A Hundred Gourds 5:2 March 2016

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Learning from two Masters of the Haibun Form:

Matsuo Basho and Ken Jones

by Ray Rasmussen

Why Read the Masters?

Many current writers of haibun have come to the practice in the last decade. Some came from a haiku poetry practice, some stepped directly into haibun from other genres (free verse, prose poetry, flash fiction, personal journals and blogs) and some initiated their writing journey in the haibun form.

For guidance, newer writers to the form have available a plethora of definitions that can be found in haibun journals, chapbooks and anthologies. But definitions by their nature are abstractions that are difficult to put into practice. Thus journal editors often stress the value of reading and learning from the haibun and haiku of the Japanese masters as well as the contemporary works appearing in their journals. The focus on reading the Japanese masters isn't meant to suggest that contemporary English-language haibun derives solely from the examples left by those early practitioners. Contemporary haibun composition is also informed by the well-established writing principles found in a variety of English-language forms including prose poetry, short stories, novels and non-fictional essays. In short, today's haibun is a mix of the old and the new and continues to evolve into its own unique form with respect to both content and prose style.

This essay is intended as a double exposure: 1) to Basho's classic, The Hut of the Phantom Dwelling1 and 2) to the compositional perspectives of undisputed English-language haibun master, Ken Jones.

Basho's Hut of the Phantom Dwelling

In 1690, Basho wrote a letter to a friend from a remote hut he lived in for several months on the shore of Lake Biwa. Characterized by the inclusion of haiku-like phrases, he called the mix of prose and poetry "haibun" which translates as "haiku writing." For those familiar with Basho's haiku, but unfamiliar with the extent of his reputation, consider this:

“Abroad or in Japan, mention of the word haiku brings to mind Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), the greatest master of that genre.”2 And The Hut of the Phantom Dwelling has been described as the first outstanding example of haibun literature.3

Before reading further, I'd suggest that you read Basho's piece both to get a feel for the whole of it and to form your own opinions prior to reading the following commentary.4

Ken Jones' Characteristics of Good Writing

In "Introduction to Haibun" from Arrow of Stones, Jones describes several characteristics of good haibun.5 These include literary writing, showing vs telling, succinctness, open-endedness, allusive content and the quality of the prose-haiku connection.

In the following sections, each of these is employed as a means of assessing Basho’s style in “Hut of the Phantom Dwelling”.

1. Literary Writing
Jones: 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? 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. >

Basho's prose passages go well beyond the sort of descriptive detail against which Jones rails. Consider the following one that I find particularly lyrical:
Basho: I too gave up city life some ten years ago, and now I'm approaching fifty. I'm like a bagworm that's lost its bag, a snail without its shell. I've tanned my face in the hot sun of Kisakata in Ou, and bruised my heels on the rough beaches of the northern sea, where tall dunes make walking so hard. And now this year here I am drifting by the waves of Lake Biwa.

A bagworm is a moth. In its caterpillar stage, it builds a small protective case (or bag) in which it can hide. To be a bagworm without its case or a snail without its shell is to be vulnerable to predators. For Basho, the predators are time and aging coupled with a weariness of the demands of his students and admirers. Here's the way Howard Norman put this phase of Basho's life:
… in his mid-40s . . . exhausted from the incessant demands of students and of his literary celebrity, (Basho) said that he felt 'the breezes from the afterlife cross his face.'6

2. Showing vs Telling
Jones: My second cluster of criteria question whether the haibun shows rather than tells . . . (the admonition to show rather than tell) 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, 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.

Unfortunately, the admonition to show rather than tell often sounds as if a writer should never tell, only show. Like much contemporary writing, including that of Jones, Basho's prose is a mix of the two:
Basho telling:

Again and again I think of the mistakes I've made in my clumsiness over the course of the years. There was a time when I envied those who had government offices or impressive domains, and on another occasion I considered entering the precincts of the Buddha and the teaching rooms of the patriarchs.

But when all has been said, I'm not really the kind who is so completely enamored of solitude that he must hide every trace of himself away in the mountains and wilds. It's just that, troubled by frequent illness and weary of dealing with people, I've come to dislike society.

Basho showing through descriptive detail:

The mountain rises behind me to the southwest and the nearest houses are a good distance away. Fragrant southern breezes blow down from the mountain tops, and north winds, dampened by the lake, are cool. I have Mount Hie and the tall peak of Hira, and this side of them the pines of Karasaki veiled in mist, as well as a castle, a bridge, and boats fishing on the lake. I hear the voice of the woodsman making his way to Mount Kasatori, and the songs of the seedling planters in the little rice paddies at the foot of the hill.

In what I've labeled the tell passage, Basho directly expresses his thoughts and feelings. In the show passage, he doesn’t directly express his loneliness by saying things like “I’m lonely here …”. Instead, he paints a scene of isolation in an environment full of the comings and goings of others. He doesn't meet the woodsman or the planters … he hears their voices and songs.

While the line between show and tell is reasonably distinct, whether tells indicate self-compassion or self-aggrandizement is a difficult judgment that will be determined by the unique sensibilities of each reader. I didn't find Basho’s tell passages to be long-winded, opinionated or a surrogate trip to an analyst's couch. He hasn’t made himself sound heroic in his aloneness, just human.

3. Succinctness
Jones: 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”. . . 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. . . . The language (should be) concise, allusive and figurative to induce the reader to share the author’s experiences, actual and emotional. The passages (should be) loaded with sensory images. Most of the sentences (should be) short and crisp, seldom with a conjunction between them.

As an editor and writer, I've often suggested (or had suggested to me) that a piece has redundancies and/or that it should be cut significantly. Indeed, in what has become the bible of good contemporary writing, Strunk emphasized:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.7

Does Basho make every word tell? At times, I feel that there is unnecessary detail in his passages, but in part, this is due to my lack of knowledge of the allusions Basho is making to the work of other poets and to cultural and historical events and to places of which I have no knowledge. Consider for example:
Basho: . . . and so in the end, unskilled and talentless as I am, I give myself wholly to this one concern, poetry. Bo Juyi worked so hard at it that he almost ruined his five vital organs, and Du Fu grew lean and emaciated because of it. As far as intelligence or the quality of our writings go, I can never compare to such men.

I had no idea who Bo Juyi or Du Fu were or what the five vital organs are, so I explored the Internet to learn what I could.8 Yet, to appreciate Basho's writing, does the reader need to know precisely what each allusion means? I think we can assume that both Bo Juyi and Du Fu are among Basho's favourite poets and that he is comparing himself somewhat humbly to great poets from the past, and probably not to his contemporaries. Do we need to know what the five vital organs are? The phrase suggests that Bo Juyi ruined his health in devoting himself to writing. Surely that’s sufficient to grasp the passage and none of the detail is needed to appreciate the literary beauty of the passage.

As an editor, plausible cuts jump to mind when I read almost all of the submissions I receive. But despite the wordiness of some of Basho's prose passages, I'd not suggest cuts or wordsmithing because this is a historical cultural document and some readers will be able to better appreciate contextual details. On the other hand, in an Internet workshop discussion of the piece, writer Gary Ford wrote: "I think that many cuts could be made to focus it more tightly on what I think it really is – a piece about a lonely old man thinking about how he has spent his life and what he has accomplished in that spending.”9

4. Open-endedness
Jones: (Here) 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?

I found several passages in Hut that were sufficiently ambiguous to allow me to ponder both the meaning and the application to my own life. As an example, consider:
And yet we all in the end live, do we not, in a phantom dwelling?

Basho is prompting us to consider our own phantom dwellings, although he’s left it free for us to imagine what such a dwelling may be. Is our physical home or apartment akin to Basho’s hut? Certainly in terms of isolation, mine is. Although I live in an urban neighborhood, except to nod hello, I rarely speak to my neighbors. As many poets have put it, many of us dwell in a sea of superficial relationships. And, on another level, do we writers dwell in the shadows of those who have achieved fame, just as Basho dwells in Bo Juyi's and Du Fu's shadows? As a landscape photographer, my comparisons are the historical greats who achieved lasting fame and contemporary photographers whose work is so perfectly executed. In a sense, I live in a shadowy mental state where I continuously ask myself why I ever bother to snap the shutter or, as a writer, why I pick up the pen. So if we wish to create, we’re left with the process and pleasure of writing or photography, and must accept the inevitable phantoms.

Of course, because there is ambiguity in the sentence, other 'takes' are possible. Another member of the Internet Haibun Workshop, writer Nancy Hull, wrote: “My immediate thoughts were very literal. I felt he was saying that toward the end of our lives we can live more simply, as he's chosen to do, with the basics, a roof, food, water, and hopefully find time to do something important for ourselves (in his case poetry) away from the fast paced lives we've led previously.”10

5. Historical, mythical or cultural content
Jones: 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). Unfortunately this “vertical axis” is at present rarely to be found in the thin haibun gruel cooked up in the culturally disembedded West.

As a 3rd generation inhabitant of North America who has moved from place to place, my cultural history (Danish and Italian origins) is largely lost and few of the towns and cities where I've lived have the historical/cultural flavor that one finds in Japanese and European towns. But does this mean that contemporary North American writers like myself are merely offering, as Jones suggests, 'thin gruel'? I like to think not. Yet in reading Basho, I can well understand that his work contains allusions to a deep cultural and literary history of both Japan and China. Consider this passage:
Basho: Beyond Ishiyama, with its back to Mount Iwama, is a hill called Kokub-uyama – the name I think derives from a kokubunji or government temple of long ago. If you cross the narrow stream that runs at the foot and climb the slope for three turnings of the road, some two hundred paces each, you come to a shrine of the god Hachiman. The object of worship is a statue of the Buddha Amida. This is the sort of thing that is greatly abhorred by the Yuiitsu school, though I regard it as admirable that, as the Ryobu assert, the Buddhas should dim their light and mingle with the dust in order to benefit the world.

This is a passage where Gary Ford’s previously cited complaint comes to the fore. I have no feel for the significance of Ishiyama, Mount Iwama, the hill called Kokub-uyama, the nature of a kokubunji, the god Hachiman, or the Buddha Amida. Nor do I understand why the Yuiitsu school might abhor that god or what is meant by the Rhyobu's assertion that “the Buddhas should dim their light and mingle with the dust." In short, the passage contains deep allusions to places and religious beliefs that are well beyond my understanding.

And yet, through global communications, we now share visions of the world's diverse cultures, and not just the culture, however new and emergent, in which we swim. For example, Canada, where I live, is embracing multi-culturalism, a rich context from which to write. And similar to Basho's journeys into cultural/historical/spiritual places in Japan, certain places where I spend time have deep roots. For example, when hiking Utah's canyon country, I encounter the rock art and dwellings of the early Puebloans (Anasazi), a culture that died out 1000 years ago. Is this not akin to Basho's visit to Hiraizumi where he viewed the ruins that represented all that's left of "three generations of the Fujiwara family" and that led to his famous poem, summer grasses / all that remains / of soldier's dreams?11

6. The Relationship of the haiku to the prose
Jones: One of the few things writers of 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. . . . 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. . . . (which) have several possible uses. Perhaps the simplest is to encapsulate a metaphor which reinforces what is being more explicitly expressed by the prose. . . . Another contrapuntal usage is to communicate, in parallel, a different mood or perspective from the prose text.

Basho closes Hut with a haiku that does play an important role in closing the work and that contains rich allusions that go beyond the prose.

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

The Japanese pasana is Lithocarpus edulis (common name, Japanese Stone Oak), a species native to Japan. It's an evergreen tree growing up to 15 metres tall. The nuts are edible but taste bitter because they contain tannins. Basho's haiku serves to intensify the feeling in the prose through this reference to a particular tree growing among others not of its kind. While it's edible, there's a bitterness to its taste. Yet this tree, at least, is something that Basho can count on. My take is that Basho has likened himself to a person among strangers (don't most writers share this sense of difference?) and there's a bitterness and yet acceptance of his estrangement. Of course there are other ways to read the haiku in relation to the prose. One suggestion is that "The pasania is a majestic and ancient tree with spreading trunk and splendid canopy, hence 'something to count on.”12

Concluding Remarks

This close reading of Basho's Hut of the Phantom Dwelling coupled with the use of Ken Jones' thoughts about the characteristics of good writing provided insights that I'd not have had with a casual reading of either writer's work. If you've not done a close reading of the Japanese masters or one of our own contemporary great writers, and particularly if you've not tried to apply one of the many definitions of haibun to a good writer's work, I suggest you give it a go, both for your own benefit but also as a means of contributing to the literary criticism related to contemporary haibun.

As a further means of exploring Basho’s Hut and putting Jones’ principles to work, I plan to shape a haibun with my own content about a recent solo experience I've had while living in Ontario's woods. While some might feel that doing so would merely result in producing a derivative piece of writing, consider this from another of our contemporary masters, Cor van den Heuvel:
The writing of variations on certain subjects in haiku, sometimes using the same or similar phrases (or even changing a few words of a previous haiku), is one of the most interesting challenges the genre offers a poet and can result in refreshingly different ways of ‘seeing anew’ for the reader. This is an aspect of traditional Japanese haiku which is hard for many Westerners, with their ideas of uniqueness and Romantic individualism, to accept. But some of the most original voices in haiku do not hesitate to dare seeming derivative if they see a way of reworking an ‘old’ image.”13

In taking this next step, I don't expect to produce a masterpiece like Basho's, but instead to be able to vary both new themes and styles into my own writing. Of course, as I do so I'll be struggling within my own phantoms and will likely feel quite vulnerable as I compare and fail to measure up to Basho’s great voice. In short, I’ll likely feel as if I’m a snail inching along without its shell.


1Matsuo Basho, TheHut of the Phantom Dwelling (Genjuan no ki) , Reocities website.

2Steven D. Carter, from the Preface of the Kindle Reader version of Haiku from the Renga Masters: Before to Basho Haiku, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

3Haruo Shirane, Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, 1600-1900, Columbia University Press, 2002.

4Basho, ibid.

5Ken Jones, "Introduction", Arrow of Stones, British Haiku Society Press, 2002. All quotes are used with Ken Jones permission, Ken Jones website.

6Howard Norman, "On the Poet's Trail," taken on December 12, 2015 from the National Geographic website.

7W. Strunk Jr., The Elements of Style, Harcourt, Brace & Howe, 1920.

8Bai Juyi (772- 846, and also known as Bo Juyi and Po Chuyi) wrote in the Mid-Tang period. He was one of the most prolific of all Chinese poets, but is best known for his short occasional verses written in simple language. Taken on Dec 18, 2015 from “Bai Juyi”, Wikipedia Website. Some of Bai Juyi’s poetry can be found on the website "Chinese Poems.”

Du Fu (712- 770, and also known as Tu Fu) wrote in the High Tang period. His work is very diverse, but his most characteristic poems are autobiographical and historical, recording the effects of war on his own life. Taken on Dec 18, 2015 from “Du Fu”, Wikipedia Website. Some of his poetry can be found on the website "Chinese Poems.”

9Gary Ford, personal correspondence, July 17, 2015, published with permission.

10Nancy Hull, personal correspondence, July 22, 2015, published with permission.

11Matsuo Basho, "Hiraizumi", from Narrow Road to the Deep North, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa,

12Genjuan no Fui: Basho’s Phantom Hut, taken from the Hermitary website on August 20, 2015.

13Cor van den Heuvel, The Haiku Anthology: Haiku and Senryu in English, New York: W.W. Norton, 1999, p. ix-x as cited in Chen-ou Liu, “Make Haibun New through the Chinese Poetic Past: Basho's Transformation of Haikai Prose,” Simply Haiku 8:1 Summer 2010.

References used by Ken Jones in “Introduction to Haibun”

Makoto Ueda, Matsuo Basho, Kodansha, 1970.

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

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

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

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. Nobuyuki Yuasa, ibid, p.39.

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


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