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Writing

How to Write Haibun Poetry: Tips for Writing Poetry

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Dec 19, 2019 • 4 min read

Poetry has the unique ability to express the beauty, mystery, and contradictions inherent in the world around us. One of the most challenging and evocative poetic forms is the haibun, which combines elements of travel writing, haiku, and poetic prose into a wholly unique artform.

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What Is Haibun Poetry?

Haibun is a poetry form that combines a haiku with a prose poem. Haibun prose is usually descriptive. It uses sparse, poetic imagery to evoke a sensory impression in the reader. The section of prose is then followed by a haiku that serves to deepen the meaning of the prose, either by intensifying its themes or serving as a juxtaposition to the prose’s content.

What Are the Origins of Haibun Poetry?

The first recorded use of the word haibun came in the seventeenth century from Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. Basho popularized the haibun form, writing haibun poems as part of his ongoing travel journal. The most famous of these traditional haibun poems is Oku no Hasomichi, or “Narrow Road to the Deep North” (also translated as “The Narrow Road to the Interior”).

What Are the Characteristics of Haibun Poetry?

The subject matter of a haibun can vary widely, though the prose sections commonly describe an unfolding scene, a slice of life, a character sketch or a special moment. These sections typically consist of a few paragraphs written in a sparse, imagistic haikai style that attempt to portray the scene in an impartial or objective manner. Haibun prose can be written in first-person singular, first-person plural, or third person.

The accompanying haiku usually appears at the end of the haibun composition, though in some cases it may appear in the middle or at the very beginning. The haiku is meant to be in conversation with the prose section, serving as a thematic accompaniment, juxtaposition, or grace note that deepens the meaning of the piece as a whole.

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6 Examples of Haibun

Many noteworthy or significant examples of American haibun today can be found in Contemporary Haibun Online (a spin-off of the annual anthology American Haibun & Haiga), a quarterly journal of contemporary English-language haibun, or in Journey to the Interior: American Versions of Haibun, a collection of modern haibun curated by former Haiku Society of America president Bruce Ross. Other notable examples of haibun include:

  1. Oraga Haru by Kobayashi Issa
  2. The Path of the Flowering Thorn: The Life and Poetry of Yosa Buson by Yosa Buson
  3. Masaoka Shiki: His Life and Works by Masoaka Shiki
  4. Such Stuff as Dreams are Made of by Ken Jones
  5. No Place by Jim Kacian
  6. Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore by David Cobb

How to Write a Haibun: 4 Tips for Writing Haibun Poetry

Generally, the only elements required to qualify a piece of writing as haibun are the inclusion of one or more prose paragraphs and one or more haiku. However, the form is constantly evolving, and haibun scholar and writer Jeffrey Woodward points out that the modern haibun may vary drastically in both its content and formal elements. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you write haibun:

  1. Keep your prose simple. Haibun generally features concise yet detail-heavy paragraphs in the prose sections. Much like a good short story, the prose of the haibun is meant to state the theme and describe the setting as quickly and as simply as possible. In many ways, the prose is supposed to reflect the spirit of a haiku: sparse, imagistic, and powerful in its brevity. When writing prose, try to eliminate any inessential or extraneous words, with the goal of presenting your language as sparsely as possible.
  2. Evoke the senses. The best haibun prose has the ability to describe evocative sensory details. The haibun attempts to place the reader in a specific location or evoke a specific mood without imposing the author’s own meaning or philosophical comment on the world being described. In other words, the haibun attempts to “show, not tell”—which can be done effectively through an abundance of sensory detail.
  3. Write in the present tense. One of the primary goals of haibun is to evoke a sense of “being there” within the reader; in other words, making them feel as though they’re experiencing the events or sensory details of the haibun as they are happening. Though it’s not a hard and fast rule, many haibun writers accomplish this by writing in the present tense, which helps to create the illusion that the events of the haibun are unfolding as the reader experiences them.
  4. Make sure your haiku adds meaning. Regardless of whether you place your haiku towards the beginning, middle, or end of the haibun, you should make sure that the haiku does more than restate the information of your prose. The haiku should deepen the meaning of the piece of the whole, either by offering a startling juxtaposition, a reflection of one of the themes in the prose, or a complimentary detail.

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Want to Learn More About Poetry?

Whether you’re just starting to put pen to paper or dream of being published, writing poetry demands time, effort, and meticulous attention to detail. No one knows this better than former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins. In Billy Collins’s MasterClass on the art of poetry writing, the beloved contemporary poet shares his approach to exploring different subjects, incorporating humor, and finding a voice.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Billy Collins, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Judy Blume, David Baldacci, and more.

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