Haibun – an Epiphany

by Catherine Mair

When I was asked to write about haibun I felt very reluctant. Yes, I have written haibun but what do I actually know about this form? Not being much of a theorist and working instinctively I wondered how I could write a useful piece.

In the broadest sense haibun is autobiographical, poetic prose accompanied by haiku. In their profoundest form they are records of awakenings. It’s interesting to think that this conservative Japanese form transforms to serve a poetic exploration of the unfathomable interior of the self.

Basho’s Narrow Path to the Interior, an international classic and most important example of haibun, appeared at the end of the 17th century – another 200 years passed before the appearance of Issa’s My Spring, the second most well-known haibun.

In the late 1950s experimentation with haibun-like form began with Gary Snyder’s travel diaries and Jack Kerouac’s fiction. Haibun was experiencing a renaissance in some Western countries. New Zealander Richard von Sturmer’s A Network of Dissolving Threads (1991) is a very interesting example of a book-length work.

It is fair to say that the best haibun speculate wisely and movingly upon humanity and its place within the world of nature. Sensibility and revelation rather than narrative and disclosure lift the writing. Haibun can offer the poet a way of expressing his intimate lyric consciousness in a profound way.

Imagistic prose and haiku-like verse connect in the reader’s imagination. Events or details may be part of a real or imaginary journey. Like haiku, haibun aim at insight.

Childhood is a common theme, while technically, writing with the freshness of a child, just writing down what one sees without using fancy literary devices can create lively work. The highwater mark is a revelation of spiritual consciousness.

The deciding factors in considering a literary diary a haibun are that its prose is poetical and that it contains verse, usually haiku. The specific narrative direction of the prose makes its aesthetic intent, and that of the haiku, clearly evident. Importantly, there should be an integral but non-repetitive linking between prose and haiku.

**

Pantry Shelf by  Cyril Childs

Pottery shops were a weakness of yours. When we came upon one your eyes would lock on it. You’d glance at me with the words, sometimes unspoken: “Do we have time? Yes, let’s have a look.” Usually, not looking for anything in particular – just the delight of seeing, touching and holding useful things crafted with care. When you just had to buy, we went for coffee mugs – you can never have too many! And so we had a shelf of them in our pantry – most were “yours” and a few were “mine”.

six weeks after
her coffee mugs
at the back of the shelf

**

References:

1: American Haibun & Haiga, Vol. 1, edited by Jim Kacian & Bruce Ross (Red Moon Press, 1999).

2: Shadow-patches, Haibun by Janice Bostok, Bernard Gadd, Catherine Mair (Hallard Press, 1998)

3: Journey to the Interior, edited by Bruce Ross (Tuttle Publishing, 1998).

Pantry Shelf appears here with the permission of the author.

Editor’s note: Catherine Mair is a well-known New Zealand haijin who has written this article especially for Haiku NewZ. She was editor of the annual WinterSPIN (forerunner to Kokako) and a prime mover behind Katikati’s Haiku Pathway. Her work is widely published both in New Zealand and overseas. Catherine was awarded a Queen’s Service Medal (QSM) for services to poetry and the community in 2008.

Read Catherine’s Showcase page entry.

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