Join the haibun renaissance

Japanese poet Matsuo Bash-o usually wrote haiku. But sometimes he experimented with haibun, a form that combines observational prose blocks with haiku’s three lines.

“Cooling off by the river at Shijo is a custom from the time of the evening moon till it passes through the dawn sky. People line up on a platform over the river to pass the night drinking, eating, and having a good time,” he wrote in a 1690 haibun describing the Gion Festival in Kyoto, which dates to the 12th century.

Move forward a few hundred years. Miriam Sagan, 67, began writing haibun (typically pronounced high-bun) in 1984, when she moved to Santa Fe and met the poet Elizabeth Searle Lamb who mentored her in Japanese forms. Sagan is the author of more than 30 books of poetry and prose, including A Hundred Cups of Coffee (Tres Chicas Press, 2019), for which she wrote 100 poems in cafés, surrounded by bustling activity.

“There are many haibun in there,” she says. “I wrote one about my crazy father throwing suitcases out of a train window and forgetting about his children.”

Now retired, Sagan is the founder of the Santa Fe Community College creative writing program. She teaches a free, Zoom-based haibun workshop on Oct. 5.

She talked to Pasatiempo about haibun and other aspects of writing poetry.

Pasatiempo: What is a haibun? When does it date to?

Sagan: A haibun is an ancient hybrid form where prose is combined with haiku. It can be one or more haiku, and it doesn’t matter where they appear in the prose. I think it’s medieval in that the first really large examples I can think of come from Bash-o’s travelogues. It’s possible people were writing it before; something called pillow books date from about the 11th century.

Pasa: Who are some well-known haibun poets?

Sagan: [Kobayashi] Issa, a famous haiku poet, wrote a very sad book called The Year of My Life, [in 1819] in which basically everybody dies of tuberculosis. But I don’t think there’s that much in the tradition of haibun. I think there’s more haibun now. There are Bash-o’s travel journals, but haibun picks up in the contemporary world in a different way. The end of the 20th century was a renaissance.

Pasa: What are the hallmarks of the form?

Sagan: The hallmarks are squarely within the haiku family tradition: I went here, I saw this. In contemporary haibun, people write confessional memoir. Things are getting shorter, and the interest in haibun is part of that trend. Something essential in haibun is what the poet Shiki called “the passing scene.” You could write a haibun about Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. You have what’s going on outside of you which you’re taking in through the senses. And you have what’s coming up for you through your conscious mind, your unconscious mind, and your associative mind. Haibun is an intersection between what you observe and what you feel.

Pasa: Does haibun have a specific syllable, line, or word count?

Sagan: No. It’s a big chunk of prose, like a piece of flash fiction. And they can be longer than that. People tend to write a block of prose and then a haiku at the end, but you could start with three haiku. You could have haiku in the middle. For a long time, I was writing one sentence and then one haiku.

Pasa: What is a writer trying to achieve in a haibun?

Sagan: I can tell you what they shouldn’t be trying to achieve, which is repetition. You don’t want to have a little piece about your kitchen and then a haiku about your kitchen. Haibun is set up for metaphorical contrast. There’s contrast and tension between the haiku and the prose. It is wide open in terms of give and take, metaphor, lyrical rhythm, and what you want to communicate.

Pasa: Let’s talk about metaphor for a moment. Its use in poetry is more expansive than the typical dictionary definition, which refers to it as a figure of speech.

Sagan: It’s about comparison, and it engenders a sense of connection and kindness. Basically, it’s the spiritual essence and philosophical basis of poetry. Do not worry if something is a simile or a metaphor, if it used the words “like” or “as.” It’s not relevant; both are equally valid. “Your lips are like cherries.” Too cliché. “Your lips are like a toaster oven.” Too weird. Sure, I turned you on, I turned you off, but it’s not a great metaphor because a metaphor should have a modest amount of tension in it. It should make your mind jump, but it shouldn’t make your mind jump so far that you can’t see the connection. Figures of speech tend to be metaphoric, but they are not in and of themselves metaphors.

Pasa: What will you cover in the workshop?

Sagan: It’s been really fun teaching the Japanese forms on Zoom with the SFCC Library. We’ve done a lot of haiku workshops, so we’re going to check: Do we know what a haiku is? Because the haibun is like Raisin Bran, and you gotta put the raisins in. And then lots of different options about how to develop your prose, and possibly how to do a second draft.

Pasa: Many poets consider revision to be the real work of writing poetry. Do you have tips for how to approach that step?

Sagan: The first thing I would do is check to make sure you’re doing something technical. Are you counting your syllables [for pacing and rhythm]? Are you trying to get strong words at the beginning of each line? Are you looking for words that echo each other, where vowels sound like each other? The second thing is to ask yourself what the poem means, and, when you revise, take out what doesn’t add to it. The third thing is specificity. Put in the details that you left out. It’s not just a bird. It’s a mighty condor or an annoying pigeon. If people would do that, they would have a quantum leap. 

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