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learning: Haibun Uncaged

Haibun Uncaged Paresh Tiwari One of the earliest definitions of haibun that I came across, explained contemporary haibun as ‘a combination of prose and haiku poetry’, sometimes described as ‘a narrative of an epiphany’.

Haibun at the fundamental level might be seen as blocks of prose interspersed with haiku. And that’s how simple it could be, only it isn’t. A good haibun plays with a delicate balance where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The haiku when used right, links, shifts and leaps beyond the scope of the prose to enrich the reading experience. If the prose is a meandering path, the haiku are birdcalls. They guide the travellers, not by holding their hand but by telling them that there is more to be explored. The haiku often allow the reader a toe inside the door, or a window to be privy to a parallel scene unfolding in the street below without ever leaving the room. They offer a different vantage point, a new strain of thought.

My poems have primarily dealt with the narratives of desires, deliriums, dissent, anxiety and regrets. I have tried other forms, but haibun helps me expand the scope of what I say. It helps me find the link and shift between the falling of a leaf and a goodbye kiss.

And yet I know that haibun might still be the most ill-understood forms of poetry out there. Haiku is often seen as an exercise in counting syllables and haibun as a mixed form that generates mild curiosity but nothing more amongst non-practitioners of the form.

Haiku’s and by extension haibun’s democratic accessibility may also have had a role to play in an apparent demotion of the form from the higher echelons of literature. Haiku’s brevity and apparent simplicity has often been its Achilles heel. Twitter and Instagram have played a stellar role in turning banal descriptions, aphorisms or pop-philosophy into #haiku. The haiku poets over a period of time walled themselves in isolated groups, further widening the chasm between mainstream poetry and Japanese short forms.

In the past three years or so, I (along with countless other practitioners of the forms) have been steadily working towards broadening the acceptance of haiku and haibun in the literary community. My attempts to present haibun alongside mainstream poetry – be it in readings, lit fests or in anthologies and books – is about breaking down the walls segregating various forms of poetry. This has been done without any overt attempt to explain the form (I have always found that sort of self-defeating). I have ever had a utopian belief that good literature must work beyond the barriers of form, but I must admit that I have met with only limited success.

That brings me to the subject of this musing. Do we need to rethink the structure of haibun prose to enable assimilation, wider acceptance and as a natural step forward in the evolution of this form?

Michael McClintock in an interview with Susumu Takiguchi, World Haiku Review, had said:-

[Haibun’s] potential is enormous and hardly explored. There need be few or any constraints at all, except that it be written as an aesthetic whole, not a fragment. And that it includes haiku as a part of that whole, not as a mere attachment … Beyond that fundamental proposition, we should not encumber ourselves with any assumptions about the content or style of delivery for English-language haibun … The haibun is open to a huge range of expression: from the surreal and dreamlike to straight discursive narrative — even journalism: from impressionistic writing to exposition and storytelling, meditation and the personal diary … Unusual effects can be achieved, to the say the least, if compared to prose or poetry alone. In my opinion, haibun offers a kind of synoptic clarity and hybrid vigour that cannot be matched.

These words give me heart. They also goad me to experiment with the typical structure of prose that I have been following (I do understand that a lot of more accomplished haibuneers have been dismantling this structure for a while now).

I have almost always felt most comfortable in lines that represent sound-units, with an intuitive movement to break lines on grammatical phrases and clauses, to end-stop lines with punctuation. This most definitely comes from the fact that I have until very recently seen and explored haibun as a tapestry of prose and haiku. The prose then naturally functions in sentences instead of lines. I would like to see myself take more risks with my prose. I would like to allow tension and surprise to seep into how I break my sentences.

Logenbach, in The Art of the Poetic Line, says, “The line is no arbitrary unit, no ruler, but a dynamic force that works in conjunction with other elements of the poem: the syntax of the sentences, the rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables, and the resonance of similar sounds.”

He further points out that there are three types of lines: those that parse the syntax by ending the line on a grammatical phrase ending, those that annotate the syntax by ending the line in the middle of a grammatical phrase, and those that are end-stopped on a piece of punctuation. There is no one line shape better than another, but only that “dynamic force” that builds in how they all interact with the other poetic elements. “No particular line is valuable except in as much as it performs a dramatic function in relationship to other lines in a particular poem: one kind of line ending becomes powerful because of its relationship to other kinds of line endings”. Thus, if we don’t take hold of the responsibility for this drama of our lines, we’re inviting staleness into our work.

Mary Oliver (in A Poetry Handbook) says, “It takes no more than two or three lines for a rhythm, and a feeling of pleasure in that rhythm, to be transferred from the poem to the reader… A meaningful rhythm will invite. A meaningless rhythm will dissuade.”

The question, however, remains, if line becomes the unit of prose in haibun, how would a haibun then be any different from a poem. The answer probably lies in the second part of the definition stated in the opening lines of this essay – a narrative of an epiphany. As Ken Jones has said elsewhere, “I expect haibun prose to be light handed, elusive, open-ended, playful and even ironic, ‘in the style of haiku’. And at a deeper, existential, level should we not expect something of that ambiguity and mystery found in the best haiku?”

Often in a haibun, we have two parallel realities, related, but with different rhythms. A haibun is essentially a linked form. Even when (in some rare cases) it decides to eschew the haiku. The link is much more internal to the rhythm of a haibun, which I believe cannot merely break down just because the prose part is written with more focus towards using all the dynamic power offered by the three kinds of line endings.

It is here that I would like to bring out as an example, one of the more exciting uses of line breaks that I have come across recently in a haibun. The following haibun by Shloka Shankar appeared in the September 19 edition of Haibun Today.

The Twins

According to the U.S. census, more twins are born under Gemini than any other zodiac sign.

I’m ruled by the twins but I’m sans siblings. Mercurial? Probably.

I might not even follow this train of thought long enough for you to…

in media res my story and yours

I read somewhere (I know where but I’d rather not say) that our little Gemini hearts contain, would you believe it, secret rooms. Yes. Plural. Most of mine are locked. Barricaded. Years of disuse. Maybe one, okay, two of them might contain a trunk full of notes-to-self, contradictory pieces of an unfinished jigsaw.

It also said (quite flatteringly) that we often paint the sky our own shade of blue. I pick lapis lazuli. Or cobalt. Cerulean? Give it a few days, will you?

starry night … I stop connecting the dots

I would like to go out on a limb to say, that this piece wouldn’t work nearly as well if the prose parts were flatter. More horizontally spaced so to speak. If the poet had eschewed the responsibility of line breaks and instead stuck to sentences with end-punctuations, thereby sacrificing the palpable melody of this piece, I think the haibun would have lacked some of its vitality.

It is our habitual expectation – when we see a passage of prose – is that it will explain, not sing. The information-giving sentence (logical, functional, linear) is the conveyor belt that carries the business of our lives. As the critic D.W Harding noted in his study of rhythm in literature, ‘all the prose we ever read is chopped up into lines; we rightly pay no attention to them.’ This is because page margins do not mark metre as line breaks do. Yet it is not uncommon for verse-like currents to eddy beneath the placid surface of prose in a haibun. I would like to see more haibuneers (including myself) free up the rhythm inherent to prose in a haibun.

This is not to say that a typical ‘haikai prose’ with one or several juxtaposed haiku needs to be shunned in favour of something more experimental. Au contraire, even in its traditional form, Haibun has seen slow but steady growth in the world of literature. More and more people are writing and reading it. But experiments with line breaks (along with diversification of the subjects that are handled) would be the next step in the progression of this wild and lush form.

To me the road head looks daunting and inviting. Both in equal measures.

This essay was originally published in: OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L)


107 views3 comments


May 18

What a wonderful piece of writing and possibilities of haibun. Thank you so much.


neena singh
neena singh
Sep 20, 2021

Paresh your literary article on haibun is delightful and I will need to read it many times to grasp its full content. Thanks for sharing Shloka’s unique haibun. Much to learn!

Having said that, allow me to compliment you on your haibun read earlier—truly exceptional!


Firdaus Parvez
Firdaus Parvez
Sep 06, 2021

very interesting. I write a lot of free verse poetry which is in a narrative style; i've experimented with adding haiku with it. Shloka's haibun is beautiful.

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