Writing and Enjoying Haibun

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 appreciating nature.

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.

Writing Haibun

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 be overstated.

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 listening.

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

wheat, sorghum
and cotton stubble
in the autumn sun
as hawks patrol above

faces to the sky
the last blaze of colour
in the dryland’s
barren outlook

brown soil
of the rural strip
surrenders to
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

Winter Magic
silver light
thick hoar-frost
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

The Sentinel
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.

ebb tide
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
and my blog Nature as Art and Inspiration
Copyright – 2011 by Mary Mageau: km3highnote@bigpond.com