Haibun: Definitions of Light

This essay first appeared in Contemporary Haibun Online, 13:3, October 2017. It is an adaptation and update of my introduction to Wedge of Light, an anthology of haibun I published with Press Here in 1999, featuring winners from the first-ever English-language haibun contest, held in the spring and summer of 1996. See the Press Here page for this book. In 2000, the book won a Merit Book Award from the Haiku Society of America as best book of haibun published in 1999. This essay was also slightly updated in June of 2023, and this updated text was featured as an “Encore Article” in Contemporary Haibun Online, 19:2, August 2023. See also “A Survey of Haibun Definitions: Introduction to Wedge of Light,” including its postscript, which evolved into the essay presented here. And see also “Why I Write Haibun,” by Rich Youmans and my short essay, “Missing the Moon: Haikuless Haibun.”

Haibun has naturally followed haiku in migrating from Japan to new lands and languages, becoming increasingly popular in recent years. Elizabeth Lamb reports, in the Haiku Society of America book A Haiku Path, that the first English-language haibun, “Paris,” was published in 1964 by Canadian writer Jack Cain (12). But in actuality, Carolyn Kizer’s “A Month in Summer” predates Cain’s haibun by two years, published in Kenyon Review in the summer of 1962, where it was even identified as a haibun. In the decades since these two haibun first appeared, many haiku writers have tested the haibun waters, using various Japanese haibun as guides, such as Bashō’s famous Oku no Hosomichi (translated variously as “Narrow Road to the Interior,” “Narrow Road to the Far North,” and “Back Roads to Far Towns”). The results of these forays into this heightened form of prose appear regularly in most of the leading English-language haiku journals.

Haibun Definitions

In answer to the question “What distinguishes a haibun from an ordinary essay?” Makoto Ueda has written the following:

A haibun usually (though not necessarily) ends with haiku. The implication is that a haibun is a perfect prose complement to the haiku. . . . The word haibun means haiku prose, a prose piece written in the spirit of haiku. The essential qualities of haiku are seen in the haibun in their prose equivalents, as it were. A haibun has, for instance, the same sort of brevity and conciseness as a haiku. (Matsuo Bashō, 121)

Ueda explains that “Often a haiku appears in the middle or at the end of a prose passage, without much explanation but with perfect emotional logic” (142). He also adds that the relationship of the prose to the haiku in a haibun is similar to the relationship generated by the juxtaposition used in haiku itself—the “leap” between the two elements is left unexplained. Ueda emphasizes that:

It is up to the reader to grasp the meaning of the prose, and then of the haiku, and to go on to discover the undercurrents of meaning common to both. Furthermore, by ending in a haiku the whole haibun leaves the reader with a feeling of incompleteness. . . . A haibun concluding with a haiku will expand in the reader’s imagination after he finishes reading it. The poet, especially in the haiku, often deliberately avoids the tone of finality that normally sounds in prose.” (122)

Ueda has also said that haibun is characterized by “its dependence on imagery” (122), noting that “A sentence impregnated with images extends the borders of the reader’s imagination, because it is not intellectualized” (123). An additional characteristic of haibun, Ueda has concluded, is the writer’s detachment. He says that “No good haibun is an emotional outburst or logical persuasion” (123).

        Many other critics and translators have offered definitions of haibun and commented on its characteristics. Earl Miner, for example, has said that “hokku mingled with prose make a kind of writing referred to as haibun” (Japanese Linked Poetry, 93). Nobuyuki Yuasa has defined haibun as “prose mixed with haiku” in a way that is “perfectly amalgamated” (The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, 30), saying of Bashō’s elevation of the form that his was “the first time an attempt was made to bring prose and haiku into an organic whole” (35). Yuasa has said, too, that the art of writing haibun is mastered when the “prose and haiku illuminate each other like two mirrors held up facing each other” (39). And Donald Keene has noted that at least one twentieth-century Japanese poet equated haibun to the Western prose poem (Dawn to the West, 233).

        Although haibun is largely prose, Robert Hass has nevertheless referred to it as a “poetic form” (The Essential Haiku, 303), and has elsewhere said (in introducing Cid Corman’s reprinted Back Roads to Far Towns) that haibun’s “haiku-like prose style . . . was rapid, allusive, suggestive, and aimed at something like the aesthetic ideal of yūgen [deep, mysterious, and graceful]” (xi). More succinctly, Hass has defined haibun as “prose poems that end with a final leap to haiku” (xi).

        Hiroaki Sato has defined haibun as “prose written in a haikai spirit, often incorporating hokku” (One Hundred Frogs, xiii). “At times accentuated by verse,” Sato has also noted, “[haibun] was to be imbued with a modest, detached, transcendental sense, the sense that even the rustic and vulgar have poetry in them. Haibun, in short, is heightened prose shorn of sentimentality” (Bashō’s Narrow Road, 32).

        William J. Higginson has also defined haibun simply as “haiku prose” (The Haiku Handbook, 11), and has offered the following observation about the nature of this prose-and-poetry hybrid:

Like haiku, haibun begins in the everyday events of the author’s life. These events occur as minute particulars of object, person, place, action. The author recognizes that these events connect with others in the fabric of time and literature, and weaves a pattern demonstrating this connection. And if this writing is to be truly haibun, the author does this with a striking economy of language, without any unnecessary grammar, so that each word carries rich layers of meaning. (221)

Haruo Shirane has proffered “haikai prose” as a basic definition of haibun, and has written about its beginnings that haibun “combined, in unprecedented fashion, Chinese prose genres, Japanese classical prototypes, and vernacular language and subject matter, thereby bringing together at least three major cultural axes” (Traces of Dreams, 27). Despite such classic examples as The Tale of Genji, the Japanese have no specific term for tanka with prose. However, Shirane’s term “haikai prose” gives precedent to the naturally arising Western corollary of “tanka prose,” which is itself an increasingly emphasized evolution of the haibun genre.

        Finally, Bruce Ross has defined haibun as “autobiographical prose, usually accompanied by verse” (Journey to the Interior, 14). More specifically, he has noted that “haibun is a detailed narrative of experience while haiku is only a moment of pinpointed emotion” and that “haibun is a narrative of an epiphany,” while haiku “offers us an epiphany” (74). He has also observed that “Definitions of haibun by scholars of Japanese literature are broad enough to incorporate all the directions that English-language haibun has taken” (15).

        Regardless of the inclusiveness of its many definitions, haibun is a difficult and demanding form to master. Haibun is a broadening of haiku to embrace many—but not all—prose possibilities. Correctly aligning the two mirrors of prose and poetry to seek the perfect amalgamation of haibun is fraught with subjective aesthetic challenges. The haibun form, it would seem, offers an endless variety of possibilities.

Evolving Haibun

Haibun in English reached a milestone with the publication of Journey to the Interior: American Versions of Haibun (Tuttle, 1998) edited by Bruce Ross, which I believe to be the first haibun anthology in the English language. The following year, Wedge of Light (Press Here, 1999), a selection of entries from the Woodnotes International Haibun Contest held in the spring and summer of 1996, adjudicated by Cor van den Heuvel and Tom Lynch, further illuminated haibun’s progress from its Japanese origins.

        More than three hundred years ago, in 1706, Kyoriku Morikawa published Honchō Monzen (“Prose Collection of Japan”), later named Fūzoku Monzen (“Anthology of Customs and Manners”). Haruo Shirane referred to Morikawa’s collection as “the first anthology of the new haibun” (215; emphasis added). I originally misunderstood the reference to “new” as referring to haibun in general, as if the genre itself was new. However, I believe Shirane means that this anthology was the first to represent a new kind of haibun—haibun written in Bashō’s elevated and perfected style. Morikawa writes (in Shirane’s translation) that, “There is not a single word [of classical Japanese literature] that offers a model for haikai prose [meaning what we would call haibun]. Bashō, my late teacher, was the first to create such a model and breathe elegance and life into it” (215). Thus, Bashō’s Oku no Hosomichi and other travel diaries/haibun marked a radical departure from the traditions of classical poetry and classical linked verse. Shirane notes that “Haibun in the broad sense existed before Bashō in the form of prefaces, headnotes to hokku, and short essays written by haikai masters” and then says that “Prominent early examples include Kigin’s Mountain Well (1648), a haikai seasonal almanac, and Genrin’s . . . Treasure Storehouse (Takaragura; 1671), a haibun anthology, but the prose style of these works often resembles that of classical prose” (213). These two examples came several decades before Morikawa’s, and perhaps some haibun collections were published earlier yet.

        However, perhaps Morikawa’s anthology was the first haibun anthology after all, because it seems to be the first collection of haibun as we have come to know it today. As Shirane further explains, “Bashō’s new notion of haibun, by contrast [to the old classical style], was characterized by the prominent inclusion of haikai words (haigon), particularly a combination of vernacular Japanese (zokugo) and Chinese words (kango)” (213–215). Shirane then highlights the distinction by quoting from the preface to Prose Mirror of Japan (Honchō bunkan; 1717), a haibun anthology edited by Shikō, one of Bashō’s disciples:

From long ago, there have been four poetic genres: Chinese poetry, classical poetry, renga, and haikai. If Chinese poetry and classical poetry have prose, so too should renga and haikai. . . . But an appropriate style for renga has yet to be established. Instead, renga has been consumed by the house of classical poetry, and its prose is marked by the slipperiness of The Tale of Genji or The Tale of Sagoromo. Renga has yet to create a graceful prose style. Thanks to Bashō’s brush, however, the principles of haikai prose [or haibun, as we know it today] have been created for the first time. (215)

Shirane adds that “Bashō gave haikai an autonomy and stature that classical renga never attained” (215). My Wedge of Light haibun anthology followed in these footsteps, ever so humbly, but I do believe that the contest that produced the included haibun was indeed the first-ever haibun contest in the English language.

        In the years since I published Wedge of Light, haibun has deepened in popularity, with an increasing number of journals publishing haibun online, such as Contemporary Haibun Online and Haibun Today. Red Moon Press’s long-running annual Contemporary Haibun journal made a significant impact in promoting the genre, as have printed collections from other publishers, books of haibun by individual authors, Angelee Deodhar’s more recent annual haibun journal, Journeys, and annual contests such as the Central Valley Haiku Club’s Kilbride Memorial Haibun Contest (in Sacramento) and the Haiku Society of America’s haibun awards. Haibun has also begun to catch a wider interest in mainstream poetry journals, and finds echoes in flash fiction and prose poetry. We have come a long way since Carolyn Kizer and Jack Cain published the very first English-language haibun about sixty years ago.

References and Further Reading

Cobb, David. The Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore. Shalford, Essex, England: Equinox, 1997.

Corman, Cid, and Kamaike Susumu, translators. Back Roads to Far Towns (Matsuo Bashō). Hopewell, New Jersey: The Ecco Press, 1968, 1996.

Haiku Society of America Twentieth Anniversary Book Committee. A Haiku Path. New York: Haiku Society of America, 1994.

Hass, Robert. The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa. Hopewell, New Jersey: The Ecco Press, 1994.

Higginson, William J., with Penny Harter. The Haiku Handbook How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985; Tokyo: Kodansha, 1989.

Hisamatsu, Sen’ichi. Biographical Dictionary of Japanese Literature. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1976.

Keene, Donald. Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era. New York: Holt, 1984.

Lynch, Tom. Rain Drips from the Trees: Haibun Along the Trans-Canadian Highway. Privately published, 1992.

Miner, Earl. Japanese Linked Poetry. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Ross, Bruce. Journey to the Interior: American Versions of Haibun. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle, 1998.

Sato, Hiroaki. One Hundred Frogs: From Renga to Haiku to English. New York: Weatherhill, 1983.

———. Bashō’s Narrow Road: Spring and Autumn Passages. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 1996.

Shirane, Haruo. Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Ueda, Makoto. Matsuo Bashō. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1970, 1982.

van den Heuvel, Cor. The Haiku Anthology. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1974; New York: Fireside/Touchstone, 1986, 1991; New York: Norton, 1999.

Welch, Michael Dylan, van den Heuvel, Cor; Lynch, Tom, editors. Wedge of Light, Sammamish, Washington: Press Here, 1999.

Yuasa, Nobuyuki, translator. The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (Matsuo Bashō). London: Penguin, 1966, 1987.