English-language Haibun

Basho (1644-1694) by Sugiyama Sampu

The term “haibun” comes from the writing of the 17th century monk Matsuo Basho who is perhaps the most famous of the Japanese Master haiku poets. His classic travel journal, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Oku No Hosomichi), was based on several months-long journeys through Japan. He called the work “haiku writing – narrative poetic prose interspersed with haiku.

English-language haibun initially emerged around 1950, but has only started to flower in the last 20 years. While Basho’s travel accounts are one approach, haibun subject matter has evolved to suit the tastes and cultures of today’s English-language readers and writers. Examples of subjects other than travel experiences include experiences in natural settings, adventures, friendship and family relationships, romantic life, urban and rural life, retirement, aging and infirmity, philosophical musings, end-of-life experiences, and even fantasies and dreams, albeit not fictional accounts.

To understand haibun, it’s useful to compare its similarities and differences to flash fiction, short stories and prose poetry:

1. Most published haibun contain three basic elements: title, prose and haiku. There may be one or more haiku appearing in different places. The most common pattern, however, is one haiku at the end of the prose passages. For the most part, short stories and flash fiction don’t include poetry or haiku.

2. Haibun, Flash Fiction and Prose Poetry are similar in word count, Most can be easily read in a few minutes, while most short stories tend to be much longer.

3. Haibun storylines read as personal accounts and as plausibly true. Short stories and flash fiction read as fictional, that is, writing with made up characters and storylines. That said, when I read good fiction, the characters and situations seem real to me. It is commonly assumed that the short story and flash fiction storylines and characters are derived from the writer’s experiences. In contrast, through its syntax, haibun writing tends to clearly indicate that the storyline is about the writer’s experiences. However, some haibun poets do use fictional storylines written to read as if they are derived from real experiences.

4. As with most writing genres, haibun writers embellish their stories, exaggerating certain aspects, inventing some things, leaving out others and polishing the language in the service of providing good reading and helping the reader into an experience that is akin to the writer’s. The aim is to convey a sense of the lived events by providing enticing prose. But unlike some writing in the other forms, the embellishments aren’t stretched so as to become unrealistic or read like fiction.

5. Many haibun tell as story as if it’s happening in the present by employing first person, present tense. However, as with other genres, haibun poets also write pieces in the past tense or use a mix of past and present, and some use second or third person.

6. Haibun tend to be of two types. Narrative haibun has prose that focuses heavily on description of events with few, if any, poetic devices such as similes, metaphors, allusions, alliteration or repetition. Literary haibun prose tends to make more use of poetic flourishes and thus the prose passages more closely resemble prose poetry.

7. To compose a successful haibun, the writer has to master three distinct forms: title, prose and haiku and their interrelationships, aka the links between the three elements. This is not to say that writing effective prose in other genres is not without its challenges.

8. The linking of prose and haiku involves several considerations. The haiku phrases are typically shift away from the prose passages, and aren’t simply a repetition or easily folded into the prose. Yet the haiku is connected (linked) to the prose. A haiku can add a new dimension to the storyline or serve to summarize a key feeling or sentiment or it might serve as a metaphor for the storyline.  In general, the link (relationship between prose and haiku) is neither overly obvious nor overly oblique.

9. English-language haiku typically contain two distinct phrases that work together to create a poetic spark and display a moment of time in the poet’s life. There is an emphasis on showing, rather than telling. Today’s haiku generally average about 13 syllables, just long enough to be said in one breath. This differs from an initial misunderstanding of Japanese haiku which have 17 Japanese-language sound units and which are not the same in length as English–language syllables. Few of today’s published haiku follow a 5-7-5 syllable pattern and haiku composition has become a kind of free verse.

10. A short story engages the reader’s mind in following the plot on both mental and emotional levels. In haibun, there is a similar following of storyline until a haiku is reached, causing a shift in the reader’s mind from simply reading a story to a sensing the writer’s haiku moment and thinking about its connection the story. In a way, the haiku works the way a metaphor does in a prose passage. It’s akin to looking at a photograph accompanying an essay and musing about its connection to the contents.

Note: I’ve used modifiers like ‘most’ and ‘typical’ to convey the fact that today’s haibun show wide variation. Others will naturally disagree with one or more of the above pronouncements. So rather than treating them as written in stone or thinking of the author as woolly-headed, it’s best to consider them as written in putty, as food for thought.

Example: While you can find numerous examples of haibun in online sites such as Contemporary Haibun Online, I’ll provide one of my published haibun as an example.

Untamed River

by Ray Rasmussen

Mallard by Alan D. Wilson, Wikipedia Commons, naturespicsonline.com.

Overcast sky, late March. A small crowd lines the banks of the North Saskatchewan River to watch the ice breaking up. Cheers as it cracks and buckles and large blocks break free. Some push against the bank. Brown earth, gouged, tumbles into the frigid waters.

Mid-river, a female mallard preens on a large sheet of ice. She’s but a spot of brown, mottled like the dry sedge grasses that will provide cover for her brood under the soon-to-come spring sun.

My wife turns to me. “Pair bonding takes place in November. Where’s her mate?”

“Do something, Lady Duck,” I call out. “If you just sit there, you’ll end up in Lake Winnipeg. Go find your drake.”

My wife laughs. “Maybe she’s the new, emancipated lady duck. She’s glimpsed of the trials of raising ducklings in a tooth-and-claw world of foxes, coyotes, snapping turtles and peregrine falcons.”

Home after our walk. As we warm ourselves by the fire, I look up at a photo of our two daughters and muse about the one who has been drifting in a world of teen drugs and sex.

street teen
no smile as she calls out
“spare change?” 

~ end ~


The image of Basho (1644-1694) by Sugiyama Sampu was taken from the comprehensive “Basho” website Terebess Asia Online which contains comprehensive information about the writing and life of Matsuo Basho.

This haibun will appear in the soon-to-appear, new WordPress version of Contemporary Haibun Online.

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