What English-Language Haibun Poets Can Learn From Japanese Practices: the Mysteries of an Almost-Heard Birdsong First Autumn Abroad
haiku essay by J. Zimmerman

What English-Language Haibun Poets Can Learn From Japanese Practices: the Mysteries of an Almost-Heard Birdsong First Autumn Abroad.

by J. Zimmerman, Coordinator of the 2013 and 2014 Tokutomi Memorial Haiku Contests.

First published in CHO Contemporary Haibun Online, January 2014, vol 9, no 4.


For more than a millennium Japanese writers have created work with interleaved prose and poetry. In that format they have written acclaimed folk tales, short stories, histories, travel journals, diaries, and novels. For the recent four centuries they have written what we today call haibun: prose with haiku (originally prose with hokku). For thirteen centuries they have combined prose with waka (poems in the Japanese language and style, particularly but not exclusively in the five-phrase form that today we call tanka).

As a newcomer to haibun, I enquired about past and existing Japanese practices in order to study what the Japanese have accomplished, whether or not it is currently in vogue, and to experiment with and against what is popular. Regarding practices from the past, I turned to the literature as reported below, as I believe with United States Poet Laureate Emeritus Robert Pinsky that "young poets can learn a lot from old poetry. Models provide inspiration, which is different from imitation" (Pinsky, 2013, p. xi). Regarding current practices, when I asked some editors who select English-language haibun for North American journals and contests, they said they knew little about current haibun practices in Japan, and that I should contact others, as also reported below.

In this article I summarize prose-with-poetry works in Japanese literature giving some attention to their tones, lengths, and use of titles. My intention is to encourage readers to explore some of the referenced texts. I do not want to restrict practices but rather (whether we use established practices or react against them) to extend the repertoire considered by the English-language poet. This article is a companion to my previous offering on English-language poetry practices, "What Haibun Poets Can Learn From Non-Haikai Western Poetry Practices" (Zimmerman, 2013), and a modest supplement to such seminal articles as "On Defining Haibun to a Western Readership" by Bruce Ross (2004).

For simplicity let us look at how the Japanese have interleaved prose and poetry in three time periods: the "classical" era (prior to 1600); the "modern" era (approximately 1600 to 2000); and the "contemporary" era (the third millennium). To cut down on verbiage, I will generally use "haiku" for a poem of that form appearing in a haibun written before the term was introduced; likewise with "tanka."

Highlights from classical Japanese literature: the earliest interleaved prose and poetry

The Japanese combined prose and poetry to document the history and origins of Japan. They adapted the prose-and-poetry form adapted to telling folk tales, offering partially fictionalized diaries, and creating the first novels. Sometimes the poems took precedence over prose, which was added as context-setting headnotes somewhat as a poet might preface each poem with a sentence to orient the listener at a poetry reading today. Often, however, the prose was longer, with poems appearing at appropriate moments when additional passion, intensity, or insight was needed.

The earliest recorded examples of prose and poetry in Japan are from thirteen centuries ago: the Kojiki or Record of Ancient Matters completed in 712. It told the mythology and history of the creation of Japan. Mildred Tahara (1980, p. 167) called it:

a quasi-historical work [that] contains stories that resemble the tenth-century uta monogatari anecdotes. These stories are related in several chooka exchanged by a man or woman (or two deities) and connected by brief prose passages; in these episodes we find what seems to be the beginning of the lyrical narrative.

The chooka mentioned above was the term for the Japanese "long poem" or "long song" comprising any number of lines. All lines but the final line tended to have twelve morae per line, with a caesura dividing each line into five and seven morae. The final line tended to have seven morae. Notice that a poem comprising two of those twelve-morae lines plus the final line would have the same form as a tanka or "short poem" or "short song".

The uta monogatari mentioned above was a term for many of the collections of independent or semi-independent short pieces that interleaved Japanese prose and poetry. Each piece could stand alone, somewhat as a collection of haibun today. Tahara (1980, p. 160) translated uta monogatari as "poem-tales" and (p. 169) "stories about poems," which was to her a more literal meaning. The latter phrase is especially apt in the earliest work because the poems are believed to have arisen first, with the prose added later to help the audience enjoy the poem more completely. Tahara (1980, p. 166-167) continued that for uta monogatari:

a general characteristic of the genre is that each work consists of a collection of anecdotes revolving around one or more waka ... In the earliest examples of this genre, the waka is essential to each anecdote; the prose passages are often little more than headnotes to the poems.

Japan's most-praised early example of interleaved prose and poetry appeared in 935: Tosa Nikki or The Tosa Diary. Its author was the poet and nobleman Ki no Tsurayuki. He was already famous as the foremost of the four compilers of Kokinshuu (published in 905), the first imperial collection of poetry. In Tosa Nikki Tsurayuki's protagonist described a difficult fifty-five-day ocean journey of two hundred miles from the province of Tosa back to Kyoto, at that time the capital of Japan (Porter, 1912). It was the first Japanese work of unified narrative, roughly 10,000 words in Porter's translation.

Tsurayuki took the unusual step of writing Tosa Nikki in the persona of a woman. Thus he reported the daily journey in a manner that today could be called creative non-fiction. It could even be a blog. To enhance accessibility to a wide readership and the credibility of a female author's voice, Tsurayuki wrote in Japanese kana, the phonetic characters that were perceived at that time as "women's" writing, rather than the kanji ideographs (the "men's" writing) that educated Japanese men were adopting from the Chinese. In addition to being a partially fictionalized diary and traveler's tale, Tosa Nikki was also a work of gleeful self-promotion in which Tsurayuki's diarist quoted and praised Tsurayuki's own poems.

In organization, Tsurayuki identified each section by date but not title. He interleaved roughly one poem per day into the prose, which occupied significantly more space than the poems. Each poem was a five-phrase waka except for two slightly longer "boat song" poems. From this time onward for centuries, poems were almost entirely of the five-phrase form. In an innovative preface, Tsurayuki challenged the reader to take seriously a diary written by a woman. Tosa Nikki's waka were high-minded: the diarist wrote, "here, as in China, we compose a poem when our hearts are too full of feeling" (Porter, 1912). The poems contrasted with practical prose that described real-life adventures, drunkenness at farewell parties, difficulties of rowing and sailing a boat (possibly under 38 feet long and 5 feet wide) for two hundred miles, fear of storms and gods and pirates, and a return to an overgrown and neglected home.

The next significant publication, Ise Monogatari, was 125 short stories in prose and poetry. It first appeared in about 945 (Miner, 1969, p. 15) or 949 (Shirane, 2007, p. 184). Many of the stories (today we might call them flash fiction) originated in poems written by the ninth century poet Ariwara no Narihira prior to his death in 880. Over the generations with the addition of prose, the pieces expanded into amorous, fictionalized adventures attributed to Narihira. Poems by others were added, with associated prose. The work's "authorship is obscure and multiple; its period of composition appears to have spanned decades, if not a century" (Mostow and Tyler, 2010, p. 1).

Tahara (1980, p. 168) wrote that Ise Monogatari was "generally believed to be the earliest and best example of a poem-tale ... the waka are indispensable to each episode." Joshua Mostow and Royall Tyler translated the collection's title as The Ise Stories (Mostow and Tyler, 2010). Earl Miner (1969, p. 15) translated it as The Tales of Ise, while he found that it was also called Zaigo Chuujou Nikki or Diary of Middle Commander Zaigo. The individual pieces were untitled (Mostow and Tyler, 2010) though Jamie Newhard and Lewis Cook (in Shirane, 2007, pp. 186-203) included convenience titles for the sixteen portions they translated.

Almost contemporary in publication, Yamato Monogatari or The Tales of Yamato was first completed in 951 and 952. The five-phrase waka was the predominant form of poetry in these short tales, for which Mildred Tahara (1980, pp. 167) reported that:

By the time of The Tales of Yamato the prose passages had grown longer and become more interesting. Greater care was taken in the descriptions of circumstances leading to the composition of the poems and the emotions of the writer or recipient of the poems.

Tahara (1980) did not show titles for the 173 Yamato Monogatari tales in her translation but she numbered each tale sequentially. In the earlier part of Yamato Monogatari, the stories dealt with people in history, the tales had one or two poems, and the poetry tended to occupy as much as or more space than the prose. In the later part of the book, the tales told legends; many tales were longer than those in the earlier part primarily due to an increase in the prose, often with increasing narrative strength.

In concluding this section three seminal works further widen the application of interleaving prose and poetry. With entries first dated in 1003, a spellbinding romance appeared: Izumi Shikibu Nikki or The Diary of Izumi Shikibu, also called Izumi Shikibu Monogatari or The Tales of Izumi Shikibu (Miner, 1969, p. 15). (The given name of "Shikibu" was a conferred title sometimes given to a person of lower rank appointed to a position in the imperial court.) This passionate "love diary" presented Izumi Shikibu's experience as a lower-born and flirtatious woman in a romance with a royal prince. It included quotations from supposedly personal letters that also interleaved untitled poetry and prose. No section titles (such as dates or topics) divided the manuscript, adding to the voracity with which a reader might proceed through this page-turner.

In about 1005, Japan's (and perhaps the world's) first surviving novel appeared: Genji Monogatari or The Tale of Genji. Murasaki Shikibu, a widowed noblewoman, composed it by interleaving prose and poetry into 54 titled chapters (each roughly equivalent in size to the Tosa Nikki) grouped into six books. The excellent English translation by Royall Tyler (2001) had 1,182 pages. Genji Monogatari contained 795 waka nestled in the prose, particularly at the points where strong emotions were expressed, from women to men and from men to women. Poems also appeared in exchanges between friends and between family members. The poems offered insights into people's hearts and desires that today might be looked for in unguarded Web interviews and journals. Full of infatuations and dramas and revelations, each chapter could approximate a show in a long-running TV soap opera.

Many similar though lesser books continued to appear until a new major work arrived in the mid-thirteenth century: Heike Monogatari or The Tale of the Heike. Helen Craig McCullough (1994, p. 254) stated that "no single Japanese literary work has influenced so many writers in so many genres for so long a time as the Heike." It depicted the twelfth-century war in Japan during which the Taira clan (for which Heike was a synonym) rose and fell from power. Tanka and other poetry forms were interspersed sparsely within the prose of Heike Monogatari. Performers (including monks) specialized in chanting the Heike Monogatari with musical accompaniment on the biwa. Royall Tyler (2012) suggested that the patterns in the prose, lending themselves to this tradition of chanted performance, could allow one to characterize the seemingly prose text as a combination of prose with poetry.

In conclusion, the prose-poetry combination was pervasive in classical Japanese literature, both for books written as such and for small sections or tales whose combination created books. The topics and themes varied but the style was predominantly narrative.

Regarding titles of book-length works, many from 945 (Ise Monogatari) to at least 1280 (Isayoi Nikki or The Diary of a Waning Moon) had more than one title:

works called diaries are also called tales (monogatari), collections (-shuu, kashuu), records (ki), travels (michiyuki) ... tales are often called diaries ... There were diaries of poetry matches (utaawase) ... The historical tales (rekishi-monogatari) ... were sometimes called diaries and, like other forms mentioned, contained poems (Miner, 1969, p. 15).

Small pieces assembled into books often did not have titles originally, and were sometimes given convenience titles by translators.

This fluidity of titles suggests that many titles on and within translations might be convenience titles, rather than something an author created as part of the work.

Highlights from modern Japanese literature: the seventeenth to the twentieth century

Starting in the seventeenth century, haiku poets including Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki mixed prose and poetry to write haibun, combining aspects of the classical prose-and-poetry forms described above with the new and lively middle-class practice of haikai.

Haikai began in the early-sixteenth century. Haruo Shirane defined it as "popular linked verse — which eventually gave birth to haiku" (Shirane, 1998, p. 2). In haikai, poets wrote short poems that they merged into collaborative poetry sequences, each starting with a short three-phrase verse known then as the hokku and known today (when standing alone or in a haibun) as the haiku; this term is used for convenience if not historical precision for the rest of this article.

Shirane (2002, p. 206) defined the haibun as:

haikai prose, ... a new genre that combined Chinese prose genres, Japanese classical prototypes, and vernacular language and subject matter ... [and that] existed before Basho in the form of prefaces, headnotes to hokku, and short essays written by haikai masters.

Short essays constituted one of the earliest haikai books, Yama no I (The Mountain Well), appearing in 1647 or 1648. Kitamura Kigin (1624-1705) wrote it as a combination of prose and poetry to be:

a haikai manual ... [It] categorizes poetic words and topics by season, explains their poetic associations and use, and gives illustrative examples of haiku. Its elegant prose passages have also been considered an early form of haibun, or haikai, prose (Shirane, 2002, p. 173).

Kigin's short essay text, written with attention to meaning and gracefulness of expression, tended to have a closing haiku that connected strongly to the prose while introducing a different idea (for example, in "Fireflies").

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), who is believed to have studied Kigin's book, wrote haibun that included words from the Japanese everyday speech as popularized in haikai poetry and as opposed to the literary language of classical poetry. Basho's longer haibun combined the style of a travel sketch, a meditation, and a poetic and partly fictionalized journal. Written from at least 1686 to his death, such haibun included Nozarashi Kikou (The Record of a Weather-exposed Skeleton or Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field), Oi no Kobumi (The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel or Knapsack Notebook), Genjuuan no Ki (The Hut of the Phantom Dwelling), Oku no Hosomich (The Narrow Road to the Deep North or The Narrow Road Through the Provinces), and Saga Nikki (Saga Diary). Nobuyuki Yuasa (1966), Earl Roy Miner (1969), Haruo Shirane (2002), and David Landiss Barnhill (2005) have authored some of the best translations of Basho's longer haibun.

Basho's shorter haibun have rarely been translated, but Barnhill (2005) translated eighty, most occupying half a page. With each haibun Barnhill showed a title that tended to quote from the closing haiku and that added little to the piece. For example, Barnhill's translation of "Live Austere and Clear" (p. 94) had four lines of prose before its single closing haiku whose first line was "live austere and clear." Several titles were explicitly called prefaces, such as "Preface to 'A Hidden House'" (p. 116). That piece had five lines of prose seemingly like a headnote before the single closing haiku whose first line was "a hidden house." Barnhill did not state whether he believed the titles he showed for short haibun were as Basho wrote them or were added by Japanese compilers.

Concerning such titles' authenticity, Professor Nobuyuki Yuasa (poet, translator, and Professor Emeritus at Hiroshima University) wrote:

Your question about Basho's short haibun pieces is difficult to answer. They all have titles in modern editions, but I have a feeling that most of the titles are not by Basho himself. In some cases, I believe the titles were given by Basho himself, but in many cases, the titles sound like later additions. I cannot be sure about individual cases because ... I have no access to Basho's original manuscripts. For the convenience of modern readers, however, I think titles are very useful (Nobuyuki Yuasa, November 9, 2013, personal communication).

Yosa Buson (1716-1783), a painter, poet, and teacher, wrote haibun throughout his writing life. Makoto Ueda printed several haibun by Buson in his excellent The Path of the Flowering Thorn: The Life and Poetry of Yosa Buson. Ueda showed no title for any of the haibun. Among them were Buson's 1743 (roughly) tale-like haibun on a badger scare in Yuuki (Ueda, 1998, p. 13-14), his mid-1750's tale-like haibun on a badger scare in Miyazu (Ueda, 1998, p. 30-32), and his 1767 haibun commemorating a poet and friend (Ueda, 1998, p. 42).

By contrast, translators such as Cheryl Crowley included haibun titles. In particular, she (as others) used a title of "The Badger" for the above haibun set in Yuuki (in Shirane, 2002, pp. 553-554). However, Professor Yuasa reinforced Ueda's practice:

[Buson's] haibun about the badger in Yuki has no title. It is in Shin Hana Tsumi, a collection of Buson's poems and prose. His poems are printed first, and the middle part is occupied by miscellaneous prose pieces without titles, and the last part consists of short prose pieces with titles. I am not sure, though, whether these titles are by Buson himself or by his editors (Nobuyuki Yuasa, November 9, 2013, personal communication).

Accordingly, we are aware that a haibun's Japanese author may not have intended to have a title that appears in a translation. In particular, Crowley's title is an insertion either by her or the editorial lineage of the Japanese editors she translated.

Shirane (2002, p. 540) noted that Buson made many innovations by combining styles in a "cross-fertilization between the kanshi literati tradition and haikai — that is, between the Chinese and Japanese artistic cultures." An example was Buson's 1777 masterpiece "Shunpuu Bateikyoku" ("Spring Breeze on the Kema Embankment"). This short piece included prose with interleaved styles of Chinese as well as Japanese poetry, an avant-garde haibun.

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) wrote literary journals that combined prose and poetry. These included his passionate and painful 1807 journal Chichi no Shuuen Nikki (Journal of my Father's Last Days as translated by Herschel Miller in Shirane, 2002, pp. 933-939) and his similarly confessionalist 1819 short-haibun collection, Ora ga Haru (The Year of My Life as translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa, 1960).

Translators have differed in the titles they applied to Issa's haibun. Let us compare the titles that appear in Yuasa's version of Issa's Ora ga Haru with those in Herschel Miller's four translations of portions.

Yuasa translated the title as The Year of My Life and he translated Issa's complete work. He divided the text into twenty-one chapters with chapter titles ("Chapter One" and so on). He informed me that:

Issa himself had no idea of chapter divisions. He left only blank spaces between the sections. I added chapter divisions for the convenience of modern readers (Nobuyuki Yuasa, November 9, 2013, personal communication).

By contrast, Miller (in Shirane, 2002, pp. 941-946) translated the title as My Spring. He translated four portions, choosing to insert a title (e.g. "Orphan") for each piece using a word or phrase from the closing haiku of the selected portion, even though Issa had not included such titles. Again we notice the insertion of convenience titles into translations of Japanese haibun where no titles were given by the author. Because Miller chose to start each piece with prose and to include in each piece a single and closing haiku, not only did Miller give a uniformity that was not Issa's choice, but Miller lost context that Issa had supplied and that is preserved by Yuasa's translations.

When I asked Katsuhiko Momoi (Japanese linguist and independent scholar) about titles of short haibun by Basho, Buson, and Issa, he advised:

one needs to do primary literature research — including which particular original edition (most probably private) is the most reliable source. These 3 authors are from 17th and 18th century and so this is not an easy task. In my opinion, one cannot get to a definitive conclusion without accessing these original editions of the works you cite. (Not copies by disciples and literary aficionados in later years.) ... good scholarship on this might require non-trivial amount of time and dedication (Katsuhiko Momoi, November 7, 2013, personal communication).

It is my hope that some scholars will one day offer us such work.

Stephen Henry Gill (the British-born poet and teacher living in Japan) observed on past Japanese practices with titles for longer and shorter pieces:

Shinhanazumi (a series of stories by Buson) is a title; Oraga Haru (a lengthy haibun by Issa) is a title; Uzuragoromo (a lengthy haibun collection by Yayu) is a title; but individual pieces very often are entitled only 'a prose poem about ...', 'a record of ....', or 'a preface to ....', if at all. (Stephen Henry Gill, personal communication, August 8, 2013).

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) introduced the term "haiku" to distinguish a hokku-length poem that was independent from one written as incomplete and a candidate for the opening hokku in linked-verse. (I imagine that Shiki would have scowled at my deliberate use of "haiku" throughout this article.) Ueda (1976) wrote:

Shiki was opposed above all to the mannerism of contemporary haiku. In his view the Japanese haiku of the nineteenth century were trite in motif, diffuse in style, pedantic in expression, restrictive in vocabulary, and too conscious of poetry factions.

Shiki also opposed the haibun form in vogue at that time. However he created his own prose and poetry form, exemplified by several such pieces that he published in his last years in Hototogisu, the poetry magazine he founded. Shiki called the pieces shaseibun (prose sketches) rather than haibun, just as he expressed a preference for the shasei or sketch type of haiku. One of his shaseibun called Botan Kuroku (The Verse Record of my Peonies) is the fourth poetic diary that Earl Miner (1969) translated in his Japanese Poetic Diaries.

In the twentieth century, translated collections of modern Japanese poetry such as Edith Marcombe Shiffert and Yuuki Sawa's Anthology of Modern Japanese Poetry (Shiffert and Sawa, 1972) included free verse poetry, tanka, and haiku, but no prose poems and no haibun. This suggests that haibun had little strength or visibility then.

Highlights from contemporary Japanese literature: the third millennium

Regarding contemporary haibun in Japan, Professor Yuasa informed me that while some poets in Japan today wish to revive the classical tradition of haibun, the haibun contest he judged for the Kikakuza group closed its Japanese section for lack of interest (Nobuyuki Yuasa, July 29, 2013, personal communication). For comparison, overseas writers of haibun in English have sent plenty of submissions to the Kikakuza contest and to its thriving successor, the still-active Genjuan Haibun Contest (being conducted now by Stephen Henry Gill).

Professor Yuasa described the decrease of haibun writing in Japan thus:

Haibun long or short has been in decline since Masaoka Shiki denounced it together with renku. Shiki and his followers were so eager to establish haiku as an independent genre that he regarded both haibun and renku as obstacles to his aim. It is true that Shiki's immediate followers continued to write haibun and even tried to modernize it under the name of shaseibun, but their efforts failed to receive wide attention (Nobuyuki Yuasa, July 29, 2013, personal communication).

This is consistent with the paucity of information that North American haibun practitioners could give me about contemporary haibun writing in Japan. Professor Yuasa continued:

This means we must go back to classical writers such as Basho and Issa for haibun models. I think Basho's Oku no Hosomichi and Issa's Ora ga Haru are the best examples of haibun to follow. None of the classical writers, however, left any definition of haibun. So we must satisfy ourselves with a vague definition like 'a piece of prose written with the spirit of haikai' ... I think respect for nature, use of words in close touch with our everyday life, and avoidance of abstraction and emotionalism in search of objectivism are among the important elements of 'the spirit of haikai'.

Regarding the length of the haibun, Professor Yuasa differentiated long and short haibun by the role of the prose:

As for length, there is no traditionally established standard. Both Basho and Issa wrote fairly long haibun consisting of several pages and very short haibun consisting of less than ten lines. In my view, we have two different origins to long and short haibun. In long haibun, prose was regarded at least as important as hokku, while in short haibun, prose was written as a kind of preface to hokku. Personally, I should like to regard long and short haibun as two different genres, but today they are both written under the name of haibun.

Stephen Henry Gill also found Japanese haibun to be uncommon currently:

There are almost no haibun writers left in Japan today ... There are indeed a few haiku groups and journals who today publish haibun, generally with titles. ... The term 'haibun" almost died out with the Westernization of literary forms after Meiji (Stephen Henry Gill, personal communication, July 29, 2013).

Gill also referred to the Kikakuza and the Genjuan Haibun Contests when he recommended looking at:

the Hailstone Haiku Circle's website, the Icebox, which publishes quite a bit of haibun in English, some of it written by Japanese like Nobuyuki Yuasa: http://hailhaiku.wordpress.com . If you click on the page links to Kikakuza and Genjuan Contests, you will find examples of winning haibun from the past 5 years. To the best of our knowledge, these have been the only haibun contests in Japan so far (Stephen Henry Gill, personal communication, August 6, 2013).

Responding to my question whether titles of haibun were used in Japan, Gill observed:

With modern haibun (such as Hisashi M's [Miyazaki's] Orororo no Oka), titles are often given, but it is not a traditional requisite to have a title (Stephen Henry Gill, personal communication, August 8, 2013).

He continued that:

Japanese haibun are published in magazines (e.g. in Sendan or Burumarin) as well as in collections. Titles do not always quote from the piece itself. In fact most don't. This is a Western notion or a translator's convention when confronted by certain untitled pieces when others already translated have been titled.

Fay Aoyagi (the bi-lingual and bi-cultural poet) told me that while Japanese haiku magazines publish several essays with haiku in them:

Japanese poets/publishers don't call them [those essays] 'haibun.' ... I don't see the word 'haibun' in Japanese publication (after the Meiji Era when Shiki was active and alive) and no one I know [in Japan] claims he/she writes 'haibun.' ... for me, 'haibun' is a special writing technique which has been 'dead' for a long time in Japan. ... Of course a definition of 'haibun' in English can be different from Japanese one (Fay Aoyagi, personal communication, July 19, 2013).

Bruce Ross has written: "Only very recently have Japanese writers, inspired by worldwide contemporary experiments with haibun, begun to practice the form anew" (Ross, 2004). When I asked him for a comment on the Japanese use of titles with haibun, he (like Nobuyuki Yuasa) differentiated long and short haibun, telling me:

In modern Japanese haibun fiction, the title of the book is in effect the title of the haibun. There are too few current Japanese haibun to comment on titles (Bruce Ross, personal communication, July 19, 2013).

By contrast with the dearth of haibun writers in Japan, Amelia Fielden (the tanka poet and translator) told me that many Japanese today write pieces that interleave prose and tanka and that:

The Japanese definitely do use titles for their tanka tales. Mostly, their tanka tales are a lot longer than English haibun. Hence the Japanese titles tend to summarize, or reflect, the content as a whole, rather than be a phrase/line quoted from one of the poems in the tale. It is not, however, 'wrong" to use a quotation as the title of a tanka tale, either in Japanese or in English (Amelia Fielden, personal communication, July 21, 2013).

When asked if her preferred expression "tanka tale" (to translate uta monogatari) can refer nowadays to any kind of prose-with-tanka, not stand-alone poems only but also travel journals, diaries, novels, short stories, and folk tales, she replied "yes, 'tanka tale' refers to any and all of those" (Amelia Fielden, personal communication, November 8, 2013).


Topic and tone have varied hugely between works in the Japanese precedents for haibun. The poetry has tended to be of a piece with the prose, rather than making the leaps that current editors and judges encourage in English-language haibun.

Regarding titles, in classical times older book-length pieces were often identified by two or three different titles. These probably included convenience titles in addition to or replacing original titles assigned by authors. Short tale-like pieces from classical times have been translated into English without titles as often as with. Personal letters could also include untitled short pieces that combined prose and poetry.

In modern times, again the topics could vary widely. The diary style was particularly popular. Titles (if they occurred) of Japanese haibun tended to simply state the topic, rather than being an augmenting art form to the piece.

For writings in contemporary times (this millennium), this author did not acquire sufficient information to make generalizations about Japanese haibun. Nowadays there appear to be few haibun writers in Japan, although their numbers may be increasing; tanka with prose appears to be a somewhat more active area.

In conclusion, wishing that we can be generous in our acceptance of a variety of interpretations of what a haibun can be, I give you the poem that Buson placed on his painting of Basho, as translated by Professor Yuasa (1966, p. 49):

Neither speak ill of others, nor well of yourself. 
The moment you open 
Your mouth to speak, 
The autumn wind stirs 
And chills your lips. 

Hopefully this article has done justice (albeit superficially) to the lineage from which our English- language haibun descend and has given you some ideas of literature for further reading, and that you may speak with warm lips.


I am deeply grateful to Professor Nobuyuki Yuasa, for his more-than-generous help from start to finish of this exploration of haibun in Japan. I am indebted to Phillip R. Kennedy for his careful reading and advice on the initial draft of the first half of this article. I thank Beverley George for encouragement and advice. Stephen Henry Gill and Bruce Ross were particularly helpful when I was beginning to assemble the material. Many of the insights in the above text are from these scholars and poets, but all detours and errors are devotedly my own.


Barnhill, David Landiss, translator (2005). Basho's Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Basho. Albany, New York, State University of New York Press.

McCullough, Helen Craig, translator (1994). Genji and Heike. Stanford, California, Stanford University Press.

Miner, Earl Roy, translator (1969). Japanese Poetic Diaries. [Translates selections from The Tosa Diary by Ki no Tsurayuki, The Diary of Izumi Shikibu attributed to Izumi Shikibu, The Narrow Road Through the Provinces by Matsuo Basho, and The Verse Record of my Peonies by Masaoka Shiki.] Berkeley, California, University of California Press.

Mostow, Joshua S., and Royall Tyler, translators (2010). The Ise Stories: Ise Monogatari. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press.

Pinsky, Robert (2013). Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters. New York, Norton & Company.

Porter, William N., translator (1912). Ki no Tsurayuki's The Tosa Diary: Translated from the Japanese. [A parallel-text edition with Porter"s splendid introduction.] London, Henry Frowde.

Ross, Bruce (2004). "On Defining Haibun to a Western Readership." First published in Simply Haiku, November-December 2004, Volume 2, Number 6.

Shiffert, Edith Marcombe and Yuuki Sawa, translators (1972). Anthology of Modern Japanese Poetry. Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, Japan, Charles E. Tuttle Company.

Shirane, Haruo (1998). Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho. Stanford, California, Stanford University Press.

Shirane, Haruo, editor (2002). Early Modern Japanese Literature: an Anthology, 1600-1900, with additional translators. New York, Columbia University Press.

Shirane, Haruo, editor (2007). Traditional Japanese Literature: an Anthology, Beginnings to 1600, with additional translators. New York, Columbia University Press.

Tahara, Mildred M., translator (1980). Tales of the Yamato: A Tenth-Century Poem-Tale. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press.

Tyler, Royall, translator (2001). Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji. New York, Viking Penguin.

Tyler, Royall, translator (2012). The Tale of the Heike. New York, Viking Penguin.

Ueda, Makoto, translator (1976). Modern Japanese Haiku: An Anthology. Stanford, California, Stanford University Press.

Ueda, Makoto, translator (1998). The Path of the Flowering Thorn: The Life and Poetry of Yosa Buson. Toronto, Canada, University of Toronto Press.

Yuasa, Nobuyuki, translator (1960). The Year of My Life: A Translation of Issa's Oraga Haru. Berkeley, California, University of California Press.

Yuasa, Nobuyuki, translator (1966). The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches. New York, Viking Penguin. Contains an Introduction by Nobuyuki Yuasa with his translations of Basho's The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton, A Visit to the Kashima Shrine, The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel, A Visit to Sarashina Village, and The Narrow Road Through the Provinces.

Zimmerman, J. (2013). "What Haibun Poets Can Learn From Non-haikai Western Poetry Practices." First published in Contemporary Haibun Online, October 2013, vol 9, no 3.

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