KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 3: Spring 2015
Craft Essay: 967 words
(incl. title)

Potentials of Two Different Haibun Forms:
Nikki and Kikōbun

by David Cobb

Ignorant of alternative forms, my first venture into haibun was to try to write something in English vaguely resembling Bashō's classic, Oku-no-hosomichi, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa1 as The Narrow Road to the Deep North.2 My title, The Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore,3 was an obvious bow in that direction, though “Saxon Shore” would show my aim was to indigenise the form. If I learnt something from Japanese writers—Yuasa’s introduction rather than Bashō, to be frank—I also gleaned ideas from English writers, predominantly Edward Thomas and his travel book, The Icknield Way.

Bashō composed the kind of haibun known as kikōbun, a travel journal, distinct from much shorter pieces, like diary entries or anecdotes, for which the Japanese term is nikki.

So far most haibun composed in English are nikki, a few hundred words of prose wed to one or two haiku. Although a kikōbun is, admittedly, a much greater undertaking, it seems a pity few writers are ready to attempt one, for the longer form offers extra challenges and rewards.

Where the classical unities of time, place, and action are concerned, nikki are likely to be bound by them. Obviously, a travel journal won’t be—by definition it will involve movement from place to place, taking some time. And as to action, a journey consists of a number of episodes.

Special advantages of kikōbun are these:

  • Varying the style of prose; “unity within diversity,” as Yuasa identifies it in Bashō's work

  • Moving from episode to episode, context to context, with haiku that both link and shift

  • Adding flesh to characters by extensive direct speech

A little more about these advantages, and then I’ll illustrate them with texts.

In nikki, writers tend to maintain one prose style throughout. In kikōbun, switching between a variety of prose styles may be appropriate, to change the mood and pace and suit different contexts.

In nikki, especially the vogue type with a single haiku at the end, the role of the haiku is limited to some kind of summation. It is in a position to link, but not to shift.

I shall offer an episode from The Spring Journey now, submitting that the haiku do both link and shift; and that different styles of prose are in keeping with the motion and emotion of the narrative.

shelter from the rain
the gardener pees
in his watering can
A very light rain on my shoulders. At Massingham of the five ponds memories of a visit a summer ago when there was also a drought.
rain butt bone-dry
globe thistles like tinder
under the bees’ feet
Fête in progress. Bargains from here and there for sale to people from there and here. Every villager turned busker or hawker for the day. Small girl buys an ice-lolly, lifts her T-shirt, fans her tummy, traps a wasp, bawls loud enough to jog the clouds. Father catches her up in his arms, runs with her, hops, sidesteps, in and out of brailings, to the first-aid van, mother dabbing uselessly with a tissue, getting in the way. Wasp mazing away to the white elephant stall.
hairs on the cook’s belly
sprinkled with salt

Finally, I will offer you a different passage, to illustrate the advantage of having sufficient space to present lengthy conversations and so portray some of the interesting human beings we meet in the course of our journey.

Suddenly, round a corner in an alleyway, a bellicose dumpling-headed Norfolkman of Attenborough. Also pushing a bike, in a cloth cap and, for want of clips, baggy flannels tucked into his socks. We fence each other with handlebars in the manner of rutting stags. His hackles rise; an oath escapes him, like a gasp from a baked potato.
“Bleedin’ furriner, yow!”
A noisy man is always in the right. Most especially a noisy Norfolkman. I back my bicycle out of the alleyway of blades.
cab rank
the cigarette butts
“Can you help me, please?”
A child in school clothes is holding a notepad under my nose. I park my bike against a lamp post.
“Do you believe in heaven and hell, sir? It’s all part of our homework, see? We gotta find out what everyone thinks and put it in a bar chart for Mrs. Scattermole.”
“Well, yes, I do believe in heaven and hell, but not as places somewhere else; not as somewhere to go to.”
“You mean, they’re here and now?”
“Absolutely. You see, just now it seems to me I’m in paradise, but a moment ago I was in hell. Have you got space in your chart for someone who thinks paradise is when heaven and hell are the same place?”
“Don’t think Mrs Scattermole will have that,” the Norfolk child answers mournfully, and then more hopefully, “How about the devil? Do you believe in him?”
“Or her. Yes, but again, not as someone else. And not just as one individual. I’ve just seen one of them going down that alleyway. You can sometimes spot devils, waving flags. They talk a lot and very loud except when they whisper.”
“Thank you, sir.” My young interlocutor turns away and, pausing by the next street corner, I see her take out a rubber and erase the scribble she has taken down from me.

In musical terms, a kikōbun may be rather like a suite, nikki like a moment musicale.

1. Nobuyuki Yuasa, Emeritus Professor of English, Hiroshima University, translator of Bashō’s poetry into English; also, of John Donne’s poetry into Japanese

2. The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Penguin Classics, 1966, ISBN 0 14 044185 9

3. The Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore, Equinox Press,, 1997, ISBN 0 9517103 3 8

David Cobb
Issue 3, Spring 2015

taught English as a Foreign Language for many years and has written numerous course books for learners of English. These have been, and still are, used in classrooms in many different countries.

His interest in haiku was sparked in the 1980s, and in 1990 he launched the British Haiku Society. Serious interest in the possibilities of haibun in English began in 1996 when he was a prizewinner in the Woodnotes (San Francisco) International Haibun Contest. His 5,000-word haibun, “Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore,” journal of a 100-mile bicycle ride, followed quickly on the award and has been hailed as seminal for the form.

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

Marching with Tulips and What Happens in Haibun, reviewed by Naomi Beth Wakan in Contemporary Haibun Online (Volume 9, Number 2, July 2013); in this discussion of Cobb’s recent haibun collection and its companion volume of commentary, Ms. Wakan refers to the latter as an “invaluable introduction for writers seeking to explore the haibun form.”

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