How to Read Haiku

With The Heron’s Nest Editor Fay Aoyagi and Haijin Chad Lee Robinson

Kitagawa Utamaro, circa 1790s

| Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 |

Early on in my haiku and haibun journey, editors rejected my haibun and several advised me to read haiku, saying that I’d not be able to write a good haibun until I had mastered the haiku part of haibun’s prose-haiku partnership. I had already looked at the many definitions of the two related genres (haiku and haibun), but found definitions lacking in specifics and mostly useless except as a rough guide, particularly the formulaic definitions like number of lines and syllable counts.

So I read a lot of haiku, both those of the Japanese masters and of the published works contemporary haijin and learned I simply didn’t get much out of them except that most didn’t follow the 5-7-5, 3-line, short-long-short structure learned in English classes.

And I mostly wondered why the editors picked the haiku featured in their journals. I concluded that haiku are not only difficult to write, but they are also difficult to read and understand, to “get the poetic spark,” so to speak. A problem was that I had a tendency to read them once quickly and to read too many at a time. In short, I was merely glancing at them, expecting a spark to jump out at me. I wasn’t engaging in what might be called “deep reading.”

I decided that in order to better understand haiku and thus, to be better able to write a worthy haiku and haibun, I had to first hone my haiku reading skills. In this way, I might be able to appreciate and understand why the editors selected some and not others, and particularly why they didn’t accept mine. And that’s what this three-part series is about – How to do a deep reading of haiku for better understanding of the nature of haiku.

Continue reading -> Part 1

About This Blog

Welcome. My intent is to show examples and to discuss contemporary English-language haibun (a mix of title, prose & haiku) and haiku (haibun prose’s little partner).

I will provide examples and discussions of exemplars in these genres by contemporary writers and & Japanese masters like Basho and Issa.

I’ll be drawing from my 20 plus years of writing in these genres and editing journals that publish them. I’ve helped develop and was recently or currently am editorially associated with Contemporary Haibun Online and Haibun Today.

I welcome dialogue, comments and questions, back and forth, should you care to contribute. However, this is not a place to submit your work for publication.

And as a bit of background, I live at times in a rural area near Acton, Ontario and at times in Edmonton, Alberta. My partner Nancy and I enjoy hiking in the Rockies and in the canyon country of Utah, canoeing in Algonquin Provincial Park, and bicycling in our rolling hill country which helps beat the bugs in June and July. My personal homepage is Raysweb: Photography and Haiku Poetry.

~ Ray Rasmussen

Basho’s Haibun “Hiraizumi”: A Commentary

Field at present day Hiraizumi ruins site, Japan . . . all that remains of soldiers’ dreams.

Bashō’s travel journals, purportedly the earliest examples of haibun, are accounts of his late-in-life walking journeys through Japan. They are often cited as important reading for serious students of the form. More generally, they are held up as good reading for readers who enjoy poetic prose and who want a glimpse of the spirit of a man who lived several centuries ago.

For this commentary, I’ve selected the passage “Hiraizumi” from Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North about the demise of the Fujiwara clan. The aim to to explore Basho’s use of haibun and haiku as an exemplar of Japan’s best known haiku and haibun master.

I’ve also added one of my published haibun as an example of a contemporary haibun composition.

Continue reading . . . -> Commentary

A Monk’s Journey with Basho

courtesan and monk,
we sleep under one roof together,
moon in a field of clover
~ Basho 

“A Monk’s Journey” is haibun with a mix of my prose intertwined with translations of Basho’s haiku. It was first published in the journal Simply Haiku. I present it to show how writers can work in conversation, so to speak, with the Japanese masters and other contemporary poets. . . .

Continue with the haibun and comments -> A Monk’s Journey

Billy Collins & The Writer’s Gaze

What the oven is to the baker,
and the berry-stained blouse to the dry cleaner,
so the window is to the poet.
                                         ~ Billy Collins
fall morning / a nuthatch outside my window / inside my poem

This essay-haibun is and exploration of a poem by Billy Collins, past Poet Laureate of the U.S., about how writers focus their attention.

Continue with -> “The Writer’s Gaze: A Haibun