Haibun

[At my request, Dave Bonta drafted this explanation of haibun, the literary form of his composition “Therapy.”]

I have gotten in the habit of using the term “haibun” loosely to refer to a composition that includes both prose and poetry as more-or-less equal partners. Haibun – prose interspersed with the beginning (hokku) verses for potential haikai linked verse sequences – was a descendent of the Japanese poetic diary or nikki, a major literary form since the ninth century. These earlier, often somewhat fictionalized, literary diaries were interspersed with 27-syllable tanka poems – indeed, in the case of the diary of Izumi Shikibu, the prose part consists largely of descriptions of the occasions for the poems – typically courtship. This tradition was built on the much older Chinese culture of poetry, where poems were frequently accompanied by lengthy notes on how, when, where and for whom they came to be written, rather than by Western-style titles (a fact often obscured by translators into Western languages), and they were sometimes also published as part of a diary or travelogue. And this precedent in turn might serve to remind us of the fact that passages of elevated discourse – poems or songs – are encountered by audiences in a huge variety of settings in oral and literate societies all around the world. Poems may appear as part of plays, sacred texts or epic recitations, might be embedded in political oratory or in liturgical celebrations. It is only really in the societies of the modern, industrialized West that poetry is seen as inhabiting some ideal realm all its own. As any reader of the Bible will recognize, there’s often something quite exhilarating about a sudden switch from a more everyday to a more elevated level of discourse. Would the Song of Deborah or the “Magnificat” be so compelling apart from their narrative matrices? Could the Torah ever have achieved the power to unite a scattered people without its beautiful, stirring summary in the last chapters of Deuteronomy?

© 2005 Dave Bonta. Used by permission.