Saturday, July 28, 2018

Prompt #319 – The Art of the Moment (Haiku & Haibun)

The Art of the Moment: 
Haiku and Haibun 俳文 

Over the years, I've posted several prompts about haiku and haibun, and I thought this summer might be a good time to revisit these two forms. Enjoy. 

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What Is a Haiku?

Although you’ll find many descriptions of haiku online, there are a few specific elements of the genre that hold true in most cases:

1.     Most haiku  are characterized by the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji ("cutting word") between them. The kireji is a kind of verbal punctuation mark that signals the moment of separation between the two images or ideas and adds meaning to the way the juxtaposed elements are related.

2.     Traditional haiku consist of 17 on (also known as morae though often loosely (and mistakenly) translated as "syllables"), in three phrases of 5, 7, and 5 on, respectively. Modern Japanese haiku (現代俳句 gendai-haiku) are increasingly unlikely to follow the tradition of 17 on or to take nature as their subject, but the use of juxtaposition continues to be honored in both traditional and modern haiku. There is a common, although relatively recent, perception that the images juxtaposed must be directly observed everyday objects or occurrences.

3.     A kigo (seasonal reference) is usually included (this needn’t be the name of a season, although it may be).  A kigo may be some element of a season, even the smallest detail commonly associated with a particular time of year.

In Japanese, haiku are traditionally printed in a single vertical line while haiku in English usually appear in three lines to parallel the three phrases of Japanese haiku.

Haiku Background

Although something other than “mainstream” poetry and very much its own genre, haiku are compact and direct, and are usually written in the present tense with a sense of immediacy (a sense of being “in the moment”). The natural world and our responses to it are integral to haiku. While haiku appear to be light and spontaneous, their writing requires profound reflection and discipline.  Haiku are about spiritual realities, the realities of our every-day lives, and the realities of human and natural world relationships. Most importantly, haiku honor the inside of an experience through attention to the outside.

Despite the brevity of its form, haiku inspire detachment. That is, detachment from self-interest or self-absorption. The best haiku are life-affirming and eternity-conscious. They are spontaneous and unpretentious but are entirely focused and either gently or startlingly profound. Through haiku, both the writer and the reader are invited to reflect upon minute details that lead themselves to larger realities.

The haiku’s origins have been traced to a form of Japanese poetry known as haikai no renga, a form of linked poetry that was practiced widely by Matsuo Bashō and his contemporaries. Bashō infused a new sensibility and sensitivity to this form in the late seventeenth century. He transformed the poetics and turned the hokku (first link in a renga) into an independent poem, later to be known as haiku in the sense that we understand the term today.

In traditional Japanese, the haiku was typically written vertically on the page  (from top to bottom). Each contained seventeen on or sound symbols. The on were usually divided into 3 sections, with the middle one being slightly longer than the others, and often with a pause at the end of the first or second section to divide the haiku into two thoughts or images. These thoughts or images contrasted or pooled to create a sense of insight or heightened awareness and usually involved nature. A kigo (season word) was used to indicate the season or time of year.

However, early translators were mistaken when they assumed that an on was equivalent to a syllable in the English language and that haiku should be written in three lines containing 5,7,and 5 syllables respectively. Although incorrect, these “defining” qualities of haiku are still accepted by many. A more acceptable standard for English-language haiku is 10-20 syllables in 3 lines having a longer second line and shorter first and third lines. Three lines have become the norm, but haiku of one and two lines are also seen, although less frequently. Typically, haiku contain two phrases (or images) that are inherently unrelated but are juxtaposed to show some commonality within a particular experience. That said, the parameters are often stretched depending on content and meaning, and successfully experimental haiku of a single word have been written. A structural feature of the haiku is the kireji, or “cutting word.” In Japanese, kireji is a word used as punctuation, often signifying a question or an emotional subtext. It also signifies a break or pause at the end of a line. In English, cutting words are generally replaced by punctuation like exclamation marks, question marks, and dashes, or less often, commas or ellipses, depending on how sharp a “cut” the author wishes to achieve.

Haiku describe things in a very few words—they never tell, intellectualize, or state feelings outrightly. They never use figures of speech (similes, metaphors, etc.) and should not rhyme, nor do they have titles. Some haiku poets feel that one measure of a haiku’s success is its ability to be reading in a single breath. (Note: The word haiku forms its own plural; haikus is not correct).

How To Write Haiku

1. Bashō said that each haiku should be a thousand times on the tongue. Before writing anything, read many haiku from a range of sources to get a “feel” for the form. Be sure to read some haiku that have been translated from the Japanese, but spend more time on good haiku written in English. Read some of the haiku aloud.

2. After you’ve read many haiku and have a sense of what they’re about, think about an experience that you’ve had.

3. Remember the season in which you had the experience, and then think of a work or phrase that suggests that season. For example, peonies is a season word for spring; snow and ice are season words for winter. A simple phrase like “autumn leaves” can evoke feelings of loneliness and the coming of darkness (shortened days, longer nights) in winter. While many haiku appear to have a nature focus, they are more-specifically based on a seasonal reference that is not necessarily about nature.

4. Organize your thoughts into approximately three lines. First, set the scene, then suggest a feeling and, finally, make an observation or record an action. Use only the most absolutely necessary words. Write in the present tense, don’t use figures of speech, and keep things simple.

5. Be sure to include a contrast or a comparison. Many haiku present one idea for the first two lines and then switch quickly to something else in the third. Alternatively, a single idea is presented in the first line and a switch occurs in the second and third lines. Nearly every haiku has this kind of two-part, juxtapositional structure. A Japanese haiku achieves the shift with what is called a kireji or cutting word, which “cuts” the poem into two parts. One of your goals is to create a “leap” between the two parts of your haiku. Creating a haiku’s two-part structure can become a balancing act because it’s difficult to create just the right equilibrium without making too obvious a connection between the two parts or leaping to a distance that’s unclear or obscure. At the same time, you must work toward sparking the emotions (not ideas) that you want to communicate.

6. Try to think of haiku in terms of your five senses—things you experience directly, not ideas or your interpretation or analysis of “things.” Think in terms of sensory description and avoid subjective terms.

7. In a nutshell:

focus on a single moment (detach from everything else); recreate that moment in words,

write simply and clearly,

forget about 5,7,5 syllabic structure (start with about 10-20 syllables in three-line format),

include a season word,

make sure you create a two-part juxtapositional structure,

include a shift between the two parts of your haiku,

avoid figures of speech, rhyming, anything forced or contrived.


Haibun is a prosimetric (written partly in prose and partly in verse) literary form that originated in Japan, which combines prose and haiku. The range of haibun is expansive and often includes autobiography, diary, essay, prose poem, short story and travel journal.

Interestingly, haibun offers an approach to the way a poem situates itself without being fully entrenched. It also offers both writer and reader a way to travel without getting lost. It’s almost as if haibun give writers and readers a new a refreshing perspective on an experience while focusing  strongly on nature and landscape.  

Described simply, haibun combine prose (what may be considered a prose poem) with a haiku. Most often, a haiku brings a piece of prose writing to closure as a kind of insightful postscript. Another way of looking at the form is to think of haibun as highly focused witness to, or recollection of, a journey composed of a prose poem and ending with a meaningful whisper (a haiku). What the writer hopes to achieve is an elegant and insightful block of prose (usually a paragraph or two) that concludes with a relevant haiku.

There is endless room for experimentation in haibun. Traditionalists suggest that the haibun must precede a single haiku, but other “configurations” may be used.

Here are some general (but not written in stone) attributes of haibun:

1. 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”).

2. Concentrated use of sensory detail.

3. Use of a seasonal word or phrase—something that suggests a time of year without overtly stating it.

4. Incorporation of a “turn," or a sudden change (when included, this is sometimes found in the third line of the prose section.

5. Unlike haiku, haibun typically have titles.

How to Write a Haibun

The haibun is the combination of two poems: a prose poem and haiku. The form was popularized by the 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. Both the prose poem and haiku typically communicate with each other, though poets employ different strategies for this communication—some doing so subtly, while others are more direct.

The haibun usually describes a scene or moment in an objective manner. Think of subjects relating to either a physical or a spiritual journey to write a traditional haibun. Many haibun begin with the prose section first, with one haiku following it, but as with most poetic forms you can write your haibun however you choose.  For your first try, though, work with the prose followed by a single haiku format.

1.  Remember that a haibun is not a short story—it doesn’t have a beginning, a middle, and an end in the way that we understand short stories. 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.  Begin by thinking of a time in your life when you experienced a journey of some kind. This may be an actual trip or it may be the simple narrative of a special moment in your 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. You may choose to write in the past or present tense.

3. The haibun prose should be similar in appearance to a prose-poem, usually presented in block form.  When typed, a paragraph with justified margins followed by a double space and then a haiku.

4. 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.

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

6. The haibun’s haiku do connect to the prose, but in the best haibun, the haiku do not directly continue the narrative. Nor do the haiku explain the prose. 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. The connection may not be immediately obvious, but that’s okay.

7. 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.


Don't accept the first haiku that comes to you after writing the prose. Find a word or image in the prose to expand.

Haibun prose is best if kept to a single theme with sensory detail, the haiku crystallizes the experience.

Make each word count in the prose text, as you would in a prose poem (your prose part should be tightly constructed), and remember that the prose is not an explanation of the haiku.

The juxtaposition of prose and haiku is important.

The prose should add to the depth with which we experience the haiku: the haiku is not a linear (sequential) continuation of the prose, so avoid the linear in your capping haiku: take a right angle turn. Haiku should link to but not repeat what the prose has said.

Use symbolism in your haibun to deepen the emotional impact.

End with a surprise, not a narrative resolution.


A chattering wind brings down the leaves. Remnants of bagworm and chestnut lie in the tangle. After long highway miles, I return to the mountains and the trees, to the old house that waits, tucked asleep, in an arm of the Adirondacks. Abandoned now, overgrown with bracken and vines, it sits sideways beside the creek, facing the forest instead of the road. After years of wandering through ruins I should have been prepared for this, but I never expected the tumbled chimney, the broken windows, the foundation shifted and cracked, the piece of clapboard that hangs at the side of the house like a broken arm.

the empty mountain house

falls into


The air turns colder. Like a hard breath blown through God’s lips, it strikes a tamarack’s stringed tongue. The tamarack trembles and moans. I shiver. I can hear the creek as it stumbles over stones, a tired tenor losing its voice. In the open field near the house, wild geese wake. In a sudden rush of wings, they remember the victory of flight.

between the stars

and the mountains,

a vee of migrating geese

There is nothing to reclaim here. Everything changes, but memory is holy. Tonight I celebrate the past as I walk to the cusp of our hill where an old iron bridge crosses the water. Somewhere on the edge of the night sky a small light begins to shine. It will gather momentum and fill the dark places. Forever is there, a glass bell that time rings through.

October mist—

only a stranger crossing

to the other side of the bridge 

(Excerpted and adapted from “Only a Stranger” by Adele Kenny, 
first published in Journey to the Interior, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 
Edited by Bruce Ross, 1998)

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