Must haibun contain haiku?

By  Janice M. Bostok

There seems to be some discussion on what is a haibun in haiku circles. From my own curiosity and reading in order to write my own haibun, I made some reasonable and logical conclusions.  As most writers of the Japanese forms know Matsuo Basho was the master who separated what we now know as the haiku from the renga.  The first verse was called the hokku and, over time, it became a poem in its own right and eventually Shiki renamed it “haiku”. At the time Basho was developing the separation of the hokku from the renga, he was also writing travel diaries and pieces which became known as “haiku prose”. This, I think, is the first key to understanding haibun – it is haiku prose, which means it is prose written in the manner of haiku.

It is also stated by Basho 1 that a haibun is written by a writer who writes haiku! This is obviously meant to mean that whoever writes a haibun must know the ways in which haiku differs from other literary forms. One must also know how haibun, or haiku prose, differs from other literary forms of prose – e.g., newspaper report, short story, essay, novel – for a haibun is none of these forms of writing. Although it can be if the prose is modified to become haiku prose. Confused?

I have merely named the forms which we instantly know differ from each other because of the way they are written.  If they were to be written in haiku prose they may be called a haibun. Haibun is not written in perfect high school English, with full sentences and correct punctuation. It can be evocative as in haiku and works well if it evokes rather than describes. It can be sketchy as Shiki declared haiku should be.

I mentioned Basho was separating the haiku from the renga at the time he was also developing the haibun. This has left us with an echo from the writing of renga: the second key to understanding haibun – the “leaping” or the juxtaposition of the prose and the haiku.

The haiku can also sometimes encapsulate the prose which has gone before it, but there should not be any repetition of words or phrases. In such cases I prefer a leap away completely. However, this brings me to a personal preference which is completely opposite to the leaping method. I would like to see haibun where haiku read on from the prose. After all, it is allowed to encapsulate the haiku [haibun?] prose by separating the haiku to stand alone, emphasising it in a smooth and uninterrupted way. The first haibun that I saw, in the early days of Tweed 2 was one in which the only haiku came last and was a continuation of the prose. The haiku began with “and”, and as editor of Tweed I agonised for a long time before publishing it.

But there are also haibun which don’t have a haiku within them. At the time that Basho was writing his travel diaries and prose pieces, the standard and most recognised form of poetry was the tanka. So it is perfectly natural to write tanka within a haibun, although writers who have jumped from other forms of literature to haibun may not know this.

It is important to understand the history and development of any form of literature which is being adapted from another country’s culture. The poets of each country, while embracing Japanese forms, need to internalise their cultural origins and hope they will become distinctive of their own country.  We need to have some empathy with the form, be able to adapt and adopt certain cultural events and exchange the expression and enthusiasm for them into our own cultural events – Christmas, Easter, Anzac Day, rugby and cricket. The urge to divorce Japanese forms from Japan culture and activities (while striving to become closer to the Japanese outer form) is a problem. There are those who believe that English-language forms are not Japanese forms and never can be, while others try to parallel Japanese forms so closely that they become artificially Eastern in flavour.     The final key to understanding haibun is one which few people may have thought about. A haibun without haiku. Is that possible? As haibun is a piece of “haiku prose” written in a totally different way from other forms of prose, I think it can. It would surely be recognised as different. Although it is thought that very few contemporary Japanese writers write haibun, I have heard it said that they would know a haibun, with or without haiku included.

For a number of years in Australia we were fortunate to have a magazine called Yellow Moon 3. In the early years, it was published and edited by Pat Kalsell, and as  Beverley George continued to do when she took it over, all the genres published were run as a competition. The haibun competition was called A Haiku Journey and sometimes the winner or the runners-up who were published in Yellow Moon did not include haiku. This may simply have resulted from the writers knowing very little about haibun, but the haiku prose was very beautiful. We have been fortunate in Australia to have had Pat Kalsell to lead us when most of us knew very little. So I imagine an Australian haiku writer who learned through reading the early magazines and entering competitions in Yellow Moon would not question a haibun without haiku. It would simply be accepted as a very expressive and creative piece of haiku prose. In other words, pure creative writing.

As I mostly do, I turn to William J. Higginson’s writing to see whether I am somewhere on the track towards understanding these magnificent Japanese literary forms. He has set out some “Characteristics of Haibun”4, which I suggest you read.  The first one says: Written in prose, usually concluded with one or more haiku.  Note the word “usually”.  He also says: “Humorous; while seriousness and beauty concern the writer, a haibun usually demonstrates the light touch.” Usually means “more often than not”.  But it does not necessarily mean “always”.

I am always learning, and I hope you are too! I didn’t realise that the link between renga, which was the haikai-no-renga (“linked comic verse”) also means that haibun can be humorous and written with a light touch. This is something we perhaps should think more about when writing haibun, for haibun, as with any art form, will only develop in the way in which the writers take it.

Characteristics of haibun:

  1. Written in prose, usually concluded with one or more haiku
  2. Brief
  3. Abbreviated in syntax; grammar words, sometimes even verbs, are omitted
  4. No explanation of the haiku; the connection between the prose and the haiku is often like linking in renga
  5. Imagistic; relatively few abstractions or generalisations
  6. Objective; the writer is somewhat detached, maintains an aesthetic distance, even when describing himself
  7. Humorous; while seriousness and beauty concern the writer, a haibun usually demonstrates a light touch.


1: Matsuo Basho by Makoto Ueda (Twayne, New York) 1970. An overview of Basho’s life, hokku, haibun, renga, and critical writings.

2: Tweed, edited & published by Janice M. Bostok, 1972 -1979.

3: Yellow Moon, edited & published  by Pat Kalsell, Issue No. 2, 1997.

4: The Haiku Hand Book: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku by William J Higginson, with Penny Harter (McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York) 1985.

Editor’s note: Janice Bostok (1942-2011) was a well-known Australian writer of haiku, tanka, haibun, etc, and was at the forefront of that country’s exploration of these forms for some 30 years. She was the haiku editor for Stylus Poetry Journal, where this article originally appeared. It appears here with the author’s permission.