One objection repeatedly raised to the fact that historical haibun exist (see Basho’s “Words in Praise of the Pine of Narihide’s Garden,” in David Landis Barnhill’s Basho’s Journey, SUNY Press, Albany, 2005, pp. 131-132) and to the assertion that contemporary haibun might exist without haiku may be formulated in the rhetorical form in which it is most often advanced:
What is the difference between a prose poem and a haibun without haiku?
Two suppositions are implicit in this rhetorical question that is offered as rebuttal to the heresy of haibun without haiku: 1) that a well-established and conventional definition of “prose poem” exists in the literary community at large; 2) that the quality of the prose is secondary and not determinative, for it is only the presence of a haiku that sanctions prose as haibun.
What precisely, the dissenter may ask, is a “prose poem?” In reading Western literature only, the student will discover defined as a “poem in prose” or a “prose poem,” by either the author of the work in question or by its many commentators, works as widely divergent as the grammatical parallelism of the Pentateuch, Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno, William Blake’s prophetic books, Edgar Allen Poe’s Eureka, the German romantic tradition (Hölderlin and Novalis), the French symbolist tradition (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Valéry), Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, excerpts from the writings of naturalists such as Audubon, Bartram, Thoreau or Muir, Ezra Pound’s Cathay, sections of James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, Gertrude Stein’s long and short “fictions,” Sherwood Anderson’s highly stylistic sketches and stories, much of 20th century free-verse and far more.
Such wide diversity of form, under the common aegis of “prose poem,” certifies only the continuing absence of consensus on what does or does not constitute a poetry in prose. This uncertainty as to the proper limit of a genre (“prose poem”) renders the above rhetorical equation ― haibun minus haiku equals prose poem ― meaningless.
The second supposition ― that the presence of haiku sanctions haibun ― implies that haiku is self-sufficient whereas prose is not. If this were true, would the insertion of “one or more haiku” into any prose not effectually alter the content and context of the prose? The case of haibun with haiku, however, defeats this expectation.
A well-written haiku alone on a page will leave some margin for interpretation to the reader through purposeful ambiguity or paradox and will establish undertone and atmosphere through a careful balance of rhythm and the connotations of key words in the text. Once this same haiku is placed within a prose context, however, the meaning and emotive character of adjacent prose passages quickly colors the haiku, i.e., the haiku and not the prose is subject to the greater change by this radical marriage of two modes (verse and prose).
Given the above considerations, perhaps a more apt provisional definition of haibun might be: Haibun is haiku-like prose with or without one or more haiku. “Haiku-like,” of course, is susceptible to wide interpretation as it is quite subjective, though in general one might anticipate “haiku-like prose” to avail itself of ellipsis, paradox, understatement and other qualities familiar to the reader of haiku.