A Concise History of Haibun in English

First published in Wedge of Light, Foster City, California: Press Here, 1999, pages 11–14.

by Cor van den Heuvel


The first haibun I recall reading was a partial translation of Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no Hosomichi (“The Narrow Road of Oku”) by Donald Keene in his Anthology of Japanese Literature (1955). When I read it in 1959, I didn’t know it was a haibun. I could see it was a combination of prose and haiku and I admired the way Bashō integrated the two so that the haiku seemed to flower out of the prose, but I had no idea that I was reading a special genre of literature. Keene does not say what it is and the word haibun does not appear in the anthology.

Bashō (1644–1694), Japan’s greatest haiku poet, wrote Oku no Hosomichi as a travel journal of the long walk he took through northern Japan during the spring and summer of 1689. It is one of the masterpieces of Japanese literature. Life itself is a journey, said Bashō, and in this sense perhaps all haibun are travel journals. Cid Corman’s full translation of the Oku came out in 1968 and several others have appeared since. Hiroaki Sato’s annotated translation, Bashō’s Narrow Road, published by Stone Bridge Press in 1996, is the most comprehensive and valuable edition to appear so far.

In 1960, another Japanese haibun, Ora ga Haru (“My Spring”) by Kobayashi Issa (1762–1826), was published as The Year of My Life in a translation by Nobuyuki Yuasa. It is described on the cover as “An autobiography in haibun—a mixed form of haiku and prose.” In it Issa, considered by many to be second only to Bashō among Japan’s haiku masters, recounts events in his life during the year 1819, starting with the New Year celebration and going through all the seasons, yet he also writes about earlier events and even presents some of them as if they actually happened that year. In the process, the reader feels the flowing cycle of the seasons and the one year comes to represent Issa’s whole life.

Haibun vary from book-length with dozens of haiku, such as Bashō’s Oku, to just a paragraph of prose with a single haiku. The prose itself is often haiku-like, terse and immediate. The word haibun, “prose with haiku,” is sometimes translated as “haiku prose,” and a prose piece without any haiku may also be called a haibun if it is written in the haiku spirit. Some very charming examples of this kind of haibun can be found in Hiroaki Sato’s translation of Right under the big sky, I don’t wear a hat: The Haiku and Prose of Hōsai Ozaki (Stone Bridge, 1993).

Translations of quite a number of Japanese haibun are available to us today. Some of the most interesting to me are the haibun of Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902) translated by Janine Beichman in her critical biography of Shiki, Masaoka Shiki (1982). She translates all of Shorn no Ki (“Record of the Little Garden”) and large parts of his poetic diaries, Bokuju Itteki (“A Drop of Ink”) and Byosho Rokushaku (“A Sixfoot Sickbed”). She describes these latter pieces as a modern form of poetic prose. Though they grew out of the traditions of haibun and uta-nikki (poetic diary), they represent a new kind of writing. “Haiku-style prose” is her term for haibun.


Haiku Prose in English

Parts of Jack Kerouac’s novels could be considered haibun, though as far as I know he never used the term. William J. Higginson in The Haiku Handbook (1985) quotes a passage from Kerouac’s Desolation Angels (1965), a journal-like novel containing about two dozen of his haiku (none of them of any value), as an example of haibun and even compares it favorably with haibun by Bashō and Issa. The passage has a little less than a page of prose and one haiku, which comes at the end. In The Dharma Bums (1958), the section in which Kerouac describes his summer on Desolation Peak, about fifteen pages of prose with only one haiku, is in my opinion a haibun. The whole passage is written with the haiku spirit. Its perceptiveness, concision, and suggestibility make it one of the finest haibun in English.

In Doctor Sax (1959), a novel/memoir about his life and fantasies as a boy in Lowell, Massachusetts, Kerouac often writes prose sections that reveal the sensibilities of a haiku poet. Such passages might be called haibun, even though they contain no haiku. So could passages from the work of a number of earlier writers in English including Henry Thoreau, John Muir, Henry Beston, Ernest Hemingway, Sigurd Olson, Thomas Wolfe, and Loren Eiseley. Though most of them probably never heard of haiku, they often wrote with a haiku spirit, as did such poets as John Keats and William Carlos Williams. Whatever accomplishments are achieved in the haibun form in English, they will almost certainly owe something to such writers and to the traditions of nature writing, both prose and poetry, in British and American literature. The long history of the personal essay in Western writing will also have a strong influence.


Haiku Poets and Haibun

A short prose piece with haiku called “Paris,” written by the Canadian haiku poet Jack Cain, is generally considered the first work in English to have been labeled a haibun. It was published in 1964 in a poetry biannual called Volume 63 and reprinted in the journal Haiku in 1969. [In actuality, Carolyn Kizer published an earlier haibun, labeled as such. Her A Month in Summer appeared in Kenyon Review 24:3 in the summer of 1962.] Other early haibun writers were Gerry Loose in England and Michael McClintock in California.

The first book of original haibun in English appears to be a chapbook by Robert Spiess, the editor of Modern Haiku. His Five Caribbean Haibun was published in 1972. Since then a steadily increasing number of haiku poets have been writing haibun. When I had an experience during a backpacking trip into the Catskill Mountains in 1975 that I wanted to write about and that seemed to me to need a more expanded canvas than haiku alone could provide, I, too, turned to the longer form. That haibun, which I called “A Sort of Vision,” had about a half dozen haiku and ran to about thirty pages of prose. As one writer friend was quick to point out when I showed it to her, it was full of romantic babble about sunsets and mountain breezes, and encrusted with archaic language and diction. I whittled at it, sharpening the language, off and on for many years. It wasn’t until 1988, when it was two pages long with only a single haiku, that I sent it to Modem Haiku where it was published under the title “The Sign.”

Feeling I had learned something of how to get the immediacy and suggestiveness of haiku into my prose, I tried to write more haibun. In fact, I had started some others before I was completely satisfied with “The Sign.” As early as 1984 I was working on a series of haibun called “Puddles.” This, too, was published in 1988, in the Haiku Society of America’s magazine, Frogpond. A few years later I printed it myself, under the Chant Press imprint, as a chapbook. Translated into Japanese by Hiroaki Sato, it was also published in a Japanese poetry magazine.

These were all about adult experiences, but in 1990 while writing a haibun about granite curbstones, I was suddenly moved to include a few paragraphs about some boyhood experiences related to the subject. This started me thinking about other aspects of my early years that might be subjects for haibun. That led to the idea of doing a series about my life as a boy. The seasons—so important to a haiku poet—would be seen as both the background and a shaping force in the boy’s life. Yet, they, too, would take on special shapes through the boy’s actions and his desires—especially those having to do with playing the games of baseball, football, and basketball. And so I began to write “A Boy’s Seasons.”


Personal Experience in Haibun

Haibun should give the reader the same kinds of things that haiku does by itself: clear and sharp perceptions of the world around us and a sense of our being a part of nature. But it affords writers a broader field to work in, letting them move back and forth in time and space and allowing them the freedom to describe their thoughts and feelings. Using language in extended patterns, they can also create rhythms not possible in the brief space of a haiku. Narrative and story, including fiction, are also available to the haiku poet through haibun.

In the early years of the American haiku movement, Harold G. Henderson wrote that haiku in English would become what the poets make it. So too, haibun will become what our best writers decide to make it. Already there has been a wide spectrum of approaches to the genre. Leading American haiku journals such as Modem Haiku, Frogpond, and Woodnotes have, in recent years, been publishing an increasing number of haibun. In 1995 at the Haiku North America conference in Toronto, Bruce Ross delivered a paper about English-language haibun in which he was able to quote from dozens of examples he considered exemplary. For a genre so new to the language, they demonstrated an amazing variety and proficiency, as do the haibun in this collection [referring to Wedge of Light].

As with the personal essay, haibun can deal with just about any subject as long as it is not too concerned with abstract terms or generalities. Among its defining characteristics are a sensuous approach to the world around us and a presenting of that world in concrete, tangible images. To accomplish this, haibun must be rooted in personal experience. This is why so many Japanese haibun have taken the form of travel journals, personal diaries, or memoirs.

In his Haiku Handbook (Kodansha, 1989), Higginson points out ways that haibun writers can weave details from the history of their culture with the events of their personal lives. Bashō does this when he visits a site famous in earlier literature and gives his reactions, and Issa does too when he writes about observing a traditional holiday. But ultimately, says Higginson, it is the poet’s own immediate experience that gives his or her writing significance: “Like haiku, haibun begins in the everyday events of the author’s life.”