The Jazz of Pilgrimage

by Jeffrey Harpeng

How to Navigate

We are out for a Sunday drive one Monday, a public holiday. The sky is seamlessly plastered, and blue from horizon to horizon.

My granddaughter takes the map and says, “I’ll show you how to get there. First we go to Africa,” she sweeps a finger across the map of southeast Queensland, “then Japan, New Zealand, and we come back past the North Pole.”

“But will we see the flying elephants if we go that way?” I ask.

“All the elephants are in the zoo, granddad.”

“And the flying ones are chained up to big balloons. Sometimes they drift away and they have to go out and round them up.”

talking about shapes
in the clouds there
are none here

* * *

Haibun and tanka prose arise from small shards of thought.

Then as mnemonic and mandala, that little idea goes for a walk. We listen and chat with our self along the way. Who knows what that other self is likely to say?

Let us travel with exuberance and creativity of language, listen for lessons in map reading. See there among the rolling grass on that hill crest the pilgrim taking time to fly a kite.

rattles the eucalypts
sighs over stone
tells of all that’s forgotten
hear the branches groan


What is true of time in Christian worship is equally true of time in all religions, in magic, in myth, in legend. A ritual does not merely repeat the ritual that came before it (itself in repetition of an archetype), but is linked to it and continues it, whether at fixed periods or otherwise – Mircea Eliade, The Sacred & The Profane 1

And to echo Eliade, what is true of time in one haibun is equally true of time in all haibun, in their magic, myth and legend. The writing does not merely repeat the world that was, but is linked to it and continues it. Jacques Roubaud, in considering haiku in particular, takes us from mythic foundations to the beginning of something infinite:

. . . a haiku was always (something I knew) open, implicitly extendable into a long linked poem, a renku, but that perhaps, even more so than at the start of a renga, a hokku, it was virtually infinite in the direction of the future; that is to say: each haiku was the beginning of an infinite poem, in both senses of the word: a fresh start extending all preceding haiku . . . 2

Haibun and tanka prose, and haiku and tanka, are a form of pilgrimage. By pilgrimage, I mean a visit to an older story to add ourselves to it, or to add ourselves to it again. The burden of layered narrative is the essence of them all, even when it isn’t a foot slog on The Narrow Road.

Haiku and tanka are journeys of transition. In these journeys we travel, nearly as lightly as Bashō, carrying little more than our beliefs. (Such a heavy load!) The transit can be as brief as Bashō’s frog splash or can be lifetime-consuming as in these lines by Santōka Taneda:

gradually I take on the vices
of my dead father 3

Haiku tell of our emotional accommodation to transition. That is the transition from the mythic foundation that Eliade intimates to the experience of infinite possibilities faced by haiku writers and also faced by hokku and tanka writers. It is haiku and hokku, though, which most pointedly and most intimately bring us face to face with the experience of imminence and the certainties and mysteries that imminence prefigures. Santōka’s haiku is both the echo and the cry from which other echoes resonate. The abstract notion of vices here is a human quality in the landscape of death, the death that is part of every landscape, a part of the natural world where this abstraction is grounded. It is not too far a cry from what Bashō does in his hokku:

Summer grasses
all that remains
of soldiers’ dreams 4

The following passage from The Narrow Road to the Deep North 5 sets the background for the summer grasses hokku. At the end of the passage, with a stagecraft effect, it is as if a curtain is drawn upon both the history and landscape, which Bashō has told in detailed and expansive sentences. The author is then alone in front of the curtain where, in his bitter reverie, a hokku came to him.

It is here that the glory of three generations of the Fujiwara family passed away like a snatch of empty dream . . . . The ruined house of Lord Yasuhira was located to the north of the barrier-gate of Korom-ga-seki, thus blocking the entrance from the Nambu area and forming a protection against barbarous intruders from the north. Indeed, many a feat of chivalrous valour was repeated here during the short span of three generations, but both the actors and the deeds have long been dead and passed into oblivion. When a country is defeated, there remain only mountains and rivers, and on a ruined castle in spring only grasses thrive. I sat down on my hat and wept bitterly till I almost forgot time.

In a nutshell, life is short, soon passing into oblivion. The great are now in oblivion and Bashō is not far off. This is the pilgrim’s lesson. As Bashō tells it, what remains and persists are mountains, rivers and grasses, things without mind. No wonder he sat down and wept.

The “almost”, in “I almost forgot time”, is shifty and quizzical. The truth of it is, he did not, he could not forget time. He is haunted by the past and the future is vacant. We go from spring grasses thriving in his prose to the summer grasses of the haiku. That is a sensory shift from vibrant with life to blanched and ghostly. In both modes, the prospect of oblivion is imminent, not only for all actors, but for their actions as well.

The haiku here is not so simple a thing as a condensation of the prose. In the prose, Basho tells of the things that prepared him to cast the hokku; he then gives us the hokku as an argument, a philosophic proposition.

The following haiku possess more benign pasts. Still, there is an awareness of “a fresh start extending all preceding haiku”, an awareness of passing away.

nearly thirty
I knead the bread
with Grandma’s hands

– Joanna Preston

postal box –
letting go
that letter

– Greeba Brydges-Jones 6

Tanka add a bit of a sigh – of resignation, relief or joy – and they weigh their material with a scale that is the size of the heart, that is the heart.

when to my pillow
no friend comes
I lie alone
turned to face
the potted plum

– Masaoka Shiki 7

when you call my name
so soothingly, I rise
and drift from that dream
and shiver to hear the tick
of sleet on the windowpane

– Jeffrey Woodward 8

Shiki’s tanka is of the journey through illness toward death. He has been diminished, as also have his consolations, even the consolation of nature. The “potted plum”, it seems, is all that stands between him and death. His intense focus on this small thing is a desperate clinging. He is writing against death, trying to hold off the future, to expand the present, with intense focus. The reader becomes his future.

Woodward’s tanka is a languid affirmation of life. The author is called from the dimensionless expanse of reverie: “that dream”. In a “shiver”, anticipation switches on as he re-enters ticking-time. Where the threat in Shiki’s tanka is tangibly present, and distilled by his isolation, the future in Woodward’s tanka ticks on; it already lives in the voice of another.

Of the following two prose paragraphs, the first is an excerpt from Shiki’s Record of the Little Garden. The second I constructed by working from details of Shiki’s life.

I have a little garden, eighty yards square. It is on the south side of the house . . . Here on the outskirts of the city the houses are far apart, and so there is nothing to obstruct my views of the blue sky, stretching out beyond the garden with the clouds’ goings and the birds soaring high . . .

The sleet, which fell all afternoon, was gone as soon as it touched the earth. Since sunset, white has gathered on white. It muffles the world. There is a narrow band of light from the house of the old biwa player next door. At times I hear the goddess Benten playing. Tonight she practises an old peasant tune. When I was with the army in China I heard a homesick soldier sing that same song. The song is a song of summer, or harvest.

* * *

The purpose of the prose in haibun and in tanka prose is to expand the vision of coming to pass and passing away or to juxtapose another vision of coming to pass and passing away. It is that juxtaposition which gives the work depth and resonance, depth being a sense of what is past and resonance the expansive experience of moving from there to what may come.

Either or both of the quoted tanka are equally viable accompaniments to the prose – to top, tail or as interference in the flow. Woodward’s tanka weighs the account with the texture of things to come and Shiki’s with things passing away.

Woodward’s and Shiki’s tanka both deal with the infinite. One is personal, is further lived narrative; in the other, the ownership of the narrative is about to change hands.

On The Road

Existence really is an imperfect tense that never becomes a present.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History

Haiku are ever knocking at the door. There is a sign on the door. The sign reads “The Future”. A yearning for the future is in their blood. They inherited this from their ancestors, waka and renga. In waka, the parts frequently pivot around but, even, like, now, though, yet and are full of what may be and what will never be. In renga, three lines want to be answered by more. And more have heard of more, and so it goes, like a sunset conversation on a holiday porch. That is, the usual constraints of time and place get slurred in rambling conversation.

Immanence is inherent in the nature of haiku, a question without a question mark. Actually, it is more of a blend of exclamation and question. This quality is predicated upon a back-story. Though sketchily presented, these back-stories are rich in connotations. The back-story is coupled with a conditional clause, which is often elliptical in such a way as to invoke us to both fill in an ordinary missing word and elicit speculation, a sense of “what will be”.

For example, in Joanna Preston’s haiku, the natural fill for the ellipsis would generate the simile with hands like Grandma’s. The shape of the hands is what we inherit, what comes through our genes. Then there are memories of Grandma’s hands. When these things are coupled, a glimpse of the future is the result.

Sometimes the back-story is not a few words you can prune out and hold up for show. In some cases, it is wholly implied, calling to mind, as in this haiku by Barbara Strang, notions of the technology produced to overcome the disadvantages of preceding technology. This haiku could be a public announcement to human endeavour:

over the loud speaker
somebody saying
something 9

The back-story in the following haiku by Santōka Taneda fills the first line. These two words encapsulate a narrative going back through numerous misfortunes.

wearing rags,
in the coolness
I walk alone 10

In a metaphorical and an ordinary sense, Santōka’s past dressed him in rags. The phrase “wearing rags” not only paraphrases the past; it also views the future through tinted lenses, dark ones. A back-story can be as brief as a single word, as in the following haiku by Yasuhiko Shigemoto.

Ploughing –
the smell
of the soil 11

The word “ploughing” has a back-story older than history. We sink down through the notion of a technological age, what is merely an exuberant expression of the agricultural age, to a change in our attitude toward the earth exemplified here in this word. How superbly the notion of ploughing is represented graphically by the lines of a haiku. “The smell of the soil” reminds us of a number of things. It reminds us of how transient our awareness of smell is, how it wafts in and out of consciousness; it nudges us with the fact that “the smell of the soil” is predominantly the aroma of decay, thus becoming a memento mori of our own sweet decay.

In these three haiku, it is the human signifiers – “ploughing”, “wearing rags” and the problematic relationship with the loudspeaker – that initiate a sense of vastness preceding, surrounding and following us.

An Argument with The Muse

The relationship of both haiku and tanka to prose is as that of logs, boulders and weirs to a stream. Where the haiku and tanka occur, there is a sense of hold and eddy, or hold and spill over. Haiku and tanka are arguments, or parts of arguments, their own argument, or augmentations of the prose’s argument. The prose argument, the narrative stream, may be a river or a mere trickle, a road or a narrow path, and the haiku or tanka a diversion, a discursion, a disagreement or an affirmation in the discussion that is the journey. To call them arguments may not be precise or pertinent to the style of some. I find it a useful way of relating prose and verse and often, in generating haiku or tanka from the prose, to realise some small or even a substantial argument.

The following haiku of my own is an example of what I mean by argument. For me, this haiku could be an article of faith regarding human experience and our observational capacities.

looking up
to a spider web I walk
into another 12

I’ll give the final say to the following little haibun. The prose explores inaccessibility. The first haiku’s response is an article of faith as a blind couple tend their garden with earthy intimacy. The second haiku is a side-glance at an alternate way of reading the game board.

The argument between the prose and the haiku continue as they make their way on their pilgrimage, with their riffs playing off each other in playful extemporisation. They make space for more to be said.

Between the Invisible and the Tactile 13
after Gerardo Nigenda

The photographer is blind. In this photograph his subject wears a black sleep-mask.
Where the photographer’s leading finger touches her chin there is the lightest dimpling.

Above his touch; below the mask there is the beginning of a smile. The photographer, Gerardo Nigenda has typed in Braille across the photograph, Between the invisible and the tangible . . .

Nigenda said the first letter of the text is here, but the following letters can be further along, where the eye might scan the heavens for the next constellation, a pause for breath between here and there, perhaps a line break.

The Braille is in Spanish. For the blind who visit the gallery, who live in English, as their fingers track the text, there is growing puzzlement. For the sighted in the gallery the text is two languages beyond reach.

Gerardo Nigenda died at forty two; he is now, as they say, beyond.

Where Nigenda’s hand touches her chin the faintest tremor is the beginning of a smile.
cool of the night

the blind couple
weed the garden
four year old playing
snakes and ladders moves
up the side of the board


1. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred & The Profane (Harvest Books, 1968).
2. Jacob Wren attributes this to Jacques Roubaud.
3. “gradually I take on the vices” from Mountain Tasting – Zen Haiku by Santōka Taneda, translated and introduced by John Stevens (Weatherhill, 1980).
4. “Summer grasses” translated by Lucien Stryk, from On Love and Barley – Haiku of Bashō (Penguin Classics, 1985).
5. The prose excerpt of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa (Penguin Classics, 1968).
6. “nearly thirty” by Joanna Preston, and “postal box” by Greeba Brydges-Jones, from Listening to the Rain – an anthology of Christchurch haiku and haibun (The Small White Teapot Haiku Group, 2002).
7. Shiki’s tanka and haibun extract from Masaoka Shiki by Janine Beichman (Kodansha International, 1986).
8. “when you call my name” by Jeffrey Woodward, from Modern English Tanka (Volume 2, Number 4 – Summer 2008).
9. “over the loudspeaker” by Barbara Strang, from Listening to the Rain.
10. “wearing rags” from Mountain Tasting – Zen Haiku.
11. “Ploughing” by Yasuhiko Shigemoto in Blithe Spirit – Journal of The British Haiku Society (Volume 11, Number 1: March 2001).
12. The haiku “looking up” is from the haibun “Between the Pages” and appears in Notes from the Gean.
13. “Between the Invisible and the Tactile” appeared in Paper Wasp (Summer 2011).

Editor’s note: This essay was first published in Haibun Today 5:2, June 2011 and appears here with the author’s permission.

Jeffrey Harpeng is an Australian-born poet who lived for many years in New Zealand. He, along with two others, judged the 2014 John Knight Poetry Manuscript Prize. John, who died in 2012, published three of Jeff’s publications, Quarter Past Sometime (Post Pressed 2007) a collection of Jeffrey’s haibun, and two chapbooks of linked haibun: Quartet – A String of Haibun (Post Pressed 2008 – with Patricia Prime, Diana Webb and Jeffrey Woodward), and Four Tellings – A Trans-Tasman Haibun Sequence (Post Pressed 2009 – with Owen Bullock, Beverley George, and Joanna Preston). Beverley George has used these two chapbooks as teaching tools to spread the rich possibilities of linked haibun as a collaborative form.

Jeff won first prize in the haiku section of the 1993 NZ Poetry Society’s International Contest, and second prize in the open section in 2007, and first prize in the Jack Stamm Haiku Contest in 2004. His haibun collection Groundwater was shortlisted for the 2009 Thomas Shapcott Prize.