Why I Write Haibun

by Rich Youmans

First published as the afterword to Wedge of Light (Foster City, California: Press Here, 1999), a haibun anthology edited by Michael Dylan Welch, Cor van den Heuvel, and Tom Lynch. In granting permission for this reprint, Rich Youmans said, “You might have to explain to youngsters what a video store is (back in the day, you had to go to a store to buy a video, which used to come on big cartridges, and you put them into a box called a VCR . . . [dumbfounded stares]. Go stream Clerks, you’ll see).” See also “A Survey of Haibun Definitions.”

For the past few years, I have devoted much of my writing time to the haibun. I did not think much about my reasons for this, other than the form allowed me to write about topics I could not condense into haiku or even sequences. Recently, though, a friend called me on it. “Why do you sprinkle these things into the narrative?” he asked while reading a piece I had written about my parents and their first date. “These things” referred to the haiku I had placed throughout the prose, and his tone contained the same disdain, bewilderment, and annoyance it would have if he had been asking, say, why I had just sprinkled tacks in front of his tires. He had a different metaphor, though. “They’re like splinters on a smooth board—I keep catching on them.”

I was about to describe the long and distinguished lineage of the form—from Bashō’s Narrow Road and Issa’s My Spring to the North American haibun of Kerouac, Little, Spiess, Willmot, van den Heuvel, and Ashbery, among others—when I stopped. This was historical precedent, not a vital rationale. I considered the question some more, yet the more I thought the more the question remained: What did the haiku add that could not be supplied by a few additional sentences?

While the inclusion of haiku is not the sole characteristic of a haibun, it seems to have become the main one in North America as more writers have attempted to expand the boundaries of the prose. Although most English-language haibun adhere to brevity, detachment, and strong imagery, the elliptical style and deliberate ambiguity of the traditional haibun have been mostly abandoned. To see how far the boundaries can and have been stretched, just read Rod Willmot’s novella, The Ribs of Dragonfly (Black Moss Press, 1984), or the six haibun-style prose poems in John Ashbery’s A Wave (Penguin, 1984). I read through recent North American haibun and noted the various ways in which haiku have been used—several interspersed among passages like a row of buttons; a single one falling at the end, as if it were a dewdrop; a series of them trailing from the text like the tail of a kite. As I did, I realized that, for me, the best haibun contained one common characteristic: they all expanded the possibilities of a narrative by taking the reader outside of it.

Consider this: You get to know a new neighborhood by walking through the streets—observing the buildings and the parks, noting the local deli and video store, identifying flowers in the neighbors’ gardens. Now think of the new perspective an aerial view would provide. You could comment on a specific street, or compare sites that are blocks apart. The haiku in a haibun allow such leaps. They can sum up what has gone before it (hopefully without repetition or redundancy), or bring in new associations that add depth and meaning to a passage. And because they offer self-contained moments—because they are poems themselves—their impact is much greater than standard lines of prose.

I believe the haibun my friend read, “On Finding a Photo of My Mother and Father’s First Date,” would be a much weaker piece if I wrote it as straight prose. Its haiku not only serve as natural breaks between the sections, but also amplify on those sections in a way that ordinary prose cannot. For example, take the haibun’s second haiku:

first date—

the mechanic’s nails

shine like moons

This would come across as simply a description of my mechanic father’s clean fingernails if the image had been incorporated into the narrative. But as a haiku, it can bring in all the desire, elation, nervousness, and eagerness to please and make a good impression that characterize a first date. It also slows the pace of the narrative, and enables the reader to dwell further on what’s being said.

Armed with this new (for me) insight into the haibun, I finally answered my friend’s question by extending his own metaphor. “Think of these haiku not as splinters,” I said, “but as knotholes through which the world becomes a part of the wood, and you can see beyond—or, in the words of Raymond Roseliep, as ‘peepholes into the absolute.’” The discovery of those knotholes has kept me writing haibun, and will undoubtedly keep me at it for a long time to come.