Winchester, VA, USA
A Brief Overview of the Origins of Haibun in English
Excerpts from the Introduction to American Haibun and Haiga, Volume 1
Basho’s Oko-no-Hosomichi (Narrow Path to the Interior), the world literary classic and most important example of haibun, appears at the end of the seventeenth century. Kobayashi Issa’s Oraga Haru (My Spring), the second most well-known haibun, appears at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Now, at the end of the twentieth century, haibun is apparently not a viable form in Japan, the culture of its birth. But, not so strangely, haibun is experiencing a renaissance in twentieth-century America and, indeed, in other countries. In the late 1950s experimentation with haibun-like form began with Gary Snyder’s travel diaries and Jack Kerouac’s fiction. Jack Cain’s “Paris,” the first formal-looking haibun to be published in the Americas, appeared in 1964 in the journal Volume 63. Bob Spiess’ Five Caribbean Haibun, the first chapbook-length American haibun, appeared in 1972, followed by Paul F. Schmidt’s Temple Reflections in 1980. In the ’80s and ’90s haibun appeared more frequently in haiku journals, and book-length experimentation continued in America, including work like John Ashbery’s Haibun (1990). Other cultures have also produced interesting examples, with book-length works such as New Zealander, now American resident, Richard von Sturmer’s A Network of Dissolving Threads (1991), Croatian Vladimir Devidé’s Haibun, Words & Pictures (1997), my own Six Directions: Haibun & Field Notes (1997), and Romanian Ion Codrescu’s A Foreign Guest (1999).
Haibun has come under consideration for critical attention as well. The comparative literature scholar Earl Miner published his Japanese Poetic Diaries, the singularly significant work on Japanese haibun, in 1969. In 1996 Miner published a study comparing the strategies in Basho’s Narrow Path to the Interior to those in Dr. Samuel Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, a journey taken in 1776.
A number of haikai writers have likewise responded critically and creatively to the relationship between Basho and our own Henry David Thoreau; in fact, the well-known Japanese renku master Shokan Tadashi Kondo is researching Thoreau’s relation to Japanese nature values at Harvard this year. The best of haibun speculate wisely and movingly upon our collective humanity and its place as a burgeoning sensibility that embraces and is embraced by the world of nature that surrounds us and is, in an ineffable way, our own.
We chose the works included in the inaugural volume of American Haibun & Haiga to provide not only a view of contemporary praxis, but also to create an awareness of the histories of these forms here and abroad. In all we have looked for what Bruce Ross termed, in his study of the genre Journey to the Interior: North American Versions of Haibun, the “narrative of an epiphany,” where there has been integral but non-repetitive linking between prose and haiku, an emphasis on sensibility and revelation rather than narrative and disclosure, and beyond these formal considerations, interesting content interestingly handled.
Excerpts from the Introduction to American Haibun and Haiga, Volume 2
Bruce Ross and I have both recently re-read The Tosa Diary, an early Japanese travel journal recounting a sea return of fifty-five days to Kyoto by a court nobleman. The simplicity of the prose, or rather, the effortless flow of sensibility, is most noticeable. A recent exchange with a poet concerning editing issues with his haibun also prompted the thought that most of us writing haibun suffer from issues of narrative style, particularly that we are often too prosaic in manner. Ion Codrescu’s “Toward the Mountain Temple,” a poetic journey to an ancient Chinese temple and an exploration of the aesthetics of the moment in nature, compares spiritual favorably with The Tosa Diary and Basho’s Journey to the Interior in stylistic approach. Put simply, the manner in which we tell our narrative is as important as the narrative itself, notwithstanding that a good tale is a good tale.
Compare the naive but unsentimental “Hospice” by John Crook to the postmodern tone of “Buying a Soul” by William M. Ramsey. Crook’s simply-stated emotion evokes one of life’s great challenges and mysteries. Ramsey, a product of contemporary spiritual anxiety, reminds us in a circuitous way about the unsettling malaise that colors our collective horizon. Both are forthright in their sensibility, the one reminiscent of kokoro, the Japanese word for heart, the other of the so-called “postmodern condition” of a troubled mind filtered through sentiment. In either case, in either style, the purity of the emotion touches us deeply.
Although haibun can be said to be made up of poetic prose, one should be careful to curtail one’s enthusiasm for figurative expression when such expression begins to overshadow the sentiment at the center of a given haibun. We thus might proceed to define our haibun as autobiographical prose heightened by sentiment which incorporates haiku.
The haibun in the second volume of American Haibun & Haiga are varied in their chosen approaches to the form but, as you might choose to agree, uniformly exhibit this touchstone of sentiment, even in their most demonstrative narratives. For simplicity of expression consider Yu Chang’s moving childhood memory, “Rain,” Gene Williamson’s epiphany on the persistence of natural beauty, “Home Again,” or Ken Hurm’s understated homage to love, “Mother’s Day.” For deft modern versions of travel diaries consider Gop’s Thailand exploration of the enigma of spiritual practice and human frailty, “The Monk’s Bowl,” John Martone’s presentation of deep meditation practice in Vietnam, “Bien Xu,” or Brent Partridge’s unpretentious account of travel with his mother in out-of-the-way Japan, “The Dawn Road.” For narrative focus consider Cherie Hunter Day’s adroit weaving of past and present, “The Cabinetmaker’s Wish,” Margaret Chula’s stirring ironic drama of synchronicity, “At Year’s End,” or Kenneth C. Leibman’s humorous encounter with Japanese cuisine, “Okonomiyaki.” And for a heightened meditative or measured tone consider Jesse Glass’s absorption of a Japanese monk’s spiritual example, “Unsen’s Stone,” Linda Jeannette Ward’s elegiac rumination on the Outer Banks, “Small Time,” or Gerald George’s refined exposition of ecological engagement: "Arizona.”
These haibun and those standing beside them in this second volume of American Haibun & Haiga attest to the vitality of a form so simply started in such an unaffected overture as The Tosa Diary. There is nothing but possibility and further possibility in an American and world haibun bound ever-so-lightly by the common strands of human sentiment.
The work above are taken from the introductions to the first two issues of American Haiku and Haibun, Red Moon Press.
Both volumes can be read in the archives of Contemporary Haibun Online.
The AHH and other haibun collections and anthologies can be purchases on the Red Moon Press website.