Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Haibun

Maria Claudia Faverio headshot by Maria Claudia Faverio

According to the Haiku Society of America (HAS), “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 site]

As we can see, the haibun is a combination of prose and haiku, a “narrative of epiphany”, as Bruce Ross called it.

It was introduced by the haiku master Basho in 1690 in a letter to a friend, that concluded with a haiku (“Genjuan no ki”, “The Hut of the Phantom Dwelling”).

Makoda Ueda names the following characteristics of the haibun:

  1. the brevity and conciseness of haiku, in which each word carries rich layers of meaning;
  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 striking imagery;
  4. the writer's detachment.

In the tradition of haiku (Basho himself spoke of “haikai no bunsho”, “writing in the style of haiku”), the present tense is used to convey a stream of sensory impressions as well as the feeling of universality and timelessness, at the same time eschewing abstractions and conceptualizations. Everyday experiences are given universal values, as in the haiku, allowing access to divine revelations, hence the epithet “narrative of epiphany”.

The haiku that accompany the prose can be of two types: haiku summarizing the prose (juxtapositions), and haiku that are not connected to the prose but rather add to it. The transition occurs in renku style. The prose itself shouldn’t be too prosaic or sentimental. Together, they provide a unified poetic expression. It is difficult to determine which comes first, as they are both of equal importance and form a unity, almost like yin and yang.

A wide variety of subjects is acceptable, from nature to travels, diary, dreams, love, death, etc. Haibun can also be written in a wide variety of styles, from the bombastic style of William M. Ramsey in his “Prayer for the Soul of a Mare” to Sally Secor’s simple, colloquial style in “A Garden Bouquet”.

Haibun are now written in all countries and in all languages, like haiku, but the USA is the country that has most experimented with the form. Bruce Ross's “Journey to the Interior: American Versions of Haibun”, published in 1998, gives deep insight into American haibun.

One of the best known haibun in English is Vincent Trippi's “Haiku Pond: A trace of the trail... and Thoreau” (1987), a meditation on Walden.

To conclude, a classical example from Basho’s “Narrow Road to the Deep North”, the “Departure”:

It was early on the morning of March the twenty-seventh that I took to the road. There was darkness lingering in the sky, and the moon was still visible, though gradually thinning away. The faint shadow of Mount Fuji and the cherry blossoms of Ueno and Yanaka were bidding me a last farewell. My friends had got together the night before, and they all came with me on the boat to keep me company for the first few miles. When we got off the boat at Senju, however, the thought of three thousand miles before me suddenly filled my heart, and neither the houses of the town nor the faces of my friends could be seen by my tearful eyes except as a vision.
The passing spring
Birds mourn,
Fishes weep
With tearful eyes.
With this poem to commemorate my departure, I walked forth on my journey, but lingering thoughts made my steps heavy. My friends stood in a line and waved good-bye as long as they could see my back.



Writers Workshop said...

Nice review of the haibun genre Maria. In particular, thanks for posting the short piece by Basho.
Your readers might also consider as links:
Contemporary Haibun Online
Simply Haiku which has a haibun section
Ray Rasmussen

Marie said...

Thank you for your kind comment and the links, Ray. Very much appreciated.