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Special Feature 5—Modern English Language Haibun

Modern English Language Haibun

by Ray Rasmussen

— April 05, 2009 —

Editors' Introduction

We are excited to be sharing with you an essay on modern English language haibun, written by Ray Rasmussen, international haibun authority and technical editor for contemporary haibun online. His essay provides a background of the origins as well as an examination of a few great examples of the form. For an audio recording of each example, please click the link below each poem. We have included these recordings to demonstrate how poets use pacing and emphasis as tools to help the listener engage in their intended meaning.

This special feature is an incarnation of Ray’s presentation at the launch of the second print volume of DailyHaiku, in December, 2008.

English language haibun, a mix of prose and haiku, has become a new poetry genre over the last 20 years, with regular print and online publication outlets. Both haiku and haibun evolved from traditional Japanese verse in much the same way that free verse poetry evolved from classical and rhyming poetry.

Like contemporary haiku, haibun is a derivative of the writing of the 17th century monk Matsuo Bashō, who is perhaps the most famous of the Japanese haiku masters. His travel journals were interspersed with haiku. Bashō travelled from village to village, reading for everyone from peasants to samurai lords and ladies. As was tradition for the time, he was housed and fed for his efforts.

While most haiku still consist of three lines, which qualifies them as the world's shortest poetry form, only rarely today is an English language haiku published that follows the 5-7-5 (17-syllable) pattern that many learned in school. It's not that the editors won't publish them ... it's just not the way current writers are writing them. The 5-7-5 form stemmed from a misunderstanding of Japanese sound units which are shorter than English syllables. The average published English language haiku is now but 13 syllables ... just long enough to be said in one breath.

English-language haibun prose tends to be more clipped or haiku-like than normal prose, and contains fewer poetic devices or tropes than free verse poetry. Here's an example published in contemporary haibun online, vol. 4, no. 3, September 2008:

Continental Divide

I slip from the sleeping bag's warmth, feel the bite of mountain air and head for the campfire and coffee.

Wendy, freckle-faced, hair in pigtails, big blue eyes, says:
"I'd like to hike with you today."

We follow Persimmon Creek upstream, climb past waterfalls to the top of the Continental Divide, walk through fields of alpine poppies, mountain peaks jutting up on all sides. On our return, we descend a steep scree slope in long jumps, racing to the bottom.

We stop at a place where a small waterfall drops into a pocket deep enough for a swim—a place that I've had in mind all day. I gesture toward the pool and Wendy takes the hint and undresses. As she enters, she looks back over her shoulder with a hint of smile: "You can look, but don't touch."

Stripping off the cloth that covers this old man's body, I follow her into the pool: "And, you can touch, but don't look."

of cool water—
one thirst quenched

contemporary haibun online, vol. 4, no. 3, 2008.

Play 'Continental Divide' by Ray Rasmussen
Listen to Ray read "Continental Divide"

(MP3 Audio, 1.4MB)

What's happening in the prose part? How is it different from related forms like flash or short fiction, personal diaries, essays and free verse?

  1. It's clearly autobiographical and personal.
  2. It doesn’t read like fiction—about someone or something made up.
  3. It places us in a setting as if it's happening NOW.
  4. It relies heavily on description—there are few if any poetic tropes; similes, metaphors, rhymes.
  5. It contains two forms: prose and haiku.
  6. The haiku is linked to the prose, yet tells us more, perhaps summarizing a key feeling or sentiment.
  7. Encountering the haiku causes a shift in the reader from one kind of mental state, "listening to a story", to a different kind of mental state—one that is akin to looking at a snapshot of a setting and then working intellectually with the link between the prose and haiku.
  8. The connection between haiku and prose is left to the reader. In general, the connection is neither too obvious, nor too oblique.

Like haiku, most contemporary haibun tend to be about recent events that have somehow stood out for the writer. But also appearing in the journals are travel accounts, memories, dreams, and fantasy ... and they can contain humour. Here's a memory-based haibun published in the print journal Modern Haiku, vol. 38.2, Summer 2007:


I miss them, my daughters when they were young. Reading The Hobbit in wintertime, snuggled in close, bodies and fire keeping us warm, rewarded with their pleas . . . just one more page. I've nearly forgotten my reluctance to pick up the book in the first place.

I don't remember being read to, but when I was sick, my mother sang lullabies while tucking me deep under the covers, only my nose and ears sticking out. I remember the melodies, but not the words.

old friends—
I place more wood
on the campfire

Modern Haiku, vol. 38.2, 2007.

Play 'Warmth' by Ray Rasmussen
Listen to Ray read "Warmth"

(MP3 Audio, 0.8MB)

Why write haibun? Why not write free verse, flash fiction, short stories, essays, or keep a journal? For me, the haibun form uniquely suits my need to communicate with friends and family. It's a way of saying: "Here’s what I'm involved in, how I'm thinking and feeling, a summary of some important part of my life."

If you're interested in the haibun genre, there are several good quality online journals where you can find current writing by a variety of authors, as well as detailed definitions and essays about the form:

Ray Rasmussen

Ray Rasmussen

Ray Rasmussen is a past winner of the DailyHaiku Editors' Choice Award, and is currently the technical editor of contemporary haibun online. His haiku, haiga, haibun and articles have been accepted for publication in Modern Haiku, Frogpond, Contemporary Haibun, Heron's Nest, Simply Haiku, Bottle Rockets, Haigaonline, Contemporary Haibun Online, Roadrunner, Tinywords, Haiku Harvest, The World Haiku Review, Lynx, Ink Sweat & Tears and LifeSherpa. Ray has served as haiga editor for Simply Haiku and haibun editor for the World Haiku Review. In a previous life, Ray was a university professor. His web site is: http://raysweb.net/haiku/.

Past Special Features

"What is a special feature?" you may ask. The DailyHaiku special features section is dedicated to innovative collections of haiku and related forms that work very well as a thematic unit, bring the reader a new perspective on the form, explore the seasonal nature of haiku, or push the bounds of haiku in novel directions. Special features will be posted throughout each year (usually as a surprise) and will also be included in the yearly print edition.