Writing and Enjoying Haibun
By Mary Mageau
Many Japanese verse forms have
found their way to the West. First came the lyrical three line haiku,
and now a close relative, the expressive five line tanka has arrived.
Although these verse forms are 1,300 years old, haiku and tanka can
express ideas and feelings surprisingly relevant to the way we think
and feel today. Haibun is another verse form making strong inroads into
the writings of contemporary poets. It combines both prose and verse
within the same work. The Japanese poet monk, Matsuo Basho, has been
credited with creating the original haibun genre.
Basho was born into the
Japanese nobility in Iga-ueno near Kyoto in 1644. He began to compose
verse while studying as a companion to the son of a local lord, and
continued to write when he moved to Edo (now Tokyo) in 1667. When his
work became influenced by Zen Buddhism, Basho chose to live a life of
simplicity as a monk. In his later years, travel and the quiet
observance of nature defined him as he set off on his 1,000 mile
pilgrimage, travelling all over Japan on horseback or on foot.
During the spring of his 46th
year Basho composed his greatest collection of haibun poetry, ‘The
Narrow Road to the Deep North.’ Through the poetry we experience the
changing seasons, the smell of rain, the beauty of a waterfall and the
brightness of the moon - all noted in elegant prose and luminous haiku.
It was through nature, that Basho sensed the mysteries of the universe
in the transient world around him. He believed that everything we
needed to know about life could be learned from observing and
As Basho’s writings focused on
his travels, the concept of ‘the journey’ is fundamental to haibun.
Many contemporary writers include the idea of an emotional or spiritual
journey by presenting special happenings in a person’s life. The human
journey of living in urban settings is also part of contemporary
haibun. And while this mixture of prose and poetry seems foreign
to our Western concepts of literature, it has always been common
throughout the east.
The rules for constructing a
haibun are simple. Every haibun must begin with a title. Haibun prose
is composed of terse, descriptive paragraphs, written in the first
person singular. The text unfolds in the present moment, as though the
experience is occurring now rather than yesterday or some time ago. In
keeping with the simplicity of the accompanying haiku or tanka poem,
all excessive words should be pared down or deleted. Nothing must ever
The poetry never attempts to
repeat, quote or explain the prose. Instead, the poetry reflects some
aspect of the prose by introducing a different step in the narrative
through a microburst of detail. Thus the poetry is a sort of
juxtaposition - seemingly different yet somehow connected. It is the
discovery of this link between the prose and the poetry that offers one
of the great delights of the haibun form. The subtle twist provided by
an elegantly envisaged link, adds much pleasure to our reading and
Some Common Forms of Modern Haibun
1. The basic unit of composition – one paragraph and one poem
We guide our canoe along the
shores of beautiful Lake Esquagama. It is nine o’clock at night on this
evening of the summer solstice. As the sun begins to dim the lake
becomes still as glass. Along the shore, forests of birch are reflected
in its mirrored surface, their ghostly white trunks disappearing into a
green canopy. The only sound is a splash when our bow slices the water.
We stop to rest the paddles across our knees, enjoying the peace. Small
droplets from our wet blades create ever widening circular pools.
Moving on, closer to the fading shore, we savour these moments.
as a feather
on the breeze
the distant call
of a loon
2. The prose envelope - prose, then poem, then prose
Echoes of Autumn
I walk quietly in the late afternoon chill, birdsong silent, foliage deepened into shade, a rim of orange over darkening hills.
through soft mist
the repeated call
of one crow
Reaching the gate then
crossing the threshold I breathe the scent of slow cooking, the last
embers of a fire, red wine poured into gleaming crystal, the table -
set for two …
3. Poem then prose
(Rather than begin with a
single tanka, I wrote a tanka set or sequence, followed by the prose.
In contemporary haibun writing, the poems are occasionally presented in
couplets or in longer groups).
The Road to Longreach
the coastal fringe
of green and blue
behind the gateway
to the outback
and cotton stubble
in the autumn sun
as hawks patrol above
faces to the sky
the last blaze of colour
in the dryland’s
of the rural strip
brick red, burnt ochre
of the open range
and further out -
in orange dust
a single cornstalk
displays its tassel
Days pass as we move
through the desolate landscape, carved into two parts by the road we
travel on, a continual ribbon drawing us straight ahead into its
vanishing point, where only spinifex grass and saltbush lies between us
and our destination.
4. The verse envelope – poem, prose, then poem
covers the window
Ice shapes resembling small
fir trees stretch across the glass, while delicate snow flowers sparkle
around them. Lost in its beauty I move through this crystal garden as
my warm fingers trace up and down, leaving a smudged pathway.
Mother’s voice interrupts, ‘Susan, come away from that cold window and get dressed or the school bus will leave without you!’
burning hoop pine
scent of a warm kitchen
oatmeal with brown sugar
5. Alternating prose and verse elements
I climb round and round close
to the outside wall, to avoid the railing where the stair treads narrow
about their central post. A semi-circular platform rests high above.
Its glass windows provide a sweeping view. Counting the last few steps
I finally reach the top of the Moreton Bay Lighthouse, where I gaze in
awe at the ocean below.
the rising sun
an endless pathway
of molten gold
Outside the lighthouse lamp is
rotating. I disengage it as there is no need for its warning light. Now
the bold red and white stripes of the lighthouse itself will become the
beacon. I study the turbulence of the deep waters churning the rocky
shore below. The subtle changes in the wind, waves and tides are
entered in my log book - these brief markers of the ever transforming
seascape that surrounds me.
a foot print shelters
one tiny crab
The internet is a great resource for reading haibun online. To access several fine sites click on the links below:
In order to avoid copyright
clearances and permission requests, I have used my own haibun poems as
examples of the haibun forms.
Visit my Amazon author page at: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B004X4DOPM
Copyright © 2011 by Mary Mageau: firstname.lastname@example.org