Saturday, August 2, 2014

Prompt #194 – Circling the Pine: Haibun and the Spiral Image by Guest Blogger Penny Harter

Following Ken Ronkowitz's guest blog on “ronka (July 12, 2014), I'm happy to introduce you to Penny Harter, a distinguished poet whose work in haiku-related forms is internationally known. Penny has been widely published in journals and anthologies throughout the U.S. and abroad, and she has been awarded three poetry fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, as well as awards from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Mary Carolyn Davies Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the first William O. Douglas Nature Writing Award, and a fellowship from VCCA for a residency in 2011. She visits schools for the New Jersey Writers Project of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. This week, Penny leads us through a detailed understanding of the Japanese poetry form called haibun. I hope you'll  enjoy writing some haibun of your own, and I hope you'll visit Penny online: Penny's WebsitePenny's BlogPenny's Books at

From Penny:

Although I write free-verse poems, prose poems, short stories and mini-stories, reviews, essays and educational articles, in recent months I have increasingly fallen under the spell of haibun. Haibun, with its mix of prose and poetry fascinates me. Originally conceived by Basho in his Narrow Road to the Deep North as a travel journal—and still sometimes written as one—haibun in the west can also capture an interior, spiritual and /or emotional journey.

The Haiku Society of America defines haibun as follows: “A haibun is a terse, relatively short prose poem in the haikai [all haiku-related literature] style, usually including both lightly humorous and more serious elements. A haibun usually ends with a haiku.
“Notes: Most haibun range from well under 100 words to 200 or 300. Some longer haibun may contain a few haiku interspersed between sections of prose. In haibun the connections between the prose and any included haiku may not be immediately obvious, or the haiku may deepen the tone, or take the work in a new direction, recasting the meaning of the foregoing prose, much as a stanza in a linked-verse poem revises the meaning of the previous verse . . . .” (HSA Definitions).          

In our book, The Haiku Handbook, my late husband, William J. (Bill) Higginson, reflects on haibun written in the West: “Like haiku, haibun begins in the everyday events of the author’s life. These events occur as minute particulars of object, person, place, action. The author recognizes that these events connect with others in the fabric of time and literature, and weaves a pattern demonstrating this connection. And if this writing is to be truly haibun, the author does this with a striking economy of language, without any unnecessary grammar, so that each word carries rich layers of meaning.”  (221) Bill goes on to say: Bringing the spareness of haiku poetry to prose gives us the best of autobiography and familiar essay—the actions, events, people, places, and recollections of life lived—without weighing them down with sentimentality, perhaps the greatest enemy of art and life.” (221)
What haiku contribute to haibun prose feels akin to the process of linking in the communal poetry called renku. I've always enjoyed writing renku—a process that requires one to come up with verses that turn a corner—”move away”—with respect to each preceding verse, but still connect in mood, tone, image, or theme. In renku-writing, this is often referred to as “link and shift.” If the haiku in a haibun work well, they both anchor the piece and let it go. Or, they simultaneously frame it and break the frame.

I deliberately decided to experiment with writing haibun in three ways: writing original haibun, shifting longer narrative poems into haibun, and turning prose poems into haibun. Hopefully, sharing my process with you will encourage you to experiment in similar ways.

I. Writing Original Haibun

I wrote the following two poems as haibun. My husband, died in October of 2008. While writing my way through grief into healing, I often found myself using haibun. Here’s a piece from December of 2008, only a few months after Bill’s death. It’s now published in Recycling Starlight, my chapbook of poems processing grief. I was seeking light and had heard that there was going to be a huge moon that December:

Moon-Seeking Soup
Last night when the December moon was closer to the Earth than it had been in years, huge on the horizon, blazing hills and craters, I saw it too late, too high in the sky. Still, I could almost count the peaks that held the sun.

Tonight, after slicing red  potatoes, yams, carrots, onions, and garlic into a base of chicken broth; after shaking a delicate rain of basil and tarragon onto the surface and stirring those sweet spices in—while the soup simmered, I threw on a jacket over my nightclothes and ran out to look for the moon. My slippered feet were cold as I searched the sky, wanting to raise my face into white light.

But there was no moon, no glow over the apartment roofs to say it was rising, so I came back in and stirred my soup, raising the ladle to my lips to taste again and again the dark fruits of the Earth.
        moon-seeking soup—
        my own face reflected
        in the broth

I wanted to see that light after two months of deep mourning, wanted to be lifted up and out of myself into that sky. But I was also deeply involved with the “fruits of the Earth” as I stirred my soup—and that’s why I listed all its ingredients. The final haiku came as I bent over the cauldron of soup—although I didn’t actually see my face. Instead, I realized that I was still bound to the Earth, and that rather than escape into the sky, I needed to stay in the place I was, grieving and healing. This haiku is more closely related to the main narrative than those in many haibun, though it does jump to “my own face.”

Interestingly, a year later, having moved and begun a new life, I found myself again writing a December haibun, this time reflecting the kindness of a neighbor who brought me light:
Winter Stars
My neighbor fills her winter garden with oaktag cut-outs of red and yellow stars—hangs them from her bird feeder or glues them atop the planting sticks she's left in the dirt between withered blooms. Yesterday, she knocked on my door, and I opened it to find her hands overflowing with stars—each hole-punched and threaded with yarn—a new constellation for these days of early dark.
“These are for you to hang places,” she said simply, knowing of my need for joy this Christmas season. As we smiled and hugged one another, I received them in my cupped hands. Now stars dangle from my doorknobs and brighten shadowed corners—an unexpected gift of light.
     moon splinters
     on the river—the glint
     of ice floes

Here, the haiku is also both literal and metaphorical, and it does shift farther from the narrative than the haiku in the preceding example. I live near a river, and there had been ice floes floating in it. The river’s current that winter seemed akin to my process of healing—my encountering more and more glints of light—as in my neighbor’s kindness. The haiku does not focus on her and the gift she brought, yet it connects in mood and theme.

II. Shifting a Narrative Poem Into a Haibun

When one takes a narrative poem and transforms it into a haibun, something quite different happens to the original poem. A good poem may already reverberate in several directions, ripple with associations. But recasting that poem into poetic prose and adding haiku opens it up even further—precisely because the haiku shift the focus enough that it becomes a different work. They expand upon the original perception. In the following two examples, you can see how my original narrative poems changed when I translated them into haibun. The following poem felt unfinished, lacking enough “punch” to capture the experience”

    Estell Manor State Park
    That gray day, wind soughed in the pines,
    and oaks arced full over trails that faded
    into green or snaked into a density
    of swamp and lichened trunks.
    We walked a narrow road around
    the wooded heart, wondering which trail
    would claim us first until the wind
    caught a dead limb and tossed it
    down before us—the loud crack
    fusing with its swift descent.
    We said the usual things: what if
    we’d been a few yards further along,
    or a car had been there—then cautiously
    pressed on, although we stopped
    to drag the heavy branch aside
    before we left the loop road for a trail
    that led us deeper in.

The haibun version, for me, has more power because of the haiku framing it:

             Estell Manor State Park
    turkey buzzard—
    red beak into its own
    black wing          
That gray day, wind soughed in the pines, and oaks arced full over trails that faded into green or snaked into a density of swamp and lichened trunks.
We walked a narrow road around the wooded heart, wondering which trail would claim us first until the wind caught a dead limb and tossed that full weight down before us—the loud crack fused with its swift descent.
We said the usual things: what if we’d been a few yards further along . . . or if a car . . . then cautiously pressed on, although we stopped to drag the heavy branch aside before we left the loop road for a trail.   
    night thoughts—
    my heartbeat quickens
    in this dark

In first draft, this haibun included only the last haiku. However, a friend suggested it needed something more at the beginning. I added the opening haiku because I did see that turkey buzzard in the park, and the irony of the fact that it usually sinks its red beak into carrion struck me at the time. Thinking about how close my friend and I had come to being seriously injured, or even killed, it seemed a fitting intro to the mood and content of the haibun. The closing haiku, though amplifying the earlier fear, can also be a universal experience. We all know about those thoughts that can visit us in the pre-dawn hours.

III. Turning a Prose-poem into a Haibun

The same reverberating circles of meaning can happen when haiku are added to open up a prose-poem. Since I felt the original needed more punch, I shifted the following prose-poem into a haibun. In the process, I even changed the title:

No Other Place
Two hawks circle far above, afternoon sunlight gilding their wings as their shadows swiftly cross the road before me. In red canyons of the West, ravens ride the thermals, their harsh calls dark as the storm clouds that shadow the ridges.
There is no other place but here where the gas burner spurts blue, steam hisses from the kettle, and a clock on the wall keeps time above a granite counter-top chilled by mountain winds.
Here where hawks prey on the living, ravens descend on the dead. Between my palm a cup of black tea deepens.

And now, the haibun version:

Keeping Time
Two hawks circle far above, afternoon sunlight gilding their wings as their shadows swiftly cross the road before me.

In red canyons of the West, ravens ride the thermals, their harsh calls dark as the storm clouds that shadow the ridges.

    again that dream
    of refuge in a cave
    above the river
There is no other place but here where the gas burner spurts blue, steam hisses from the kettle, and a clock on the wall keeps time above a granite counter-top chilled by mountain winds.
Hawks prey on the living, ravens descend on the dead. Between my palm a cup of black tea deepens.

    squatting beneath
    the hammock, a child
    digs a hole to China

The title change happened because I felt the entire piece was, as is much of my work, about the mystery of time passing vs. the eternal present—perhaps feeling both are one. The first haibun emerged from memories of caves seen in the walls of several red-rock canyons of the West, and the desire for safety from any kind of storm. And the second haiku, from a childhood memory of me doing just that—as well as an association between the tea “deepening” and the deepening hole I, the child, believed I could dig in the dirt.
For me, the basis of all poetry writing begins in synthesis—like Indra’s web. One can pluck the web of one’s experience at any node, and the whole thing vibrates. A good poem connects the thing perceived with the perceiver, as does a good haiku. Basho is reputed to have said, “To write of the pine, go to the pine.” But in a good haibun, we go to the pine—and then through the haiku we follow the pine’s roots, or needles and cones as they fall—spiraling farther and farther afield while still orbiting the pine—still linked to the original image.

I encourage you to try writing haibun in any of the ways I’ve shared. You may also fall under haibun’s spell. It can be an exciting and rewarding process.

IV. Tips for Writing Haibun

1.  A haibun is not a short story. A haibun relates a journey, whether the travel is a physical exploration of the world or an internal journey of spiritual and/or emotional discovery. It should take the reader somewhere—from here to there.

2. Both the prose and haiku should be image-centered. Trim the language in the prose section to its essence. The prose portion can be written in sentence fragments or complete sentences.

3. The haibun prose should be more akin to a prose-poem. And rather than in paragraph format, the prose is usually presented in blocks. Some contemporary haibun are even in verse form with haiku indented before and between stanzas, or at the poem’s end.

4. There is no set length to a haibun. It can be one paragraph with one haiku, or several pages with haiku interspersed throughout.

5. Many haibun are simply narratives of special moments in a person’s life. Like haiku, haibun often begin in everyday events—minute particulars of object, person, place, and/or action. Haibun are usually autobiographical and personal, and most often written in present tense.

6. However, some haibun published in contemporary journals also recount actual travels,  memories, dreams, and fantasies.

7. The haibun’s haiku do connect to the prose, but in the best haibun, the haiku do not directly continue the narrative. Instead, they relate in theme, mood, or tone. Inserting the haiku into the haibun is like throwing a stone into a pond—causing ripples of association.

8. If you google “journals that publish haibun” you will find plenty of examples on-line.

Works Cited

The Haiku Handbook. Tokyo, Japan:  Kodansha International: Penny Harter co-author with William J. Higginson. 25th anniversary edition 2010, non-fiction. Kodansha USA, 2013. 

Recycling Starlight.
Eugene, Oregon: Mountains and Rivers Press, 2010, poems. 

One Bowl. Ormskirk, United Kingdom: Snapshot Press, 2012, poems (prizewinning e-book of haibun). 

The Resonance Around Us. Eugene, Oregon: Mountains and Rivers Press, 2013, poems and  haibun.

Special Thanks and Acknowledgment

Thanks to Wiggerman, Scott and David Meischen for permission to quote portions of my essay “Circling the Pine: Haibun and the Spiral Web” from Wingbeats: Exercises and Practice in Poetry.  Austin Texas, Dos Gatos Press, 2011. 


Thank you, Penny!


  1. Wow, thank you Penny Harter and Adele! There's a lot to read and much to savor, especially those wonderful examples. I really love the idea of mixing prose passages with haiku. It's all happening here on 'The Music In It'.

    1. Thanks, Jamie! I hope you do write some haibun. And thanks again to Adele for inviting me to guest on her wonderful blog.

    2. Thanks, Jamie! So glad you like this one!

  2. Saturday morning: check the poetry blog time, and once again, something I plan to take into my classroom next semester.

    It's great to come to this blog and find things akin to lesson plans that my students always enjoy.

    Thank you, Adele. Thank you Penny Harter.

    1. Thanks, Rich! Always happy to help with the lesson plans. :-)

  3. Hi Rich, thanks for enjoying my post. I have had great success encouraging students from 5th grade on up to write good haibun by giving them examples, asking them to "find" the connection between the haiku and the prose (they love this challenge and DO mostly get it), and then turning them loose. Hope you get some good results. And if you google "haibun" you'll find many more examples out there in cyberland. Good luck!

  4. Máire Ó Cathail (Ireland)August 2, 2014 at 11:11 AM

    Just happened to 'tune in' this morning and found so many posts that I've missed (on the road working again).

    Your advice about -ing endings and prepositions is wonderful, and I really like this guest post on haibun.

    My thanks to you and Penny Harter.

    Máire Ó Cathail (Ireland)

    1. So nice to hear from you, Maire! It's been a while. Hope the work travels went well and that you have some time this summer to rest and relax.

  5. Hi Maire, thanks for liking my guest post on Adele's wonderful blog. Hope you write some haibun.

  6. I just noticed the announcement for your new book with the clever counter and trailer. Very nice! Congratulations to you!

    Of course, I pre-ordered -- can't wait to receive read it!

    1. Thanks so much, Kathy! Lovely of you to pre-order!

  7. The counter is really cool! And the trailer is great. Can't wait to see the new book in print! Is that a Magritte painting on the cover? (I'm a long-time fan.)

    This is an interesting prompt with lots of info. I printed it out and will spend time with it. thanks.

    1. Thanks for liking the prompt, Harry. Hope you try writing some haibun.

    2. Yes, Harry, that's Magritte's "The Window." My publisher bought the rights to use it for the cover. I'm thrilled, of course! Thanks for your kind words.

  8. Dear Penny and Adele, Thanks so much for this delightful and challenging prompt. To the detriment of my plans to organize my life, I spent much of yesterday writing and revising (still revising) a haibun.

    1. Hi Gail, So glad you're enjoying haibun! Writing a poem is always more important than organizing, cleaning, doing laundry, grocery shopping, etc. Have fun with your haibun!

    2. Hi Gail, glad you enjoyed the prompt. Happy haibun-ing ;).

  9. Penny: thanks for this challenge!
    Adele: pre-ordered my copy of your new book today. What a blessing.

    1. Ah, Risa! I'm sure this form of poetry will be a good fit for your style—a bit of prose and then one of your concise reflections on life. Hope you'll post something for us—your work is always respected and deeply appreciated.

      Thanks so much for ordering the new book!

    2. Thanks, Risa...hope you write some good haibun as a result ;).

    3. oh dear no comments on my post oh dear was it that bad???

    4. So sorry, Risa, I didn't see your poem until just now!

    5. Risa, I did send a post in response to your whimsical haibun. Maybe Adele just hasn't seen it yet. If it doesn't post soon, I'll write a new one.

  10. Oh, my goodness! I took a haiku workshop with Penny Harter about a million years ago. I can't even remember where or exactly when. I just remember that it was wonderful, and I've written haiku on and off ever since (just for myself, I don't submit to journals -- too cowardly, I suppose).

    Now I have a whole new way to write and incorporate my haiku. I'm going to use some I've already written and see if I can compose appropriate prose to go with them.

    This is great -- perfect to fill the lazy days of August!

    Thank you, Penny Harter. Thank you, Adele.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ed! It's great to know that Penny's workshop inspired you and that you've been writing haiku since. All the best with your haibun.

    2. Penny HarterAugust 4, 2014 at 12:35 PM

      Wow, Ed! I wish I remembered where or when that workshop was, too. I'm SO glad you enjoyed it and have written haiku on and off ever since. I know you will enjoy experimenting with haibun, and yes, a good thought is to try to compose prose to go with some haiku you have already written. Just see if you can frame the haiku so that the haiku "move away but still connect in theme or mood" to the main narrative of your prose. Have fun, and thanks for your kind words about my long-ago workshop!:). Also, thanks again to Adele for the invitation to guest blog.

  11. Really enjoyed your insights into the craft and your own moving and delicate haibun too, Penny. I know exactly what you mean re changing a free verse poem into haibun and watching it flower and expand. Recycling is good! And thanks, Adele, for the blog-post.

    1. Dear Lynne, I'm so glad you enjoyed both my post and my haibun---thanks for those kind words about the haibun! From your comment I see that you also write both free verse and haibun. Love your description of "watching it flower and expand." And yes, recycling is good--and fun!

    2. Thanks so much for your comment, Lynne! I agree with you and Penny in regard to recycling!

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. Thanks, Penny, for your interesting guest prompt. Seems a million years since I've seen you or heard you read, but Adele tells me that you're going to read at the Carriage House next year. Hope to see you there. Be well, and thanks for the great read.

  14. Hi Bob, thanks so much for liking my guest prompt! Yes, it does seem a long time since we've seen one another. I look forward to seeing you again and to my reading at the Carriage House....and thanks again to Adele both for the invitation to guest blog and for the reading invitation.

  15. That bee!
    Oh! There he is!
    Thank goodness he's still alive!
    He comes in now twice a day. You see, we have no screens, so all kinds of flying things come in, including the mosquitoes. I can do without those little black vampires. But the bee. The bee is here for me. I attentively watch its fuzzy body to guard him from the furry cat who is too curious.

    Honey bee honey
    Honey do this honey don't
    No money no honey no

    Honey from the bee
    Comb my hair honeycomb bee
    Life is short for us

    1. Ah, here it is, Risa! So sorry I missed this earlier. I really like your light and whimsical tone. Thanks so much for sharing!

    2. Hi Risa, Adele says my comment didn't come through, so I'm reposting it: I enjoy the light and humorous tone of your piece---especially the word play in your first haiku. I also like your mosquito description (vampires) and the idea of the honeycomb bee coming your hair. Fun!

  16. Thank you, Penny for the haibun. It definitely was new and challenging. It took the whole week to manifest. Thanks, Adele for posting Penny! Your comments mean so much to me.