Haibun / Hybrid

By Kimiko Hahn on 4.28.09

There is a good deal of chatter and blogging and general what-not (poetic and academic) about hybridity. But I wonder if this is something new? What does hybridity even mean to a Eurasian, born in the middle of the twentieth-century? I mean, one has only to look towards non-Western forms to find some of what is being re-invented.

I have written elsewhere about the zuihitsu and how this century-old form feels a lot like Williams’ Paterson or perhaps today’s “lyric essay.” I’ve considered how the monostich most engages me as a tanka—and rendered as one-line instead of the five-lines found in translation.

Another Japanese form is the haibun which, if you will permit me to quote Wikipedia, “is a literary composition that combines prose and haiku…Present tense, brevity in prose, objective detachment and implication are common characteristics of modern haibun in English but no characteristic is an inviolable rule.” The definition continues and (I suggest at great risk of angering those more expert) overlaps with the zuihitsu. The primary distinguishing factor is its hybridity: haibun must contain poetry and, for traditionalists, that poetry must be haiku. Haibun Today is an on-going online list of definitions which just goes to show how difficult it is to nail down these non-Western forms.


Photo by jef safi on Flickr

For Western readers, the most well known is Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Interior, Okunohosomichi (which Donald Keene describes as a travel-diary). Other readers may have discovered this form in Robert Hass’s work such as “On Visiting the DMZ at Panmunjom: a haibun.” Less traditional versions may be his “The Yellow Bicycle” and “The Beginning of September” (I have no idea what Mr. Hass would say); and a number of Sherman Alexie’s poems—the most obvious being “Haibun” in The Summer of Black Widows.

As a writer, I am attracted by ambiguity and clarity, by mixing and reforming forms. Furthermore, my own sensibilities are informed by a Japanese values: highly crafted and yet seeming spontanious and “merely” intuitive work.

At a moment when hybridity is of increasing interest (if not downright trendy), models might appear again from other hemispheres.  And then—as the Japanese themselves customarily to do when adopting cultural forms—we might re-form them into something American. Here is my contribution to the search for a contemporary definition: A hybrid of poetry and prose (either side-by-side or one embedded in the other) where juxtaposition sparks a radiance greater than its separate parts. Traditionalists insist on the unadulterated haiku as its poetic form. I have mixed feelings. From my own collection, The Narrow Road to the Interior, here is an excerpt from “Sparrow”:

At this moment it is painful to leave and more painful to stay. Any residue of affection has twisted into an anger keen as a scapel. Brilliant as a blade, Clean as glass. I wish there could be some way for my husband, also, to want to part because everything we might have had has eroded so flat I’m not even sure what we did have. Was it my imagination?

      The body would like to recall humidity even
      or especially in February—
      even as the dogwood too early reddens
      then freezes the next week
      but is still not ruined.
      What of the nestled pupa, more
      uncompromising than we imagine?

Perhaps, when all is said and done, we create definitions according to our own needs, hybrid and otherwise.

topics: Columnists