Essences began as a column written by Carmen Sterba in the North American Post in Seattle, WA, a bilingual newspaper in Japanese and English. Its purpose is to go back to the roots of the “haiku movement” in North America: the major poets, the individual styles of haiku, the books, the journals and conferences as they evolved from the sixties and seventies onwards. This will be a short version, so feel free to add information and comments as we go along.
BY Carmen Sterba
Because Japan was closed to the West for about 250 years during the Tokugawa Era (1600-1868), the first translations of haiku in English did not appear until the late 1800s. Though Japanese-Americans wrote haiku before the 1950s, it was not until after WWII that the Beat poets became influenced by haiku when Gary Snyder returned to the U.S. after his study in Japan. In 1955, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Snyder studied the four volumes of Haiku by British ex-patriate and scholar R. H. Blyth. His books are still used as a guide to understanding haiku. In 1963, Blyth chose American J.W. Hackett as the international haiku poet with the most potential. These are two of Hackett’s haiku:
A bitter morning:
sparrows sitting together
without any necks.
Searching the wind,
the hawk’s cry . . .
is the shape of his beak.
The Japan Airlines Haiku Contest picked “bitter morning” as it’s first winner in 1964. These two haiku still resonate and actually seem more modern than a lot of haiku written in the 21st century. The fact that these are not written in 17 syllables is explained by Hackett, “Don’t write everything in 5-7-5 form, since in English this often causes padding and contrivance.” The set count of 5-7-5 in Japanese corresponds to short sounds called “on” rather than syllables. It’s understandable that haiku in America has evolved in different ways; however, when it comes to good haiku, it is the essence that counts.
For the most part, Japanese haiku poets and Japanese Literature scholars are baffled by the strong connection between English haiku and Zen Buddhism. Zen has, however, contributed much to western culture, both through its understanding and its misunderstanding. How do you see this in your current attraction to, and understanding of, haiku?
Both haiku appeared in Zen Haiku and Other Zen Poems of J. W. Hackett, 1983.