Haibun Definitions

Vol 5-1, 2005

Rasmussen, CA.

Haibun is a combination of prose and haiku poetry, sometimes described as ‘a narrative of epiphany’.

In 1690, Matsuo Basho is said to have initiated the travel or diary haibun genre in a letter to a friend (Genjuan no ki, “The Hut of the Phantom Dwelling”), which concluded with a haiku. The letter referred to the period when Basho lived for several months on a hill on the southern shore of Lake Biwa east of Kyoto. (You can find this original work online, using the keyword search phrase, “The Hut of the Phantom Dwelling”.)

Like English haiku, English haibun is evolving as it becomes more widely practiced in the English speaking world.

Paul Conneally, Haibun Director of the World Haiku Club, defines current English haibun as: “Prose that has many of the characteristics associated with haiku—present tense (and shifts of tense though predominant voice ‘present’), imagistic, shortened or interesting syntax, joining words such as ‘and’ limited maybe, a sense of ‘being there’, descriptions of places people met and above all ‘brevity’. The haiku … should link to the prose but is not a direct carry on from the prose telling some of what has already been said—no—it should lead us on—let our mind want for more, start traveling.”

Bruce Ross states that haibun has “syntax that is dominated by images” and cites Makoto Ueda’s four characteristics of haibun [from: “North American Versions of Haiku”, Modern Haiku, Winter-Spring 1997]:

1) a brevity and conciseness of haiku
2) a deliberately ambiguous use of certain particles and verb forms in places where the conjunction ‘and’ would be used in English
3) a dependence on imagery
4) the writer’s detachment

Ken Jones, in a book review posted in Blythe Spirit suggested the following: A haiku collection can be reviewed within a broad consensus of discourse. But in the more eclectic haibun tradition there are no such recognised markers. Reviewers and editors therefore need to set out some criteria so that their readers are aware of the standards to which they are working. Here I have used four sets of criteria. They are based on Basho’s view of haibun as haikai no bunsho—‘writing in the style of haiku’.

First, I would expect direct, concrete, economical imagery, infused with life and energy and eschewing abstraction and intellection. The editors refer to ‘sensibility and revelation rather than narrative and disclosure’.

Second, I would expect haibun prose to be light handed, elusive, open-ended, playful and even ironic, ‘in the style of haiku’. And at a deeper, existential level, should we not expect something of that ambiguity and mystery found in the best haiku? Presumably this is the ‘narrative of an epiphany’ which the present editors claim to have sought.

Third, just as haiku are literature in miniature, with their own internal and external disciplines, so should we expect haibun also to have the complexity, subtlety and unfolding of literary artifacts. Corresponding to the feeling of the ‘haiku moment’ is the emotional experience which itself appears to write, energise and organise the haibun for its writer.

Finally, at least as a bonus, we might hope to find something of Haruo Shirane’s ‘vertical axis’ of myth, literature, history—and life in the postmodern… [from: ‘Ken Jones, A Review of Up Against the Window,” American Haibun and Haiga, Volume 1, eds. Jim Kacian and Bruce Ross]

The Haiku Society of America [HSA] has posted the following definition of haibun: “A haibun is a terse, relatively short prose poem in the haikai style, usually including both lightly humorous and more serious elements. A haibun usually ends with a haiku. Most haibun range from well under 100 words to 200 or 300. Some longer haibun may contain a few haiku interspersed between sections of prose. In haibun the connections between the prose and any included haiku may not be immediately obvious, or the haiku may deepen the tone, or take the work in a new direction, recasting the meaning of the foregoing prose, much as a stanza in a linked-verse poem revises the meaning of the previous verse. Japanese haibun apparently developed from brief prefatory notes occasionally written to introduce individual haiku, but soon grew into a distinct genre. The word ‘haibun’ is sometimes applied to longer works, such as the memoirs, diaries, or travel writings of haiku poets, though technically they are parts of the separate and much older genres of journal and travel literature (nikki and kikôbun).”  [from the HSA Definitions Web Page]


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