What Haibun Poets Can Learn From Non-haikai Western Poetry Practices: The Valentine's Day Skywriter Spells Out His Own Name
haiku essay by J. Zimmerman

What Haibun Poets Can Learn From Non-haikai Western Poetry Practices: The Valentine's Day Skywriter Spells Out His Own Name

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

First published in CHO Contemporary Haibun Online, October 2013, vol 9, no 3.


Writers of western haibun can study — to the potential benefit of their haibun — what readers and writers of western non-haikai poetry consider good practice. (Here I use the term "non-haikai poetry" for poetry that is not haiku-related and I use the term "haibun" to refer only to short haibun written in English.) Application of western practices might also make a poet's work of more interest to readers outside the haibun community.

This article suggests practical ideas from western poetry that can help poets extend their control over two of the three horses of the haibun troika: how to write prose that is more poetic and how to extend their repertoire of choices for titling their poems. (I do not address the writing of haiku.) The reader is offered directions to explore while not prohibited from current practices.

Of the many forms of Japanese poetry that I have shown to non-haikai poets, the short haibun seems the one they can understand the most readily. This is because the non-haiku text in a haibun often tends toward prose poetry, a form familiar to poets though their reading and writing in the long-established form of the prose poem (as anthologized by Alexander, Vinz, and Truesdale (1996) and Lehman (2003) for example). Other forms that blur the genre between prose and poetry, particularly flash fiction and the lyric essay, are also well known to many non-haikai poets.

The haibun's tendency to include a strong closing haiku can remind a reader that many English-language poems end strongly. This is particularly clear in formal poetry such as the English sonnet, which "often has its greatest power in the concluding couplet" (Zimmerman, 2002).

The interleaving of short poems with prose, while rare in western collections, does occur in such books as Spring and All (Williams, 2011), whose blurb includes: "Spring and All is a manifesto of the imagination — a hybrid of alternating sections of prose and free verse that coalesce in dramatic, energetic, and beautifully cryptic statements of how language re-creates the world."

Finally (and as we discuss later) titles. A short haibun usually has a title (Rasmussen, 2010). This is consistent with the expectation of a title by readers of western poetry, where "titles belong to a rich and flexible tradition" (Ferry, 1996).

For their prose, haibun poets can improve their poems through exploring relevant tools in texts on western poetry. Texts by Edward Hirsch (1999), Ted Kooser (2007), Steve Kowit (1995), and dozens of others discuss how to write poetry and how to write prose poetry. Significant best-of-the-best anthologies such as the North American Best American Poetry and the Pushcart Press annuals are authoritative and rewarding means for learning what is valued in western poetry today.

What is a prose poem? To write a prose poem is to create a work of "necessary speech ... [with] magical potency" (Hirsch, 1999), a work that can leap and surprise and delight. In his introduction to Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present, David Lehman wrote that, "Writing in prose ... you gain in relaxation, in the possibilities of humor and incongruity, in narrative compression, and in the feeling of escape or release from tradition or expectations" (Lehman, 2003, p.23).

Lehman also pointed out that, "On the page it can look like a paragraph or fragmented short story, but it acts like a poem. It works in sentences rather than lines. With the one exception of the line break, it can make use of all the strategies and tactics of poetry" (Lehman, 2003, p.13).

Strategies include the use of meter modulated by rhythm, the use of syntax integrated with sound (including choices of diction, assonance and alliteration, inner rhyme, slant rhyme, and so on), and the judicious use of metaphor, simile, synesthesia, and other tropes.

C.W. Truesdale (in Alexander et al., 1996, pp. xxi-xxii) listed seven kinds of prose poem:

  1. the object poem (such as by Vern Rutsala);
  2. the surreal narrative (Russell Edson is a great practitioner);
  3. the straight narrative rich with feeling or affect;
  4. the character poem (often with very little narrative);
  5. the landscape or place poem (James Wright and Henry David Thoreau being among its best poets);
  6. the meditative poem; and
  7. the "hyperbolic" poem of exaggerated verbal play, a delightful example being Philip Dacy's "The Elephant" (anthologized in Alexander et al., 1996, pp. 112-113).

It could benefit a haibun poet to explore writing haibun prose in each of these seven different styles.

Beverly Acuff Momoi is a western poet who writes prose poems (Momoi, 1996) as well as other forms including haibun. John Barlow selected her haibun collection Lifting the Towhee's Song for a 2011 Snapshot Press eChapbook Award (Momoi, 2012). Particularly powerful examples of prose poems from that collection are in Momoi's haibun "What Remains," "Asleep," and "Earthquake Light."

Examples of my own haibun with prose poems include "Birthstone" (Zimmerman, 2013a), "Cellular" (Zimmerman, 2013b), and "Missing Man" (Zimmerman, 2011).

Turning to poetry titles, I found poetry texts had less about titles than about prose poetry. Robert Wallace (1987) stated, "Not infrequently, the title is the hardest part of a poem to write." Wallace did continue, however, with the helpful suggestion that, "The poet at a loss for a title can often find one by looking back through the poem's worksheets for a good phrase or image or detail he or she had discarded."

Len Anderson, author of Invented by the Night (Anderson, 2011) and co-founder of Poetry Santa Cruz, summarized much of current opinion among poets when he advised:

A title is an invitation and a handle, it is alive, and it is a prominent part of the poem. ... I do like it when a title suggests something we only slightly sense as we are reading the poem but then pulls the poem together when we read the ending (Anderson, 2013, personal communication).

Jack Myers and Michael Simms (1989) offered a rich seam of ideas under the entry "Titles" in The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms. Their title types filled twelve packed, practical pages. They included the subject as title, the symbol as title, the layered title, and many more. They summarized that titles, "can be assertive, cautious, dry, impressionistic, daring, formal, predictable, incomprehensible, intriguing, silly, sensitive, fanciful, humble, wild, tense, or wise or have any other value the writer feels is applicable" (Myers and Simms, 1989, p. 309).

An exercise for a haibun poet struggling with a title could be to write a title with each of the above attributes.

Haibun poets might be drawn to Myers and Simms on "the layered title," which:

contains multiple meanings that are held in potential, as a seed holds a tree in potential, until after the poem is read. The full interpretive value of the title is not released until the reader returns to it. ... The layers of this title may consist of ... sensual, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual levels. Or the title may combine technical elements of the poem, such as form, theme, subjects, metaphoric or symbolic references, and time dimensions. But whatever contents the layered title implies, it always has depth (Myers and Simms, 1989, pp. 310-312).

I have found this worth exploring: two of my above-mentioned haibun — "Cellular" (Zimmerman, 2013b) and "Missing Man" (Zimmerman, 2011) — have intentionally layered titles.

Another way that Myers and Simms (1989, pp. 316-320) described titles was by grouping them into five general categories:

  1. describing "the poem itself, its subject, theme, symbols, form, etc.";
  2. being "reader-directed" (such as making a greeting, a demand, or a request);
  3. invoking "an outside point of reference to parallel the poem or place it in a larger perspective" (such as specifying the time of composition or another piece of literature);
  4. offering a "dedicatory" title; and
  5. being "self-effacing" to indicate "the title is of little importance or the poem should remain untitled" (with "Untitled" being a popular title in this category).

To consider the types of title that have appeared in highly popular western poetry, I looked at The Top 500 Poems where William Harmon (1992) printed the poems that were the most anthologized — and by implication were the most popular — based on surveying anthologies that four hundred contemporary editors, critics, and poets had assembled. When I inspected my convenience sample of the 20 most popular of those poems, I found that:

Furthermore, 7 poems (35%) had a title that directly quoted from the poem, and 9 (45%) made the title by a rearrangement of words that appeared in the poem (sometimes with small additions like a definite article). Thus roughly three-quarters had a title whose words were taken from the text of the poem. Only 4 (20%) created a title using words not in the poem. A single poem (Hopkins' "Pied Beauty") had a title that seems layered.

The five hundred poems appeared during seven previous centuries, thus averaging less than one poem per year. For the twenty most popular poems, two centuries predominated: nine poems were from the nineteenth century while six were from the seventeenth century. The remaining five poems were from the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries and the first half of the twentieth century.

Anne Ferry's academic analysis The Title to the Poem (Ferry, 1996) discussed how fashions in titles change: "titles always look back to their past — imitating, modifying, questioning, rebelling against it — at the same time that they vividly reflect and energetically respond to the cultural situations that constitute their present." Accordingly I made a second investigation, to analyze the titles of well-respected current poems by sampling the seventy-five poems in The Best American Poetry 2012 (Doty, 2012), which mainly reprinted poems of excellence published in the prior year. For comparability, I again made a convenience sample of twenty poems, this time taking every third poem (the poems were printed in the alphabetical order of the authors' names) until I had analyzed twenty titles.

For these modern poems, I found that:

Compared to the earlier poems sampled, a change of plausible significance was the reduction in the portion of poems that had a dedicatory title (and a corresponding increase primarily in titles with an outside reference).

Four (20%) had a title that directly quoted from the body of the poem; 5 (25%) made the title by a rearrangement of words that appeared in the body; and 3 (15%) used one word from the body but augmented it with one or two additional words. Thus, roughly half of these best-regarded recent poems took their titles from the bodies of their poems while half did not. Compared to the earlier poems sampled, there was a significant though not overwhelming increase in the proportion of poems taking their title from outside the text. Four (20%), such as Rae Armantrout's "Accounts," had a title that seemed layered, suggesting an increase in that type of title.

From looking at the theory and practice of titling poems, I have found plenty of variation in the types of title used in non-haikai poetry. Non-haikai editors seem to allow far-ranging titles, and I have not had a non-haikai editor turn down my work on the basis of title alone.

Meanwhile haibun poets have been ambushed by personal but unpublished editorial preferences that poets might only have discovered by trial and error. Ray Rasmussen observed:

several well-published writers have indicated in private correspondence that some editors have insisted that titles be added when haibun are submitted as untitled pieces. Others report that editors discourage both run-on titles and those that repeat phrases in the prose (Rasmussen, 2010).

I found two insights from Roberta Beary, the haibun editor of Modern Haiku. The first was her article "The Lost Weekend" which gave an editor's perspective on haibun submissions as viewed through the prism of film noir titles (Beary, 2011). Its subsection "Sorry, Wrong Number" included a clear statement on the importance of title to her:

In haibun, the wrong title is like a wrong number. It makes the reader want to hang up the phone. A haibun's title should be strong enough to draw the reader into the prose and make the reader want more. Let the title be a link to the prose and the haiku, not give away the rest of the piece. After reading the entire haibun, the reader should be able to look at the title and see more than one meaning.

This is a requirement for a particular kind of title that sounds like the type championed above by Anderson and called a "layered" title by Myers and Simms (1989). Excellent though such a title may be, the requirement is constraining.

The second insight occurred from reading her response to judging the 2012 HSA Haibun Awards. I was not too surprised to see in her judge's comments that she looked for a haibun with "a strong title" but I was surprised to see that she evaluated each haibun by "giving equal weight to the title, prose and haiku" (Beary, 2013). It is helpful when an editor or contest judge states a preference, as here. If one wishes one's work to be measured by Beary's criteria (with significant weight on the title), then one might spend roughly equal time and creativity on each of the haibun's three components. If one does not, it would be helpful to know the priorities of other editors so that work could be sent more optimistically to them.

When titles are important to haibun editors, I would like to see each editor express a public preference in each journal. As of July 22, 2013, nothing about titles appears in submission guidelines for CHO (Contemporary Haibun Online) or Haibun Today or Modern Haiku. I appeal to editors to be open to variety in titling, rather than prohibiting certain styles. Our community is only just inventing the western short haibun. I am dubious of any claim that only one template for haibun is valid.

The Japanese seem more generous in accepting differences in haibun: in Japan "the genre may be more inclusive than it is in the West, for all types of creative writing featuring haiku may fall into it. It would probably be fair to say that haibun is less clearly proscribed than it is in the West" (Stephen Henry Gill, 2013, personal communication).

Poets, including haibun poets, are sometimes opinionated, brash, and self-referential. I can only hope that, as we develop our western versions of the short haibun, what is superfluous and self-serving will simply evaporate like skywriting. And that only the best will be remembered.

Despite my statements in this article, I would like to echo the modest words of Professor Nobuyuki Yuasa (2013, personal communication): "please remember that my views are rather subjective. I suppose other people will have different views."


Alexander, Robert, Mark Vinz, and C.W. Truesdale, editors (1996). The Party Train: A Collection of North American Prose Poetry. Minneapolis, MN, New Rivers Press.

Anderson, Len (2011). Invented by the Night. Santa Cruz, CA, Hummingbird Press at Hummingbird.

Beary, Roberta (2011). "The Lost Weekend" in frogpond, Volume 34:3. Anthologized in Carving Darkness (2012, p.109-111), edited by Jim Kacian, Bruce Ross, and Ken Jones.

Beary, Roberta (2013). "2012 HSA Haibun Awards: Judges' Commentary." Retrieved July 21, 2013, from www.robertabeary.com.

Doty, Mark, editor (2012). The Best American Poetry 2012, with Foreword by series editor David Lehman. New York, NY, Scribner Poetry.

Ferry, Anne (1996). The Title to the Poem. Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press.

Harmon, William, editor (1992). The Top 500 Poems. New York, NY, Columbia University Press.

Hirsch, Edward (1999). How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry. San Diego, CA, Harvest/Harcourt Inc.

Kooser, Ted (2007). The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets. Lincoln, NE, Bison Books.

Kowit, Steve (1995). In the Palm of Your Hand. Gardiner, ME, Tilbury House.

Lehman, David, editor (2003). Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present. New York, NY, Scribner Poetry.

Momoi, Beverly Acuff (1996). "If She Can't Hear You" and "Intimate Language," anthologized in Alexander et al. (1996, pp. 237-8).

Momoi, Beverly Acuff (2012). Lifting the Towhee's Song. A winner selected by John Barlow of Snapshot Press for a Snapshot 2011 Haibun eBook Award. Available at: www.snapshotpress.co.uk.

Myers, Jack, and Michael Simms (1989). The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms. New York, NY, Longman.

Rasmussen, Ray (2010). "A Title Is A Title Is A Title, or Is It? - The Unexplored Role in Haibun." First published in frogpond 33.3. Retrieved July 21, 2013, from its reprint at http://www.hsa-haiku.org/frogpond/2010-issue33-3/essay2-haibuntitles.html

Wallace, Robert (1987). Writing Poems. Boston, MA, Little, Brown and Company.

Williams, William Carlos (2011). Spring and All. Facsimile edition of the 1923 original. New York, NY, New Directions Publishing Corp

Zimmerman, J. (2002). "Poetry Form — The Sonnet" : www.baymoon.com/~ariadne/form/sonnet.htm.

Zimmerman, J. (2011). "Missing Man" in frogpond, Volume 34:1.

Zimmerman, J. (2013a). "Birthstone" in cho 8.4. Anthologized in Contemporary Haibun, Volume 14 (2013, p.106), edited by Jim Kacian, Bruce Ross, and Ken Jones.

Zimmerman, J. (2013b). "Cellular" in cho 9.2: contemporaryhaibunonline.com/pages92/Zimmerman_Cellular.html.

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