Haibun: The Art of Braiding Prose with Haiku
A quick introduction to haibun and its various facets by Dr Pravat Kumar Padhy
The combination of prose with poetry has been often observed in literature. The composition Champu or Chapu-Kavya, a combination of poetry and prose, has been found in ancient Indian literature during the Vedic period (c. 1500 – c. 500 BCE). The champu-kavya, inscribed in the 2nd century BC, consists of prose episodes (Gadya-Kavya) and poetry passages (Padya-Kavya), with verses interspersed within the prose sections. They primarily dealt with love, bravery, and other aspects. The Brahmangranthas, some parts of the Mahabharata and Jatakas, etc. are written in a combination of the prose-poetry genre. There are a few folk cultures in India where the story is narrated along with a part vocalized in a lyrical style.
The practice of writing mixed verse and prose, a prosimetric literary form, originated in Japan way back in the 8th century. The Man’yōshū, the first major anthology of Japanese poetry that appeared in c. 780 contains the first tanka prose (prose with waka poetry). In the early 12th century, the word ‘prosimetrum’ (prosa: prose and metrum: verse) is associated with the Rationes dictandi of Hugh of Bologna. Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (c. 524), Snorri, Sturluson’s Heimskringla (c. 1230), Dante’s La Vita Nuova (c. 1295), The Voyage of Bran (c. 800) Sweeney’s Frenzy (c. 1300) and texts of the Old Irish and Middle Irish traditions are some of the memorable historical examples of synthesizing prose with verse.
Haibun is a literary expression of poetic prose with haiku. Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) coined the word ‘Haibun' (HIGH-BUN) in 1690. His ‘Oku no Hosomichi’ (Narrow Road to the Interior), considered the masterpiece of haibun in Japanese literature, narrates the ecstatic beauty through the traverse of 1500 miles over 156 days, mostly on foot, from Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to the northerly interior region known as Oku. Shin hana tsumi (The New Gathering Flowers) by Yosa Buson (1716-1783); Oraga Haru (My Spring) and Chichi no shūen nikki (Last Days of My Father) by Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), Byōshō rokushaku (Six-foot Sickbed) by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) and Kōshin’an-ki (Notes from Kōshinan’an), Tsukiyo sōshi (Sketches of Moonlit Nights) both by Kurita Chodō (1749-1814) are some of the iconic works in haibun literature. Uzuragoromo (Mottled Quail Cloak) by Yokoi Yayū and ‘On Releasing a Sparrow’ by Kawai Chigetsu are some of the noteworthy Japanese haibun.
The word haibun, earlier to the seventeenth century, was also associated with old genres such as memoirs, diaries and travel literature (nikki and kikôbun) and even existed in the form of a preface, headnotes to hokku with a short essay written by haikai masters. Basho infused the aesthetic sense of haiku spirit (aware) into it. Morikawa’s Honchō Monzen (‘Prose Collection of Japan’), published in 1706, is considered the first Japanese anthology of haibun.
The haibun in English can be dated back to the 1950s or 1960s considering the symbiosis of prose and verse of Jack Kerouac or Jack Cain as the starting point. Jack Kerouac’s ‘The Town and the City’ (1950) is classical poetic prose. Gary Snyder’s travel diary, ‘Passage through India’, written during the mid-sixties, is one of the memorable modern haibun-like genres. The work, ‘Paris’ (1964) by the Canadian writer Jack Cain is considered the first formal modern haibun in English. James Merrill's ‘Prose of Departure’, from The Inner Room (1988), is one of the finest examples of haibun. Poet Maureen Thorson’s ‘Time Traveler’s Haibun: 1989 ‘ is an interesting poetic creation. Bruce Ross’s ‘Journey to the Interior: American Versions of Haibun’ (Tuttle) published in 1998 is the first anthology of English-language haibun. Ken Jones, Ray Rasmussen, Bruce Ross, Jeffrey Woodward, Stanley Pelter, Paul Conneally, George Marsh, Patrick Frank, Nobuyuki Yuasa, John Brandi,Miriam Sagan, Bill Wyatt, William M. Ramsey, Judson Evans, William J. Higginson , Patricia Prime, James Norton , Seán O’Connor, Jim Kacian, Michael McClintock, Lynne Reese, Jim Norton, Richard Straw, Robert Wilson, Peter Butler, John Stevenson, Cor van den Heuvel, Tom Lynch, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, David Cobb, Charles Hansmann , Janice M. Bostok, W F Owen, Dru Philippou, Michael Dylan Welch, Ruth Holzer, Tish Davis, Jeffrey Harpeng , Diana Webb, Glenn Coats, Owen Bullock, Rich Youmans and others have contributed a lot to enrich the haibun literature in English. The journal ‘American Haibun and Haiga (AHH)’ was published in 2000 and was renamed ‘Contemporary Haibun’ and subsequently ‘Contemporary Haibun Online’ (CHO) in 2003. Prior to AHH, Frogpond, Modern Haiku, Lynx and others use to publish a few haibun. Haibun Today, a premier journal of haibun and tanka prose, was founded in 2007 by Jeffrey Woodward.
Among many Indian poets, Dr. Angelee Deodhar contributed immensely to haibun genre. The four international anthologies (first in 2014, Journeys 2015, Journeys 2017 and Journeys 2018) edited by her are referred to as modern treatises of haibun literature.
There are three primary components of haibun: i) The prose section, ii) The verse section or haiku and iii) the title. The prose comprises wide topics such as short stories with a lighter tone, biographical episodes, travel writing, conversations, prose-poems, diaries etc. The haiku associated with the prose is the cornerstone of this genre and needs to be imaginative and meaningful with a creative twist of fulfillment rather than a narrative continuation of prose. J. Marcus Weekley says, “I think it's important to note how haibun self-consciously juxtaposes the poetic and the prosaic on the page (or screen) via the verse of the haiku and the prose in sentence form (broken up by the end of the page or screen or by the return key). I believe it's integral that haibun include verse and prose on the page; that's what makes the genre itself, otherwise, it’s prose poetry or flash fiction, not haibun.”
Professor Nobuyaki Yuasa, in the introduction to his classic translation of Basho’s Narrow Road, maintains that “the interaction between haiku poetry and haiku prose is haibun’s greatest merit ...The relationship is like that between the moon and the earth: each makes the other more beautiful.” One can experience the aesthetic blend of prose and poetry in the opening paragraph of Bashô’s ‘Oku no Hosomichi’:
Moon and sun are passing figures of countless generations, and years coming or going wanderers too. Drifting life away on a boat or meeting age leading a horse by the mouth, each day is a journey and the journey itself home. Amongst those of old were many that perished upon the journey. So — when was it — I, drawn like blown cloud, couldn’t stop dreaming of roaming, roving the coast up and down, back at the hut last fall by the river side, sweeping cobwebs off, a year gone and misty skies of spring returning, yearning to go over the Shirakawa Barrier, possessed by the wanderlust, at wits’ end, beckoned by Dôsojin, hardly able to keep my hand to anything, mending a rip in my momohiki, replacing the cords in my kasa, shins no sooner burnt with moxa than the moon at Matsushima rose to mind and how, my former dwelling passed on to someone else on moving to Sampû’s summer house,
the grass door too
a doll’s house
(from the eight omote) set on a post of the hut.
Translated by Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu
(Back Roads to Far Towns, 1968)
The prose section of haibun constitutes a flash expression about nature, daily life, childhood memories, travel writing, diaries and personal experience in the form of concrete language with simple vocabulary. Professor Imamura Takeshi feels, “A haibun is a short prose piece … [that combines] feeling and emotion derived from a deep observation of nature and human life, in an attempt to fuse elegance with the commonplace.” Generally, prose writing is characterized by a sparse and haikai form (link and internal comparison style) with objectivity. The style of writing is lucid and musical, occasionally with abbreviated syntax with poetic use of sentence fragments, and having subtle allusion. The prose can be short (200-300 words) or longer interspersed with more than one haiku in between or one haiku at the end. Haibun can be written in the present tense, first person singular, plural or even third person to describe the happenings as of now, even if it is referred to from past events. However, a combination of the past tense can be used depending on the context. Philosophical content, unnecessary sentimentality, or loaded with flat passages, over-narrations and intellectualisation can be avoided. The emotional context if at all to be supplemented is to be along with literary imagery rather than mere narration. Instead of a monotonous description, one needs to espouse the art of infusion of poetic waves with rich imagery.
The prose should be concrete, elusive, economical, poetic and playful in its flow. It is always wise to maintain the art of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’. Instead of describing the sun, rain, or the cause, and effect of the rainbow, it is desired to enliven the reader with the joy of the image of the rainbow. One would appreciate what Ken Jones remarks, “ …in an effective haibun what is most significant is what is left unsaid or darkly suggested, hanging in the air as ambiguity, allusiveness and maybe even paradox.”
Often poets write very short prose of one line to a few lines only with deep effectiveness and ending with a haiku. Jim Kacian has introduced ‘One-bun’ with one-line prose ending with a one-liner (monoku). Alan Summers, following this idea, introduced ‘Monobun’ with one-line prose or single-paragraph prose with 3-line haiku.
The Verse Section:
The haiku is the lifeline of the haibun. There should be a significant and sensitive linkage between prose and haiku. The haiku should not repeat as an extension of the essence of the prose. The haiku should stand out in prominence, beyond the common perspective of the narration of the text but at the same time complement in an allusive way. It needs to impart a twist to the prose part in an imaginative way. After reading the prose section, the haiku needs to render the readers the poetic spell and climactic sense of the literary piece. This delicate balance render the haibun its beauty and idiosyncratic in the literary sense. Replying in an interview with Patricia Prime, Jim Kacian enumerates, “There are two critical ways I believe it must be different. First, the very best haibun create a balance between the poetry and the prose. The one does not overpower the other, the other does not outshine the one. This control of balance is critical to its literary success.
And second, the way the poetry is employed is not in the direct way found in most literature, but rather in a suggestive, oblique fashion. It may seem the poem is about some other subject altogether, but in the hands of the very best practitioners, the reader will discover not only the thread that connects the two parts, but that it is an essential thread, connecting in both directions, providing meaning to both elements. This subtle linking is critical to the work’s success within the genre; that is, as haibun.”
It is better to avoid repetition of the word, phrase or image both in the prose section and haiku and not to use repeated words in the title as well. There should be a proper juxtaposition between prose and haiku with the distinct art of “link and shift” like the braided river descending from the hill and meandering through the valley and culminating in the ocean.
Generally, a paragraph with an insightful haiku at the end constitutes a simple haibun. However, more than one haiku can be interspersed within a long prose section with a sense of literary coherency. Often the haibun starts with a haiku instead of a prose paragraph. It is said ‘inverted haibun.’ Many poets write monoku in place of haiku at the end. There are sparse instances where haibun is written in typical haikai style without haiku.
The haibun generally contains a title. The title has its immense importance as it serves as the lighthouse of the genre. The title could be something related to the content of the haibun. Ray Rasmussen classified the title as ‘Denotative’ i.e., words or phrases having a direct and obvious context for the prose and haiku, and ‘Connotative’ as a title of imaginative and creative nature. A suitable title can be borrowed from memorable lines by renowned poets or writers with a note of the relevant source.
Roberta Beary says, “In haibun, the wrong title is like a wrong number. It makes the reader want to hang up the phone. A haibun’s title should be strong enough to draw the reader into the prose and make the reader want more. Let the title be a link to the prose and the haiku, not give away the rest of the piece. After reading the entire haibun, the reader should be able to look at the title and see more than one meaning.”
Synthesis and Experimentation
The magical spark of haibun lies in the subtle symbiosis of the prose and haiku. It goes without saying that the title is the guiding sign of remembrance of the literary piece. Ken Jones says, “The whole imaginative experience can be skillfully ratcheted up, with the haiku in turn powering up the prose. This is the distinctive and unique power of haibun as a literary genre.”
Analogous to the juxtaposition in haiku, the art of leaps and links of prose and haiku is the cornerstone of the literary art of haibun. In the end, the amalgamation of both prose and haiku needs to arrive at a level so as to create imaginative resonance in the mind of the readers. It is essential that the wholeness of haibun remain an implied form as Donald Hall defines poetry as “the unsayable said” i.e, unstated can be conveyed. Makoto Ueda says, “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…”
Ray Rasmussen says, “In my view, when we read prose, our brain functions in a story listening mode learned through reading prose stories throughout our lives. But haiku requires a different reading mode. The writer is offering two brief images and asking us a) to enjoy the phrasing of each; b) to imagine the relationship between the images; and, c) to consider the relationship between the prose and poem. In short, the haiku is like a Koan, inviting participation through contemplation.”
Haibun can be a simple one with one paragraph and one haiku at the end. Depending on the relative placement of verse with respect to the prose section, haibun can be classified as a prose envelope (haibun starts with a prose paragraph followed by haiku and finally followed by a prose paragraph), verse envelope (starts with a haiku followed by prose and ending with a haiku) or can be alternating with prose and verse elements. In such a complex association of the two different elements, it is prudent to maintain the poetic sentiment, tonal quality and rhythm with internal comparisons. There are some examples of writing haiku sequence within the haibun. Sometimes the usages of an epigraph or short quotation at the beginning of the haibun have been observed. One also can quote the lines of a poem written by the other poet or word phrase within the text depending on the due importance or reference. This adds a special relevance to the prose section and to the haibun at large.
Over the years, poets attempted some experiments in haibun composition. A few examples of haibun, without normative haiku, have also been written. Also, occasional experiments have been made in haibun writing portraying the prose component in versification style with line-breaks and a haiku at the end (Ex. Shloka Shankar’s “The Twins”, Haibun Today, Vol. 13, No.3, September 2019). http://haibuntoday.com/ht133/H_Shankar_TheTwins.html
Some poets, instead of a normative 3-line haiku at the end, attempt to split the lines of haiku and interspersed between prose paragraphs with the 3rd line of haiku at the end. It is termed as ‘Braided Haibun’. (https://contemporaryhaibunonline.com/cho-18-2-table-of-contents/plaiting-poem-prose-by-rich-youmans/.)
There have been some publications of beautiful collaborative linked haibun. One of the interesting of this kind is “The Horizon’s Curve” by Lew Watts & Rich Youmans. It is written in an “open” style with each haiku serving as both a cap to one haibun and a springboard into the next by exhibiting the art of link and shift.
Another excellent presentation is the linked form of haibun “Her Dance Card Full” by Terri L. French & Jane Reichhold written based on a traditional kasen renku format (originally appeared in the October 2013 Lynx: A Journal for Linking Poets (Vol. 28, No. 3). (https://contemporaryhaibunonline.com/cho-16-3/terri-l-french-jane-reichhold-her-dance-card-full/)
Interestingly, Ray Rasmussen experimented with modeling the work of other writers, and poets by borrowing and adopting the structure to write haibun with his own content and concept.
It is pertinent to know that evidence of illustrative haibun with brush paintings goes back to the time of the 18th century (Kurita Chodō's haibun Tsukiyo soshi, Sketches of Moonlit Nights). Like ekphrastic tanka prose (prose and tanka poem), a haibun with an image is known as Haibunga. The Graphic Haibun (combination of image and text) by Linda Papanicolaou are some of the most beautiful creations in haibun literature.
It is pertinent to revisit what Ken Jones has said in his Haibun: an introduction, “The essential feature is the interplay of haiku and prose. As with haiku, the ‘haibun prose’ should be concrete and economical, free from abstraction, crisp, light handed and rich in imagery. The haiku serves either to intensify the feeling conveyed by the prose or to take the reader a step beyond it. Either way it provides some kind of shift in the flow of the prose.”
Instead of a simple narration, there has to be a thematic literary value addition to the genre so as to stand out as an independent poetic entity with creative exploration. There needs to be a flow of honest poetic talent embedded in its wholeness. Also, it would be better to experiment with the prose passages sort of impressionistic essays with verses of poetic prominence to render a distinction to the genre. More socio-cultural issues, historical aspects and scientific-based literary context can be included in contemporary haibun literature. The haibun is to be culminated in a way to allow the reader to paint his own interpretation from the sprinkled aroma and quest the garden which is not in his vicinity.
I feel, the prose is the flower, haiku is the fragrance and the title stands for the flower stick. Reading through the haibun, let the reader enjoy the poetic beauty of hide-and-seek of the moon with the sailing clouds. (Source: Editor’s Guide to Haibun, Under the Basho, Pravat Kumar Padhy).
The following are some haibun for the readers’ pleasure:
By Angalee Deodhar
Predawn dark . . . unable to sleep, I open the door and step out on to the lawn, look around the potted plants and suddenly see one pure white flower in full bloom. I marvel at its perfection and touch its petals gently . . . then I come inside and read about it. I go outside again and photograph it to send it by email to a friend half way across the world . . . .
that relationship once more—
one frayed thread
Author's Note: The white hibiscus a perennial with healing properties is a symbol of divinity, innocence, purity and royal beauty. In Japanese hanakotoba, the hibiscus means "gentle" and it can be given to more or less anyone simply as a nice present, there are no strong emotions or questions of relationships attached to it.
(Publication Credit: Haibun Today, Vol. 8, No.1, March 2014)
To Have or Have Not
By Pravat Kumar Padhy
To my surprise, yesterday I met a college friend without his usual moustache and felt as if he was a stranger. I greeted him fondly and we didn't discuss his reasons for shaving it off. And I wondered, should I follow suit? After a bit of research, I learned that it has been a fashion of late to not wear a moustache. Indeed, college students seem to be letting their faces be as natural as a newborn's – neither beard nor moustache. I read about the historical, socio-psychological and socio-religious aspects related to facial hair.
Moustaches are thought to represent the masculinity and aggressive posture of man. Consider how the twisted up moustaches of the 18th- century Hungarian hussar cavalry units contribute to their fierce demeanors. On the other hand, recent styles tended to be worn by prominent personalities of different fields – politics, films, science, art, and literature. Thus they might represent warmth or attractiveness. I’ve had my moustache from an early age. With the passage of time, it slowly changed colour to white. In recent years, I've applied hair dye in an attempt to keep a more youthful look.
coin toss –
heads, a new me
in the mirror
Note: To Have or Have Not is the title of Ernest Hemingway's 1937 novel.
Publication Credit: Haibun Today, vol. 13 No.1 March 2019 (Ed. Ray Rasmussen)
The Emojis Speak
By Pravat Kumar Padhy
Splash of New Year in the e-mail, the marriage invitation on WhatsApp, bursting balloons by the memes, and lighting candles on the birthday celebration. Grandparents collect "thumbs-up" signs. It looks like everything functions in the virtual world, until the sudden flash of an RIP.
all that I miss
Publication Credit: Contemporary Haibun Online, Issue 17.2 August 2021 (Ed. Rich Youmans)
By Pravat Kumar Padhy
I merely collect dust, slippery mud, crushed leaves, and wilted flowers as everyone rubs his shoes on me. Early morning, the sweeper mercilessly thrashes me on the floor.
the crowded road leads
to the destination
I prefer to remain calm and quiet. The street dog takes a long look at me when I render him a little bit of comfort of warmth in the winter night.
Pravat Kumar Padhy is an awarded Indian English Poet, haikuist and essayist. He has obtained his Master of Science and a Ph.D from Indian Institute of Technology, ISM Dhanbad. His Japanese short form of poetry has been widely published and anthologized. “How Beautiful”, a poem written by him, is included in the Undergraduate English Curriculum at the university level. His haiku have been included in the school curriculum on the haiku project of ‘The New Trier High School’, Chicago. Pravat’s haiku are featured at “Haiku Wall”, Historic Liberty Theatre Gallery in Bend, Oregon and Mann Library, Cornell University. USA. His tanka is included in “Kudo Resource Guide”, University of California, Berkeley. His tanka has been put on rendition in the Musical Drama Performance, ‘Coming Home’, The International Opera Through Art Songs, Toronto, Canada. Pravat’s haiku and tanka have been featured in “Viewing Stone Association of North America” (VSANA). Pravat is one of the International Jury Panel Members of ‘The Haiku Foundation Touchstone Awards’and is the Haibun Editor of the journal, ‘Under the Basho’.