Friday, July 26, 2013

To the Lighthouse: Haibun Myth

Case 1:

Much older, non-European prose poetry also appears in the form of Japanese haibun, originated by the Japanese monk and poet Matsuo Basho (1644-94). Haibun is a combination of prose poem and haiku, traditionally written in the form of travelogue. With its block of prose either topped, tailed, or interspersed with an ideogrammatic haiku, the haibun is a form of prose visual poetry that predates the European "origin" of the form by 200 years. present tense, bevity, Zen "detachment, " and pictorialization are all foregrounded, whilst the contrast between the density of the prose and the lightness of the haiku provides a harmonic intensity: the haiku amplifies the prose in a tangential fashion. American postmodernist poets, notably John Ashbery and Sheila E. Murphy, have since approproated the form in the US where it has merged as an the idiosyscratic "American Haibun," bearing only residential similarities to the traditional travelogue form.

Andy Brown, “The Emergent Prose Poem,”A Companion to Poetic Genre, p. 320

Case 2a:

Haibun       The generic name for any confection of prose with embedded haiku. Includes, at least in the West, essays and “[haibun] stories,” which may be either anecdotal and imaginary, or a blend of both fact and fiction (See also Kikobun, nikki).

David Cobb,  “Glossary of Japanese Terms, “ What Happens in Haibun: a critical study of an innovative literary form, p.83

Case 2b:

My haibun, "Winter Thoughts," was rejected for its “essay-like quality.”  For further discussion, see my “To the Lighthouse” post, titled “Essay-Like Haibun ?!.”  (note: I  added  one more section to the post, and it contains an  excerpt from and a brief analysis of Basho’s longest haibun, “An Essay on the Unreal Dwelling” (“Genju-an no Ki”). His essay contains about 15oo words in Japanese. As its title indicates, the essay tells of Basho's life at the "Unreal Dwelling/Hut" near Lake Biwa in the summer of 1690. It has a confessional nature, its structure is tight and well-ordered, and it "displays Basho’s prose craftsmanship at its best.”)

The common misunderstanding about haibun is that haibun was originated by the Japanese haikai poet Matsuo Basho, traditionally written in the shasei ("realist") style of travelogue, exemplified by Basho's famous travel journal, entitled The Narrow Road to the Interior. Below is excerpted from my essay, "Make Haibun New through the Chinese Poetic Past: Basho's Transformation of Haikai Prose," which was first published in Simply Haiku, 8:1, Summer 2010 and then reprinted in Haibun Today, 6:1, March 2012)

First of all, broadly 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. 20 In 1671, a well-known Teimon poet Yamaoka Genrin (1631-1672) published his experimental work of haibun, entitled Takaragura (The Treasure House), and in it, he “[emulated] Zhuangzi’s gugen [(Chinese, yuyan)] 21 by revealing beauty and virtue in ordinary household apparatus.” 22 His work was “highly metaphorical and allegorical,” 23 it didn’t have great influences on the way haikai poets at the time wrote their haibun (added note: And Basho's contemporary, Ihara Saikaku (1642 - 1693), "employed an experimental, dramatic form of haibun, or haikai prose, for which there was no precedent in the prose literature of his time." For more information, See Chapter 2, "Ihara Saikaku and the Books of the Floating World," Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, 1600-1900 edited by Haruo Shirane, and Christopher Drake's essay below)

It was not until shortly after Basho returned from his journey to Oku that he became more focused on developing a different style of prose, which was infused with a haikai spirit. Around 1690, in a letter to Kyorai, he named this new haikai prose haibun, which was characterized by the “prominent inclusion of haikai words (haigon), particularly a combination of vernacular Japanese (zokugo) and Chinese words (kango).” 24 After the publication the first anthology of the new haibun, entitled Prose Collection of Japan, Basho was recognized as “the first to create such a model [for haikai prose] and breathe elegance and life in it.” 25

Secondly, as Haruo Shirane stresses, Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Interior, “may best be understood as an attempt to reveal the different possibilities of haibun in the form of travel literature.” 26 A lot of commentators also point out that Basho’s work is less a factual record of a travel journal account, where haiku commemorate real but isolated moments keenly perceived on the journey, than it is a highly related set of about fifty haibun structured to convey a specific literary effect. 27

For example, Basho’s travelling companion, Sora, recorded in his diary that on their visit to Nikko, they first visited the temples and shrine on the mountain and then rested at Hotoke Gozaemon’s inn on their last night. Basho rearranged this series of events – resting first and visiting later – in separate Nikko haibun in order to dramatize their stay with Hotoke Gozaemon. In doing so, he was able to compare/contrast three schools of thought: 1. Shinto (the shrine and its history); 2. Confucian (Hotoke Gozaemon reminded Basho of one important passage from The Analects of Confucius); 3. Buddhist (describing in two passages Sora’s religious preparations for the journey and their improvised Buddhist “summer purification retreat”). 28

Furthermore, it is “best considered a long prose poem, which gives vernacular and Chinese phrases the cadence and tonality of poetry.” 29 That is because many commentators observe that Basho’s prose conveys poetic beauty through concise imagery, making the boundary between prose and verse disappear. 30

Therefore, there is no general agreement on exactly where the haibun breaks occur. The majority of English translations do not indicate them. As a result, most readers will look upon The Narrow Road to the Interior as a travel journal infused with haiku. 31 Nonetheless, the haibun is used to divide the text into subsections, indicating a “discrete passage which characteristically ends in one or more haiku.” 32 This is such a non-linear text, freely mixing prose with verse in a way as to demand a relational reading. Significant meaning of a work of this sort is embedded with the interaction of text and context. 33


1 Definition of Haibun in The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature

Haikai writing. Prose composition, usually with haikai stanzas, by a haikai poet. Normally with an autobiographical or theoretical interest, it could treat many kinds of experiences. When it treats a journey, it becomes a species of kiko (note: travel journal) (p. 275)

2 Scholarly View of Haibun:

Rags and Tatters. The Uzuragoromo of Yokoi Yayu
Lawrence Rogers
Monumenta Nipponica, 34:3, Autumn 1979, pp. 279-291.


THE term haibun, literally 'droll prose', is an inadequate and misleading term, since it is elliptical and should be understood in the sense of haikai no bunsho or haikai no bun,5 that is, the prose of the haikai poets. Unfortunately these terms mislead us because they are too broad. Such an agentially defined categorization, although accepted by some students of haibun, is meaningless if taken as indicating any and all prose written by a haiku poet, since it would then include diaries, travel sketches, informal essays, haiku criticism, book prefaces, and letters. And while haibun has been the province of the haiku poet, we cannot demand poetic authorship as part of our definition, for many pieces generally accepted as haibun and having those qualities associated with it in this more precise sense were written by literati whose reputations, in fact, rested on other than the haiku verse. Whatever the shortcomings of nomenclature, however, haibun refers to a short informal essay,6 usually light in tone and commonplace in theme, which shares those qualities that we associate with haiku verse, including suggestion, allusion, and ellipsis, and which similarly exploits the techniques of the pun, the associative word, and the pillow phrase and word.7 At its best, haibun is ruminative and reflective, a happy wedding of brevity of form and profundity of content, affording the reader a fresh and unconsidered view of the world, a new look at the commonplace -- a fan, the sweet pleasure of sleeping late, the pitfalls of borrowing money. When it is less than successful, it can be studied, artificial, almost euphuistic in its stylistic ornamentation and the gratuitous intrusion of classical allusion and proverbial lore.8

Stylistics of Uzuragoromo

THE language of Uzuragoromo, by and large, is similar to that of the other haibun collections of the Tokugawa era. The grammar is pseudo-classical, as were all Japanese literary forms of the period, and its diction a melange of contemporary and classical vocabulary, the latter heavily, but not exclusively, Sinitic. Like other haibun writers, Yayu exploited simile, classical and proverbial allusion, parallelism, puns, associative words, and related elements of individual and generic style. Because haibun were written for the eye rather than for the ear, as were, for example, the joruri plays of Chikamatsu, we naturally find less of those devices whose greatest appeal is aural. Thus onomatopoeia, a conspicuous element that strongly colors the modern language as well, is stylistically irrelevant in Uzuragoromo. For the same reason, Yayu did not rely on assonance or alliteration to the degree that Chikamatsu did in his puppet plays. Conversely, an element of style such as parallelism, the appreciation of which is as visual as it is aural, assumes greater importance in haibun. That parallel prose is a stylistic technique of haibun, yet encountered only infrequently elsewhere in Japanese literature cannot, however, be explained wholly in terms of an assumed aural or visual orientation of the genre, and suggests the probability of Chinese influence on this quintessentially Japanese literary form.

Chinese parallel prose (p'ien-wen)9 is characterized by four or six-character parallel phrases, tending toward a florid style, rhyming, and frequent allusion. Such a style is natural, perhaps inevitable, given the essentially monosyllabic nature of literary Chinese, represented by discrete symbols of uniform size, and vocally expressed through a phonological structure capable of sophisticated rhyming. For the same reasons, literary Japanese is clearly not predisposed to parallelism precisely because it is polysyllabic and vocalically impoverished, and thus its sentences cannot be put together like a string of like-size graphic beads.

Linguistic predispositions notwithstanding, a kind of syntactical parallelism is possible, and Yayu often resorts to it. The opening line of Tabako no Setsu, the haibun on tobacco, is a striking example:

Yomichi no tabi no nebutaki tote koshi ni chabin mo sagerarezu
Aki no nezame no sabishiki tote tana no mochi ni mo te no todokaneba.

You may get drowsy journeying along a road at night,
but you cannot dangle a teapot from your waist to refresh yourself.
You may awake forlorn one autumn day,
but you cannot feed yourself when you cannot reach the rice-cakes on the shelf.

(important notes: 6 We should not be reticent about using the term 'essay' when describing the haibun genre, since we are using it in the same sense as Montaigne did, that is, literary attempts that are essentially unsystematic discourses, as opposed to the more formal, systematic, expository arguments on philosophy, morality, governance, and the like. 8 Traditional literary scholarship has preferred a topical analysis, dividing haibun into the Pristine School and the Farcical School, and identifying Basho's work as the exemplar of the former and Yayu's as representative of the latter. In fact, from a topical perspective Uzuragoromo seems to be rather a synthesis of the antithetical elements ascribed to the two so-called schools, a confluence of the solemn elegance of the Pristines and the frothy wit of the Farcical stream.)

3 Fuzoku Monzen edited by Morikawa Kyoriku, Basho's gifted disciple
excerpted from World within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867 by Donald Keene, pp. 142-3.

... the first important collection of haibun, Fuzoku Monzen is a grab bag of prose pieces by Basho and members of his school,... The prose of Basho's travel diaries is known as haibun because its incise and elliptic style suggests his haikai poetry, not because it has any specifically humorous, "haikai" content; but many selections in Fuzoku Monzen are marred by the deliberate injection of an arch and pretentious humor, which the authors seem to have considered to be indispensable to haibun.... In all, twenty-one "genres" of haibun are represented in the collection. These represent the various categories of elegy, preface, rhyme-prose, etc., derived from traditional Chinese collections like Wen Hsuan (Monzen in Japanese), but little attempt was in fact made to distinguish one genre from another... Of the total of 114 selections in Fuzoku Monzen, ranging in length from a paragraph to eight or ten pages... Fuzoku Monzen was Kyoriku's most lasting monument. it was at once the first and best collection of haibun, and its influence was considerable, not only on writings specifically in this style but on much of the Japanese prose of the eighteenth century (note: there are two haibun with no haiku, "Huzi no hu/Prose Poem on Huzi" by Matukura Ranran and "Minomusi no setu/On the Mantle-Grub" by Yamaguti Sodoo, written in the hu/"prose poem" and setu/"essay or monograph" styles respectively, included in Selections from Japanese Literature: 12th to 19th Centuries edited by F. J. Daniels, pp. 52, 146-9)

4 The Passage regarding their visit to Nikko:

The 30th: stopped over at the foot of Mount Nikko.13 The innkeeper said, “My name’s Buddha Gozaemon. My principle is to be honest in all things --that’s why people call me that. So make yourself at home and rest up, even if it’s just for a night.” What sort of Buddha is this, appearing in a mean and muddy world to aid beggar-monk pilgrims like us? I observed him closely: free of cleverness or calculation,14 he was a man of unswerving honesty. It’s said: “One of sturdy character and steadfast sincerity approaches true humanity.”15 And this man’s natural purity of heart is admirable indeed.

-- Basho’s Journey:The Literary Prose of Matsuo Basho, Translated with an Introduction by David Landis Barnhill, pp. 50-1

13. Site of the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616), founder of the Tokugawa shogunate.
14. Literally “devoid of wisdom and discrimination.” Scholars differ on whether this is criticism or praise. I take it positively as lacking artificiality, which parallels the other terms used. Note that the portrait begins with references to Buddhism and ends with references to Confucianism.
15. From the Analects of Confucius. (p. 156)

Makoto Ueda' s Comment (excerpted from Matsuo Basho, pp. 138-9)

[Here] is a stubbornly honest man, the sort rarely found in an urban, sophisticated society. He is artless, almost native; he can tell his quests he is called Buddha, without suspecting that they may consider him presumptuous. Basho suspected and watched him closely; he found in him not a Buddha but the sort of man so simplehearted as to precede both Buddhism and Confucianism. Basho saw an image of primeval man unspoiled by the evils of civilization….

… According to Sora, …Basho was entertained by high-ranking samurai and well-to-do merchants at various towns…. Basho makes no mention of them whatsoever. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a literary journal with a deliberate choice of facts.

5 Haibun Fiction by Ihara Saikaku (1642 - 1693)

Mirroring Saikaku: The Great Mirror of Male Love. by Ihara Saikaku
Christopher Drake
Monumenta Nipponica, 46:4, Winter, 1991, pp. 513-541

Saikaku's long haikai sequences did not simply break down the distinction between poetry and prose in the modern sense but developed into a new worldly kind of haibun, or haikai prose, a genre that has virtually become a lost art in modern Japan.

Saikaku did not 'mature' from haikai to haikai-'embellished' prose to more mimetic, less rhetorical prose in his later fictional works. In fact, it can be argued that the later works are even more thoroughly rhetorical because their tropes do not draw attention to themselves. Nor is there any evidence that Saikaku wrote his haibun fictions spontaneously, with no intellectual interven-tion or revision. In the afterword to his 4,000-verse Oyakazu  sequence, Saikaku stresses that he practiced long and hard at achieving a rapid flow of interesting images. Although he and other Danrin poets often use polite humility when referring to their sequences, which are more colloquial and less restrained than waka, renga, or Basho's haikai, Saikaku's haikai sequences and haibun fiction works (none of them, strictly speaking, 'novels') can in no way be described as 'intended as a moment's effort, presented for a moment's pleasure' (p. 27).

6 The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics edited by Roland Greene, Stephen Cushman, etc., Fourth Edition, 2012, p. 592

Haibun. A literary form developed in Japan that employs a combination of prose and haiku. A haibun may be as brief as a single terse paragraph followed by a single haiku or an extended work involving an laternation of prose and verse. Accordingly, the [haiku] may occur singly, in groups, or in linked series, between prose passages. The best known examples are the travel journals. Narrow Road to the Interior by Basho (1694) and the autobiographical The Year of My Life by Issa (1819). The prose and verse sections of a haibun are intended to function discretely as self-contained texts; however, in combination, they enact a kind of dialogue between them, a compounding of points of view on the same situation or topic. While the form was developed by Basho out of the haikai tradition. of linked verses employing commonplace diction and a lighthearted tone, it has been used for a range of tones and themes; however, personal themes predominate. As with haiku, haibun has been adapted into many languages and cultures. its practice is cultivated by haiku societies, journals, and web sites; it is also practiced by poets such as James Merrill, Robert Hass, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis. The form has undergone variations as well: in Merrill's 'Prose of Departure,' the haiku  and prose are connected syntactically, rather than being discrete elements; also, the first and third lines of each haiku rhyme. Others vary the form by not keeping to the strict syllable count of haiku or more flexibly employing free verse --William Wenthe, English, Texsa Tech. University


  1. she put stones in her pockets and waded into the river..

    summer rain-
    from room to room
    the hours


    (movie called The Hours tells her sad story)

  2. Yes, the section name is taken from Woolf's novel. For more information, see my essay, Disrupting Imperial Linear Time:Virginia Woolf's Temporal Perception in To the Lighthouse, which was published in Cultural Studies Monthly, 62, Nov. 2006,

    Regarding Cobb's haibun definition:

    Haibun The generic term for any confection of prose with embedded haiku. Includes, at least in the West, essays and “[haibun] stories,” ...

    I changed "haiku stories" to "haibun stories."

    It's because I didn't find "haiku stories" in any of haibun-related articles/books. Therefore, I think it's a typo.

    As for "haibun stories," see Ken Jones's "Writing Reality: Fictional Haibun Stories," which was published in Contemporary Haibun Online, 3:3, September 2007,

  3. Regarding Yokoi Yayu's life and work:

    Below is excerpted from Lawrence Rogers's Rags and Tatters. The Uzuragoromo of Yokoi Yayu:

    ...the latter half of the eighteenth century was also a time of fruitful, even renascent, activity, particularly in the case of haiku and its prose analogue, haibun.' This mid-era resurgence can also be represented by a literary triad: the poet-painter Buson, the phantasiast Akinari, and Yokoi Yayu (1702-1783), Nagoya literatus and the author of the haibun collection known as Uzuragoromo... Yayu was born in Nagoya, the eldest son of a high-ranking official of the Owari clan and received the martial and humanistic education traditional for one of his station. Like his father, he served as an official in the Owari administration, but retired in his fifty-third year to devote himself full time to what was apparently his first love, literary scholarship, especially poetry (in all its forms), poetic criticism, and, of course, haibun.