Characteristics of Contemporary English-Language Haibun
by Ray Rasmussen
There are three primary sources to consider in looking for guidelines for writing contemporary English-language haibun:
- Basho’s famous travel journals which are said to be the origin of contemporary haibun
- The definitions proffered by prominent writers in the haiku/haibun genre
- An examination of what is being published in the haiku journals edited by well-respected editors.
With the number of good print and online journals publishing haibun and the ever-increasing number of writers in the genre, the question of ‘what is a haibun’ is ripe for examination. While an examination of Basho’s style and of definitions offered by prominent writers are of interest, these have been addressed elsewhere. (For definitions see: Haibun Definitions at Contemporary Haibun Online).
When I read haibun in journals like Frogpond, Contemporary Haibun Online, Modern Haiku, Bottle Rockets and Blithe Spirit I see some characteristics that can serve as guidelines for aspiring writers.
The Presence of the Writer
The first of these is that the writer is usually, but not always, present in the piece. That is, haibun tend to be accounts of personal experiences in the present or past that the writers have had, that somehow stand out in their lives, that are deemed worthy of writing about (call them ‘haibun moments’) and that might be of interest to others. This doesn’t mean that the writers use a plethora of self-referential pronouns, but instead that even when such words aren’t present, the identity of the writer is felt to be known and the reported experience is felt to be authentic.
While much fiction is said or guessed to be autobiographical, most published haibun pieces don’t read like fiction. For one thing, the characters seem real, the writer and his or her family, friends, or people he or she is observing; they don’t seem made up. This isn’t to say that haibun adhere religiously to reporting the who, what, when, why and where of an experience. My own writing embellishes the facts in an attempt to recreate the feelings and milieu I’ve experienced and in order to make the piece interesting and relevant to a reader. I assume that other writers do the same. In short, haibun is a mix of story telling and reporting. Some writers stick closely to the reporting end of the continuum; some stray in the far regions of storytelling. Still, in most cases it’s clear that the writer is present in the piece.
Being present in a piece doesn’t mean that all haibun focus on events that are current in the writer’s life. Many haibun relate memories of childhood, parents and past relationships, and some even report dreams or fantasy. Even most fantasy haibun make it clear that the writer is the source or is part of the fantasy.
Authenticity of the Account
A related issue is whether writers present authentic or fictional ‘stories’. Of course, it isn’t possible to tell whether a piece is reality based and it’s dangerous to think that one could tell. In recently commenting to a friend that a piece about her father had ‘touched me’, she wrote back “I’m going to let you into a secret – the one with ‘my mother’ is fictional,” and she asked, “Does that make you feel less attached to it?”
The late Ken Jones called for haibun to involve more of what he calls “imagined reality”. He states, “It may be argued that such a departure into the fiction of ‘imagined reality’ is a betrayal of tradition, whether it be in ‘desk haiku’ (as opposed to those springing from ‘lived experience’) or the invented prose narrative. And yet experience may be lived no less vividly, and be no less ‘real’, in a dream, in the reading of a striking piece of literature, or through our own imaginative creations.” (Ken Jones, Writing Reality: Fictional Haibun Stories, first published in Contemporary Haibun Online, 2007).
While Jones presented a strong case, so far as I can tell by reading them, most contemporary haibun are based on real events in the writer’s lives.
Present or Past Tense
Occasionally someone suggests that haibun should be written in the present tense, as if the event is taking place now, even if the event is a memory. The argument is that writing in the present tense brings a haibun more to life, as if it’s unfolding now for the reader. Of course, everything written is about the past, either recent or distant. My guess, prior to examining current practice, was that I would find a mix of present and past and even some use of the future tense. An examination of the 2007 contents of Contemporary Haibun Online reveals just that. Slightly more than half the haibun, whether present or past events, are written at least in part in the present tense. Fewer are written in the past tense and only a few are written in the future tense. It is worth noting that regardless of tense and related to the first characteristic mentioned above, presence of self is evident in all but one of these haibun.
A Mix of Prose and Haiku
At present, almost all published haibun are accompanied by one or more haiku. The haiku serve either to intensify the feeling of the account conveyed in the prose or take the reader another step beyond what is expressed in the prose. Further, I think the space between the prose and the haiku is a kind of long pause, one where the reader shifts mental states from reading a story to entering the sparsely styled world of the haiku – the word’s shortest form of poem. In the prose part, many writers use poetic devices like metaphors to make the piece sing a little more than it might were only simple descriptive reportage used. However, some well-published writers utilise very straightforward descriptive prose and it’s the pairing of that prose with an evocative haiku that makes these haibun something different than just a journal entry.
However, the idea that a haibun must be a mix of prose and haiku poetry is being challenged. Two essays in Haibun Today explore some of the issues related to haibun without haiku (Charles Hansmann, Haibun Poem: A Definition, Nov. 17, 2007, and Jeffrey Woodward, Haibun Minus Haiku, Nov. 30, 2007).
Woodward asks rhetorically whether any prose, e.g., an obituary accompanied by a haiku, would be considered to be a haibun. In answer to his own question, he provides this definition: “Haibun is haiku-like prose with or without one or more haiku.” But given, as he points, out that ‘haiku-like’ is very subjective, I would suggest that a more precise definition rests in these characteristics of haibun found in contemporary publications. That is, a haibun is a combination of all or many of the characteristics addressed in this essay and that’s what differentiates it from an obituary or an essay or a news story.
Hansmann’s definition presents a challenge to the ‘prose plus haiku’ formula. He suggests that a “line break may take the place of haiku and serve a similar purpose (as the haiku)”. While I am unaware of a single haibun without haiku in 2007 journals, it is interesting to examine Hansmann’s haibun published recently in Haibun Today, none of which has a discernible haiku, but each of which uses what Paul Conneally defines as haibunic prose: “Prose that has many of the characteristics associated with haiku —present tense (and shifts of tense though predominant voice ‘present’), imagistic, shortened or interesting syntax, joining words such as ‘and’ limited maybe, a sense of ‘being there’, descriptions of places people met and above all ‘brevity'” (from “Haibun Definitions”, in Contemporary Haibun Online).
My impression is that while adhering to Conneally’s definition of haibun prose, Hansmann’s pieces lack that quality of a very long pause and shift in the reader’s mental state in preparation for a haiku associated with the prose. I would argue that it’s the going from one kind of writing (prose) to another kind of writing (haiku) that makes the difference. Indeed, as I read Hansmann’s pieces, which I very much admire, I think that they could be restructured as free verse poetry, that is, poetry without haiku, but with haiku-like syntax.
In making this point, I would like to state that I’m a reader of, but not a student of, free verse poetry. I’m aware that there is a large literature devoted to examining the characteristics of free verse poetry, likely including the use of line breaks. I suspect that someone will write an article in the future discussing how haibun’s prose plus haiku fits into this discourse.
Simple Prose versus Literary Haibun
In terms of style or wordsmithing, I see a great variation in the level of prose craft in published haibun. Some pieces are highly poetic while others are involved with succinct descriptive reportage without poetic embellishment. One can readily imagine the more poetic pieces being rewritten as free verse poems minus the haiku or with the haiku folded into the prose. Indeed, one well-published free verse poet that I know has turned a number of his poems into haibun by eliminating the line breaks characteristic of free verse and using the paragraph style more associated with haibun and by adding a haiku. He has had no problem in seeing them published in the top haiku-genre journals. For a second example, I’ve changed the free verse structure of a different friend’s poems to correspond to the haibun form by using paragraphs and adding a haiku. He too had no problem finding publication for these modified pieces.
I believe that poetic expression will figure prominently in the future of haibun writing and publication and, to some degree, it does so now. In the same essay cited above, Ken Jones sees the future of haibun as leaning toward the literary end of the scale. He states: “It is increasingly appreciated that mere reportage of experience is not enough if we are truly in the business of literature. Even the humblest haiku moment is not usually just picked up from the ground but needs some polishing before being put into print. How much more so is this true of a complex thing like a haibun. Not only is well-burnished imagery required, but also some thematic shaping to a purpose (unless it is very short)”.
Still, a significant number of published haibun use fairly straightforward reportage and it’s mainly the haiku that makes them something different than other genres.
Must the Haiku Stand Alone?
An issue related to the prose plus haiku aspect of a haibun is whether the haiku must stand alone, viz., whether the haiku makes sense without the context supplied by the prose. When I started writing haibun, I did my best to compose haiku that would stand alone (and almost always failed). When I review my own published haibun pieces, I would say that most of the haiku don’t stand alone. In fact, I haven’t dared to submit them to haiku journals because I sense that they wouldn’t be accepted. When I read haibun by other writers, I often sense that the haiku usually depends heavily on the context supplied in the prose.
Is this a good or a bad thing? Is a haiku that doesn’t stand alone really a haiku? These are questions I’ll leave for someone else to address. What I can state from my own writing and reading is that many published haibun contain haiku that rely heavily on the context supplied in the prose.
Telling versus Showing
Another aspect of most published haibun is an emphasis on showing rather than telling. This is an old distinction in other poetic genres. In short, most haibun refrain from telling the reader how to think, feel about or interpret the piece. Indeed, many pieces rely on understatement rather than overstatement in order to provide the reader with room for his or her own imagination. Here’s how Jones puts it: “Noteworthy also is the concern of haibun, like haiku, to show rather than to tell. This means, for example, that emotions must be expressed metaphorically, through the imagery. And this, again, contributes to an open-ended effect which leaves a lot of space for the reader’s imagination.”
I’ve described what I see as practiced in currently published haibun (2007). Jones, Hansmann and Woodward are calling for more literate writing and even haikuless haibun and, as we have the opportunity to read pieces that are published in the future, it’s likely that contemporary haibun will do some important shape shifting. After all, English-language haiku has and continues to evolve from its Japanese originators.
Consider for example the demise of the 5-7-5 syllable line count to today’s “17 syllables or less”. Why should we not expect the same of haibun which hasn’t been practiced for nearly as long nor by nearly as many writers as haiku?
At the least it can be said that current success in publishing one’s haibun rests with having one’s piece meet most of the following characteristics:
- The self is present
- The context may be a present event, something from the past, a dream, or even a fantasy episode
- The tense is somewhat irrelevant, ranging from present to past to future and sometimes a mix
- The haibun reads as if it is reality-based as opposed to fiction
- The prose style varies from those with a focus on description and succinctness to those that are poetically embellished, akin to free verse poetry, or what Jones calls ‘literary’
- There is a focus on showing rather than telling
- There is one or more haiku that may or may not stand alone, that deepens or summarises the prose or that takes the prose storyline a step further and that serves as a long pause calling for a mental shift.
Author’s note: Special thanks to Jeffrey Woodward, editor of Haibun Today, for his helpful comments on initial drafts on this essay.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Haibun Today on December 9, 2007 and appears here with the author’s permission. It has been edited slightly.
Ray Rasmussen is haibun co-editor at Haibun Today. Previously he has been haibun editor at A Hundred Gourds, Notes from the Gean and World Haiku Review. His haibun, haiku, haiga and articles have appeared in various journals and his haibun are carried in several anthologies. Ray was introduced to haiku when he photographed the Kuramoto Japanese Garden near his home in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. In putting up a website on the garden he wanted to include Asian poetry, and the internet led him to haiku. He became a member of the World Haiku Club and subsequently his world expanded into the fullness of English-language haiku forms.
Seeing a need for more venues that featured haibun, he co-founded Contemporary Haibun Online and A Hundred Gourds. Ray leads a Haibun Study Group, particularly for writers newer to the genre. If interested, contact him. His photography and haiku may be found at Ray’s Web and a list of his commentaries and articles can be found at Ray’s commentaries and articles.