Thursday, July 18, 2013

To the Lighthouse: "Essay-like" Haibun?!

I want the poem to ask something, and, at its best moments, I want the question to remain unanswered. I want it to be clear that answering the question is the reader's part in an implicit author-reader pact.

-- “The Swan,” Winter Hours by Mary Oliver

I was surprised to find out that Dimitar Anakiev’s “How Narrow Is THE HAIKU PATH? (Essay in the form of a haibun on perspectives of haiku)” was published in Modern Haiku (44:2, Summer 2013, pp. 164-5), whose editor rejected my haibun below under a different name (“Autumn Thoughts” for Peggy Willis Lyles who helped me to publish my first haiku) just one year ago:

Winter Thoughts
for Mary Oliver

rejection slip
a sunflower bending
to the wind

I often get editorial advice like this:

"You will notice that we veer away from authorial comment, abstract language, and the imposition of human qualities on the natural world. Instead, we choose haiku that achieve resonance through the juxtaposition of disparate images, credibly present in the same place at the same time."

Slanting sunlight through the attic window on my coffee-stained desk. Reading Basho's death poem, I can't help but wonder: if he were alive and submitted his poem under a different name, would he have been published at all?

Essential Basho…
my name will be written
in water or marble

Note: Historically speaking, Basho didn't write the formal death poem on his deathbed, but the following haiku, being his last poem recorded, is generally viewed as his poem of farewell.

sick on my journey,
only my dreams will wander
these desolate moors

(posted here on March 4, 2013; see its comment section)

The rejection email I received stated that “it reads more like an essay and is, in any event, not a good fit for Modern Haiku.”

The publication of  Dimitar Anakiev’s haibun shows the editor’s change of heart; however, the subtitle or the authorial/editorial explanation , “(Essay in the form of a haibun on perspectives of haiku),” is completely unnecessary. It’s because that historically and aesthetically speaking, haibun was developed before Basho and written in the form of short essays, prefaces or headnotes to hokku, such as Kigin’s Mountain Well (1648). Its prose style resembled that of classical prose (Shirane, p.213). Most importantly, Basho and Buson wrote “essay-like” haikbun that were engaged in the politics and poetics of haikai writing of their day.  Below are good examples for poets to study and emulate.

The first example is excerpted from Basho’s short haibun titled the "Sanseizu no san" (“ An inscription on the painting of the three masters”):

When a person fastens his mind on refinement and follows the [changes of] the four seasons, he will probably gaze at [something like] the inexhaustible grains of sand on a beach. People who expressed such feelings, and became deeply affected by such things, were the masters of classical poetry. However, it would be difficult for people today to pursue the words of the masters whose art was flourishing in the era of Bunmai, as if they were the rules of today, as if embodying the truth. The ever-changing of art [haikai] moves on with heaven and earth, and we should only value its never-ending… (Jonsson, p. 126-7) (note: The following translation is more familiar and constantly quoted in the articles:"The ever-changing nature of poetic art [fuga] changes together with heaven and earth. One respects the fact that the changes are never exhausted... ," Shirane, p.265)

The second example is Buson’s haibun, which begins with a reference to Yoshino, the mountain area near Nara prefecture, known for its cherry-blossom.

I do not follow the tradition [of Basho], who, when he hurried on the road to Yoshino, chanted “I will show you the cherry flowers, cypress hat.” I only stay at home and struggle with toils of this world. Should I do this? Should things be like that? So I think, but I fail to carry out all that I have planned earlier. In the end, even though the examples of [people] losing interest in landscape, birds and flowers are the common state of the world, I feel as if I am the only one so stupid, and I am ashamed to see others.

Cherry blossom fallen; in its own darkness – cypress hat        Yahan (Jonsson, p.122)

“Yahan” is one of Buson’s signatures. Below is the full text of Basho’s haiku quoted in the beginning of the haibun above:
Up in Yoshino, I will show you the cherry flowers – cypress hat      (Jonsson, p.122)

To conclude this post, I would like to share with you the following haiku written for poets whose poems have been rejected many times:

lust crackles
in the dry winter air
my muse and I

Note: The following is the concluding prose and haiku from Dimitar Anakiev’s haibun:

I offer here a challenge to readers: the following poems are openly satirical – are they haiku or senryu?

These bank clerks
already in the morning they are fluorescent
like firefly squid 

                                    Kaneko Tohta (trans. Kon-Nichi group)

In the Balkans
at the calling out of “rustic”
swastikas sprout

                                      Dimitar Anakiev (trans. [Jim Kacian])

the ozone hole
Flying Pope

                                      Ban’ya Natsuishi (trans. [Jim Kacian])

Updated, July 25:

Basho's longest haibun, “An Essay on the Unreal Dwelling” (“Genju-an no Ki”)

Basho's longest haibun, “An Essay on the Unreal Dwelling” (Japanese: “Genju-an no Ki”), contains about 15oo words in Japanese (Ueda, p. 113). As its title indicates, the essay tells of Basho's life at the "Unreal Dwelling/Hut" near Lake Biwa in the summer of 1690. This essay has a confessional nature, its structure is tight and well-ordered, and it "displays Basho’s prose craftsmanship at its best” (p. 119). The essay first establishes the secluded nature of his new dwelling: it's situated halfway up a mountain, deep in a wooded area where a Buddhist temple had stood there in the long gone past, and where a Shinto temple now stands in the vicinity (p119).

Then, the essay shifts its focus on Basho's life in the past ten years: Basho compares himself to " a bagworm that has lost its bag and to a snail that has left its shell" (p. 120). He thinks he has been "homeless" for years, but when coming to the shores of Lake Biwa and settling in this hut previously owned by a Buddhist monk whose name is Genju ("unreal"), he has become fond of this "unreal dwelling" (p. 120).

The main body of the essay, is rich and nuanced descriptions of Basho's life at the Unreal Hut, including those of the scenic views of the locale and of culturally rich historic sites. He can  "indulge in a free, leisurely way of life without interruption... In the daytime he may listen to a farmer talking about some incidents on the farm; at night he may wander alone in the moonlight, sunk in random thoughts" (p. 120).

After describing his daily life at the hut, the last part of the essay now turns to Basho's inner feelings. This introspective passage is the focal point of the essay, “related to all three preceding parts in a way that gives each a new meaning" (p. 121). Below is the full text:

All this, however, does not mean that I am an avid lover of solitude who wishes to hide in the mountains once and for all. I am more like a sickly person who has retired from society after becoming a little weary of mixing with people. As I look back over the many years of my frivolous life, I remember at one time I coveted an official post with a tenure of land and at another time I was anxious to confine myself within the walls of a monastery. yet I kept aimlessly wandering on like a cloud in the wind, all the while laboring to capture the beauty of flowers and birds. In fact, that finally became the source of my livelihood; with no other talent or ability to resort to, I merely clung to that thin line. It was for the sake of poetry that Po Chu-i tired himself out and Tu Fu grew lean. I am saying this not because I regard myself as an equal of those two Chinese masters in wisdom and in poetic genius. It is because I believe there is no place in this world that is not an unreal dwelling. I abandoned the line of thinking at this point and went to sleep.

My temporary shelter,
A Pasania tree is here, too,
In the summer glove.
(pp . 120-1)


Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Herbert Jonsson, Haikai Poetics: Buson, Kito and the Interpretation of Renku Poetry, Doctoral Thesis, Stockholm University, 2006

Makoto Ueda, Matsuo Basho, Twayne Publishers, 1970.


  1. Basho never wrote about the fueki-ryuko theory himself; in the excerpted haibun above, he discussed the related topics and the last sentences have been constantly quoted in the articles regarding Basho's haikai aesthetics.

    In Buson's haibun, he took the discussion of sabi-shiori as mostly concerned not with Basho himself, but with the later Basho school ("I do not follow the tradition [of Basho]")

    The following is the best senryu definition I've ever read

    "Senryu differs from haiku in its rhetoric, too, since it seldom uses the common haiku technique known as internal comparison. Whereas a haiku often juxtaposes two disparate objects challenges the reader to make an imaginary connection between them, a typical senryu presents one unique situation and asks the reader to view it in the light of reason or common sense. The reader who does that will usually experience a feeling of superiority, or of incongruity, or of relief, which in turn lead to laughter."

    (Preface, Light Verse from the Floating World: An Anthology of Premodern Japanese Senryu by Makoto Ueda, vii-viii)

  2. Thanks for bringing Basho and Buson to the reader!

    Greetings from Hot Japan!

  3. Gabi:

    I just added one more section regarding Basho's longest haibun, “An Essay on the Unreal Dwelling” (“Genju-an no Ki”), which I think might interest you.


    One more comment on Dimitar Anakiev’s “How Narrow Is THE HAIKU PATH? (Essay in the form of a haibun on perspectives of haiku):"

    Although I like Dimitar's rhetorically effective and thoughtfully allusive title, I think the prose section of his haibun lacks imagery and is replete with didactic statements.

    "Another characteristic of the haibun is the extent of its dependence on imagery. To be sure, literary Japanese prose has always tended to be imagistic rather than logic in all genres, but Baho's haibun carry that tendency to an extreme. Abstract, general, conceptual words are shunned in favor of concrete visual images" (Ueda, pp. 122-3)

  4. is worth every penny. As for the veracity of Dimitar Anakiev, he has little if any. . .