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Haibun Exercise

Haibun Exercise

The haibun is a literary form dating back to 17th century Japan. Bashō is one of the earliest recorded practitioners, writing haibun as travel accounts, the most famous example of which are from his book Oku no Hosomichi, or Narrow Road to the Interior. More than a tourist account, the spiritual dimension of this particular journey is critical.

Generally, haibun includes one or more paragraphs of prose followed by a haiku, though there are no hard and fast rules about the order. In English, as Andrew Schelling points out below, the best practitioners avoid making the poetry an attempt at haiku unless they have gained a level of mastery. The poem ought to be short and the prose, poetic.

As Bashō discovered, the prose narrative is an excellent way to keep a journal practice going while on the road, as well as keeping your hand in your poetry practice. In fact, the sense of discovery which often accompanies travel can be a wonderful asset to the haibun writing process, especially if one can focus on the luminous details of the place one is visiting. From Bashō[1]:

In the shade of a huge chestnut at the edge of a town, a monk made his hermitage at a refuge from the world. Saigyō’s poem about gathering chestnuts deep in the mountains refers to such a place. I wrote on a slip of paper: The Chinese character for chestnut means “west tree,” alluding to the Western Paradise of Amida Buddha; the priest Gyōki, all his life, used chestnut for his walking stick and for the posts of his home.

Near the eaves
the chestnut blooms:
almost no one sees

Of course chestnut trees have a similar kind of mythology in Western culture, from inclusion in popular song (April in Paris/Chestnuts in Blossom, Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, &c.), as well as other sources. And in some cultures the West connotes the land of the ancestors. Bashō’s nod to Saigyo gives this piece a sense of poetic lineage as well as a sense of history. How visceral the specific tree, the walking stick and posts made from it, the slip of paper he wrote on, and the other details of the poem. In other haibun in Narrow Road, Bashō mentions the particular day, as in: The first day of the fourth moon, as well as place names which ground the poems in another way.

Similarly, a sense of place, and even more specifically, a bioregional commitment to life in a particular place, (Boulder, Colorado and its environs), is one of the lessons poet Andrew Schelling has taken from his masters but reinvented in his own manner, a post-modern one, or whatever is beyond that era. (He once semi-jokingly referred to Post-Coyote Poetry.) From his book Old Tale Road, there are several contemporary English (or more specifically American) haibun, such as:

Haibun the Migration of Haibun

Haibun is the Japanese literary form that mixes terse prose with
compressed verse. Bun stands for prose, hai is for haiku. I cannot explain why the embedded verse does not simply ornament the narrative. Nor, dear Kyle, can I answer why peaks in Colorado swarm with bugs. Bugs? Flies anyhow. Curiously striped ocher & black this one hangs in a blur of wings above a lichen patch. One unforeseen route haibun took is Bear Peak via Fern Canyon. Relentless. This happened fifty years ago after haiku went into Japanese internment camps in Utah. Below, on Federal Land sits the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a post-mod edifice that bristles with satellite dishes. Haibun arrived here the day the Dalai Lama visited. You could squint through stormy air to the lichensize patch of lawn with its white tent. Thunder cracked through Fern Canyon pinnacles that day.

A falcon in the aether. What did the Dalai Lama say?
You must strive to live
up to the name of the great
Pandit Naropa–

Seventeen syllables.

Do the planet’s precise messages all come encrypted in seventeen syllables? If Donald Rumsfeld had time, he told the Times, he’d sit down and figure out what he meant by the phrase, since it was vital for the war with Iraq. Sort of like salmon fishing techniques, haibun arrived along the Pacific Rim. Then drifted inland. Rogue translators and barrels of oil got to the Front Range about the same time. Today ranks of cumulous clouds hang stationary over Indian Peaks. The prose is not there to explain the verse. The Secretary of Defense is not there to explain the prose.

“For the great motif of integrating many tongues into
one true language is at work.”

So this haibun is also an essay, a bit of bioregionalism, a spiritual and political poem all in one. Notice how Andrew uses disjunction to make the prose more poetic. Simply breaking up prose into lines is one of the great failings of the free verse era (1912-?) Schelling introduces this guy name Kyle, as an aside, but we never learn who he is. More disjunction when Donald Rumsfeld pops up. One word sentences add to the cryptic effect. Abbreviations such as post-mod and new words like lichensize aid the aerodynamic nature of the prose. And did you catch the assonance in the phrase bristles with satellite dishes. Notice also how the two poetry segments in this piece are both found bits of language.

The history, combined with the place names come straight out of an impulse deeper than a sense of place. This is the work of someone who understands the inherent nature of bioregionalism, or the notion of living in systems that are defined by nature, often watersheds, rather than adherence to an economic model dependent on consumer culture and its lack of environmental ethos.

If you are not traveling and want to try this form, like any good poem, start with something that has energy for you. With Schelling, energy comes from the understanding of where he fits into the world’s poetic lineage (an Eastern/ Buddhist/Animist spiritual sensibility), the quest for justice (as evidenced by the reference to the WWII U.S. Concentration Camps), and the link between unskillful use of language (language as obfuscation) and the politics of torture, which Rumsfeld represents.

After a paragraph or two of prose, pick out an essential image related to the text, but in a way that’s not readily apparent, or comes at a different angle. This form has not had a long period of use in American, so you’re free to take it where you want it to go. Like pornography, we’ll know it as a good poem if we see it, though it may be hard to define, in advance, what makes it good. Other tips below.


Andrew Schelling e-mail 6.4.09

Quick tips Haibun:

Make prose compressed, disjunct, and play at the edge of narrative,

don’t go into the center of it.

Make the poems weird, ie. so they don’t sound too much like haiku.

Poems can be any length, no need to hold to three lines.

Poems are the heart, prose the body of the thing —

tho other way around might work just as good.

good luck,


Sam Hamill e-mail 6.9.09

About Issa. He is second only to Basho, but he is more generous than Basho–see how many others he includes–and his personal life is a tragedy non pareil. He was not, strictly speaking, Zen. But Zen breathes in his poetry. He is criticized for being sometimes sentimental; I think his critics are wrong: his emotional honesty triumphs, and the Japanese people indulge in shameless sentimental claptrap while expecting “haiku masters” to be other than shaped by their culture in one way while remaining “purely Japanese” in another.

I love Issa. I loved translating the book. He is Basho’s equal, and no one has the delight, the humor, the pure joie de vivre of Issa. I’ve written more than once about “loneliness” and “aloneness” in Zen and poets like Saigyo, Basho, & Issa and the shades and subtle tones of meaning.

So much money made
by clever temple priests
using peonies


Loneliness already
planted with each seed in
morning glory beds



Sam’s Haibun Tips:

1. Know the masters. Know them well enough to quote passages/poems that remain with you (not the same thing as memorizing a poem).

2. Know THEIR masters, including especially Tu Fu, Li Po and Po Chu-i and of course Saigyo (get LeFleur’s Awesome Nightfall)

You must know the tradition, not merely its quotables. Because:

3. Practice. It’s much more than a daily or weekly or occasional practice. It is multi-faceted in many more ways than merely combining prose and poetry in a unique way. Its practice involves mastery of… the practice of writing it again and again until you develop both a sharp critical eye (because failure raises a very high bar) and the ability to create relaxed writing. Remember: Basho was still editing Narrow Road on his deathbed.

4. Revision & Re-Vision: this is not a Charlie Olson construction–a moment caught-in-time as it were–rather it is a poetic of highly polished sensibility with the OUTward appearance of pure ease. If one is not to be a mere imitator or sycophant, one must summon new eyes and ears to EXTEND the tradition. That will be accomplished through finding a form and working at improvisation-within-form, this comes about as you perfectly well know via trying THIS and TRYING THAT and trying something ELSE before settling on something that indeed expresses, articulates, form in the musical as well as philosophical meaning of “form”. It’s like hearing Miles play “Some Day My Price Will Come” for the first time, and you recognize “the tune,” but you never imagined it could sound like that. Know the tradition, work IN the tradition, in order to work THROUGH the tradition, allowing your particular tradition shine THROUGH what you have gained from it.

5. Free yourself from expectation. What you gain from this serious and lovely practice cannot be gained in any other way. Be grateful for the experience and insight thereby gained. That practice of gratitude will inform and enlighten your work.



Haibun Today blog:

More on Schelling’s Post-Coyote Poetry here:

peN – 12:41P – 7.8.09


[1] Sam Hamill translation, Shambhala , 1991.