Only a week away from taking up my Hawthornden Fellowship, and I’m getting very excited about the prospect. As I mentioned before, it’s my intention to write a book-length collection of haibun, and I’ve been giving it a lot of thought. A book of this kind will require an introduction, so I drafted one last week. It attempts to answer the question
What is haibun?
The best known example of the form is Matsuo Basho’s Oku no Hosomichi – Narrow Road to the Interior – a poetic record of a journey made in 1689. His friend and fellow poet Sora accompanied him on part his journey, and they composed together in the manner of renga – linked verse. Many other Japanese writers have used the form since then, but its popularity in the West dates from the late 20th and early 21st century, when European and American writers discovered it for themselves.
So what exactly is it? The magazine Haibun Today has on its website a collection of definitions, some contradictory. Basho’s view of haibun defines it as haikai no bunsho – writing in the style of haiku. Shiki’s followers equate it with shaseibun – sketching in words. Most commentators agree on two things: haibun should contain prose written in the spirit of haiku; and they should contain (often conclude with, some say) one or more haiku. The haiku should parallel but not epitomise the prose. ‘The prose becomes the narrative of an epiphany, while the haiku is the epiphany itself.’ (Bruce Ross: Narratives of the Heart, World Haiku Review, vol 1, 2002)
Most contain one haiku, some more, fewer none. The prose section is often, but not always, the record of a journey, real or metaphorical. That has led some to characterise the haibun as a waybook, and it is the reason for this book’s title (Working title: The Book of Ways).
You may think then that, given the flexibility and hospitality of the form, anything goes. Far from it. As with any other poetic form, there are techniques – things which work and things which do not. There are skills to learn, and styles to develop. There are fashions too, especially in Western haibun. There’s a recent tendency in some quarters to drastically shorten the prose sections, but my own preference is for a slightly longer section, using concise language with layers of meaning. The length of a haibun, it seems to me, should depend on the needs of the narrative itself, and not on any externally applied rule.
My own haibun style has developed through reading past masters and modern innovators. On the haiku itself, it’s long been acknowledged that there have been four great masters – Basho, Issa, Buson and Shiki. I revere and admire the work of all four, but it’s Masaoka Shiki who speaks most clearly to me. Since the 1990s I’ve also learned much by writing numerous renga in the company of many fine poets. It’s the outdoor renga, often the walking renga, in gardens, mountains and wild landscapes, that I find most stimulating. And I owe much to reading the Chinese ‘wilderness poetry’ of authors such as Wang Wei, Li Bai (Li Po) and Du Fu (Tu Fu).
Travel has been a constant pleasure to me over the years, and many of the haibun in this collection relate to wanderings in other countries, but I’ve also included poems written at home in Scotland, together with poems on other subjects. I have a background in science, so it’s natural for me to explore scientific concepts and topics using the haibun form. And since my discovery of Zen when I was a teenager back in the 1950s, that too colours the way I see the world and write about it. Initially, I planned for the book to be divided in sections for each different country or topic, but I’ve come to think it better undivided, as a continuity of experiences, like life itself.
Copyright © Colin Will 2013