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July 2015

This month we look at a short Japanese poetry form called the haibun.  The haibun (translated as "haikai writings") is a form that combines prose and haiku.

Haibun poems are used to write autobiography, diary, essay, prose poems, very short stories. It was used as a kind of travel journal when it was first used by the 17th-century Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō. It was a form he popularized. He wrote haibun as travel accounts. The most famous are in  Oku no Hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Interior).

Haibun continued to be written by later haikai poets such as Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa and Masaoka Shiki.  

Not all of Bashō's haibun are devoted to travel. They also are character sketches, landscape scenes, and occasional poems to honor a specific patron or event. His "Hut of the Phantom Dwelling" is a quite long prose essay followed by the haiku:

Among these summer trees,  
a pasania-  
something to count on  

(A pasania is a tree species of Asia, sometimes called in English a "stone oak" because of its very hard acorn-like nuts.)

Traditional haibun typically took the form of a short, precise prose description of a place, person or object, or a diary of a journey or other events in the poet's life, followed by a related haiku.

Haibun is now written worldwide and the form has been adapted into different variations. The rules vary depending on your source, but here are 6 basic rules for this prompt:

  1. Unlike haiku, they begin with a title. 
  2. The prose portion is terse, descriptive and written in the first person singular. (Many haibun avoid first person.)
  3. It is in the present moment. Imagine the experience is occurring now, not in the past.
  4. Although this is prose, it is poetic, understated, with all excessive words eliminated. 
  5. The accompanying haiku follows the traditional rules of that form. 
  6. The subject of the haiku does not repeat, quote or explain the prose, but reflects some aspect of the prose with a detail that is more juxtaposition - different yet somehow connected. That connection can be a surprising revelation for the reader.

I was in a workshop this past year with the poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil where we wrote haibun, Aimee has written several articles on haibun and gives a more detailed look at the rules of haibun - although she admits that she is "not one to stay close and straight to any particular poetry 'rules' (the haibun form especially and brightly lends itself to experimentation if one desires)."

She told us that although Bashō coined the word haibun for the form as it is today, it already existed in Japan without that name as a kind of preface to poems and as mini-lyric essays. He wrote a guideline for the form and Aimee points out that he was quite concerned with aware (pronounced ah-WAR-ay), a term for the spirit of haiku or the "quality of certain objects to evoke longing, sadness, or immediate sympathy."

In "Don’t Bring Me to the Fireworks, The Fox-Wife Asks," by Jeannine Hall Gailey, we have a modern day haibun. I discovered Gailey's poetry in an article Nezhukumatathil wrote which includes another one of her fox-wife poems. 
Don’t Bring Me to the Fireworks, The Fox-Wife Asks

They hurt my ears, make me run in circles. Under their chemical light you might see my non-human face, the tail I hide beneath skirts. In the city, under mercury vapor, you never see me clearly. I prefer the woods, the quiet howl of mosquitoes, of cicadas. Build me a hut of mud where we never see the stars, too bright. Bring me fans painted with cranes and peonies, poetry folded into birds. Don’t leave me in the crowd, my nose assaulted by too many scents. Let us stay far from others tonight, my love. Our celebrations will be fur and paw, hand to chest. Let the fireworks with their dizzy ghost spiders whine in the distance, keep me here, bring me silk kimonos the color of bark and dirt to nest in.

Keep the copper smoke
and saltpeter, the dim trails
of chrysanthemums in the sky.
That poem is from Gailey's collection, She Returns to the Floating World, which explores motifs in Japanese folk tales:, persona poems spoken by characters from animé and manga, mythology, and fairy tales. The story of the kitsune, or fox-woman, is one that occurs throughout the book.

This month's prompt is a haibun following the simplified and traditional six rules stated above.

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


This was the week of the Perseid meteor shower, an event that coincides with the dog days of summer. Vacation is now over, and it is time for children to go back to school. They are busy getting ready, checking things off on an endless list of to do’s. It was easy back in my time. No lists given to us. No school sales. We got only what we thought was needed and what couldn’t be salvaged from the year before. A ruler, scissors, glue, a protractor and pens might carry over from last June, but a few new things were always needed. I remember getting a new notebook, a fresh supply of paper, a handful of unsharpened #2 pencils, one small pencil sharpener, a clean pink pearl eraser, and of course a brand new box of Crayons. It would be a box of 64 crayons, all neatly arranged in rows of staggered height, much like seats in a modern movie theater. The promise in those colors was always the gift. The pictures I could draw, the things I might color, and the magic these simple sticks of wax and pigment held out for all of us.

each small child—
a possible Monet
or a wild Van Gogh

And then there were the names—Oh, the names I loved so much! Not just red, but scarlet, vermillion or even poppy. The pinks of carnation, roses, peony, watermelon, and ballet slippers. Even grays were shadow, storm, steel or dove. Then there were the blues, the exquisite blues. Blues were cerulean, Prussian, teal, blue-violet, sky, robin’s egg and blueberry—the possibilities endlessly perfect. The worlds we could create in any shades, tints or hues we wanted—no one could tell us what we must choose. It was all about possibility, choice, creating. It was our own world.

coloring the sky
with meteors—
the past flying so near

Mary Kendall


Bower birds build nests of grass with ornaments to attract a mate. And peacocks with all those ornamental eyes. Stepping from the shower, I smell ocean, ginger, mint. My hair and body are so full of me that I scent the towel. A mouth of wintergreen on this hot, summer day. Cool and unkissed.

Naked on hot sand.
Flesh weeps for the cool ocean.
Six eyes watch me stand.

Lianna Wright


I walk the north end of the lake this time every summer. Listen to the murky green waters slap up against the weather beaten dock. In the distance, the sound of children skinny dipping.

from a navy sky
sound of cicadas calling
full moon on the rise

marie a. mennuto-rovello


Gaze so glued to the horizon I doubt he knows we share the chilly November boardwalk, the balustrade's bottom rung, the hint of snow that hangs in the breeze, clings to the clouds. I sneak a glance beneath the navy peak and find such a wonderful face - wind-wise head, etched in peace and patience. His profile offers a singular eye, trimmed of white and drilled like a sailmaker’s awl, a countenance such as a sailor... yes, a salt for sure, hands in his pockets, balled in loose fists. Yes, beyond the pipe or the cigarette, I'm sure, he's way past the needs a young man who’s never been to sea would be unable to outwit.

the kite wants to play
but the gull is tired of games
of hide and seek

Timea Deinhardt


I still search for you in the back-lives of dream, that unconscious dark as a black mare glinting sun off shoulder and haunch, generous muscles of a wordless animal willing to bear my teenage mind bareback – reasonings whose reason grabbed at the bit, a runaway hard-mouth horse headed off to college. In dream I never sold you for the figment of books. I dream I call you Molly, whistling that you’ll come.

March wind in the mane,
a single trail of hoofprints
through wild arroyo

Taylor Graham


“Summer swells our being” she said.
“Yes, and our lust” I reply thinking less of a coital connection and more of the voluptuousness of ripe tomatoes companioned with garden basil and fresh garlic. While my love life is a tangle, I can always rely on rolling fields of summer grass, slippery hikes along a waterfall, air heavy with peach and raspberry, cooling cucumber water and clouds that stroll a cornflower-blue sky.

For now, love and other sorrows lost in the kindness of daisies.

Andrea Grillo


Clear blue sky, not a cloud in sight. Pleasant temperature, with a gentle cooling breeze. God, what a glorious day. Off in the distance the first signs of autumn are painted on the trees. Brilliant gold and red are splashed here and there across the green of the forests.
Down in the basin, several boats lie at their moorings, peacefully at rest. Further off in the distance a Canadian Patrol Frigate slowly makes its way out to points unknown. If ever there were a sight to prove the existence of a supreme being, this was it.

lies beyond the edge-
small death

John Johnson


In the public garden at Chapin Station, I am standing chest-deep in white azaleas. It’s mid-February, and spring has come to Central Florida; when my ninety-three year-old mother, who refuses to move south, calls to tell me that against all standing orders, she has just shoveled three inches of snow from her Pennsylvania sidewalks. Her neighbor who usually does it, was late, with the feeble, as she describes it, excuse of having slipped on the ice the day before and is now hobbled by a bad knee; She further explains how she couldn’t wait to go the hairdresser for her weekly appointment to refrizz her hair.
Not that she has anywhere to go, anyplace worthy of a broken hip or heart attack, both of which would leave her lying helpless on ten degree snow. She just wants me to know that it’s still important for her to look her best, even if nobody is around to see her.

Her voice on the phone
Like an unseasonable wind
      Turns blossoms to snow.

Ron Yazinski


The spirit of haiku, she tells me this morning, is haunting and daunting. I see gold flecks in her eyes, silver glitter in her hair. To the mirror I whisper the word sadness. Hold my breath, count to forty then fifty. Turn to the window. A hummingbird at rest reminds me of what could be.

Next, wings a blur,
I touch the thin glass
separating us.

Patty Joslyn


The coffeepot rattles, sputters, gurgles as I assemble lunch and feed the cat; another morning, another dark beginning to an endless stretch of days flowing to some unknown rendezvous where it all ends. August: trees deep fried, bushes agonizing brown, air water-full, sun scarping flesh. Life droops, sags, lolls its tongue. When I walk outside sweat beads before I reach the car; I pine for the September divide when the first front moves down from the north, sending leaves scurrying forth, plopping outsized raindrops on dusty earth. Morning light oozes in from the east, a sickly yellow glow on the jagged tree line invading the darkness behind a band of blue. I ease out onto the two-lane toward the freeway, cars already stacking up in their rush south toward the city’s towers; the radio lists the casualties of the latest shooting madness, and I wonder about those in power, and how they sleep with so much carnage. I negotiate the on-ramp to another day where minutes, like cars, flash relentlessly by in multi-colored hues, and death rides shotgun in ones and twos.

A water tower,
its red-lit cherry atop
a fat white onion.

Robert Carroll Miller


Little waves slapped at the dock of the boathouse where once I caught a sunfish on a safety pin tied to a string, then threw the fish back. I knew a web of weeds lived beneath the water’s gentle invitation, algaed fronds that snagged my legs as I dangled them over the edge, and I would not jump into the slime and silt that lay below.

summer dusk—
in the backyard shadows

Later in the cottage I found the memory of water ringing the bottom of a porcelain bowl on a table in the spare bedroom. Three tarantulas crouched in wait for me; their hairy legs, big as my small fingers, spanned the iron stains of what had been a small taste of the lake.

poison ivy beneath
the beach house—sharp
shell bits in the sand

Now that I am older, I think I am safe on the shore, but water stalks me, will swallow me whole if it can and spit me out again reborn, my cells a colony of thirst determined to keep it alive.

even the corn stalks
are stunted—dust rising
from cracked dirt
Penny Harter


Headed south, coming along the edge of the water, in the taller sweet grass that is uncut, are the bones. Not yet ivory sun-bleached, but still holding some stained hide and sinew. The air carries lilacs more than death. Water shooting upward and misting the air. A sound turns ear to eye. A chipmunk in the fawn's ribcage. Not trapped. Not afraid. Not interested in me. Even in a mild winter, not everything survives.

Curving high above -
beams of a white cathedral
never to be completed

Ken Ronkowitz