KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 5: Spring 2016
Craft Essay: 822 words [R]

Modern English-Language Haibun

by Ray Rasmussen

The term “haibun” comes from the writing of the 17th-century monk, Matsuo Basho, who is perhaps the most famous of the Japanese Master haiku poets. His classic travel journal, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Oku No Hosomichi), was based on several months-long journeys through Japan. He called the work “haiku writing”—that is, narrative poetic prose interspersed with haiku.

English-language haibun initially emerged around 1950, but have only started to flower in the last 20 years. While Basho’s travel accounts are one approach, haibun subject matter has evolved to suit the tastes and cultures of today’s English-language readers and writers. Examples of subjects other than travel experiences include experiences in natural settings, adventures, friendship and family relationships, romantic life, urban and rural life, retirement, aging and infirmity, philosophical musings, end-of-life experiences, fantasies, and dreams.

To understand haibun, it’s useful to compare its similarities and differences to flash fiction, short stories, and prose poetry:

  1. Most published haibun contain three basic elements: title, prose, and haiku. There may be one or more haiku appearing in different places. The most common pattern, however, is one haiku at the end of the prose. For the most part, short stories and flash fiction don’t include poetry or haiku.

  2. Haibun, flash fiction, and prose poetry are similar in word count (rarely running longer than a thousand), and many can be easily read in a few minutes, while most short stories tend to be much longer.

  3. Haibun storylines read as personal accounts and plausibly true. Short stories and flash fiction read as fictional, that is, writing with invented characters and storylines. While it is commonly assumed that the short story and flash fiction storylines and characters are derived from the writer’s experiences, haibun writing tends to clearly indicate that the storyline is about the writer. However, some haibun poets do use fictional storylines that read as if they actually happened.

  4. As with most writing genres, haibun writers embellish their stories, exaggerating certain aspects, inventing some things, leaving out others, and polishing the language in the service of providing good reading. The aim is to convey a sense of the lived events through enticing prose. But unlike some writing in the other forms, the embellishments aren’t stretched so as to become unrealistic or read like fiction.

  5. Many haibun tell the story as if it’s happening in the present by employing first person, present tense. However, as with writers of other genres, haibun poets also write pieces in the past tense or use a mix of past and present, and some use second or third person.

  6. Haibun tend to be of two types. The prose of narrative haibun focuses heavily on description with few if any poetic devices such as similes, metaphors, allusions, alliteration, or repetition. Literary haibun prose tends to make more use of poetic flourishes and thus it more closely resembles prose poetry.

  7. To compose a successful haibun, the writer has to master two distinct forms, prose and haiku. This is not to say that writing effective prose in other genres is not without its challenges.

  8. The linking of prose and haiku involves several considerations. The haiku phrases are typically different than the prose, and not simply a repetition. Yet the haiku is connected (linked) to the prose. A haiku can add a new dimension to the storyline or serve to summarize a key feeling or sentiment, or it might serve as a metaphor for the storyline. In general, the link (relationship between prose and haiku) is neither overly obvious nor overly oblique.

  9. English-language haiku typically contain two distinct phrases that work together to create a poetic spark and display a moment of time in the poet’s life. Today’s haiku generally average about 13 syllables, just long enough to be said in one breath. This differs from an initial misunderstanding of Japanese haiku, which have 17 Japanese-language sound units and which are not the same in length as English-language syllables. Few of today’s published haiku follow a 5-7-5 syllable pattern, and haiku composition has become a kind of free verse.

  10. A short story engages the reader’s mind in following the plot on both mental and emotional levels. In haibun, there is a similar following of storyline until a haiku is reached, causing a shift in the reader’s mind from simply reading a story to sensing the writer’s haiku moment and thinking about its relationship to the story. It’s akin to looking at a photograph accompanying an essay and musing about its connection to the contents.

Note: I’ve used modifiers like “most” and “typical” to convey the fact that today’s haibun show wide variation. Others will naturally disagree with one or more of the above pronouncements. So rather than treating them as written in stone or thinking of the author as woolly-headed, it’s best to consider them as written in putty, as food for thought.

—From Ray Rasmussen’s Landmarks: A Haibun Collection (Haibun Bookshelf Publishing, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada; 2015); republished here by author’s permission

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