Poetry is the revelation of a feeling that the poet believes to be interior and personal which the reader recognizes as his own.” ~Salvatore Quasimodo
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 The Narrow Road to the Deep North about the demise of the Fujiwara clan. I chose it because as Quasimodo suggests, Bashō expressed a feeling in this piece that I recognized as my own in recent travels in the Southwest United States. I suggest that you read “Hiraizumi” prior to reading this commentary so that you can more easily understand my points below and I think it pays first form your own impressions before reading mine. If you wish to do so, go here to open a second window.
There are several keys to understanding Bashō’s success in establishing haibun as a serious form of Japanese literature. The first is the amount and level of descriptive (aka “show”) detail – what might be called ‘reportage’ – that provides a context for the passage that follow. Examples include:
“The ruins of the main gate greeted my eyes a mile before I came upon Lord Hidehira’s mansion, which had been utterly reduced to rice-paddies . . .”
“The ruined house of Lord Yasuhira was located to the north of the barrier-gate of Koromogaseki, thus blocking the entrance from the Nambu area and forming a protection against barbarous intruders from the north.”
Of course, descriptive detail without some measure of lyrical phrasing would be monotonous. Lyrical passages that touched me included:
“It was here that the glory of three generations of the Fujiwara family passed away like a snatch of empty dream,”
“When a country is defeated, there remain only mountains and rivers, and on a ruined castle in spring only grasses thrive.”
And haibun prose allows a third key element ― some telling as well as showing:
“I sat down on my hat and wept bitterly till I almost forgot time.”
A fourth element is Bashō’s closing haiku which can be viewed both as a succinct summary of his feelings, but also as a more general poetic expression about that most serious human foible called “war.” As with many of the haiku in Narrow Road, Basho’s haiku step out to a new level of insight and lyricism:
all that remains
of soldiers’ dreams
~ Bashō (trans. L. Stryk)
Putting it all together, what is haibun according to my take on Bashō’s haibun?
• Rich descriptive detail that sets the stage
• Poetic phrasings that stir the reader
• A mix of showing and telling
• A haiku that steps out from the prose and takes readers to a new level of feeling and insight
• An overall succinctness that allows us to enter and leave a scene in a short reading
While these are the nuts and bolts of haibun, they don’t explain the whole. Haibun is a form of storytelling and these nuts and bolts have to be put together in a way that captivates the reader. As such, haibun prose goes well beyond a typical account of an outing which as Davie Cobb has put it:
“. . . is often as disorganized and unrooted in thematic content as a set of holiday snaps.”
Haibun also goes far deeper in its storyline theme than the “go here, see this, eat that, pay this much” type of travel writing that one finds in newspapers and magazines. Of course, good travel writing can also be literary. Nor is haibun mere journalism. As Cobb has put it,
“I view the haibun writer as a literary artist, someone who has high regard for authenticity, but not afraid to bend facts when it suits, setting poetic truth above a factual narrative, and free to rearrange chronology.”
Cobb further reports that according to Yuasa, Bashō, did indeed “take such liberty as to change the natural course of events, or even invent fictitious events.”
With his long term perspective on the English-language haibun scene, Ken Jones states:
“The haibun has come a long way in recent years. Bald narrations of country walks, rendered in flat, deadpan prose, and enlivened only by their haiku (“diamonds in mud banks”) are now mercifully few—though still occasionally published.”
Summing up, “Hiraizumi” is a good story with the key compositional elements of haibun to support it. Bashō’s piece takes the reader into the Japan of several centuries ago, into the cultural-historical sensibilities of its people, and into the poetic style of expression that he made famous and that instructs us today, as writers. It is an eloquent statement about the transient nature of our lives and the futility, yet omnipresence, of war.
~ end ~
Why I write commentaries
I think it useful for writers and readers to do close readings of the work of our many Japanese and contemporary haibun exemplars. Doing so has enabled me to more closely understand “how” Basho’s writing works as well as simply enjoying it at a deeper level as a reader.
Salvatore Quasimodo, poet and literary critic, was the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1959.
David Cobb, “A Few Timely Heresies about English Haibun,” Blithe Spirit 10:3 September 2000 and reprinted in Haibun Today 5:4 December 2011.
Ken Jones, “Writing Reality: Fictional Haibun Stories,” Contemporary Haibun Online 3:3, Sept 2007.
My haibun, “Slickhorn Canyon,” is about a ruins left behind by the Southwest’s Ancestral Puebloans circa 1000 AD. I visited them and then wrote a haibun modelled on Bashō’s “Hiraizumi.” It was published in Haibun Today 5:4 December 2011. I think it’s worthwhile for writers at every level to occasionally model the work of an exemplar, but of course, with one’s own content and proper attributions.
This Commentary on Basho’s “Hiraizumi” has been slightly revised. It was first published in A Hundred Gourds, 1:1 September 2011.
For an interesting look at the historic cultural site at Hiraizumi, Japan and information about the historical context, visit Donny Kimball’s The Tragedy of Hiraizumi blog.