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More than the Birds, Bees, and Trees: A Closer Look at Writing Haibun

Written by

Aimee Nezhukumatathil
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Year

2014
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Hello saguaro and barrel cactus. Hello sorghum and wheat field. Hello skyscraper and ballpark. Hello cherry tree and badger nest. Having moved several times throughout my childhood, from Chicago to Phoenix to western Kansas and Ohio and more, I have long searched for a way to write about my travels, which continue even now that I am grown with two wily children of my own. How to write about place when one feels inextricably connected to certain landscapes that shift and change more often than the seasons? Yet, because of my relatively brief time spent in any one location for long, I am like clover—roots plentiful, covering a great area, but short in length—easy to remove and attach again in any given space. How can a poem situate itself without being fully entrenched? How to make the reader travel without getting lost?

Haibun is a poetic form that allows one to answer some of these questions while providing a fresh perspective through a lens that focuses on nature and landscape. Haibun combines a prose poem with a haiku. The haiku usually ends the poem as a sort of whispery and insightful postscript to the prose of the beginning of the poem. Another way of looking at the form is thinking of haibun as highly focused testimony or recollection of a journey composed of a prose poem and ending with a meaningful murmur of sorts: a haiku. The result is a very elegant block of text with the haiku serving as a tiny bowl or stand for the prose poem. A whole series of them in a manuscript look like neat little signs or flags—a visual delight.

Hello honeybee and peacock. Hello whale shark and moon jelly. King snake and pinkletink. Though Bashō coined the word haibun, the form as it is today existed in Japan as prefaces and mini-lyric essays even before the seventeenth century (when Bashō first popularized the form). After his famous journey to Mutsu, he crafted a sort of guideline to the form in order to plunge deeper into the aware (pronounced ah-WAR-ay) spirit of haiku. Thus, another important feature of the haibun is not simply to provide a writer a shape in which to jot mundane musings of landscape and travel but also to evoke that sense of aware—the quality of certain objects to evoke longing, sadness, or immediate sympathy.

Though I am not one to stay close and straight to any particular poetry "rules" (the haibun form especially and brightly lends itself to experimentation if one desires), the poet Kimiko Hahn noted that Bashō himself once criticized works that did not have a palpable sense of aware:"Of course, anyone can keep a diary with such entries as 'On this day it rained...in the afternoon it cleared...at that place is a pine...at this place flows a river called Such-and-such'; but unless sights are truly remarkable, they shouldn't be mentioned at all."

For example, in the haiku of a haibun in Oku no Hosomichi, Bashō writes, "Taken in my hand it would melt, my tears are so warm—this autumnal frost." A reader could have a literal understanding of this metaphor as a haiku, but its full effect—its aware—is apparent only when one reads the prose of the haibun that precedes it. In the prose of the haibun, the reader clearly sees that Bashō used the word frost to describe holding his dead mother's white hair. The haiku and prose poem of the haibun rely and lean on each other for a fuller, more resonant experience. In How to Haiku, Bruce Ross writes, "If a haiku is an insight into a moment of experience, a haibun is the story or narrative of how one came to have that experience." A haibun should have a palpable, inherent sense of aware. Without it, as Bashō warned, the poem becomes just a mundane list of travel and nature observations.

Hello tower and melon. Hello ocean and meteor. Hello railroad and silver smelt. There is endless room for play and experimentation in this form. Traditionalists still call for the haibun to feature prose first and end with one haiku, as mentioned earlier, but I have seen contemporary haibun that contain any manner of a combination of the two: prose, haiku, prose, haiku or even prose, haiku, haiku, prose. Other features of a traditional haibun include

1. a detachment from, and even a complete absence of, the speaker, that is, avoidance of using any personal pronouns such as I or first-person possessive adjectives (my and mine). This is especially helpful for poets who are looking to get out of a first-person point of view rut or for those who have trouble looking "outside" themselves and into the world and environment. From Kimiko Hahn (untitled):

At the picnic, all the women are talking at once. The men are as well...
The fuzz in the park becomes the stuff of nests rather than pillows.

2. a concentrated use of sensory detail. Take, for example, the following excerpt of a haibun by Lee Ann Roripaugh:

Wingless, they painstakingly climb back up into the canopy, stake out a leaf and pierce its central vein with a single egg. Larvae swell the pregnant leaf into a spongy green gall...

I like to think of the prose part of a haibun as a sort of chicken bouillon cube. Anyone who has tasted it knows the super-sharp sting of salt and intense flavor. However, drop the bouillon into a pot of boiling water: soup! Tasting the soup is both the haiku and reward: it should be still flavorful (imagery combined with aware should still prevail), but it is decidedly (and thankfully) more dilute. And the best soups satiate and fill, making us remember the taste long after we leave the table.

3. the use of some sort of seasonal word or phrase that alludes to a season, which is encouraged within the haibun, even when describing an urban setting. Consider the end of this haibun, which alludes to impending winter, again from Bashō:

Clouds will separate
The two friends, after migrating
Wild goose's departure.

4. a "turn," or a sudden change of heart, if you will, found in the third line of the prose sections. Jeannine Hall Gailey goes from introducing a seemingly easy-going, cheerful visitor to a terrifying, blood-soaked seer in her haibun "Rescuing Seiryu, the Blue Dragon":

You met the dragon in the garden. Sometimes he flies in circles outside your window. This morning he appeared as a young boy. / He shows you a vision of your parents, lying in a barn. With his face so close you smell hay. / He bleeds from the wounds of paper birds, from a swallowed curse. Can your healing rice cake keep him from death?

Because the number of syllables in the haiku (5-7-5) is often hard to translate exactly from Japanese haibun into English, in contemporary haibun, there is now less emphasis on getting the specific syllabic count to fit the 5-7-5 haiku mold. More care is taken to make the sparse and shortened lines (again with aware) visibly distinctive from the rest of the prose. From Donald Keene's translation of Bashō's "The Narrow Road to Oku":

Lead the horse sideways
Across the meadows—I hear
A nightingale.

This form lends itself beautifully and elegantly to those (like me) who move frequently across the country and even the globe. But for those who haven't or don't, this form is also perfect for re-imagining landscapes seen every day or thought of as ho-hum (strip-malls! suburbs! Cornfield, USA!) into something with a little bit of an edge, perhaps with a darker and more somber, even a more magical, twist.

Hello burp cloth and swing. Hello crocus and fountain. Hello alligator pear and shark tooth. I originally found that writing haibun was a way for me to record my extensive travels in a condensed and imagistic light—to record the beauty, danger, fear, delight, tragedy, adventure, etc. that one can experience, especially when traveling, in an accessible way to keep memories sorted and organized. Now that I stay closer to home, I find haibun to be just as vital as ever to help me fashion and re-fashion landscape, especially as I find myself writing more and more about nature with an environmental focus. Other writers of haibun start by keeping a daily journal of haibun, not about travel or even nature per se, but simply recording the previous day's events. Still others use the form to re-imagine fairy tales or examine persona. Now that my husband and I are juggling an infant and a three-year-old, keeping a haibun journal is a refreshing way to get some "day pages" written first thing or last thing at night. Even on the days I feel too zombified from late-night feedings, I can always manage at least a draft of a haibun. I'm amazed when what at first blush can seem like an ordinary week (even if I never leave my house or garden!) becomes wholly new and surprising.

A poet can use haibun to construct the proverbial birds, bees, and trees into something much more complex—a welcome change of pace for those who roll their eyes at the mere thought of reading nature poems that ooh and aah at landscapes not yet fully realized. Poets write haibun because peacocks are dying in record numbers across northern India from droughts. Because somewhere in Ohio, a horse whispers and coughs. Good riddance to pachysandra vines that crawl all over the edge of my garden, waiting for me. I follow the centipede to its home tonight in the bright stink of fading sunlight. Even when describing something so common as a robin chirp or the simple designs of oak and maple, a haibun renders the natural world into an easy and inviting elegance to share with another. A journey with haibun is never solo. Perhaps it is this immediacy and this unique connection that has resonated over the centuries with readers and writers alike who are always on the look out for new, yet familiar, landscapes. A sense of having journeyed and of having come home, at last.

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