More than the Sum of its Parts

Explorations in Contemporary English-language Haibun

By Rich Youmans

The haibun found in today’s English-language journals and anthologies are a diverse lot, ranging from visually descriptive travelogues to elliptical journal entries, from meditative personal essays to surrealistic imaginings. The range is so profound, in fact, that it begs the question: What exactly defines a modern haibun?

Many experts trace the beginnings of haibun-as-literature to the haiku-style prose developed over 300 years ago by Bashō, who combined the elegance of classical Japanese prose with Japanese vernacular and Chinese words considered “outside” the classical tradition, then honed the hybrid into superbly polished pieces (not all of which contained an accompanying haiku). Indeed, Hiroaki Sato, a noted translator and poet who is a past president of the Haiku Society of America, believes that the very best of Bashō’s haibun would be considered prose poetry, as he noted in the introduction to his book Bashō’s Narrow Road (his translation of Bashō’s classic haibun Oku no hosomichi).

But how should English-language writers, with their roots in Western literature, interpret this? In the West, the term “prose poetry” encompasses a wide variety of styles, from the fantastical, occasionally philosophical imaginings of Baudelaire and the symbolism of Rimbaud to the comic surrealism of the modern American poet Russell Edson (in whose work apes smoke cigars and elephants wear underwear).

As with the majority of Western writing, the form has not traditionally lent itself to the spare, elliptical use of language found in haiku and haikai writing. Instead, Western prose poetry usually calls attention to itself, piling up adjectives or leaping between stunning images like a trapeze artist, rather than trying to become invisible so that the subject can more effectively be presented for what it is. Prose poetry in the West also differs from traditional haibun in its choice of topics: rather than autobiographical sketches from life with the occasional philosophical musing, prose poets more often go off on flights of imagination.

Not surprisingly, a quick review of modern English-language haibun show writers wrestling with how to incorporate the Eastern traditions of haibun with their own Western heritage. The gulf in prose styles can often be quite large. For example, here is an excerpt from “Outer Banks” by Anita Virgil:

Noon. Everyone is at the beach. Here, on the shaded breezy porch, away from burning sun and salty ocean water, kites and shovels and surfboards. Looking eastward, there’s a stretch of dune with a single staircase to the beach. On the left end of the dune stands a white pavilion against the sky. The hollow between it and the wooden stairs holds a sliver of ocean.

          in the empty laundryroom
          a pile of seashells…
          the dryer rumbles on

Now compare that with the following excerpt from William M. Ramsey’s “U-Boat”:

I have found the afterlife. It is silt and torpid current where nights are only slightly darker than the days, where blue and yellow fish inspect these chambers, kissing my emptiness. I have grown very cold inside. . . . They assembled me with pride by the Baltic Sea. In 1942, across the Atlantic, I sank one tanker and three freighters. The elation was mechanical—the churn of pistons, the swivelling of periscope, the greased turning of gears and shaft. I went down with engines out in high seas, off North Carolina, the roiled waters choking quickly our shocked moans. . . . Down this corridor, in the galley, plankton dine in silence. Come further, yes. In the navigation room, to your left, the maps and charts have vanished. See that spider crab with black and spindly legs . . . it is my Führer. . . . Take my story with you if you wish. . . . Ascend with care. Not too fast. Don’t hold the breath. For it is in time, not out of it, that you must now progress.

          from torpedo tubes
               sluggish fins

The differences between the two — the first with its catalogue of precise images, the second with its flights of imagination — show how far apart the prose of modern haibun can be. Indeed, sometimes the prose isn’t even prose; it could be free verse, a rhymed poem, or . . . well, anything that the poet feels compelled to write. (Another of Ramsey’s haibun, “Twelve Proofs of God’s Existence”, consists of 12 numbered “proofs”, the last of which is a haiku.) Haibun today are limited only by the writer’s imagination.

The Basic Tenets of Haibun

So again we come to the question: What exactly defines a modern haibun? To answer this, let’s first look to the basic tenets of the form as presented by scholar Makoto Ueda in his biography Matsuo Bashō.

1. It usually, though not necessarily, ends with a haiku.
2. The connection between prose and haiku is left unstated.
3. It is very short (150-250 words).
4. It is very concise, with words occasionally omitted—e.g., conjunctions, verbs.
5. It employs imagistic, concrete language, often with a light tone.
6. It exudes detachment—i.e., it offers no emotional outbursts or logical persuasions.

To see how the above examples by Virgil and Ramsey follow these rules, let’s begin with the last four tenets. Both haibun fit within the word count. (Virgil’s “Outer Banks” is actually a series of prose passages punctuated by haiku, and as a whole is much longer. However, as is typical of haibun that take this form, the individual prose sections are brief — in Virgil’s case, they never rise above 80 words.) Both are concise, with Virgil’s prose much more spare than Ramsey’s, although neither really omits words to create an elliptical feel. Both use imagistic, concrete language (although I would hardly call Ramsey’s tone “light”) and both have detached narrators. Granted, the narrator in Ramsey’s haibun is actually the U-boat itself — a deviation from the traditional autobiographical approach, to say the least — but the voice never becomes overly emotional or argumentative.

But you could apply the same four tenets to other forms of writing as well — in fact, non-haibun writing sometimes follows these forms more faithfully than do actual haibun. For example, try to determine which of the following excerpts are from a haibun:

• A lake across the road. Even in this quiet, can barely hear the gulls on the far shore. Three houses, a gas station-restaurant, grain silo by the tracks, and an old three-sided wooden shed: Morse, Saskatchewan . . . . Sunset and still no ride. White gulls, struck from the saturated solution of purple sky, crystallize onto the lake. The wind stops. No traffic for the last hour.

• Flat and barren here. The barn caved in. The silo rolled away. Only yesterday the roof blew off the house. Little to stop the wind except this faded building once a schoolhouse. The windows have cracked and are cobwebbed. But between the new curtains and wallpaper, a lamp, gone-with-the-wind style, flickers.

• Late afternoon. The sky hunkers down, presses, like a lover, against the land. Small sounds. A far sheep, faint barking. Time to drive on, toward Strathpeffer, friends, a phone call from my father.

• Returning in late winter or early spring, I stepped off the train in a small Illinois town after spending a year hitchhiking around Europe. An immediate and metallic scent of melting snow blended with the pungent fragrance of the thawing earth . . . filled the air with the mute promise of corn growing as far as the eye can see. However, the skies were cloudy and the prairie remained as bleak as a chapter out of a Bronte novel; the wide and level horizon could have been drawn by the steady — if somehow disengaged — pencil of a master draftsman.

All four examples basically follow the haibun prose style: they avoid abstractions and generalities, concentrating instead on concrete images, objective viewpoints, and concise phrasing. The first and second excerpts, with their piling of images and their terseness, would seem especially prime examples of the form. Yet while the first is indeed from a haibun (a travelogue titled Rain Drips from the Trees: Haibun along the Trans-Canadian Highway by Tom Lynch), the second is actually from a prose poem, “Mott, North Dakota”, by Jim Johnson. The third example isn’t from a haibun, either, even though it too displays the basic tenets of haibun prose; rather, it is taken from a “short-short” essay, “Culloden”, by Judith Kitchen. The fourth excerpt is from a haibun, “Crocus”, written by the late Jerry Kilbride, it has a much more conversational tone than the previous examples, though its images are no less clear.

I am sure that neither Jim Johnson nor Judith Kitchen would say their pieces were intentionally written in the style of haibun. Nevertheless, the only difference between them and the works of Lynch and Kilbride is that the latter pieces (as I’ll show later) incorporate haiku — and that, to paraphrase Frost, makes all the difference.

Consequently, the first two of Ueda’s tenets — using a haiku to conclude a piece and leaving the connection between the prose and the haiku unstated — take on prime importance. Professor Ueda’s assertion that a haiku does not necessarily end a haibun may be correct in the traditional sense, where the use of the vernacular was a prime characteristic that separated the haibun from other prose pieces. But in the modern Western practice, where the vernacular does not provide the same type of delineation, the incorporation of a haiku has become the signature characteristic of a haibun. Indeed, it is the reason why Virgil’s and Ramsey’s pieces can both be considered of the genre.

Modifications and Additions to Ueda’s tenents

Given the importance of the haiku to today’s Western practice, I would modify the first of Ueda’s tenets and make the haiku mandatory. I’d also change the wording from “ends with a haiku” to “is complemented by a haiku,” since haibun writers use haiku not just to end a prose passage, but also to open them. Finally, I would add one more tenet to the half-dozen cited:

7. The haiku does not restate an image or idea that was already expressed in the prose, or could have been better expressed in prose.

This last point, I think, is very important. In an essay titled “My Uncle, the Monkey, Sings on Wednesdays, When He’s on My Back: Some Notes on Poems-in-Prose and Prose-in-Poems” (first published in lift magazine #7), the poet Gian Lombardo says:

If a poem suffers no change in ‘state’ when set margin to margin without line breaks, then it is a poem no matter how it appears. If a prose poem is set with line breaks (however accurate or arbitrary) and suffers no change in ‘state’, then it is not a prose poem: it is a poem masquerading as a prose poem.

The same standard should be applied to haibun: If a haiku can be eliminated or re-written as prose and the haibun suffers no discernable change in state, then it is not really a haibun; rather, it is a prose poem masquerading as a haibun. In the haibun of Virgil and Ramsey, the closing haiku serve to add another dimension and to create a work in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

In Virgil’s passage, the reader can easily imagine how the wonders of the beach and the sea have once again lured a family into leaving behind their possessions in the local Laundromat for a return to “surf, sun, and fun”. Or perhaps it’s the end of the day; the family has come home, their wet bathing suits are in the dryer, and the children have left the shells they collected at the beach in a nearby pile — a small monument to a day well spent. In both cases, the seemingly endless cycle of the unattended dryer mimics the long afternoons of summer by the shore, and in some way echoes the dull roar of the endless surf. Anyone who has ever been to the seaside in July or August has seen such tableaus take place many times. The moment captures much more than could be expressed in triple the number of words.

Virgil’s haiku advances the mood she is creating. Ramsey’s haiku, on the other hand, serves as a coda to the haibun. The haiku captures the loss of ego and self-importance that is central to the haibun: Where the U-boat, “assembled with pride by the Baltic Sea”, once issued lethal weapons of destruction that “sank one tanker and three freighters”, it now lies in cold, black depths, where only slow-moving fish wander through its cavities. However, perhaps the “fins” mentioned in the haiku are those of the deep-sea diver intruding on the boat, to whom the entire haibun is addressed; if that is the case, then the haiku extends the prose by displaying the diver’s reaction: His sluggishness shows that the U-boat’s lesson weighs heavily. No prose passage could create such a concise summation.

The Marriage of Prose and Haiku

The success of a haibun relies on how well this interplay between the haiku and prose adds a new dimension to the narrative. If it states what has already been said (or could have been better said) in prose, or if it goes the other way and creates such a distance between itself and the prose passage that the reader is left stranded in mid-leap, then it has failed. The prose could be exquisitely crafted, following all the other tenets of haibun beautifully, but if the haiku doesn’t offer that strong connection and added dimension, you simply have beautiful prose with a meaningless appendage.

So in what ways have haibun writers used haiku to add this extra dimension. The specific ways are as diverse as the writers themselves, but overall the usages fall into a few general categories.

1. The haiku continues the prose passage and provides a conclusion to the narrative.

This, I would say, is one of the less common uses of the haiku, but when done well the haiku can conclude the prose section with a greater impact than the addition of a declarative sentence or two. Consider the following untitled haibun by Patricia Neubauer:

Perhaps those of us seated in the topmost tier of the concert hall were the only ones who noticed the sparrow flutter from crystal chain to crystal chain of the great chandelier. Spellbound, sick with vertigo, we watched his short, arpeggio flights out into the vast space that surrounded his perch — watched the glass pendants tremble in the wing-brush of his returns. Each time he vanished into the bright centre of light and sparkle, we awaited his reappearance with anxiety. In the minutes before the concert began, we wondered whether he would go to roost when the house was darkened, or if the vibrations of the kettle drum and the seductive call of the piccolo would excite him more.

The house lights dimmed. Mounting the podium, the conductor bowed to the audience, turned to the orchestra, and raised his baton—

          into deep silence
          a small clink of crystal
          against crystal

Capturing this moment — the synchronicity of the baton’s rise with the small, delicate sound that has become as much a part of the concert as any ensuing music, at least for the author — could not have been done so concisely in prose. Nor would the enjambment of the second and third lines, accentuating the touching of the two crystals, have been possible as it is with the haiku. By choosing to end her prose with a haiku, Neubauer has guaranteed that the bird’s contribution to the concert will continue to resonate.

2. The haiku provides a single image, naturally deriving from the prose passage, that captures a principal theme of the narrative.

This is one of the more natural ways of connecting haiku and prose: the haiku crystallizes what has gone before, through an incisive image. Take, for example, Larry Kimmel’s “The Latch”:

With its miniature rock gardens, grape arbour, and roses (roses everywhere, like a child’s experiment with rouge); with its neatly trimmed grass along the flagstone walks; with its birdbath (strategically placed, as was its willow tree)—the backyard had all the aura of a formal garden.

In that lawn (just large enough to frame a family portrait), hemmed in by a wire fence disguised with honeysuckle vines and marigolds, one somehow achieved a sense of privacy; even a sense of seclusion from the nearby neighbours. While outside, a narrow broken alley ran between two rows of other backyard lawns.

All this (after all these years), like the fragments of a dream at noontime. Except for the latch. Substantial as a candy stuck in the throat, the latch remains in mind, as if I’d just stepped out of that microcosmic Eden into the narrow alleyway this early morning, closing the gate behind me with a click!, closing the gate behind me with all that is before time began locked! in a single syllable, for all time.

          in a shaded spot
          the ruins
                      of a sundial

Kimmel’s prose passage is in itself complete; take away the haiku, and “The Latch” remains an excellent piece of writing, with a powerful ending that nicely alludes to the biblical fall from grace. The haiku, however, sums up the idyllic nature of that Edenic garden — the cool shade providing comfort, the cessation of time, the dominance of nature over human beings’ efforts to control it — in a memorable image. The narrator may, at the end of the prose, have found himself on the wrong side of the gate, but that concluding haiku serves as a coda, allowing a return to the garden (even if only in memory).

3. The haiku adds new elements that bring additional insights to or offer commentary on the prose.

This is very similar to the usage cited above, except that, rather than crystallizing, the haiku extends the prose by bringing in additional concepts. (It’s a fine line, I know, but one that I think can be reasonably made among a number of haibun.) I would say that Ramsey’s “U-Boat,” if the haiku is read as being about the diver, falls into this third category. Another example is Jerry Kilbride’s “Crocus”:

Returning in late winter or early spring, I stepped off the train in a small Illinois town after spending a year hitchhiking around Europe. An immediate and metallic scent of melting snow blended with the pungent fragrance of the thawing earth . . . filled the air with the mute promise of corn growing as far as the eye can see. However, the skies were cloudy and the prairie remained as bleak as a chapter out of a Bronte novel; the wide and level horizon could have been drawn by the steady — if somehow disengaged — pencil of a master draftsman. Cold and feeling alien in my own land, I longed for the warmth of southern Italy . . . the blues, whites, and ochres of the Greek islands. My sister was at the station and drove me to my mother’s house at the edge of town. Before entering, she said that there was something quite special that must be shared in a way of welcome home. She motioned to follow and we walked to the south side of the wooden-frame house. My sister pointed to a crocus poking its head through the snow and growing close to the concrete-block foundation, as if hugging it for warmth. Leaning for a better look, she said, “My god, isn’t it a miracle!” And there on the stark prairie, that insistent yellow flower was as beautiful — in its own small way — as the Bay of Naples.

          home from a journey
          my reflection in the glass
          of the front door

After reading this piece, the words of T.S. Eliot kept echoing in my head: “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time”. And in finding our home, we find ourselves — an extension that Kilbride skilfully makes through his haiku. There’s a leap of time occurring here between the prose and the haiku: one moment the author is alongside his mother’s house, admiring a crocus that has burst through the snow, and the next he is standing before his front door. However, the leap is a natural one, moving the narrative from one pivotal moment to the next, much as a film editor might cut needless scenes between moments of action.

4. The haiku serves as a starting point for the prose.

While the haiku in a majority of haibun follow the prose, in some cases they precede it. Many times they serve to introduce the subject matter, which the writer than expounds upon in the subsequent narrative; in a sense, the haiku serves as a concentrated and potent lead paragraph. An example of this is seen in Ken Jones’s “Colophon”:

          This slim volume
          of lyrical verse
          my neighbour’s wife

There she lies, on my desk, appropriated and reified in Perfect Binding, the kind that comes apart all too easily — but coveted nonetheless. With infinite grace in brittle sunshine she hangs out the family washing. Up there with Donne she’d never guess herself possessed by a marbled and slightly foxed old neighbour, lusty once, now bound in buckram and reading out his final years.

          the warm sun
          brightens an old carpet
          as it passes

The opening haiku serves to introduce two of the main players in this piece: a book of poetry (perhaps a rare volume of John Donne’s sensual, metaphysical poetry) and a neighbour’s wife, who kindles both appreciation and a bit of ardour on the part of the narrator. The author then proceeds to conflate the two. In the first sentence, “she” refers to the old book, something to be coveted and possessed, even if, like an illicit affair, it can come messily unbound. In the next sentence, “she” is now the neighbour’s wife — too far away to touch, surrounded by the wrappings of her family, but still full of “infinite grace” (perhaps a reference to Donne’s poem “Lovers’ Infiniteness”, which opens with “If yet I have not all thy love / Dear, I shall never have it all”). This conflation is key to the haibun’s third and final sentence, in which the narrator resigns himself to having his mistress as book and book as mistress, his unrequited ardour ultimately to be placed, along with the slim volume and his own lost vitality, on a shelf. He remains content to read, ruminate, and warmly remember old longings — a resignation nicely captured by the closing haiku. The shifting is well handled, but it wouldn’t have been possible (or at least not nearly as powerfully achieved) if Jones had not introduced the book and the neighbour’s wife through a haiku. If he chose to keep the prose as is without that haiku, the shifting of the antecedent for “she” would have been too confusing, and the extra verbiage needed to clear up that confusion would have dampened the prose’s impact.

5. The haiku serves as an “epigraph” for the prose.

In this usage, the haiku again precedes the prose, but this time it doesn’t serve as a lead paragraph. Rather, it accomplishes the same thing as a good epigraph — it comments on, summarises, or otherwise sheds light on a principal theme of the narrative. Unlike with epigraphs, haibun writers typically use their own haiku for this purpose (although some have occasionally turned to other poets’ work), which raises the question of why they don’t insert a summarizing haiku after the prose, as shown in the Kimmel and Kilbride examples earlier. I would point out two reasons. First, an opening haiku sets up ideas and associations that can deepen the reading of the prose, infusing it with more meaning. Second, the opening haiku can serve as a complement to a haiku that follows the prose, so that the pair can energize the haibun as if they were electrode and semi-conductor.

Both benefits can be seen in Carol Pearce-Worthington’s “Self Surrender”:

          fireflies avoiding
          my fingers

we eat lunch at a drugstore counter near the courthouse and he buys a paperback book that he hopes to take with him and we walk east to the fortress within which somehow live and breathe the ill conceived the unfortunates the police the prosecutors the guards the unthinkable the mummified and we climb stone stairs into the stone walled waiting area where we stand because we cannot sit and we cannot speak and him now with no choice but to go on into this tomb and to leave me returning to the street alone and he cannot make himself go and so police wearing plain clothes come out and take his arms and lead him to the gate and unthinkingly I call to him the three men turn and I salute him us our future lost and he says only yes and a guard opens the doorway wired to a metal detector and he walks through it.

          how far does
          a star fall
          in the night sky

The prose itself describes in close detail the last moments of a woman with a loved one, probably her husband, who is entering prison for an unspecified but no doubt lengthy term. The haibun is not about him or his crime, though. It is about her, about her pain at losing him and the life she had imagined they would spend together. The pace is breathless, but there is no explicit emotion. Rather, it relies on the haiku to convey the women’s feelings.

The opening haiku sets the time as dusk, but since the couple are eating lunch, it’s obviously not meant to establish the time of the haibun. Rather, it establishes the mood of the narrator. Reading the prose while hearing the echo of the haiku, the reader can imagine how isolated the narrator must feel — facing the removal of her husband from her daily life, the stigma that such incarceration brings, the estrangement from friends. The prose doesn’t have to say any of this; the haiku has already planted the emotional charge of the haibun, and it resonates throughout the prose.

The “dusk” haiku also serves as a complement to the capping haiku. Many poets have equated fireflies with stars, and the final haiku uses that conceit to comment on the fall of both the husband and the life of which he and his wife once dreamed. Perhaps he himself was a “star” — a high-rising executive who committed some form of white-collar crime. Or maybe the star refers to the narrator’s imagined life, and her fear of the depths to which it might sink. Perhaps the haiku alludes to both. But because of that introductory haiku, it gains added meaning: The star falls to join the fireflies, and becomes another of the lights that are so close but out of the narrator’s reach.

6. The haiku vividly add to the sense of place found in the prose passage.

Given that Bashō’s Oku no hosomichi was actually a travel journal, it’s not surprising that many of today’s haibun also recount trips. While the haiku found in these pieces could fall into any of the above three categories, they also create a greater sense of the region that the writer is traversing, and to highlight the various discoveries, associations, and surprises — both delightful and disappointing — that are inherent in any long journey. Notice how the haiku complement the prose passages in the following excerpt from “Towards the Mountain Temple” by Ion Codrescu.

The road ascends through bamboo, cedar, pine forests, and other trees whose names I’ve forgotten. From time to time, a bird call crosses the mist. I can’t see beyond thirty or forty metres. All is grey and it’s difficult to distinguish the outline of the trees, plants, and rocks. Everything seems unreal. The landscape is like an ink painting where the strong strokes and details have disappeared. It’s so quiet that I can hear the dewdrops falling on me from the branches of the tall pines.

          lonely mountain road —
          how smooth the surface
          of the rock is

After an hour of climbing, I pause beside a large stone covered with brushwood and I take a swig of the tea I have with me. I find it strange that I have not met anyone — neither travellers nor woodcutters. Time passes while I am gazing at the dense forest, at the branches of the old trees that come together overhead and are so tangled. After some minutes a native approaches and stops his horses, and then invites me to take a seat in his cart. Guessing the place where I will go he pronounces loudly the name of the temple. In my turn, I confirm his intuition and say the same words. His face brightens up and his eyes look at the mountain peak. After some moments, by an interjection, he starts his horses. The sound of the cart and the clatter of hoofs are all I hear in the silence of the mountain.

          a broken tree —
          it’s apricot picking time
          in my country

The first haiku not only adds another aspect to the scene — the smoothness of the rock — but also continues the sense of all things blending, with no delineating characteristics. In the second haiku, the poet makes a broader leap: on that lonely road, where he meets only strangers who do not stay, he sees a tree that conjures an “unbidden image” from his homeland. Perhaps the tree itself bears apricots, or it reminds him of the trees common to his native region. Or maybe the fact that the tree has separated from itself makes the poet feel his own separation from his friends and family all the more keenly. In ten words, the haiku captures the loneliness that any traveller knows well.

Tom Lynch’s “Rain Drips from the Trees‘ also fits in this category: It gives an account of his cross-country travels as a young man. Here is the excerpt cited earlier, though this time with its accompanying haiku.

A lake across the road. Even in this quiet, can barely hear the gulls on the far shore. Three houses, a gas station-restaurant, grain silo by the tracks, and an old three-sided wooden shed: Morse, Saskatchewan. . . . Sunset and still no ride. White gulls, struck from the saturated solution of purple sky, crystallize onto the lake. The wind stops. No traffic for the last hour.

          prairie evening —
          in a roadside shed
          moonlight smells of horseshit

This haiku works on many levels. First, it continues the narrative by collapsing time and revealing the results of the author’s hitchhiking: Rather than thumbing a ride, he instead winds up spending the night in a nearby shed. The sudden shift gives a pleasant jolt to the reader, much as a surprise ending would in a mystery, and Lynch adds just the right amount of humour and coarseness to convey the proper feel. It also echoes two haiku in Oku no hosomichi: “fleas and lice: a horse pisses right near my pillow” and “in one house prostitutes also slept: bush clover and moon” — the first with its inherent wabi, the second with its sense of how all layers of nature and humanity co-exist in their own wondrous way. (Note: translations taken from Bashō’s Narrow Road: Spring and Autumn Passages by Hiroaki Sato [Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 1996]).

7. A series of haiku provide multiple images that extend and enhance the prose.

It seems that in the majority of haibun, the link usually occurs between a single prose passage and one haiku. However, a few haibun consist of a prose passage followed by a series of haiku, each of which extend the basic theme of the prose. In the excerpt “Autumn” from Cor van den Heuvel’s “A Boy’s Seasons”, the haiku serve to add depth to the general atmosphere of autumn created in the prose.

III. Autumn

Autumn is the wind . . . and football. A spiralling football or a football flying end over end through long slanting rays of sunlight. Autumn is a chill in the air, the rustle of leaves, the sound of a cricket. Going back to school. The smells of new pencil-boxes and textbooks. It’s sweaters and jackets, new shoes or sneakers. The wind. It’s going to the barber’s, wetting your hair to get it to stay down, wishing your ears didn’t stick out. The wind. The itchy feeling under your shirt and sweater after a hard game of football and you are walking home in the cold evening air knowing you’ll be late for supper. The wind. Helping your father put on the storm windows. It’s the reds and yellows fluttering through the woods as you run on the old woods-road before breakfast dreaming of becoming a champion long-distance runner. The wind. County fairs and pumpkins. Halloween and Thanksgiving. The wind. The grasses and bushes turning browns and greys and blacks and making tangled shadows where the woodchuck will disappear for the winter. The wind.

          tree-lined road
          from out of the autumn leaves
          comes a yellow schoolbus

          far down field
          the punt bounces in and out
          of long afternoon shadows

          from the birdhouse roof
         autumn rain

          tomato soup after school
          my mother continues ironing
          in the kitchen

          the light from the garage
          autumn leaves blow across
          the driveway

          the wind howls
          the eyes of the jack-o-lantern
          go out

The prose comprises a tapestry of autumn images stitched together by the wind, as if they were all falling leaves being blown about. Within this atmosphere, van den Heuvel then introduces the vivid moments of the haiku, adding another layer to that tapestry. He does not place them totally at random, though. The time frame begins in the late afternoon, the traditional time when school lets out, and progresses to nightfall. (Of course, the bus could be travelling to school, but since the second haiku refers to the afternoon, I prefer to think of the bus heading from school, ready to release its passengers into the joys of autumn.) The final haiku once again refers to the wind — although this time it serves to blow out the candle in the jack-o-lantern and effectively extinguish both the flame and the haibun together.

In van den Heuvel’s haibun, all of the haiku are strong enough to stand alone, as they must in this type of structure. But that raises the question of whether the haiku should be strong enough to stand on their own in every haibun. At a presentation I gave on haibun at the 2001 Haiku North America conference, a debate about this topic occurred after I had given only a few examples of prose/haiku linkages. Shortly after that HNA conference, I corresponded with Bill Ramsey about the issue, and his response was illuminating:

One comment I would make as to what people are demanding of the haibun is as follows: (a) On one hand, people want the haiku to be able to stand alone; (b) on the other, they want the prose and haiku to be organically integrated, to depend on each other and to diminish if separated from each other. This can be problematic. I think that if (b) can be done well, then there might be times when (a) is not relevant because of the impact that the whole seeks. . . . If I could add anything to the debate about the haibun genre, it would be to consider the importance of (b). I think the issue of having the haiku stand alone is useful only in helping us evaluate the quality of the haiku, but it can obscure the issue of the aesthetic whole. Many haibun seem flat and bifurcated to me because I don’t get the impression that the prose and poetry are coming together into a whole that rises above the parts with coherent aesthetic impact.

As Ramsey says, the key to the haibun is how the prose and haiku integrate, how they link to form a greater whole “that rises above the parts with coherent aesthetic impact”. Looking at the haiku in the haibun quoted above, I see a few that, if separated from their prose, might not be strong enough to survive on their own. For instance, in that same letter, Ramsey notes that “in ‘U-boat’, the haiku is not as good as the prose”. Yet whether or not “fired/from torpedo tubes/sluggish fins” can stand on its own, it definitely provides a powerful conclusion. Just as with linking between verses in renga, I find nothing wrong with the haiku taking its context from the preceding prose; when viewed in this way, I believe Ramsey’s image is strong and extremely apt.

Haibun is indeed more than the sum of its parts. And, just as in any construction, how these parts interact will ultimately make all the difference in determining whether a piece is truly a haibun or just loosely joined prose and haiku. It will also make the difference in whether haibun becomes an accepted part of the Western literary tradition. Of all haikai forms, I believe the haibun has the greatest potential for widespread acceptance; the prose, being more familiar to the majority of Western readers, provides an accessible conduit to the unique art form that is haiku. In turn, this acceptance will set the critical bar higher: not only will the haiku need to add another dimension unavailable through the prose, but the level of writing found in haibun will have to meet the same standards against which all prose forms are judged. Haibun in which the prose serves merely as a prelude to the haiku will ultimately be overshadowed and shrivel away, replaced by haibun in which the prose matches that found in the best literary journals. In the end, the success of haibun will come down to a chain of links — between haiku and prose, prose and reader, and haibun and other literary genres — that together will decide whether the haibun is a passing fad, a parlour game, or a vital form that makes the greatest link of all: between poet and reader.

Author’s Note:

This essay is a fusion of two previously published essays: “More Than the Sum of Its Parts: Defining the Current English-Language Haibun” (first published in Amphion 7, a Romanian literary journal, and later in Edge of Light: The Red Moon Anthology of English-Language Haiku 2003) and “The Marriage of Prose and Haiku: Linking in Haibun” (published in In Good Company, Acorn Supplement #3, redfox press, 2003).


1. “Outer Banks” by Anita Virgil won first place in the Woodnotes International Haibun Contest and was published in Wedge of Light (Foster City, CA: Press Here, 1999). Reprinted by permission of the author.

2. “U-boat” by William M. Ramsey first appeared in Modern Haiku XXXII:1 (2001), and was republished in Ascend with Care (North Falmouth, MA: Leap Press, 2003). Reprinted by permission of the author.

3. Excerpt from Rain Drips from the Trees: Haibun along the Trans-Canadian Highway by Tom Lynch (Las Cruces, NM: n.p., 1992). Reprinted by permission of the author.

4. “Mott, North Dakota” by Jim Johnson previously appeared in Prose Poem: An International Journal, Volume 2. Reprinted by permission of the author.

5. “Culloden” by Judith Kitchen previously appeared in In Short (New York: Norton, 1996). Reprinted by permission of the author.

6. “Crocus” by Jerry Kilbride previously appeared in Modern Haiku XXXIII:2 (2002). Reprinted by permission of the author.

7. Untitled haibun by Patricia Neubauer previously appeared in Modern Haiku XXVI: 1 (1995). Reprinted by permission of the author.

8. “The Latch” by Larry Kimmel previously appeared in Modern Haiku XXXI:2 (2000). Reprinted by permission of the author.

9. “Colophon” by Ken Jones previously appeared in Modern Haiku 41.2 (2010). Reprinted by permission of the author.

10. “Self Surrender” by Carol Pearce-Worthington previously appeared in Modern Haiku 41.1 (2010). Reprinted by permission of the author.

11. “Towards the Mountain Temple” previously appeared in Mountain Voices by Ion Codrescu (Bicester, UK: AMI-NET International Press, 2000). Reprinted by permission of the author.

12. “A Boy’s Seasons” by Cor van den Heuvel previously appeared in Modern Haiku XXV:2 (1994). Reprinted by permission of the author.

Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared in Haibun Today, Vol. 5, No. 1, March 2011 and appears here with the author’s permission.

Rich Youmans and his wife, Alice, live on Cape Cod. He has been writing haiku, haibun, and related essays for more than 30 years. His work has been published widely in various journals and anthologies, and his books include Shadow Lines (Katsura Press, 2000), a collection of linked haibun with Margaret Chula; an e-chapbook,  All the Windows Lit (Snapshot Press, 2017); and Head-On (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2018). He formerly served as a member of the Haibun Today editorial team.