On Western Haiku

Haiku. What is it about these small poems that make people all over the world want to read and write them? Nick Virgilio, one of America’s first major haiku poets, once said in an interview that he wrote haiku “to get in touch with the real.” And the Haiku Society of America has called haiku a “poem in which Nature is linked to human nature.” We all want to know what is real and to feel at one with the natural world. Haiku helps us to experience the everyday things around us vividly and directly, so we see them as they really are, as bright and fresh as they were when we first saw them as children. Haiku is basically about living with intense awareness, having an openness to the existence around us. A kind of openness that involves seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching.

Not so long ago, in 1991, when the first Haiku North America conference was being held at Las Positas College outside of San Francisco, another major figure of American haiku, J. W. Hackett, and his wife Pat, invited four of the attending poets to their garden home on a hill in the Santa Cruz mountains. Christopher Herold, one of those poets, wrote a haiku, included in this anthology, about that experience:

returning quail
call to us from the moment
of which he speaks

The poets had all moved out to the garden, continuing their talk about nature, Zen, and haiku. Toasts were raised to Basho, Japan’s most famous haiku poet, and to R. H. Blyth, his most faithful translator. Shadows were lengthening and James Hackett was trying to make clear his feelings about haiku when the birds suddenly came to his assistance. Christopher Herold’s haiku captures that “moment” of the afternoon, when Hackett, and the quail, summed up everything he had been saying, eloquently and passionately, about haiku and the way of life it represents: living in the present moment now.

That conference the poets were attending is just one indication of the new popularity of haiku. The Haiku North America conferences bring together poets from many different haiku groups and societies throughout the United States and Canada. They are held every other year. The first two were at Las Positas, the third was in Toronto, in 1997 it was held at Portland State University, in Portland, Oregon, and in 1999 it was in Chicago. There have recently been a number of international conferences as well. There was one in Matsuyama in 1990, with delegates from the United States, China, and several European countries meeting with some of the top haiku poets and critics of Japan. In Chicago in 1995 about twenty Japanese haiku poets came to join American and Canadian haiku poets in a series of events called Haiku Chicago, that included a haiku-writing walk through Chicago streets and parks.

There have been others: in Europe, California, and one just last year in Tokyo, which was hosted by the Haiku International Association and attended by a large delegation from the Haiku Society of America and Haiku Canada. These larger activities are the result of smaller groups of haiku poets getting together in their own individual countries to write haiku, to publish magazines and books on the subject, and to discuss haiku theory and practice. This phenomenon is nowhere more prevalent than in the United States, which probably has more poets writing haiku than any other country except Japan. Groups of poets have joined together in Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, Portland, OR, San Francisco, and many other cities and towns across America to write and discuss haiku together. The Haiku Society of America has helped to coordinate and organize special events, such as the conferences mentioned above, to bring these groups together for an interchange of ideas and mutual encouragement. Many of the groups were started within the society’s regional division program, which allows each region to elect its own regional director, have regional meetings, and have its own newsletter or magazine. Many of the poets in this anthology have been active in such groups.

Despite such serious attempts to develop a haiku literature, and to educate the public about it, there is still a lot of misunderstanding about this kind of poetry. The idea that haiku is anything in three lines of 5-7-5 syllables dies hard. People write little epigrams in this form, or jokes about Spam, or cute descriptions of birds and flowers, and think they are writing haiku.

On March 29, 1987, I wrote in The New York Times Book Review:

A haiku is not just a pretty picture in three lines of 5-7-5 syllables each. In fact, most haiku in English are not writtten in 5-7-5 syllables at all — many are not even written in three lines. What distinguishes a haiku is concision, perception and awareness — not a set number of syllables. A haiku is a short poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived in which Nature is linked to human nature. As Roland Barthes has pointed out, this record neither describes nor defines, but “diminishes to the point of pure and sole designation.” The poem is refined into a touchstone of suggestiveness. In the mind of an aware reader it opens again into an image that is immediate and palpable, and pulsing with that delight of the senses that carries a conviction of one’s unity with all of existence. A haiku can be anywhere from a few to 17 syllables, rarely more. It is now known that about 12 — not 17 — syllables in English are equivalent in length to the 17 onji (sound-symbols) of the Japanese haiku. A number of poets are writing them shorter than that. The results almost literally fit Alan Watt’s description of haiku as “wordless” poems. Such poems may seem flat and empty to the uninitiated. But despite their simplicity, haiku can be very demanding of both writer and reader, being at the same time one of the most accessible and inaccessible kinds of poetry. R. H. Blyth, the great translator of Japanese haiku, wrote that a haiku is “an open door which looks shut.” To see what is suggested by a haiku, the reader must share in the creative process, being willing to associate and pick up on the echoes implicit in the words. A wrong focus, or lack of awareness, and he will see only a closed door.

At the time I wrote that article the activities of The Haiku Society of America were pretty much confined to New York City, though it had members throughout the country, and most of the small groups mentioned above were yet to be formed. Soon after this the HSA began to hold its annual meeting in a different city each year, and the regional system was created. All the special conferences mentioned above have taken place in the decade of the nineties. The world of English language haiku has radically changed since the earlier edition of my book, the Haiku Anthology, in 1986.

At the same time as these developments were taking place, haiku’s sister genre, senryu, was also increasing in popularity and in quality. Senryu is the same as haiku except, instead of dealing with nature, it is specifically about human nature and human relationships, and is often humorous. Many poets writing haiku in English also write senryu. For many Americans writing them, senryu is haiku — though a very special kind. But as many others consider them totally different genres, without disputing that they have the same roots and retain many similarities. They both embody an awareness of the world around us.

Besides the wider developments discussed above, yet partly due to them, the more important goals of creating excellent haiku and producing individual writers of talent, has been, and continues to be, realized. New, young poets have come to the fore. Established poets have broadened and deepened their work. New haiku magazines and presses have appeared. And new books of haiku and about haiku have significantly altered the way we think about the genre.

The loss to haiku by the deaths of Nicholas Virgilio and John Wills is immeasurable. Both were respected in the American haiku world from their earliest appearances in the little magazines. By the time of their deaths they were considered among the top writers of the genre. Since their passing their stature has become even more assured. Their works stand as monuments on the landscape of American haiku’s first half century. That period, beginning in the fifties and early sixties with the first experiments of Jack Kerouac, J. W. Hackett, Nick Virgilio, and others, and which is now being crowned with the mature works of a number of outstanding haiku poets, may someday be looked upon as the Golden Age of North American Haiku.

Nick Virgilio died at age 60 in January of 1989. He had been stricken by a heart attack while making a taped interview for the Charlie Rose show [it was called Nightwatch and Scott Simon was substituting for Charlie], a nationally televised program then airing on CBS. Nick had been a popular figure as a guest on television and radio in the Philadelphia area, interesting thousands of people in haiku. During the year or so before his death he appeared a number of times on National Public Radio. When he died, he was on the verge of becoming American haiku’s first celebrity. Virgilio’s work is far ranging, from simple nature poems to gritty urban haiku. His haiku about his brother, who died in Vietnam, comprise one of the finest elegies ever written. They demonstrate the power of love to preserve the memory of those close to us.

Through the Nick Virgilio Haiku Association, headquartered in his home town of Camden, New Jersey, Nick still spreads the word about haiku. He is buried there only a few steps from Walt Whitman’s tomb. Whitman was one of his favorite poets, and Nick often quoted him. A large granite stone in the shape of a lectern has been erected over Nick’s grave with his famous “lily” haiku engraved on its top. Visitors can read the poem while facing a small lily pond:

out of the water …
out of itself

John Wills died in 1993 at the age of 72. His haiku go deep into the heart of American nature. Many of his greatest haiku were written between 1971 and 1978 when he lived on a farm in the mountains of Tennessee. They are about the surrounding fields and woods and the streams and rivers. He loved fishing and wrote often about it in his haiku. With just the barest of brushstrokes, Wills can make us one with a waterthrush at dusk, or let us see the miracle that lies in a simple swirl of water on a trout stream:

rain in gusts
below the deadhead

Happily, one of American haiku’s most important pioneering writers, J. W. Hackett, is still with us, and we can, as I noted earlier, drink a toast to Basho with him. Hackett’s work first appeared in the early sixties. R. H. Blyth included a selection of it as an appendix to his History of Haiku in 1964. He cited them as examples of how haiku could be written in English. In 1986, I wrote in the preface to the second edition of my Haiku Anthology that Hackett had turned to writing longer works. But in the nineties he has begun writing haiku again, and has become active in the haiku community. He recently lectured about haiku in Japan, Ireland, and the United States and has judged several haiku contests, including the annual contest of the British Haiku Society. In 1993 he was the keynote speaker at the second Haiku North America. He is finishing a new book about haiku to be called That Art Thou: My Way of Haiku. Hackett’s haiku included here are from his popular The Zen Haiku and Other Zen Poems of J. W. Hackett which is still in print.

Among other important trailblazers of English language haiku are: Clement Hoyt, who started studying haiku and Zen with Nyogen Senzaki in 1936 and became one of our first senryu writers; O. Mabson Southard who has described his poetic voice as owing “the burden of its intimate heraldry to aboriginal America”; Robert Spiess, many of whose haiku reflect his love of canoeing the lakes and streams of Wisconsin; Elizabeth Searle Lamb, who has traveled widely, but writes some of her best haiku about the American Southwest where she now lives; L. A. Davidson, a sharp observer of nature as it exists in New York City where she has long resided, and whose love of sailing probably played a part in the creation of her well-known “beyond/stars” haiku; Foster Jewell, who captured the silences of the woods and desert places of America; and Eric Amann, a Canadian poet, critic, and editor, who is able to find haiku in parking lots and on billboards, and even in a folded tent:

The circus tent
all folded up:
October mist …

The haiku of all of these poets began appearing in the early haiku magazines of the sixties. Some of them edited these magazines. Hoyt and Spiess were both early editors of the first haiku magazine in this country, American Haiku. The first issue, published in 1963, contained work by Hackett, Virgilio and Southard. Spiess has for many years now been the editor of Modern Haiku, and Lamb was for a long time the editor of Frogpond, the magazine of the Haiku Society of America. Eric Amann started the first Canadian haiku magazine, Haiku, in 1967. Hoyt and Jewell passed away some time ago. Of the rest, only Spiess, Lamb, and Davidson have been notably active in recent years, writing and publishing new haiku.

As English language haiku approaches the end of its first fifty years, a number of poets, other than those discussed already, have, by the quality and quantity of their haiku, emerged as major figures: Anita Virgil, Gary Hotham, Marlene Mountain, Alexis Rotella, George Swede, Alan Pizzarelli, Michael McClintock, Raymond Roseliep, and Rod Willmot.

Roseliep, who died in 1983, was one of our most unorthodox poets. He used haiku in an intellectual, yet paradoxical, and spiritual, way. At the same time he saw the world as very sensual and comical. The play of the mind is usually avoided in American haiku, yet Roseliep was successful in using it because he did so so innovatively, and because he infused it with the haiku spirit. Michael McClintock, another major revolutionary in haiku is now contributing to haiku magazines after a long break. His early defense of a “liberated haiku” and his critical rejection of syllable-counting were crucial in the development of English language haiku. His senryu magazine seer ox was instrumental in gaining respect for senryu at a time, the mid-seventies, when not a few haiku poets looked down on it. Rod Willmot, another original, helped change haiku’s direction by his critical articles and by his broken-narrative style of haiku. He has also not been heard much in haiku circles recently. His Burnt Lake Press was important in the late eighties and published, with Black Moss, Virgilio’s and Wills’s most important books. He is now at work on a new novel.

Gary Hotham is a haiku poet whose work is continually exciting. He keeps turning out wonderfully subtle and simple poems, honing them to a pitch of perfection until they quietly consecrate the quotidian. Some of his newer works create a noir-like atmosphere. In just a few words, he can convey a feeling of small town loneliness, the bleakness at the edges of a big city, or the mystery and wonder at the heart of the most ordinary happenings of a life in the suburbs.

Though I’ve included several new pieces by Marlene Mountain, most of her section contains earlier haiku. For about a decade now she has concentrated on what she herself has characterized as “pissed off poems.” These are works that express her outrage at what we have done and are doing to harm the environment and to limit the freedom of women. To me, most of these seem, however admirable, something other than haiku, or senryu. Her “belly up” frog and a few others may be exceptions.

Anita Virgil has recently added significantly to her already impressive body of work, writing haiku that give us the essence of our American seasons, and senryu that zero in on the human condition. She is also one of our best haibun writers, combining a lucid, supple prose with haiku that grow out of it as easily as flowers, or cucumbers, on a vine. She notices with keen awareness things around her that many of us take for granted or fail to observe at all. There is a lot of her new work included here.

George Swede and Alexis Rotella are beyond superlatives. Alexis Rotella’s poetry reflects the wide spectrum of existence itself, aglow with the special light of art. Her senryu contain vivid exposures of her personal life. Rod Willmot said of her work: “Although [Rotella] has a wide range, her special gift is for the revelation of moments in her emotional relationships with others . . . She catches the most troublesome of such material and puts it down perfectly, without a trace of pretence or self-indulgence, capturing it so simply and accurately that henceforth that moment of human experience, in anyone’s life, is expressed for all time.”

George Swede is the funniest haiku poet who ever lived. I’m sure his senryu would be the envy of great comedy writers like Woody Allen or Mel Brooks if they were aware of them. He teaches the Psychology of Art and Creativity at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto and has been a featured speaker at many of the HNA and international conferences mentioned above.

Alan Pizzarelli is one of modern haiku’s biggest attractions. It’s too bad I couldn’t hang a circus banner from the cover of the Haiku Anthology saying, “Don’t Miss the Greatest Haiku Act on Earth!” His work has reached a level of quality that fills me with joy and envy. Pizzarelli finds his subject matter everywhere: in a piece of burlap, on a car bumper, or in the actions of a shoeshine boy. With a special kind of insight, he is able to spot the moment that shows their significance and is able to reveal it through an extraordinary facililty with words.

Arizona Zipper has in recent years made notable strides in his work. His haiku on county fairs brings a special flavor to the genre and I can almost smell the smoke from that sulky driver’s cigar floating in the damp evening air.

Among the many new poets in this anthology, all with exceptional talents, there are a large number who show not just a promise of greatness to come but have already established a record of accomplishment that makes them substantial figures in the haiku world. Most prominent are Lee Gurga, Dee Evetts, Wally Swist, and Michael Dylan Welch.

Lee Gurga gives us the mystery and wonder of the midwest: the vast spaces, the rolling prairie, the immense sky, and the majestic rivers. As I recently wrote for the jacket of his latest book, Fresh Scent, he “seems destined to forge a fresh poetic heritage for the midwest.” Not only do his haiku let us see the beauty of the land, they allow us to feel the character of its people, which reaches “out of the poems like a warm handshake.” In Gurga’s sensitive and often humorous poems we discover the heart of America. You’ll find a generous selection of them in this anthology.

The following is a part of what I wrote for the back cover of Dee Evetts’ endgrain: “From the unforgettable comic moment when his waitress flourishes her washrag to that moment of insight into existence as his woodshavings roll along the veranda, the poet presents the reader with a panorama of haiku happenings that both delight and spark awareness.” You can sample that panorama here, including the two poems referred to in the quote.

Wally Swist and Michael Dylan Welch are very dissimilar. Swist is in the tradition of Robert Spiess and John Wills. Though he does not write about Spiess’s canoe country nor Wills’s Tennessee, his haiku are about the same kinds of subject matter. He writes almost solely about the woods and farms of western Massachusetts where he has lived since the early eighties. His style is more like Spiess’s, using the juxtaposition of two images to create a single moment. He assisted Spiess as an editor for Modern Haiku for a number of years.

Welch intertwines memories of childhood with the present, giving his work an immediacy blended with nostalgia. His images are more urban and domestic than Swist’s and he varies the form more so that his haiku create fresh shapes on the page. Welch is also very important to the haiku community as an editor. His Press Here has published many of the best haiku chapbooks to come out in recent years, and he edited the haiku magazine Woodnotes until deciding to discontinue it in order to start a new one, Tundra, due this year.

Though not represented by as many haiku as some of those poets I’ve already mentioned, Vincent Tripi and Carl Patrick write a kind of haiku that seems to involve a whole new way of seeing. Not since Roseliep’s has there been a haiku so completely different from what everyone else is writing. Tripi’s best work has a mystical quality that reminds me of some passages in Thoreau, whom Tripi regards as a mentor. Many of his haiku moments are unforgettable, like his tracks around the carousel. Carl Patrick can go from the very simplest presentation of the everyday, like his cookie tin, to a wild, seemingly surrealistic view of reality that we see in his hailstone. Washed in the colors of his imagination, things glow in his haiku — but only to disclose their own ineffable essence.

The form of haiku that has continued most in favor in English is the otherwise free-form three liner, often written with the second line slightly longer than the first and third. They are usually written in less than seventeen syllables. Though a few poets still write in the five-seven-five syllable form, this form is now mostly written by schoolchildren as an exercise to learn how to count syllables, by beginners who know little about the true essence of haiku, or by those who just like to have a strict form with which to practice.

The one-line haiku, and the two-line, that were quite popular in the early and mid-eighties, are now a more occasional phenomenon. The one-line is very hard to write successfully, though some of the most outstanding haiku in English have been in one line.

To work as a haiku a concrete poem has to be simple and direct. They must reveal the essence of whatever image they are trying to evoke immediately, without their graphic configuration calling such attention to itself, or to the writer’s ingenuity, as to distract us from that image.

As I learn more and more about haiku, mostly by reading thousands of them, I have come to the conclusion that the greatest haiku are those that take me directly to the haiku moment without calling attention to themselves. When I first read Alan Watts characterization of haiku as “the wordless poem,” I thought it was because a haiku had so few words, but now I believe it goes deeper than that (whether Watts intended it to do so or not). Haiku, for the reader, is wordless because those few words are invisible. We as readers look right through them. There is nothing between us and the moment.

To achieve this goal, certain literary practices common to traditional western poetry are usually avoided by American haiku poets. Such things as figures of speech or rhyme are rarely employed, for they tend to take away from the thing as it is. The haiku should take us right to the haiku moment and present us with the tree or a leaf, the spring rain or the autumn wind, a rose in a garden or a rusty pick-up under the pines, just as they are — no more, no less. The phrasing and choice of words provide the music of a haiku, which must be as short as a birdsong. Meter is rarely employed. When it is, it is used to create a musical flow that is unobtrusive. For example, if one takes the trouble to listen closely one can detect a subtle current of iambic meter in some of John Wills’s haiku. It does not call attention to itself. It is like the faint sound of a breeze or some other natural element helping reveal the haiku moment.

I hope you’ll find that haiku and senryu create for you moments of sharp and significant perceptions, coupled with an unspoken awareness of the oneness of the human with nature, and that they spark an intense emotional response. I hope you’ll agree that living in the haiku moment is a poetic experience of the highest order.

[The above is excerpted from the foreword to the third edition of The Haiku Anthology, published in hardback in 1999 and in paperback in 2000 by W. W. Norton, NYC, NY. Copyright 1999 by Cor van den Heuvel.]

4 Responses

  1. Cor—

    Excellent essay. Most

    Excellent essay. Most enjoyable. Concise and incisive. Hope you don’t mind my sharing it with some friends, such as Le Wild, who don’t have access to the Internet.

    I’m wondering why it took me nine years to run across it.

    Ken Hurm

  2. Truly sad indeed.
    Truly sad indeed.
    Counting syllables all for free
    Lets just let it be!

  3. I just came across this
    I just came across this article and after reading it and scanning it a second time, I was dismayed that there was no mention of America’s first haiku poet and published at that – Paul Reps.

    “Paul Reps is America’s first haiku poet and was the first to write visual haiku and minimalist haiku which have continued to gain steadily in popularity over the years. It is a very little known fact that Paul Reps was the first American to have a collection of English language haiku published in the United States. His book of haiku, More Power To You – Poems Everyone Can Make, was published in California in 1939, 27 years before Robert Spiess’ first collection of haiku, The Heron’s Legs, was published and over 20 years before any of the few other very early North American haiku collections were published in the early and mid-sixties…” (http://www.ahapoetry.com/PP1000..htm)

    And Wikipedia’s article which begins –

    “Paul Reps (1895–1990) was an American artist, poet, and author. He is best known for his unorthodox haiku-inspired poetry that was published from 1939 onwards. He is considered one of America’s first haiku poets.

    In association with his writing, Reps was also a well-received artist. Many of his books have artwork influenced by Zen Buddhism displayed in association with his writings.

    Reps was widely travelled and spent a large amount of his time in Asia. In Japan, his art was widely accepted and he often went there in association with the displays of his artwork in galleries and to reaffirm his Buddhist understanding.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Reps)

    How the writer of this article could ignore Paul Reps’ contribution to American Haiku is damn near unforgivable!

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