The 'Arrow of Stones' introduction

For extracts from this out-of-print collection, see the Publications page.


“…the work of a very gifted writer” – Lucien Stryk.


The haibun, a blend of haiku and prose, is a new arrival on the Western literary scene. But it is still rarely encountered outside a few specialist haiku magazines and half a dozen anthologies. And though it is now rapidly gaining in popularity, it is still regarded by some as a suspect member of the haiku family.

The origins of haibun lie in a pioneering seventeenth century Japanese classic by Matsuo Basho variously translated as The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Oku-no-hosomichi). Basho’s work arguably offers some criteria for Western haibun, as elucidated by Makoto Ueda in his Matsuo Basho (1) and by Nobuyuki Yuasa in the introduction to his Penguin Classics translation (2). Apart from Issa’s Oraga haru (My Spring) classical Japanese haibun are not readily available in English translation. An exception are the four by Basho (Genjuan-no-fu), Buson, Shiki and Soseki translated by Yuasa in the September 2001 “haibun special” issue of the Journal of the British Haiku Society.

Haibun died out in the land of its birth some hundred years ago and has now been re-invented in the West often with scant regard for its Japanese antecedents. My own view is that if we are to develop haibun as a serious literary genre then it is sensible to build upon what has already been achieved by the Western haiku tradition. That also implies taking the pointers to be found in the classic Japanese haibun at least as a starting point.

Among North American and British haiku poets interest in haibun has been rapidly gathering momentum over the last five years. Following collections edited by Bruce Ross in 1998 (3) and by Michael Dylan Welch, Cor van den Heuvel and Tom Lynch in the following year (4), Jim Kacian’s Red Moon Press began to produce annual anthologies of American Haibun & Haiga , and these have become increasingly international in content. In 2000 the British Haiku Society instituted an international Yuasa Haibun Contest, attracting 53 entries from 13 countries.

This present book originates in the Sasakawa award for my contribution of six haibun and a haiku selection to Pilgrim Foxes: Haiku & Haiku Prose (Pilgrim Press, 2001). This was co-authored with two friends, both Irish citizens and as such ineligible, in any event, for the award. In consultation with the Sasakawa Foundation the British Haiku Society decided to publish one of the haibun from that collection, “The Last Move”, together with the ten more recent haibun which will be found here. In addition I have a collection of earlier haibun and haiku of Welsh interest, entitled “Stallion’s Crag”, forthcoming from Iron Press.

This book is published both in grateful acknowledgement of a cultural debt and also to give Japanese readers an opportunity to acquaint themselves with at least one Westerner’s re-invention of the haibun. However, Western haibun are extremely diverse and my haibun are far from typical. Because of the cultural overtones and the nuances of irony and ambiguity which characterise them, my work is something of a challenge to a translator. I am much indebted to Akiko Sakaguchi for undertaking this difficult task.

In the development of haiku poetry there has been much discussion with a view to establishing standards of literary quality, serviceable to competition judges, magazine editors, reviewers, and teachers. This has not so far been the case with haibun. In the remainder of this Introduction I shall highlight issues and propose some criteria for discussion.

A large proportion of Western haibun are bald narratives rendered in colourless and banal prose, with a bland earnestness devoid of feeling, irony or any subtlety. Their inconsequential themes meander nowhere, and many read like nature walk guides, or holiday letters, or just casual, prosaic. anecdotes. Their haiku have at best been characterised as “pearls in mud banks”. Therefore the first and most urgent question for the Western haibun is whether it is to be developed as a serious literary genre comparable to haiku poetry, or whether the aforementioned kind of “haibun” are equally acceptable. These have been dubbed as haibun in “the natural style” by one of their defenders, Jim Kacian, editor of American Haubun and Haiga, who contrasts them with “literary haibun”.

It has been suggested that there may be some European versus North American distinction here, with references to an alleged American deficiency in ironic understatement, black comedy, and tongue-in-cheek ambiguity. Although there may be something in this there is no doubt in my mind that the literary/natural haibun divide does not run along geographical or cultural lines. This seems clear enough from any international anthology, and not least from the haibun of Americans like Michael McClintock and James Ramsey which are outstanding in their literary quality and their range of themes and treatments. Indeed, McClintock and friends have recently initiated a small journal, Journeys, which implicitly champions the literary haibun.

The first and most basic question I believe we need to ask about a piece of writing claiming to be a haibun is whether it has any literary quality. Does it have any poetry about it ? Does it enlarge our imaginative sensibility ? Is there an encounter which has stirred some feeling in the writer -- and the reader. ? Has the writer something which he or she feels impelled to express, in a theme which is shaped, crafted and polished to some creative end ? And in the longer haibun, this theme may move episodically through changing moods. Consider the distinction between “a walk” and “a pilgrimage”. The former rambles from here to there, this and that may be observed, but, so what ? The latter is imbued with purpose, aspiration and self-discovery. And, as David Cobb has observed, “truthlikeness is required of a haibun; truthfulness is not”. Poetic truth should be set above factual narrative, but always on a bedrock of authentic experience.

And so, what is the writer really on about ? What is Basho on about in The Narrow Road ? “Months and days are eternal travellers; the passing years are travellers too.” His concern is the transience of life as exemplified in the places and literary associations along the way, and its transcendence in the experience of now. My haibun “There is no Time. What is Memory ?” explores the same theme, and originated in my response to a Ch’ an koan.

My second cluster of criteria question whether the haibun shows rather than tells, and does so by means of fresh and authentic imagery. Is the writing direct, economical and concrete ? Is it also playful, elliptical, light-handed and understated, in the haiku tradition ? Does it read well, both silently and aloud as dramatic art ? Is there some music in it ?

We know (more or less) what we should expect of the haiku. But what about the prose? According to Yuasa haibun for Basho were about haikai no bunsho, “writing in the style of haiku” and he adds that “the word haibun is probably a short form for that expression”. And Ueda has observed that “a haibun has the same sort of brevity and conciseness as a haiku”. I believe we should endeavour to develop such “haiku prose”, not only because of this historical warranty, but, more important, because as haiku poets that is our particular talent. That does not imply writing in sound bites however, although I believe that, like Basho, we should take poetic liberties with conventional syntax whenever it suits our purpose.

Ueda characterises the style of Basho’s Narrow Road as follows:

The language is concise, allusive and figurative to induce the reader to share the author’s experiences, actual and emotional. The passages are loaded with sensory images. Most of the sentences are short and crisp, seldom with a conjunction between them. Occasionally two or more unrelated phrases and clauses are juxtaposed, connected with nothing more than a nominal “and”. Often a haiku appears at the beginning or end of a prose passage, without much explanation but with perfect emotional logic (5).

But having stated my own preference for such a haiku prose, I am, when acting as editor and competition judge, open to any relevant literary style. For example, there are “stream of consciousness” haibun, recalling Joyce or Faulkner, which work well. Some of Michael McClintock’s work is in a surreal style reminiscent of Neruda.

With haibun of, say, over a thousand words, haikuprose, (or indeed any kind poetic prose), may run too rich, become wearisome, and need to be orchestrated with more bland passages, anecdotes, conversations and the like.

The above warning about showing rather than telling is not to be taken too literally. It is a warning against emotional outbreaks, long-winded philosophical reflections, opinionated polemics, high flown poetics and the whole gamut of self-display, self-concern and self-indulgence. All this is, as David Cobb has cautioned, is not to be confused with a “self-compassion that sees oneself sharing the common problems and weaknesses and pleasures of humanity… The examination of human relationships and moments of stress are welcome topics, so long as detachment is preserved. Sadly, rather a lot of Western haibun are surrogates for a trip to Dr Freud’s couch” (6). For example, in my haibun “Ships in the Night” I do tell the reader directly something about the couple’s relationship, but very much more is shown – and hinted at – by a range of elliptical devices.

My third group of criteria have to do with the haiku and their relationship to the prose. In the first place, the haiku need to be strong in their own right. If they can be comfortably folded back into the prose then they have no business trying to stand out as haiku. But if they cannot, then they do has some distinctive function there as haiku, and it is always interesting to examine what that may be. In haibun the prose context can greatly enhance the versatility and power of haiku, not least because the reader has already been sensitised to a particular mood and the whole imaginative experience can be skilfully ratcheted up, with the haiku in turn powering up the prose.

One of the few things writers on haibun are generally agreed about (and perhaps too much to the exclusion of other important criteria) is the importance of the relationship between the haiku and the prose. Thus, Yuasa argues that “the interaction between haiku poetry and haiku prose is haibun’s greatest merit … The relationship is like that between the moon and the earth: each makes the other more beautiful” (7).

But if the prose itself already has strong haiku-like qualities, then what separate and distinctive part can the haiku play ? The different roles which haiku can play in interaction with various kinds of prose have yet to be explored. One role is to create diversity, as when the haiku mark an intensification of feeling; or perhaps a break in the rhythm. Again, a haiku may give an ambiguous twist to an unfolding theme. One interesting usage is the contrapuntal haiku. The analogy here is with the counterpoint found in baroque music, in jazz and in the music of many other cultures. Haruo Shirane evidently had the same analogy in mind when he referred to the contrasting shots found in classic cinema montage.

Contrapuntal haiku have several possible uses. Perhaps the simplest is to encapsulate a metaphor which reinforces what is being more explicitly expressed by the prose. The alternate haiku in my “Sprit Level” are an example. Another contrapuntal usage is to communicate, in parallel, a different mood or perspective from the prose text. In some haibun by Michael McClintock and by George Marsh, for example, the haiku act as reminders that ordinary life goes on beside the drama in the prose – what I call “the fall of Icarus” effect, after Brueghel’s famous painting . More structurally ambitious – and I have only seen one not very successful example – is “three decker counterpoint”, where two parallel but interrelated themes, topics, treatments or narratives are pursued in the prose, one perhaps being italicised. The musical analogy even suggests a four-decker performance haibun, for three voices and musical accompaniment ! The prose/haiku interaction theme is indeed an exciting area ripe for exploration…

With my fourth group of criteria we get into the more sophisticated possibilities of the genre. Does the haibun have that mysterious open-ended quality found in the best haiku, leaving “space” for the reader ? Is there in it some subtle allusion, ambiguity, paradox, irony , tragic-comedy or dark humour (different qualities, indeed, but very much interrelated) ? Is it multidimensional in its treatment, with a richly layered textual density ?

Here we explore the mysteries of time, place and personal identity, and all the autobiographical and cultural associations which give them meaning. There is a place here for the surreal and the fantastical as well as the factual. Here is the existential cutting edge of haibun. Here is the time-honoured exploration of things that are not quite what they seem, drawing us into other ways of feeling and being. This is where I love to play. A simple example is “Bowl of Frost”, an allegorical piece which can be read at several levels (beginning with the title).

Fifthly and finally, is the haibun enriched by historical, mythical or similar cultural treatment ?

Haruo Shirane has argued the importance for English language haiku (and related forms) of the traditional “vertical axis” of myth, literature and history (including “social ills, cyberspace” and similar realms) and deprecates “the constant [Western] emphasis on direct personal experience”, the imaged haiku moment (the horizontal axis) (8).

Unfortunately this “vertical axis” is at present rarely to be found in the thin haibun gruel cooked up in the culturally disembedded West. There are, however, some richer stews on offer in England, Ireland and Wales (and some nice New England-style recipes from Michael McClintock). For example, David Cobb’s haibun have much to offer in the rediscovery and celebration of “Englishness” – most notably his Journey to the Saxon Shore, A Day in Twilight (where he visits Old King Coel), and St Edmund’s Eve. Much of Jim Norton’ s work is a loving evocation of Dublin, (as is my own Joycean haibun in this collection). Arwyn Evans’ haibun are enhanced by their settings in South Wales story and landscape and his Valleys childhood. My Stallion’s Crag (cited above) will celebrate the places, history and myths of my own part of Wales, including a 6,000 word haibun set on Plynlimmon mountain. In this present collection Celtic myth is celebrated in “A Skylark’s Song”. And in “Cork Oak”, set in Andalusia, there is a blend of Moorish romance, Civil War tragedy and lush antiquity all wrapped up in an ambiguous spookiness, signalled by the cork oaks of the title.

I believe that haibun like these will strike a particularly warm resonance in Japan, and hope that it will not be too long before Japanese readers have ready access to those by other hands.

I conclude with a quotation from Shirane which strongly makes the case for haibun as an essentially literary genre, and which summarises many of the criteria proposed above:

[If] haiku is to rise to the level of serious poetry, literature that is widely respected and admired, that is taught and studied, commentated upon, that can have impact on other non-haiku poets, then it must have a complexity that gives it depth and that allows it to both focus on and rise above the specific moment or time. Basho, Buson and other masters achieved this through various forms of textual density, including metaphor, allegory, symbolism and allusion, as well as through the constant search for new topics (8).


1. Makoto Ueda, Matsuo Basho, Kodansha, 1970.

2. Nobuyuki Yuasa, Narrow Road to the Deep North, Penguin, 1966.

3. Bruce Ross, editor, Journeys to the Interior: American Versoins of Haibun, Tuttle, 1998.

4. Michael Dylan Welch, Cor van den Heuvel and Tom Lynch, editors, Wesdge of Light, Press Hdere (Foster City), 1999.

5. Reference (1), p.142.

6. David Cobb, “A Few Timely Heresies about English haibun”, Journal of the British Haiku Society Blithe Sprit, 10(3) September 2000, p.12, p.13.

7. Nobuyuki Yuasa, ibid, p.39.

8. Haruo Shirane, “Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku Myths”, Modern Haiku 31(1) Winter 2000, pp48-63