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Imaginative Linking: Haibun in Ireland - Amanda Bell

This essay presents an overview of the haibun form from its origins to its current situation in Ireland, discusses the characteristics of the form, and suggests how the relationship between the prose and the haiku in a haibun makes it the ideal form for the new nature writing. The title, ‘Imaginative Linkage’ refers not just to the imaginative linkage between prose and haiku in haibun, but also the imaginative linkage which causes Basho’s journal to have resonated so strongly with poets and nature writers over the last 350 years, and lastly, the way haibun captures the imagination by linking the different functions of the brain.

Though rooted in medieval times, haibun can be dated back to the 17th century, in the great prose and haiku travelogue of Matsuo Basho – Oku no Hosimichi, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. In the introduction to his translation in the 1966 Penguin edition, Professor Nobuyuki Yuasa describes how Basho’s work evolved from an artistic point of view, refining in technique through the travelogues ‘The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton’, ‘A Visit to the Kashima Shrine', ‘The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel’, and ‘A Visit to Sarashina Village’, developing towards an organic whole, and it was in The Narrow Road to the Deep North that he ‘mastered the art of haibun writing so completely that prose and haiku illuminate each other like two mirrors held up facing each other.’ (p.38) Though haibun went into a decline in Japan, Basho’s extended travelogue, also known as a kikōbun, has reverberated widely in world literature, right up to the present day, and seems to resonate strongly in mountainous islands on the far side of the world to Basho’s homeland: Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, where it saw a resurgence in the latter part of the 20th century. Three noteworthy works from these islands demonstrate the influence Basho’s journal: The Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore, Stallion’s Crag, and The Road North.

The Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore, by David Cobb, President of the British Haiku Society, was published in 1997. This haibun charts a several-day-long bicycle trip across East Anglia in Southern England. Cobb has described his book as a frank attempt to adapt the model of Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and contextualise it in a contemporary British setting.’ (Yousan, p. 299 of Journeys 2017). Wales has had similar treatment from the late Ken Jones, in his 6,000-word haiku-studded prose poem Stallion’s Crag, published five years later in 2003. This work is set in Plynlimon in the Cambrian mountains in the middle of Wales. More recently, Ken Cockburn and Alec Findlay took a more conceptual, multimedia approach to remapping Basho’s journey in their native Scotland. Their plan?  ‘Making a word-map of Scotland that pairs one Scottish location with each of Basho’s 53 stations. On the way we will meet folk, drink 53 types of tea and 53 kinds of whisky, share conversation, and blog our way north.’ This project, carried out between May 2010 and May 2011, produced a blog, an audio recording, and a book, The Road North, published by Shearsman Press.


Professor Haruo Shirane of Columbia University wrote that ‘the interest of travel literature, at least in the Anglo-European tradition, generally lies in the unknown, in new worlds, new knowledge, new perspectives, new experiences. But for medieval waka and renga poets, the object of travel was to confirm what already existed, to reinforce the roots of cultural memory.’ (‘Traces of Dreams’, Journeys 17, p. 333).  

So while haibun could legitimately be discussed in terms of its relationship to American transcendental writings, the poetry of the Beats, or the tradition of contemporary metonymic American poetry, what I am interested in here is how, with this tradition of the reinforcement of cultural memory, haibun has particularly strong resonance in Ireland, where there is a deep-rooted emphasis on the lore of place-names, or Dinnseanchas.  I think that this reinforcing of the roots of cultural memory is what we are seeing in the work of Cobb, Jones, and Irish-based James Norton. It is also what I was attempting to do in my collection Undercurrents., which takes locations around Ireland, in my case all rivers, and revisits them in order to overlay the immediacy of personal experience on past events, both in family history and popular memory.           An excellent example of an Irish haibun in the tradition of Basho, which has a strong  engagement with place, is ‘What’s in a Name’, by Jim Norton, which won the An Prize in the Genjuan Haibun Competition in 2017, [].


What’s in a Name

by Jim Norton (Ireland)

The retreat cabin would be available soon. He pointed to its location, across the valley and high up, where the mountain’s limestone became mist and cloud.

Cloud-grey hills
in their stony folds
a blueness

I asked what it was called. Ootmama, he replied. The name rang in my mind like a sweet-toned bell.

Back in the city I thought of it often, and whispered it in stressful moments.

The traffic’s roar:
when I listen closely
there it is

Several years passed before time and circumstance seemed right. I arrived with the storm. It rained and blew hard for the seven days I had. We were comfortable by the wood-stove in his house near the village, but venturing up on the mountain was out of the question. The days were not wasted.

Here we are
though I hadn’t known him well
old friends

Now the slopes and crevices of age became my trek. But again the opportunity arose and we set out. The sun was unseasonably hot. I stripped off layer after layer as we walked, but was little relieved. I could scarcely catch a breath, and my legs were buckling. I’d left it too long, too late.

Bowing to the mountain one last time, we stood and looked down instead, at the silvery fingers of the sea, a green palm of small fields, the ruins of several tiny chapels just visible in groves of hazel.

A dot moved back and forth across the fields. Borrowing the binoculars, I saw a small tractor, spreading muck.

The fertile rock
and somewhere beyond it


In this piece we see a place being used as a talisman, and how it’s influence and spirit can endure even the though the place itself is never reached, much as Basho himself appreciated Mount Fuji although his view of it was obscured by mist. (Judges’ commentary by Stephen Henry Gill, Genjuan website). This then, is one type of imaginative linkage – a contemporary Irish writer, on a retreat in a rural Irish location, channelling a 17th century Japanese pilgrim: it is a type of haibun that I particularly admire. There are of course many others types, styles, and schools of haibun. To put this work in a broader context, let’s look at how the genre has developed globally in the last thirty years.

The resurgence of the haibun form has coincided with rise of the global internet since the early 1990s, and the internet has had a powerful impact on the dissemination of Japanese-form poetry with a proliferation of online journals, yet in spite of the global nature of people both writing and reading, there is ongoing debate about what constitutes a haibun. In an article titled ‘Form in Haibun: An Outline’, in the most recent of the Journeys anthologies, Jeffrey Woodward, founding editor of Haibun Today, outlines the possible different formulations: six standard forms and several anomalies or variations of these forms. This does not take into account the many and varied subject matters now deemed appropriate: Apart from the extended form travelogue, known as kikobūn, haibun is now used for genres ranging from diary, known as niki, to science fiction, and the form most commonly seen is a dense paragraph-length piece of prose with one haiku at the end. (In Ireland we call this a  ‘one and one’, which is also the word for a serving of fish and chips in a traditional chip shop.)

What David Cobb says of haiku on the British Haiku Society website is also true of haibun: ‘haiku poets have felt the need to serve an apprenticeship and, when established, perhaps then contribute to the liveliness of haiku by developing and broadening its scope, without compromising its essential characteristics, attributes and qualities. Haiku is not a fossil. It is also not a toy.’

From the 1990s on there has been much fluidity of movement between writers of haibun in Ireland and the UK. The British Haiku Society was formed in 1990. Its founder-editor, David Cobb, became seriously interested in haibun in the mid-1990s, and as mentioned earlier, his work The Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore, is considered seminal. At around the same time as this work was published, a group of haiku and haibun writers calling themselves the Redthread Sangha came together. In the late 1990s, members of this group were responsible for founding two journals, the UK-based Presence, founded by Martin Lucas with the help of Stuart Quine, and in Ireland, Haiku Spirit, founded by Jim Norton with the help of Sean O’Connor, who later took over editorship. Haiku Spirit was a highly-regarded quarterly which published both haiku and haibun. The journal took a break in the early 2000s after five years, though the Redthread Sangha continues to meet and to write, and Sean O’Connor will be reviving the journal later this year, with the help of Jim Norton, and under another name. Three members of the Redthread Sanga, Norton, O’Connor and Jones – mentioned previously for his work Stallion’s Crag, in 2001 published Pilgrim Foxes, a book of haiku and what they called ‘haiku prose’. It was launched by Gabriel Rosenstock, and hailed by fellow Sangha member George Marsh as ‘containing the first mature masterpieces in a new Western literary genre, the haibun or haiku prose piece’. He continued ‘the haibun has a history, and American and British writers have experimented with it before, but these three writers have developed it in a new direction which reveals for the first time the immense potential of the form as a dense, thematically complex complement to the longer poem or the short story, with a startling leap from prose to poetry which represents not just a change of rhythm but something more like a shift of dimensions, of vision.’

And this bring us to the crux of what actually constitutes a haibun. Editors disagree on almost every aspect: length, subject matter, prose style, genre, etc. There is even a school of thought which says that a haibun doesn’t need to contain a haiku, and some fine examples of this, but the defining attribute, what everyone will look out for, is the specific relationship between the prose and the haiku.

According to Ken Jones, in the early days ‘many haibun were written in a flat, deadpan prose …and it could be said of the haiku that they stood out like “pearls in a mudbanks”, however when the prose is fine and distinctive “haiku prose”, it becomes much more challenging to create haiku which stand up to and interact with such prose in a distinctive and creative way. As Professor Yuasa says, the relationship should be like that between the moon and the earth: each makes the other more beautiful.’ []

There are a number of analogies for this. I have always thought of it in cinematographic terms – like pan and zoom shots. Jamie Edgecombe has elaborated on this metaphor in the journal Blithe Spirit. He says that ‘if haiku is the instant at which the picture is ‘shot’, the prose section could act as the ‘framing’ of the shot with all the mystery of association that it may entail: the possibility of zooming, foregrounding, and landscaping effects (like Buson haiku); the choice of lens (tinted or not); the length of exposure (how much detail to include; and the breath which is held as the shutter snaps shut; all in unison with the possibilities that juxtaposition with the haiku could have.’ 

I also find the analogy of a quilt helpful. The prose provides layers of fabric, the front, back and middle sections of a quilt. The haiku is the stitches that pierce the layers, holding the whole thing together and transforming the texture, appearance, and quality of the finished piece.

It can also be said that the prose represents the external life of the writer, the haiku the interior life. The work of the writer and neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist has a paradigm which may help to explain the very potent effect of the haiku/prose combination. In his research, and his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, McGilchrist examines the specific hemispheric functioning of the brain. In brief, he says that the left hemisphere is in control of narrow focus, the rational mind, and the right hemisphere, the intuitive mind, has a broader scope. To quote Einstein, ‘The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant.’ McGilchrist’s thesis is that the left hemisphere has attained primacy in the western world, to its detriment. My focus here is much narrower. It seems to me that by exercising both the left and right hemispheres, the intuitive and the rational aspects of the brain, through a combination of prose and haiku, the haibun offers possibilities of engagement other forms struggle to achieve. True imaginative linkage, which engages complementary cognitive functions.

And so to nature writing. It is this attribute of engaging both intuitive and rational functions of the brain which makes haibun the ideal form for what Granta Magazine in 2008 hailed as ‘the new nature writing.’ Responding to an increased awareness of man’s adverse impact on the environment, the new nature writing can no longer be in the tradition of either pastoral or natural history; it has to include humans as intrinsic elements rather than omniscient narrators. And this is where the connection to Japan comes full circle. Bruce Ross, an American haibun practitioner and editor of the first anthology of haibun, Journey to the Interior, published in 1998, has described a disjunction between east and west in the manner in which each accounts for the relation of consciousness to external nature. ‘The poetics of the east,’ he says, ‘reflect an ontological union of man’s consciousness with nature in which nature is of equal valence to man, while the poetics of the West reflect an allegorical subsuming of nature in which man dominates nature.’

In Eastern thought, and in Eastern literary genres then, there is a more highly developed ‘imaginative linkage’ between humankind and nature. It is fitting that an Eastern genre of writing, this hybrid form, the haibun, may be able to fully engage the reader on this topic at what I believe to be a pivotal moment in mankind’s relationship to the environment.

This is a great time to be writing haibun in Ireland. A new group, the Pepperpot Haibun Group, has formed around Jim Norton and Sean O’Connor; the journal Haiku Spirit is being relaunched under another name; Kim Richardson’s Alba Publishing continues to develop connections with Ireland and publish haibun collections by Irish writers; and haibun are being accepted for publication in mainstream journals such as Gorse and The Honest Ulsterman. It will be interesting to see how the form continues to evolve.

Amanda Bell, February 2018






Margaret Chula, ‘Guidelines for Writing Haibun in English’


Cobb, David, ‘Haibun: A Technical Note on Haibun Prose’, Blithe Spirit 15.3, Sept 2005


Cobb, David, ‘Potentials of Two Different Haibun Forms: Nikki and Kikōbun’, Kyso Flash, Issue 3: Spring 2015


Cobb, David, The Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore, Shalford, Equinox Press, 1997


Cowley, Jason, The New Nature Writing, Granta 102,


Deodhar, Dr Angelee, Journeys: An Anthology of Internaitonal Haibun, 2015, 2016, 2017


Edgecombe, Jamie, ‘Haibun and Realism I: Some Thoughts upon the Developing Schools of Haibun’, Blithe Spirit 16.1, March 2006


Finlay, Alec,


High, Graham, editor’s comment (on David Cobb’s piece on same journal), Blithe Spirit 15.3 September 2005


High and Cobb, Selected Haibun Bibliography, Blithe Spirit 16.1, March 2006


Jones, Ken, ‘A Haibun Editor Suggests’, New Zealand Poetry Society,


Jones, Ken, review of Stone Frog: American Haibun and Haiga, Blithe Spirit, 11.3, 2001


[Kudryavitsky's other novella titled "A Journey of a Snail to the Centre of the Shell" appeared in the same "Deti Ra" magazine in July 2010. It is an extended haibun about the life and writings of a fictitious 19th-century Japanese haiku poet.]


Lucas, Martin, The Shirane Tapes, Blithe Spirit 11.4, December 2001


Paul, Mathew, Sprinkled with Salt, Blithe Spirit 16.1, March 2006


Ross, Bruce, Journey to the Interior: American Versions of Haibun, Tuttle Pu1998


Youmans, Rich, ‘Travel Diaries and the Development of Modern Haibun’, Journeys 2017

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