, the closing haiku caps the prose and is often the culminating point of the composition; perhaps haikai readers, too, are trained to anticipate this crest, to view the introduction of the haiku as a sign of the haibun’s fulfillment.

In the inverted form of afterword or footnote, placement of the haiku first and the prose last disrupts our common expectation. In the inversion, the haiku adopts some of the narrative or expository qualities that we ordinarily associate with the prose, whereas the paragraph that now concludes the composition acquires, to some degree, the climactic characteristics that we customarily ascribe to the haiku. Tish Davis’ “On the Path” demonstrates this well, with her opening haiku’s sketch of a sparrow whose fragility and vulnerability in this winter scene foreshadow the mute violence of the paragraph’s parallel coyote and rabbit tracks.

Compare this with Bashō’s “Concerning the Beautiful Scenery at the Home of Master Shūa”. Bashō’s haiku, by hyperbole, relates that the mountains have joined host and guest in the large parlour with its scenic window. The paragraph then follows and identifies Master Shūa, his occupation and the location of his mansion, the prosaic but necessary background to the poetic reverie on the landscape and the Creative (zōka) that dominates the latter half of the prose.

Selected Afterword, Footnote or Footer Examples:

  • Matsuo Bashō, “Concerning the Beautiful Scenery at the Home of Master Shūa”, in David Landis Barnhill (translator), Bashō’s Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Bashō, SUNY Press, 2005, pp. 113-114.
  • Tish Davis, “On the Path”, Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose 1 (Summer 2009), p. 114.
  • Cherie Hunter Day, “Inclement Weather”, The Unseen Wind: BHS Haiku Anthology 2009, p. 18.
  • Jeffrey Harpeng, “Marked”, in Jeffrey Harpeng, et. al., Quartet: a string of haibun in four voices, PostPressed, 2008, p. 19.
  • Ralph Murre, “In Apartment 3-B”, Haibun Today (July 24, 2009).

C: Prose Envelope — paragraph, then haiku, then paragraph

As the Dew

How many tunnels by train from Taumarunui? Tahora is a country store and in the valley behind half a dozen houses, a school, and the church is the hall. Tarmac ends with gravel to the cattle grid, then dirt past the dog boxes up to the shearer’s quarters and shearing shed full of folk song. And one Aussie accent to “rattle ya dags”. Swell of hills all around, his hill the highest between here and there. And tomorrow,

dew above the fog
from the valley the tears
of a mournful song

At the hilltop a sense of the earth’s curve, snow capped volcanoes far to the east and west, and one sweet voice below.

Jeffrey Harpeng

Commentary: The prose envelope begs comparison with both the preface or basic unit and with the afterword or inversion of the basic unit. Why? Its first paragraph prepares the way for the haiku’s appearance and the reader’s expectation of fulfilment, in the manner of the preface, but the paragraph that follows the haiku, because of its position, inherits some of the climactic properties, as does the afterword, that are normally reserved for the haiku in the basic unit.

In “As the Dew”, the closing paragraph constitutes a lyrical envoy with its “one sweet voice below” providing an echo or amplification of the haiku’s “mournful song”. A poetic tone at closure, whether haiku or paragraph claims the exit line, may be customary for haibun. To infuse the writing with divine fire throughout, however, is less common. In “As the Dew”, not even exposition escapes Harpeng’s lyrical prowess as this alliterative passage, craftily balanced upon /t/ and /h/, clearly shows:

How many tunnels by train from Taumarunui? Tahora is a country store and in the valley behind half a dozen houses, a school, and the church is the hall.

Jim Kacian’s “No Place”, another haibun written as a prose envelope, devotes the opening paragraph to mood, to showing the reader how, in happy anticipation of a journey’s end, everything becomes “greener as we move closer to home”. The haiku then relates, with quiet irony, that

returning home
the chessmen have maintained
my lost position

The closing paragraph depicts an airport, a last stopover, and this description reinforces the haiku’s “lost position”, the ultimate sentence telling us with sober precision: “The airport is brightly lit, generic, not any place specific but a place between places; really, no place.” The thematic climax, again, resides not in Kacian’s fine haiku but has been inherited, along with the closing position, by the last paragraph.

Selected Prose Envelope Examples:

  • Jeannine Hall Gailey, “Love Story (with Fire Demon and Tengu)”, Haibun Today (April 7, 2008).
  • Jeffrey Harpeng, “As the Dew”, in Jeffrey Harpeng, et. al., Quartet: a string of haibun in four voices, PostPressed, 2008, p. 14.
  • Jim Kacian, “No Place”, Border Lands, Red Moon Press, 2007, unpaginated.
  • Beth Vieira, “She Says”, Contemporary Haibun Online V2, N2 (June 2006).

D: Verse Envelope — haiku, then paragraph, then haiku

Maria Distasio, 10, Killed in the Great Molasses Flood of 1919

winter sun
glistening drops
from an icicle

I read your name on the list of fatalities and wonder how you died. Did rivets popping off the tank like bullets from a machine gun mow you down? Or were you crossing the street when two million gallons of molasses came barreling down on you at 35 miles an hour? There are so many ways to die. Who would have expected this to be one? I will never again say “slower than molasses in the winter time” without thinking of you.

the last of the light
caught in the blinds

— Bob Lucky

Commentary: Haibun commonly invite the reader to study the relation of the haiku to the prose. Many haibun employ one haiku only, as in the preface, afterword or prose envelope forms, and this fact further encourages the reader to focus upon the juxtaposition of the standard haibun’s two components, prose and verse. In the verse envelope, where one paragraph of prose is sandwiched between two haiku, a careful reading must account for the further complication of how the opening and closing haiku relate not only to the prose, but also to one another.

The two haiku in Bob Lucky’s “Maria Distasio . . .” share one motif — light — but afford a meaningful contrast that underscores the subject, the molasses flood. Light, in the initial haiku, is embodied by an icicle that drips slowly; in the final haiku, however, the diminished light, now “caught in the blinds”, has neither movement nor life.

The verse envelope, as is evident from the above, lends itself to the treatment of the haibun as a journey between two points, between the textual landmarks of the introductory and of the concluding haiku. The paragraph is, at once, the vehicle that transports the reader from start to finish and the explanation of much that transpires in that passage.

Selected Verse Envelope Examples:

E: Interlaced or Alternating Prose and Verse Elements

This follows the universal form of call and response, with the two elements, prose and verse, playing the role of chorus and anti-chorus. Either element may lead but in the example that follows the haiku comes first.

Dog Star

tea kettle whistling —
steam clouds
the windows

Thursday night. Another wife-daughter fight with raised voices, crying, doors slamming, I grab my jacket, call the border collie and bolt into the frigid night. The ravine trail is barely visible, the stream frozen . . .

the skin of ice —
dark waters

An owl calls. I pause, wait for the next call, let the silence sink in. Branches sweep toward a star-filled sky. The dog presses close, warm fur, her tail wagging . . .

on the horizon —
a nudge toward home

— Ray Rasmussen

Commentary: The steady alternation of prose and haiku poses a special difficulty, particularly where the distribution of the two elements is symmetrical, that is, where one paragraph is repeatedly answered by one haiku. Careful consideration must be given, by the author of such a work, to varying sentence structure and prose tempo from paragraph to paragraph. If this task is neglected, a rhythm is soon established like that of the metronome, and the arrival of each subsequent haiku is not only easily predicted by the reader, but also increasingly met with resentment as an unwanted disruption in the narrative or exposition.

Ray Rasmussen avoids such monotony in “Dog Star” by his reliance upon brief telegraphic sentence fragments and simple but expressive details whose very abbreviation, paradoxically, increases the gravity of the two short paragraphs. Notable, also, is the functional aspect of the first two haiku. The whistling tea kettle, in the opening haiku, signals a delineation of the domestic setting that is then elaborated upon by the prose. The second haiku, with its dark water and thin ice, is concerned largely with mood and renders for the reader the emotional state of the haibun’s narrator. Both haiku and paragraph are subordinate here to the purpose of the total composition. The closing haiku, on the other hand, connects the protagonist’s border collie to Sirius in a startling wedding of near and far, of familiar and alien—an apt resolution of the haibun’s theme.

Selected Interlaced Examples:

  • Graham High, “Lost City”, Haibun Today (November 30, 2008).
  • Ruth Holzer, “Venetian Glass”, Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose 1 (Summer 2009), p. 44.
  • Ray Rasmussen, “Dog Star”, Lynx XXII:3 (October 2007).
  • Lynne Rees, “Living Things”, Contemporary Haibun 10, 2009, p. 74.

F: Verse Sequence

The presentation of two or more haiku, in any position in the haibun composition, without interruption by the prose element.

Gauze in the Wind*

pulling in the dusk
fluttering pages of the
Knapsack Notebook

That calls to mind Matsuo Bashō, travelling from Edo to one god-enshrined temple and another, searching for the scent of blossoms, passing a monk in high clogs, watching the fishermen catch kisugo in Suma, and resting under a bright moon, dreaming about art and poetry as he opens his satchel:

evening dew
dampens his inkstone . . .
the haiku’s joie de vivre

the stroke of his brush
wordless word after word
in black ink

each pink sasanqua
blossom . . .
the only blossom

infused with
the sea’s fragrance
his wind-dried haiga

— Dru Philippou

* “Gauze in the wind” was Basho’s pen name

Commentary: One trait of the verse sequence — the presentation of two or more consecutive haiku without prose intermission — lies in its tendency to possess some of the properties typically reserved for the haibun’s prose: exposition or narration.

Another trait of the verse sequence in haibun arises from the fact that the presence of multiple haiku requires the reader to study not only the relation of haiku to prose but to study also the relation of each haiku in a series to its immediate predecessor and heir. These associations can become quite complex with the sequence simultaneously contributing to the narrative and to the metaphorical or analogical threads of the complete work.

The four haiku that close Dru Philippou’s “Gauze in the Wind” illustrate clearly the propensity of the haiku sequence to encroach upon the paragraph’s domain. The Bashō that Philippou summons from her reading of the Knapsack Notebook has only reached into his satchel when the prose gives way to the depiction, in the four haiku, of the master respectively preparing his inkstone, drawing with his brush, admiring the “only blossom” and, at last, letting his haiga dry in the sea breeze. The haiku sequence thus completes the delineation of the action that the prose initiates. In addition, the individual haiku also have the poetic value we frequently associate with haiku; they establish a mood, convey an atmosphere, hint at matters left unwritten. Bashō’s “wind-dried haiga” of the last haiku neatly recalls the “fluttering pages” of the first haiku; this repetition of a motif stamps the last line with a satisfying sense of finality.

The haiku sequence, when not a participant in exposition or narration, serves other functions. Bashō’s “An Account of the Moon at Mount Obasute in Sarashina”, for example, comes to a close with two haiku on the moon that is the subject of the preceding paragraph. The first haiku amplifies the local legend of abandoning elderly women just recounted in the prose while the second emphasises Bashō’s “lingering” at Sarashina. These haiku have no expository or narrative value but repeat, in a modulated voice, motifs first broached in the prose preface.

Selected Verse Sequence Examples:

  • Matsuo Bashō, “An Account of the Moon at Mount Obasute in Sarashina”, in David Landis Barnhill (translator), Bashō’s Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Bashō, SUNY Press, 2005, pp. 110-111.
  • Ruth Franke, “Summit Ice”, Haibun Today (July 26, 2008).
  • Ken Jones, “Such Stuff as Dreams are Made Of”, The Parsley Bed, Pilgrim Press, 2006, pp. 87-89.
  • Dru Philippou, “Gauze in the Wind”, Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose 1 (Summer 2009), p. 132.
  • Diana Webb, “The Gate”, Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose 1 (Summer 2009), p. 139.

Anomalies or Variations from the Norm

A: Haibun Minus Haiku

  1. Lineation


We sit in the back, each with an arm crooked out a window, miles on end, not passing a word. Pressed to our doors, undeclared, we compete: whose left will tan darker than whose right? Ladybug on the odometer, numbers flipping, travel trailer in tow, I tell you now, on this final stretch home, I’m as close to my sister as I seem to know how, leaning as far from her arm as this Ford will allow.

— Charles Hansmann

Commentary: Haibun without haiku often compensate and substitute, for the missing verse component, another structural feaure that invites comparison and contrast between the haibun’s parts. Charles Hansmann’s “Postcard”, in harmony with ideas he first enunciated in his article, “Haibun Poem: A Definition”, introduces to the haikuless prose a fundamental feature of versification: lineation or the line-break. In “Postcard”, this technique colours the whole haibun with an air of hesitancy, of slight ambiguity at the point of the line-breaks, of the lively but nervous tension, in fact, of the rival siblings. His lineation acts as camouflage for the presence of the treble rhyme of “now”, “how” and “allow” while, in seeming contradiction, calling upon measure to draw the haibun to a proper close. For what is Hansmann’s last line

as far from her arm as this Ford will allow

if not a strict anapestic tetrameter in which the alliteration of “far” and “Ford” reinforces our confidence in our scansion as well as in our comprehension of Hansmann’s intent?

  1. Internal Comparison or Juxtaposition

Finding My Way

another address to locate in an unfamiliar city i can now find my way to the Autistic Centre but accommodation has been offered in an unused nursing home a young woman social worker offers to pilot me across town ‘city drivers’ i almost lose her at the first set of lights and how will i find my way back it isn’t as simple as retracing my steps because many of the streets are one way exhausted but one more effort is needed to get up the steep drive-way to the home i unload the car as Tony runs from room to room exploring the place which is to be our home for the next week at the school the others laugh telling ghost stories of how those who have passed away in the home still wander the hallways at night the kitchen is bleak with windows which look out to a block retaining wall holding a cut-away bank in the hillside most of the nursing home is closed off from use by the fire doors half-way down the long hallway Tony and i the only occupants feeling enclosed i walk towards the glass doors and the main entrance beyond as i walk a ghostly figure in a long night gown approaches from the opposite direction for a moment i feel the panic then i realise as i stand in front of the wide glass doors that my reflection is looking anxiously back at me

— Janice M. Bostok

Commentary: Another method of haibun sans haiku is the application of a well-known structural feature of haiku, that of the principle of internal comparison, to the prose itself. Harold G. Henderson, in An Introduction to Haiku (1958), defined the operation of this principle as one in which the haiku’s two parts “are compared to each other, not in simile or metaphor, but as two phenomena, each of which exists in its own right” and one in which “the differences are just as important as the likenesses”. Internal comparison can also be understood as a juxtaposition of two images wherein both correspondence and contrast have their say.

This technique can be discerned in a close reading of Janice M. Bostok’s “Finding My Way”. Here, the protagonist’s anxiety about being suddenly immersed in a strange environment is exacerbated by the fear that she will be unable to retrace her steps and find her way back to that familiar place from whence she came. The narrator’s immediate surroundings are described in concrete terms — “a block retaining wall” and “fire doors”. These physical barriers, firm in their bleak reality, are compared to the alienated protagonist who is reduced to an apparition, “a ghostly figure in a long night gown”, an insubstantial “reflection” that mimics the disembodied countenance of its author.

The reader will discover this method, also, in Bashō’s “Words in Praise of the Pine in Narahide’s Garden”, where enjoying a pine “preserved for a thousand years” is juxtaposed with the variable but fleeting pride and pleasure of nurturing exotic flowers or prized fruit, with the poet coming down firmly in favor of the former pursuit.

Selected Haibun Minus Haiku Examples:

  • Matsuo Bashō, “Words in Praise of the Pine of Narahide’s Garden”, in David Landis Barnhill (translator), Bashō’s Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Bashō, SUNY Press, 2005, pp. 131-132.
  • Janice M. Bostok, “Finding My Way”, Stepping Stones, Post Pressed, 2007, p. 36.
  • Charles Hansmann, “Haibun Poem: A Definition”, Haibun Today (November 17, 2007).
  • Charles Hansmann, “Postcard”, Haibun Today (November 26, 2007).
  • Harold G. Henderson, An Introduction to Haiku, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1958, pp. 18-19.
  • Tracy Koretsky, “On a Hill Over Haifa: Haibun Sans Haiku, Experiment and Commentary”. Haibun Today (January 12, 2008).
  • Jeffrey Woodward, “Dead Letter Office”, in Jeffrey Harpeng, et. al., Quartet: a string of haibun in four voices, PostPressed, 2008, p. 20.
  • Jeffrey Woodward, “Haibun Minus Haiku”, Haibun Today (November 30, 2007).

B: Haibun Minus Prose

Looking out on Research Triangle Park
and remembering the white clouds at

Great Lakes Naval Training Station

I gaze out a cafeteria window
at loblollies and clipped lawns
a songbird dips in the haze
gray clouds hang distended
four decades ago I joined the Navy
landlocked now and off course
I wait to enter a wider sea.

a crow
between rainfalls
high in a pine

— Richard Straw

Commentary: Haibun that eschew the prose element commonly substitute a verse form other than haiku for the paragraph. The selection of verse type and quality of the versification have a direct bearing upon the final character of the haibun. Because of the availability of many poetic forms and the countless variations that meters permit, coming to any firm conclusions about haibun without prose as a formal option is problematical. A comparative study of known examples would be useful in increasing our understanding of the form’s promises and limitations.

In Richard Straw’s “Looking out on Research Triangle Park”, the clear sketch of the poet’s immediate environment, a rather mundane scene, evokes memories of his stint in the Navy “four decades ago”. The voice is one of middle-aged detachment and resignation, of reflection upon vanished youth and youth’s broad horizon. These qualities, along with the extended descriptive title, remind one of Tang poetry, of the shih or couplets of the poet and painter Wang Wei. The crow and pine of Straw’s haiku are not unlike Bashō’s famous crow and bare branch, while both haiku share an affinity with the ink and wash paintings of Sesshū and of the Song Dynasty landscape painters that preceded him.

No syllabic or accentual norm can be discerned in this writing; Straw’s versification, therefore, is free. The lines do show grammatical order or design, however, and might be described, with one exception, as organised in unrhymed couplets with each distich completing one image or thought:

I gaze out a cafeteria window / at loblollies and clipped lawns
a songbird dips in the haze / gray clouds hang distended
four decades ago I joined the Navy
landlocked now and off course / I wait to enter a wider sea.

The exception lies in “four decades ago I joined the Navy”, a single verse in lieu of the third couplet, although it does complete the unit of thought and thus has sufficient weight to balance well with the other distichs. That we find four couplets here reminds us, also, that the literary shih of the Tang Dynasty are similarly structured and are often rendered, in English translation, as eight lines. Straw’s “Looking out on Research Triangle Park” could hold its own if placed among them.

Selected Haibun Minus Prose Examples:

Conclusion by Way of Digression: Other Issues

A: Symmetry and Asymmetry in Form

The haibun chosen for discussion employ simple, symmetrical forms where the prose and verse elements are present in the ratio of one to one or where asymmetry is slight and due only to interruption of the alternating round of paragraph and haiku. The prose envelope, for example, falls one concluding haiku short of a doubling of the basic unit of paragraph plus haiku.

Many variations can be derived from the standard haibun forms by compounding one or both elements and introducing greater asymmetry. The interlaced haibun, as we discussed above, must avoid the metronomic beat of a steady alternation of paragraph and haiku; one of the simplest ways it may do so is to introduce asymmetry, often in the form of an added paragraph before the next haiku — paragraph, haiku, two paragraphs, haiku. Consider the prose envelope, again, and add a second haiku — prose, two haiku, prose. The result is symmetrical in quantity — two paragraphs, two haiku — but perhaps not so in quality, insofar as the interaction of adjacent haiku may enlarge their scale or gravity, a sequence being more than the sum of its parts.

B: Verse Other Than Haiku

Haibun is one type of prosimetrum. Some types of mixed prose-plus-verse writings show a predilection for a specific verse form, while others do not. The saga literature of Iceland and Scandinavia strongly favored Old Norse court-measures such as the dróttkvaett or “lordly verse” The poetic forms in Dante’s La Vita Nuova, as in that of Boethius’ Consolatio before him, are diverse but derived from a common Mediterranean and classical heritage; this meant the sonnet, canzone, and ballata in Dante’s case.

The two types of prosimetrum issuing from Japan — haibun and tanka prose — can be distinguished by their respective preferences for haiku and tanka. Every verse form has conventions—metrical and cultural. Haiku, for example, was historically composed of 5-7-5 syllables with a cutting word (kireji) to divide the verse into two parts, a metrical requirement and convention. Haiku also required a season word (kigo), a cultural tradition and convention. Such properties, which differ from the conventions of other verse forms, are not without influence on their prose accompaniment.

In the commentary on haibun sans prose, I placed some emphasis on the fact that such works “commonly substitute a verse form other than haiku for the paragraph”. To substitute haiku for the paragraph would be simply to join haiku to haiku, to write a haiku sequence, and not to write haibun. If I did stress “other than haiku”, what of tanka, haiku’s venerable ancestor? Can tanka replace the paragraph in haibun? The past few years have witnessed the publication of many sequences that mix tanka and haiku. See, for examples, those tanka anthologies referenced below. These compositions are what their authors claim them to be — verse sequences — and have little in common with haibun or, in my opinion, with the greater unity and cohesion of a tanka-only sequence.

If we rule out haiku and tanka as substitutes for the paragraph, the first because of common identity and the second because of its familial relationship with the verse side of haibun’s basic unit, can every other known verse form, then, claim a place in haibun’s toolbox? The question is open to the proof of future practice, of course, but among the examples of haibun sans prose already published, the diversity of verse forms used in lieu of prose includes iambic and accentual meters as well as free verse.

What common characteristics, if any, might be ascribed to these various stand-ins for the prose? Two features are noteworthy. First, the verses employed are Western forms, even where, as in the Straw haibun, the inspiration may have been China. Second, those forms heavily favored are stichic and not stanzaic; they are based upon a normative line and not upon a fixed arrangement of lines. This is significant and should be examined in any future study of the subject. Stanzaic forms are sharply defined, while stichic forms are relatively less so and thus closer to the unmetered language of prose. Strict stanzas, in theory, need not necessarily be proscribed from haibun and might juxtapose well with haiku. Common sense would seem to dictate, however, that such meetings, if they are to succeed, must be brief. Stanzas exhibit a high degree of organisation where the number, length and order of the lines as well as the rhyme scheme are each prescribed. This architecture serves to place the stanza at a greater remove from prose and common discourse. One can imagine the haiku holding its own against a solitary epigrammatic couplet or quatrain . . . but more?

Selected Verse Other Than Haiku Examples:

  • Michael McClintock and Denis M. Garrison (editors), The Five-Hole Flute: Modern English Tanka in Sequences and Sets. Baltimore, MD: Modern English Tanka Press, 2006.
  • Michael McClintock and Denis M. Garrison (editors), The Dreaming Room: Modern English Tanka in Collage and Montage Sets. Baltimore, MD: Modern English Tanka Press, 2007.

C: Descriptive Schematic

A simple notation system will allow us to provide a shorthand description of an individual haibun’s form and to classify, for comparison, the form of many haibun.

P paragraph
H haiku
V verse other than haiku
2, 3 . . . the number of P, H or V in sequence
> transition from element to element
(P > H)2 the series in parentheses is multiplied
[-P], [-H] the element in the brackets is absent

If we employ these symbols, we can describe each of the standard haibun forms discussed above.

Preface P > H
Afterword H > P
Prose Envelope P > H > P
Verse Envelope H > P > H
Interlaced P > H > P > H or (P > H)2
Verse Sequence H > P > H4

The last notation on verse sequence describes our example, Dru Philippou’s “Gauze in the Wind”.

In speaking of symmetry and asymmetry above, we mentioned how, to avoid the regular alternation of paragraph and haiku in the interlaced haibun, the poet might choose to “introduce asymmetry, often in the form of an added paragraph before the next haiku — paragraph, haiku, two paragraphs, haiku” or P > H > P2 > H.

The anomalous forms may be notated as well, though interesting questions arise when doing so. Bostok’s “Finding My Way”, cited as an example of haibun sans haiku, can be diagrammed quite simply as P [-H]: one paragraph minus haiku. Hansmann’s “Postcard”, where lineation has invaded the prose and where, as we demonstrated, one line can be scanned as normative meter, cannot be so easily described. If one sets the lineation aside momentarily, it is clear that read as simple prose, “Postcard” consists of one paragraph. That is not the author’s intent, however, as we know from the lineation on the page and from his article on the subject. If we respect Hansmann’s lineation, then, we might diagram “Postcard” as P > V > P > V [-H] or, more succinctly, as (P > V)2 [-H]: paragraph, verse other than haiku, paragraph, verse other than haiku, minus the haiku. This notation, while not entirely satisfactory, can claim one small virtue; it affords a partial explanation of Hansmann’s experiment whereas an interpretation of his work as a structure of one paragraph discloses little and evades much.

Straw’s haibun without prose, “Looking out on Research Triangle Park”, can be recorded shorthand as V > H [-P] or verse other than haiku plus haiku, minus prose. This is neither wholly accurate nor efficient, I admit, and if a study of the various haibun composed without prose were conducted, the author of such a study would want to define and compare the precise verse forms employed — the “verse other than haiku,” I mean — in order to better understand their influence upon and relation to the haiku. What is the metre of the verse or line? What stanza, if any, is employed? How many verses are present? Are there other metrical considerations? Perhaps a close reading of this nature would render the notation system of little profit.


Author acknowledgment: I’m indebted to Richard Straw and Ray Rasmussen for their patient reading and practical criticism of the various drafts of this essay. Their queries and observations were an invaluable resource for my revisions. Any errors or shortcomings in this paper, of course, must be credited to the author alone.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Haibun Today 4: 4, December 2010, and appears here with the author’s kind permission.

Jeffrey Woodward lives in Detroit, Michigan. His poems and articles are published in periodicals throughout North America, Europe and Asia. He founded Haibun Today in 2007 (serving as editor until the end of 2016) and is a former editor of Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose. A collection of his poems, In Passing, was published in 2007 and edited The Tanka Prose Anthology in 2008. Evening in the Plaza, a collection of his haibun and haiku was published in 2013.