Essay: Editor Pamelyn Casto “On the Road with Haibun”

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Pamelyn Casto

On the Road With Haibun*

“The Moon Bridge at Kameido” by Helen Hyde

Haibun: A Rigorous Literary Art Combining Prose and Haiku
(& Sometimes Haiga)

As with any complicated art form, haibun is difficult to define to anyone’s full satisfaction. But a brief and far-too-simplified description is that haibun is a combination of at least two, and sometimes three elements, each element a demanding art in itself: vivid descriptive prose, haiku (and/ or tanka), and sometimes haiga (the elegant impressionistic paintings and drawings that often accompany both haibun and haiku).

Despite its appearance of simplicity, haibun is actually a complex and rigorous art. Some categorize haibun as travel journals or travel diaries. However, these classifications can be misleading since such descriptions capture only a part of what haibun is.  It is actually much more than this.

Haibun is primarily a literary production, and as with any other literary creation it strives to be interesting, informative, and inventive. It is not private writing, like some journals and diaries, but is meant for the eyes of readers. Literary haibun strives to share a story, an experience, an insight, a journey of whatever kind as it attempts to touch readers emotionally, sensually, intellectually, and spiritually. While haibun is quite fluid, it is also based on certain solid principles.

As a disciple said about Matsuo Basho’s writing theory, “one can learn about pine only from the pine, about bamboo only from the bamboo….” (1) The same idea can extend to learning about haibun: one can learn about haibun only from haibun. A brief and general look at the work of three important haibun masters serves as a good starting point for understanding this difficult and demanding literary art that attracts and intrigues larger and larger numbers of readers.

Matsuo Basho’s Oku-no-Hosomichi

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is not only given credit for elevating haiku to an art form, but he is also credited with creating one of the most famous works of haibun in his Oku-no-Hosomichi. The title is referred to and translated in various ways: Narrow Path, Narrow Road, Narrow Road to a Far Province, and more, and is significant to the contents of the haibun. Dorothy Britton claims the title is a tour de force, rich and is dense with meaning, and believes Basho was suggesting a “peregrination into the inner reaches of the mind.” Further, Britton thinks Basho chose this ambiguous and rich title in order “to embrace all its wider meanings” (2).

Basho’s Oku-no-Hosomichi is one of the great works of Japanese literature, and Harold G. Henderson says it “has probably been annotated and commented on more than any other work of its size in the world” (3). As testament to its importance, Yosa Buson (1716-1783), another master of haiku and haibun, is said to have copied and illustrated this work at least ten times himself (4). In an apt description, Soryo, the scholar priest who prepared the work for publication says Basho’s “multifarious…limned impressions” create prose “as beautiful as mermaid’s tears”(5).

Part of the greatness of Oku-no-Hosomichi, says Hiroaki Sato, “lies in its doing so much with so little. Like a haiku it gets its vivid immediacy and sensory power from the suggestiveness created by its terse, laconic style. It is all at once a travel journal (kikibun), a haibun, a renga, and a haiku anthology.” Basho, says Sato, shaped it this way deliberately, “changing the order and some of the events and even inventing some–to make it a work of art.” Further, Sato asserts  that “one could even describe this haibun as a series of about fifty short haibun which work with each other much like the links in a renga” (6).

Basho’s Influences

Basho was influenced by a long tradition of wandering poets and was especially interested in the classical Chinese poets Li Po and Tu Fu, and in the classical Japanese poets Sogi, and Saigyo. It was customary for “literary and artistic notables or would-be notables” to make poetic pilgrimages and to publish their journals (7). Basho, along with his disciples, set out on his own poetic pilgrimages and attempted to retrace some of the footsteps of poets who came before. In so doing he positioned himself in history, custom, and in a strong poetic tradition. The resulting haibun yields philosophical and religious thoughts, quotes from classical poetry, original and collaborative poetry, learned allusions, vignettes, myth and legend, landscapes, images, traces of history, glimpses of nature, and the effect all of it had on his own receptive mind.

Chiyo-Ni’s Yoshizake Mode

While Basho was influenced by the tradition of wandering poets, he in turn influenced many others, including Chiyo-ni (1703-1775), a Buddhist nun and haiku master who also had a widely-acclaimed talent for painting haiga. She followed the high standards set by Basho in her own poetic work and her direct teachers were students of Basho. Like Basho she espoused haiku as a life’s path and believed that the way of poetry was also the “way of refinement in one’s life and art.” For Chiyo-ni, poetry would be a source of awakening, and like Basho (and unlike many women of her time) she was able to travel and write haiku on the road. She likely wrote many haibun, as would have been customary, but unfortunately only one short haibun remains: Yoshizaki Mode. (Pilgrimage to Yoshizaki). The haibun is dated 1762, when at sixty years old she fulfilled her dream of making this important journey (8). Because of its brevity, it is difficult to compare her haibun to Basho’s. But Chiyo-ni is highly important due to her renown as one of the greatest women haiku poets of the Edo period and due to her fame as a talented painter of haiga. Her extant haibun, short as it is, contains poignant haiku, stirring images, wordplay, interesting and touching observations, and luminous comparisons.

Kobayashi Issa’s Oraga-Haru

Another important haijin was Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) whose most renowned haibun is Oraga-Haru. The title literally means “My Spring” but is often translated as The Year of My Life because ostensibly it traces out the cycle of a year, beginning in the spring with the Japanese New Year. However, the year Issa writes about was not a literal year, but “is inspired and shaped by all of a fully lived life” (9). Lewis Mackenzie says the serene-toned haiku within “have a kind of evening glow on them not of this world” (10). His works, says Sam Hamill, “reveal a deep engagement with the teachings of Zen, as well as with the Way of Haiku advocated by Basho, and it probably for these strengths of character, including his unabashed honesty, that he was admired by almost everyone regardless of social rank” (11) Issa’s haibun is extraordinarily touching, revealing an all-too-human journey filled with poverty, devastating losses, doubts, and yearnings. His work reveals a startling clarity of vision, profound insights, and is full of myth and legend, quotes, irony, paradox, humor, and tragedy. Oraga-Haru is an excruciating work.

North American Haibun: The Beat Movement

Reading the work of Basho, Chiyo-ni, and Issa gives a good beginning grounding in this type of writing. These three masters helped set the standards for those who came later, and haibun has continued to grow in writer and reader interest. It has also taken strong root in North America, mainly through the Beat Movement of the 1950s. According to Bruce Ross, Gary Snyder’s Earth House Hold (1957) “approaches haibun in tone and structure” and he says Snyder’s Lookout’s Journal offers a model of what American haibun was to become” (12).  Jack Kerouac, in collaboration with Albert Saijo and Lew Welch, wrote a short book-length haibun called Trip Trap: Haiku on the Road  which records their road trip from San Francisco to New York in 1959.  However, it wasn’t published until 1973, and then a revised edition was published in 1998. The haibun contains vivid and sometimes surprising prose, prose poetry, haiku, and even some crude haiga (13).

From Book Length to Page or Paragraph Length

While some haibun is book length, much of it appears as a short prose paragraph that ends with a haiku, or that begins with a haiku, or that has a haiku within the paragraph. It is also presented as several paragraphs interspersed with haiku. Cor van den Heuvel points out that it can sometimes even be created as haiku prose with no haiku (14). Much of the charm of haibun derives from the way it occupies several thresholds: prose, poetry, prose poetry, journal and diary writing, autobiography, travel and nature writing, non-fiction and even fiction–for who can always decide when non-fiction and fiction actually part company? In fact, both Basho and Issa in part “fictionalized” their haibun to help it conform to important aesthetic literary balances (15). Further, in recent times what is called American haibun also shows a strong kinship with certain other short-short pieces such as flash, micro, and sudden fiction (16). Haibun is flexible, versatile, protean–can assume many forms and shapes. It is conducive to experimentation and innovation.

Traditional Characteristics

But haibun, whether short or book-length, remains a demanding art. According to Elizabeth St. Jacques, the characteristics of quality haibun include: a) work written in present tense–haibun works best when the reader receives a sense of “nowness,” b) the writing must be focused (clear and to the point) and simply stated (free from intellectualizing, flowery or “cute” wording), c) written about a subject that moves readers (but without being saccharine, overly sentimental, or in bad taste), d) written with a touch of humor to give the reader some reprieve and to emphasize the reality of life itself, e) the accompanying haiku must not repeat from the text but must provide something fresh, unexpected (many new writers of haibun make the mistake of telling too much before presenting a haiku and/or the haiku repeats), f) has a title that captures the attention but doesn’t repeat from the text or telegraph what to expect (new writers can’t be reminded of this too often) (17).

According to Michael D. Welch, haibun “is a broadening of haiku to embrace many–but not all–prose possibilities, yet correctly aligning the two mirrors of prose and poetry to seek the perfect amalgamation of haibun and is fraught with subjective aesthetic challenges” (18). George Swede adds, “most haibun fail because they do not effectively integrate the prose with the haiku. In most cases, the relationship is strained, i.e., not like the embrace between the two in Basho’s_Narrow Road to a Far Province (19). Rod Willmot, who wrote The Ribs of the Dragonfly (1984), a sensuous haibun novella, says he sees some common failings in some published haibun: “first, when short snippets of prose are interspersed with scatterings of haiku, the two blend together and the reader reads too quickly; second, too often the prose sets up the haiku so plainly that there is no surprise” (20).

Today’s Haibun: Traditional to Experimental

Despite the demands of the art of haibun, there are many quality writers publishing their work in several outstanding journals such as Modern Haiku, Frogpond, Contemporary Haibun Online, Simply Haiku, Haibun Today,and World Haiku Review. And of course OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters is doing its part by publishing fascinasting haibun by talented writers from around the world. Several chapbooks, collections, and anthologies have been published as well and modern haibun ranges from more traditional haibun to the highly experimental and innovative American haibun of Sheila Murphy, especially in her collection titled Mudlark (21). Other writers of haibun who are considered rather “unorthodox” and who have helped build American haibun into what it has become and what it is becoming include James Merrill, John Ashbery, and Robert Hass. Many high quality anthologies have appeared on the scene and others will be making their debut in the near future. The Internet is playing a large part in spreading interest in haibun with more and more sites featuring haiku, haibun, traditional haiga and even computer-graphics haiga.

As Basho said in his Oku-no-Hosomichi, in an allusion to the work of Li Po, “The months and days are wayfarers of a hundred generations, and the years that come and go are also travelers” (22). In our travels, whether literally to far-off lands or in our travel through our days and lives, we
encounter our worlds and we encounter ourselves. Literary haibun can teach us much about the amazing journeys we all share.

Links to More Haibun and Information About Haibun

Following are some links to haibun that run the gamut from traditional haibun to the highly experimental and innovative works along with more information on haibun from various sources.

See the haibun and haiga of various writers and artists previously published by O:JA&L here

“Three Haibun” by Ronald Koertge can be read here

Then be sure to have a look at Sheila Murphy’s wild and wonderful ride of American haibun and her beautiful abstract artwork here. One of her collections of American haibun, A Sound the Mobile Makes in Wind, can be viewed here

See a beautiful tribute to Basho by the great Swedish poet, Olav Hauge here

See Harriot West’s “A Son’s Eulogy” here.

Read a Sherman Alexie haibun from his The Summer of Black Widows here.

See Jeff Streeby’s “Elegy With A Parked Car” hereThen see his two pieces “Along the North Platt” and “Custodes Caelestes” here

See “Haibun Definitions” here

See “Form in Haibun: An Outline” by Jeffrey Woodward here

See an excerpt of “What Happens in [David Cobb’s Conception of] Haibun: A Critical Study for Readers Who Want More.” 

See “What English-Language Haibun Poets Can Learn From Japanese Practices: The Mysteries of an Almost-Heard Birsong First Autumn Abroad” by J. Zimmerman here


1 Patricia Donegan and Yoshie Ishibashi, Chiyo-ni: Woman Haiku Master 1998.
2 Dorothy Britton, A Haiku Journey: Basho’s Narrow Road to a Far Province 1974.
3 Harold G. Henderson, An Introduction to Haiku 1958.
4 Hiroaki Sato, Basho’s Narrow Road: Spring & Autumn Passages 1996.
5 Britton 1974.
6 Sato 1996.
7 Lewis Mackenzie, The Autumn Wind: A Selection from the Poems of Issa 1984.
8 Donegan and Ishibashi 1998.
9 Sam Hamill, The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku by Kobayashi Issa 1997.
10 Mackenzie 1984.
11 Hamill 1997.
12 Bruce Ross, Journey to the Interior: American Versions of Haibun 1998.
13 Jack Kerouac, Albert Saijo, Lew Welch, Trip Trap: Haiku on the Road 1998.
14 Cor van den Heuvel, “Foreword”, Sato 1996.
15 Sato, 1998 and Hamill 1997.
16 Stewart Dybek, “Toward A New Form”, Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories, Robert Shapard and James Thomas, eds. 1986.
17 Elizabeth St. Jacques, email letter to the author, 28 August 1999.
18 Michael D. Welch, Wedge of Light 1999.
19 George Swede, email letter to the author, 28 August 1999.
20 Rodd Willmot, email letter to the author, 31 August 1999.
21 Sheila Murphy, Mudlark 1998.
22 Sato 1996.

(An earlier version was published in the UK in The Art of Haiku, edited by Gerald England.)

About the writer:
Pam Casto, a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), in Fiction Southeast, in Abstract Magazine, and in OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters. Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips From Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new collection titled Critical Insights: Flash Fiction (2017).

Image: The Moon Bridge at Kameido” by Helen Hyde (1868- 1919). Color woodcut on paper. 13 3/8 x 8 7/8 inches. 1914. Public domain.

Other Articles by Pamelyn Casto:
Essay: Editor Pamelyn Casto’s “Brief and (Likely) Necessary Fiction”
Essay: Pam Casto’s “Flash Fiction: From Flash Text To Flash Film” 
Essay: “Pamelyn Casto’s Annotated Reading List”