Tuesday Tryouts: Haibun — Poetry and Prose Hand in Hand

11 Oct

8:32 a.m. — Atlanta

Yo-kay! Here we go. I hope everyone is well. I thought this might be a good time to present the haibun form to you, as I know many of you participated in haiku month. Now you can take your haiku skills and expand them.

Basho, the 17th century Japanese poet-monk, was a proponent of this form and wrote haibun as a narrative on his travels. Haibun is still used as a travel narrative, but has expanded to include narrative on ordinary moments in life.

List moments from your past few days that are specific, single aspects of an object, person, place, or event. They do not have to be earth-shattering, only a moment, or experience, you want to share.

Haibun fascinates me as a form. It is a combination of poetry and poetic prose. The relationship between the two, has been described as elliptical.  Most of us can probably write  a haiku and a bit of poetic prose, but to write them so they have an elliptical relationship? This is the tricky part.

Two parts of the meaning of elliptical pertain: that the language is concise, no irrelevant words, or comments; and that the relationship is not necessarily obvious, often ambiguous, cryptic, or obscure. At the same time we want our readers to be able to take away a truth from the poem.

From your list of moments, pick one of the aspects and freewrite the epiphany/scene/vignette/moment. This can, and probably will, form your prose. What aspect of what you are writing about do you want to point to, or emphasise, or shine a spotlight on? This will be the basis of your haiku.

Robert D. Wilson editor of Haiku Today tells us: “Haiku [must]… relate to previous prose sections yet not be an extension of the prose. The oblique but relevant association between haiku and prose is the defining moment of the haibun. … The haiku link offers readers a springboard to multiple, and often unexpected, meanings.”

“The one rule, which seems to have come down over the years, is that the [haiku] should not qualify the prose…the haiku should “leap” to a subject which might compliment the prose by juxtaposition.”— Janice M. Bostok in an interview with Rosanna Licari, Stylus Poetry Journal, August 2003.

The prose does not explain the haiku, but should add a layer to our understanding of the haiku. Depending on its position, before or after the prose, the haiku should not act as an introduction to, or continuation of, the prose. Each part can stand alone, but working together they provide a larger whole for us to understand.

Decide which should lead in your haibun. For yourself, try both, haiku first, haiku last. Your inner ear will help you know which one works best for your haibun.

The building blocks of haibun are one prose paragraph + one haiku; or, one haiku + one prose paragraph. The paragraph can be from 50 to 180 words. Sometimes, writers sandwich the prose with two haiku, but that is rare. Read the example below and then try it with the haiku first. Figure out why Zimmerman placed the haiku after the prose. What difference does it make to the poem, when the haiku starts it?

Missing Man

Mid-November after I rake the leaves I stand at Central and First,
holding the Stars and Bars. All of them died in Nam — my brother Joe,
my cousin Freddy, mom’s youngest brother Jack. Sometimes I just have
to come out on the streets and stand with my flag. There’s no parade.

The smell of burning
could be diesel
could be napalm

J. Zimmerman
First published in Frogpond 34:1 (Winter, 2011)

Note in the above example that the haiku loosely follows the traditional form. Probably, before starting you will wish to read examples of contemporary haibun. You will see that many of the haiku loosely follow the form, especially with syllables. I think, with haiku, the most important part to keep, is the caesura, the stop point, which occurs after either the first, or second line, like a momentary holding of the breath.

So, go to it. I think this form will be fun to play with. Remember that it’s fine to post first drafts and that you do not have to get a form spot on while learning it. If you are worried, include process notes that tell us what you think works, and doesn’t work. Then we all learn. So, please do post. Anytime is fine, including weeks later [but not if you are using the loose deadline to put it off!]. I am happy to give personal deadlines to those who need them. Periodically you might wander back to a previous Tuesday Tryout to see if anyone has newly posted.

I shall see you Friday for the prompts roundup [yes, I do envision myself with a lasso]; and I will be dark next week — it’s Fall Break and Disney World. My first visit.

Happy writing, all.


Posted by on 11/10/2011 in exercises, poetry, writing


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37 responses to “Tuesday Tryouts: Haibun — Poetry and Prose Hand in Hand

  1. wordsandthoughtspjs

    11/10/2011 at 10:16 am

    Margo, this is not scary at all:) I have written two haibuns. I have my 2 hour journey to work by bus today, hopefully I will become inspired. I will be back in a couple days with something. Thanks.


    • margo roby

      11/10/2011 at 10:46 am

      Pamela, I had a feeling you would like this one. I look forward to seeing what you find.


  2. teri

    11/10/2011 at 11:15 am

    Margo- I am away on vacation and just now finished writing my first small stone in 5 days. And though all I have is my cell phone and my whole body aches from hiking, I just wanted to tell you I cannot wait to read what everyone writes. Xo teri

  3. margo roby

    11/10/2011 at 11:17 am

    Me too, Teri! Keep notes of moments you see/experience!


  4. vivinfrance

    11/10/2011 at 11:42 am

    This one came all of a piece, having just waved goodbye to the female characters:

    • margo roby

      11/10/2011 at 11:47 am

      Boy, are you fast, ViV. I’m excited to go over and read the piece.


  5. pmwanken

    11/10/2011 at 11:43 am

    margo, my friend…

    i have written from a place that is much different than from even a week ago…thanks to you and others….here’s my attempt at a haibun!

    ~ Paula

  6. margo roby

    11/10/2011 at 11:48 am

    Okay, now y’all just trying to make me feel bad 😉 Do you know how long it takes me to cogitate something like this?! I’m heading your way, Paula.


  7. Donald Harbour

    11/10/2011 at 12:25 pm

    For Bhudda’s sake, don’t go reading too much into this, it’s a Haibun,

    On Life’s Stage

    • margo roby

      11/10/2011 at 12:46 pm

      Don! How lovely to see you. I’ll head right over…and I never read too much into a poem. I am so trained in the speaker is never the poet, that my assumption is always so.

  8. Mike Patrick

    11/10/2011 at 4:27 pm

    An interesting weekend helped me out. The narrative will still need some work to be called a narrative poem.

    • margo roby

      11/10/2011 at 4:42 pm

      Et tu, Mike? I don’t know why I thought this form might give people pause for thought. I am heading over.


  9. nan

    12/10/2011 at 6:55 am

    Margo- I hadn’t read this until just after I posted a haibun (or what I hope is a haibun… my prose section is too long), and I have been thinking of haibun all week as the prompt I picked to suggest for We Write Poems this week. I love your explanation! I will be adding this post as a link within mine! Thanks!

    • margo roby

      12/10/2011 at 7:41 am

      Don’t you love when things come together, Nan?! I am glad you are posting haibun as a prompt, as that will make me write one!


  10. Ruth

    12/10/2011 at 3:57 pm

    Ok, for this I used the identical ‘moment’ I did in yesterday’s form poem (a Welsh form I couldn’t resist trying), refashioned it into something resembling poetic prose and added an epiphanic haiku to meet the requirements for haibun. Here it is then:

  11. wordsandthoughtspjs

    12/10/2011 at 9:22 pm

    Margo, thanks for the prompt. I had a wonderful time writing to it. I saw a wonderful image on Tuesday. Made me catch my breath a bit.

    Outside the City


    • margo roby

      14/10/2011 at 5:48 pm

      I can’t wait to see, Pamela. If you like this form, you’ll be able to use it again when you see moments like this.


  12. Mary

    12/10/2011 at 10:04 pm

    I love the Haibun form! Thank you for featuring it this week. When I write one, it always makes me feel peaceful for some reason. Here is my effort:

    • margo roby

      14/10/2011 at 5:50 pm

      Mary, you are right. That must be why I like the form so much. I do feel peaceful, or centered when I read a haibun, so if that is how I will feel writing one, I really must break through my current block — yes, I usually write a form before asking you to, but it didn’t work this time.


  13. Mary

    14/10/2011 at 6:47 pm

    I hope you will be able to break through your writing block soon, Margo. I keep looking for your haibun.

  14. Annette

    16/10/2011 at 12:53 pm

    This was a fun form. I had to cogitate on it for awhile too. I particularly like the example you posted on your page. I love the imagery and the jump. It helped with forming mine.

    • margo roby

      16/10/2011 at 1:34 pm

      Hi Annette! I found it difficult to find a good haibun example that would show the jump, but this one does the job. I’ll head over now and read yours.


      • Annette

        16/10/2011 at 1:54 pm

        Thanks for your comment on my haibun. You made my day!

  15. neil reid

    21/10/2011 at 4:37 am

    Hi Margo. (Remember me? What surprise to find me here! But a lovely place and prompt of course.) Actually it is sort of second hand as Nan suggested just this idea for WWP, then afterwards became aware of yours, being the same. And that’s to partly excuse myself from proper rules, as I wrote before reading here. But hope it will amuse you some. (I’ve a recent thirst for sentences!) Look forward to playing with this more.

    But so what term you think best for “the relationship”? Oblique, tangential or, as you say, elliptical (lovely word)?


    • margo roby

      21/10/2011 at 4:51 pm

      Hello there! Nice photo, Neil! Since when do you need an excuse from rules, hmmm?

      I love elliptical as a word, too. And, it encompasses both the words you put up. But, if I had to choose one of those, I would say the relationship is more oblique. It is not necessarily, at first read, obvious.

      Now I shall go see your sentences.



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