A Survey of Haibun Definitions: Introduction to Wedge of Light

The following essay was originally published as the introduction to Wedge of Light, an anthology of haibun that resulted from the Woodnotes International Haibun Contest, held in the spring and summer of 1996. See the Press Here page for this book. I believe this to have been the first haibun contest to be conducted in the English language. The judges were Cor van den Heuvel and Tom Lynch, who joined me as editors for the book Wedge of Light, which my press, Press Here, published in May of 1999. In 2000, the book won a Merit Book Award from the Haiku Society of America as best book of haibun published in 1999. Also see the postscript at the end, which clarifies details on the first haibun anthology in Japanese, among other updates regarding haibun in English. See also “Haibun: Definitions of Light,” which evolved from the following essay and its postscript. And see also “Why I Write Haibun,” by Rich Youmans and my short essay, “Missing the Moon: Haikuless Haibun.”

Nearly three hundred years ago, in 1706, Kyoriku Morikawa published Honchō Monzen (“Prose Collection of Japan”), later named Fūzoku Monzen (“Anthology of Customs and Manners”). Kyoriku’s volume is considered the first Japanese anthology of haibun (Hisamatsu, 212; Shirane, 215). Now, at the edge of the twenty-first century, Wedge of Light presents the results of what I believe to be another first—the first haibun contest in English. It follows 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.

        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 true English-language haibun was published in 1964 by Canadian writer Jack Cain (12). [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 Cain’s “Paris” 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 haiku journals.

        In answer to the question “What distinguishes a haibun from an ordinary essay?” Makoto Ueda has written that “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). 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). Nevertheless, 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).

        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 recently wrote 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).

        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 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, yet 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.

        One might well imagine that some paths this form could take would no longer qualify as haibun. This is not the case, I trust, with the present collection. The examples presented in this book may be considered as wedges of light in the greater brightness of Japan’s centuries of haibun tradition. What the preceding definitions have explained, I hope the following haibun demonstrate. Like their Japanese counterparts, these haibun are sometimes travel diaries, sometimes narrative, sometimes introspective vignettes. As such, they show the range of haibun in English, yet they do not stretch so far as to not be rooted in haiku’s here and now.

        The haibun in this anthology are selections chosen as best from the Woodnotes International Haibun Contest held in the spring and summer of 1996—which I believe to have been the first-ever English-language haibun contest. Cor van den Heuvel, one of the contest’s two judges, has edited three editions of The Haiku Anthology (Anchor/Doubleday, 1974;Fireside/Touchstone, 1986, 1991; and W. W. Norton, 1999) and is author of “A Boy’s Seasons” and “A Boy’s Holidays,” extended haibun serialized primarily in Robert Spiess’s Modem Haiku. Tom Lynch, the other judge, wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on haiku and Emersonian poetics (University of Oregon, 1989) and has published a book of his own haibun, Rain Drips from the Trees (privately published, 1992).

        Together, the judges chose Anita Virgil’s “Outer Banks” as the contest’s first-place winner, and selected three honorable mentions, in alphabetical order by surname: Sydney Bougy’s “Blackberry Sunday: A Haibun for Spring,” David Cobb’s “Arrival at the Saxon Shore,” and John Stevenson’s “Night Trains.” (Cobb’s haibun has since been published in a book, from which it was excerpted: The Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore, Equinox, 1997.) The judges’ selections were made without their knowledge of the authors’ identities. In addition to featuring these selections, Wedge of Light includes other haibun recommended by the judges, although final selections, arranged alphabetically by each author’s surname, were my own.

        Each haibun entered into the contest was limited to 1,500 words for practicality’s sake. As a result, the lengths of the haibun herein do not mean to suggest a maximum length for English-language haibun. These haibun were chosen for their freshness, refinement, and variety, and I believe they do well in representing current English-language haibun, although many other writers have also explored this form but are not represented here.

        For those interested in learning to write haibun, perhaps the examples in this book might serve as inspiration. The opening and closing essays should also prove helpful [“A Concise History of Haibun in English” by Cor van den Heuvel and “Why I Write Haibun” by Rich Youmans]. I have also asked each contributor to share his or her thoughts on haibun; their comments appear with short biographical sketches at the end of the book.

        I am grateful to all the poets who entered the contest and to the judges for their consideration and deliberation of so many entries. Congratulations to the winners, and to all whose work is included. Special thanks to Cor van den Heuvel for his essay that commences this volume, to Tom Lynch for sharing one of his haibun, “On the Fishing Fly,” and to Rich Youmans, whose essay on writing haibun concludes this volume.

        In all, I consider these haibun to be wedges of light, indications of a bright future for English-language haibun.

        Michael Dylan Welch


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.

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

Postscript, 2014: Fifty Years of Haibun

Since the preceding essay was written and published in 1999, 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 anthology, 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.

        At the start of my essay, I cited Kyoriku Morikawa’s publication, in 1706, of Honchō Monzen (“Prose Collection of Japan”), later named Fūzoku Monzen (“Anthology of Customs and Manners”). I referred to this book as “the first Japanese anthology of haibun.” On closer inspection of Haruo Shirane’s Traces of Dreams, however, I now believe this statement to be inaccurate—or at least a little misleading. A closer reading of Shirane’s text shows that he referred to Morikawa’s collection as “the first anthology of the new haibun” (215; emphasis added). I misunderstood the reference to “new” as referring to haibun in general, as if the genre itself was new. However, 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. I am uncertain which anthology might have been the very first to collect haibun in Japanese, but Shirane says 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 other 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 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 (215):

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.

Shirane adds that “Bashō gave haikai an autonomy and stature that classical renga never attained” (215). It is in these footsteps that Wedge of Light follows, ever so humbly, but I do believe that the contest that produced the haibun collected in the book was indeed the first-ever haibun contest in the English language. I hope that my introduction, which serves as an overview of notable haibun definitions, provides much inspiration for the directions that haibun writers can take English-language haibun—and have already been taking it since Jack Cain published the very first English-language haibun fifty years ago, in 1964 [actually, Carolyn Kizer in 1962].

—18 November 2014, 12 July 2017