Haibun: A personal journey

by Joanna Preston  

I’ve been writing haibun for the best part of 10 years, but, truth be told, I still don’t really know how to go about it. In part this is because the form is still defining itself. It should be simple – haibun equals haiku plus prose. Except there are serious practitioners of the form who argue that you don’t need to have a haiku, if the prose itself is sufficiently haikuesque. (One example is in the recent collaborative haibun-renga, Quartet (Post Pressed, 2008). I’d read the whole thing through three or four times before I even noticed, so there goes that objection.)

And there’s the question of what “haikuesque” prose is. Terse, elliptical, evocative? Except I’ve read haibun where the prose was frankly voluptuous. Or where the prose was closer to being a poem in its own right, complete with metre and linebreaks – I’ve written one that way myself.

For every haibun rule, there seem to be vibrant exceptions. And I’m not alone in this thought – in “Haibun Today? And Your Point Would Be …?”, Jeffrey Woodward described haibun

as a genre is fluid and ill-defined, volatile and subject daily to change … terra incognita – vast and only marginally explored … (Haibun Today, Nov. 22, 2007)

So I find myself falling back on the pragmatist’s version of the definition –  it’s usually prose with one or more haiku embedded in it, and there has to be something gained from putting the two together. That, for me, is the heart of the poem: that spark of potential that exists in the gap between prose and haiku. Realistically, it’s a replication of what goes on in most haiku anyway – the juxtaposition of “fragment and phrase”, to use Jane Reichold’s term.

Haibun takes it a step further, and gives you another juxtaposition, another potential source of energy and enlightenment. It becomes a hall of mirrors, a way of multiplying the effect of the haiku. The “unresolved metaphor” that is the juxtaposition of fragment and phrase is in turn amplified by the unresolved metaphor occurring between prose and haiku. Brilliant!

There seem to be two basic sorts of link between the haiku and the prose. The simplest (one which many editors frown upon) is where the haiku simply continues the story – not so much a leap away as a step from. But it needn’t be a failing – depending on how it’s handled, this shift can be as rewarding as the most dramatic leap. A way of deepening your understanding of what has gone before, without feeling the need to resort to pyrotechnics. Often this sort of link uses the haiku to bring the focus in more tightly on some particular aspect of the prose – think of it as a close-up shot, a camera zooming in. Nothing new on display; but you do pay more attention to a specific aspect of the scene presented.

The second (and most widely practised) type of link is where the haiku moves the poem in a different direction – a different perspective on the story, the introduction of another piece of information, even a new voice. This is definitely a leap, and often a slightly sideways one. The knack here is to keep the leap within plausible limits, and to not make it so outrageous that it distracts from the haibun overall. (The reader breaking into spontaneous applause at the poet’s verbal ingenuity is a pyrrhic victory – great for the poet; not so good for the poem.)

Then there’s the question of what the haiku’s function within the prose actually is – an embellishment, where the haiku provides ‘‘more of the same’’ information: deepening understanding rather than providing a new or slant insight? As a pivot – in “leaping” links, where it works in the same way that a line of haiku can work as a pivot, making use of puns/double meanings/connotations? As a counterpoint – where the haiku tells a seemingly separate story, and it is only with the conclusion of the poem that we see how they are related? All of the above.

Even at its least adventurous, a well-written haibun provides haiku with a context, with a setting. Done effectively, there’s more energy flying around than in a Van der Graaff generator factory! We’re only just beginning to find out where it can take us. Part of the research I did for the haibun workshop I ran at Haiku Aotearoa 2008 opened up a new possibility: haibun as fiction. And why not? Detective stories, with the haiku used as clues? Fantasy, with the haiku acting as charms, as links to the “real”, as points of departure? As threads, as platforms, as launching pads?

Then there are the collaborative possibilities. Haibun-renga, such as Quartet (or one I recently participated in – Four Tellings, with Owen Bullock, Beverley George and Jeffrey Harpeng). Mirror haibun; where the second haibun works backwards to attempts to reflect the first (see Jeffrey Winke’s “Bookend Haibun” article on the Haibun Today website). Haibun that act as meditations on someone else’s work: starting with an existing haiku, and working from there. Haibun with tanka. Where does it end? (Does it even need to?)

This is an incredibly exciting time to be involved in haibun. Less formalised, less codified than haiku itself, yet with the ability (the right? the obligation?) to include that immensely powerful form within a structure whose rules are still being invented (or discovered?). Writing haibun lets me have the best of both worlds: as much freedom as I can handle; as much structure as I can bear.

I have no idea where haibun will be in 20 years. But I hope to be part of the finding out.


Recommended Reading:
Bruce Ross’s Journey to the Interior (Tuttle, 1998) is a must-read, as is Cyril Childs’ Beyond the Paper Lanterns (Paper Lantern Press, 2000) and Shadow-patches (Bostok, Gadd and Mair: Hallard Press, 1998). Then there are the Contemporary Haibun anthologies (which began life as American Haibun and Haiga), published by RedMoon Press.

Online resources include:
Contemporary Haibun Online
Haibun Today
An explanation of Fragment and Phrase theory.
Ray Rasmussen (personal website).

Editor’s note: Joanna Preston is an ex-pat Australian poet who lives near Christchurch, where she shares her life with an overgrown garden, seven hens and an Understanding Husband. She edited the NZPS 2008 anthology and was co-editor of  Kokako from 2009-12. She wrote this article especially for Haiku NewZ. Read Joanna’s blog.