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Essence #2

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.

Essence #2

BY Carmen Sterba

Primarily it is a poem; and being a poem it is intended to express and evoke emotion… haiku is a very short poem . . . more concerned with human emotions than with human acts, and natural phenomena are used to reflect human emotion.

—Harold G. Henderson

Interest in writing haiku in English was not only fanned by the resurgence of curiosity towards Japanese culture in the fifties and sixties, but also by the new books on haiku poetics written by three men in North America. One was called the “Father of the American haiku,” another was a Japanese-American student who wrote a thesis on haiku at the University of Washington, and the third, a prolific Canadian haiku poet who has been instrumental in the growth of haiku in Canada.

Harold G. Henderson (1889-1974) was a professor at Columbia University, an expert on Asian Art and a translator of Japanese who began writing haiku in the 1930s. Henderson wrote The Introduction of Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets from Basho to Shiki (’58) and Haiku in English (’65). He was a leader and mentor to many in the haiku community and co-founded The Haiku Society of America in 1968 with Leroy Kanterman. The following haiku appeared in Haiku West, 1968 and in the Haiku Society of America’s Haiku Path, 1994:

The scent of lilacs —
   and two white heads, together,
      among the heart-shaped leaves.

Kenneth Yasuda (d. 2002) a Japanese-American born in California published his haiku book, A Pepper-Pod (’47) after his internment during WWII. In 1957, he published The Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities in English. Part of Yasuda’s theory was what he coined the “haiku moment.” He went on to study his masters at the University of Tokyo and became a professor at Indiana University. Here’s a sample of Yasuda’s Haiku on the Mississippi River from The Japanese Haiku:

Under the low grey
Winter skies water pushes
Water on its way

Canadian Eric Amann, who wrote The Wordless Poem in 1969, is a haiku poet who founded two haiku journals, Haiku and Cicada and also co-founded Haiku Canada with Betty Drevnoik and George Swede in 1977. Amann was the first president of Haiku Canada. From Zen haiku he has branched out into experimental verses (experiskinno). The following are two of each style:

Winter burial
the stone angel points his hand
at the empty sky

(Modern Haiku, 1978)

wild raspberry taste on the tip of your tongue

(Cicada Voices, 52)

Whose books were the most influential ones when you first studied about haiku? Why?

In The Japanese Haiku, Yasuda wrote, “Non-Japanese could write haiku if they understood something of its aesthetics and power.”

How can we maximize the powerful side of this delicate art of haiku?

This Post Has 19 Comments

  1. “Watt’s referred to haiku as being a
    “wordless” poem
    — not that it should be reduced to minimalism, nor (in my opinion) that “true” haiku is experience rather than words (how’s that for Zen?),
    but that the words should be so immediate, transparent, and “invisible” that you go directly to the experience and the feeling it generates without being aware of the words.

    Well put, thanks Michael.

  2. Don’t believe some of the super-high prices on Amazon or elsewhere for used books. Such prices are deliberately inflated to attract suckers, more often than not. I’ve seen used Red Moon Press books on Amazon for $100+ that you could order at regular list prices directly from the publisher, or find for 90 percent less on other sites.

    As for *The Wordless Poem*, you could write to Haiku Canada (the original publisher, which has also reprinted the book) and order a copy for about $10. It used to be available, but I’m not sure if it still is. I highly recommend the book, not for continuing the over-Zenning of haiku that Blyth started, but for its concise aesthetic stance. I would say it was one of the most influential books that I’ve ever read about haiku, and I think it would be useful if it were reprinted again and again.

    On the other hand, Eric Amann has apparently disowned the book, and presumably stopped thinking that haiku had that much to do with Zen. Perhaps he realized how Blyth’s perspective had influenced him, seemingly to excess? While these days I think the book needs to be read with a large grain of salt (because of its support of Zen), it is still one of the most concise aesthetic treatises on haiku yet published. I consider it to be truly essential reading for anyone serious about haiku — if you can find a copy.

    The book’s title, of course, comes from an essay about haiku by Alan Watts. Watt’s referred to haiku as being a “wordless” poem — not that it should be reduced to minimalism, nor (in my opinion) that “true” haiku is experience rather than words (how’s that for Zen?), but that the words should be so immediate, transparent, and “invisible” that you go directly to the experience and the feeling it generates without being aware of the words. At least that’s the way I prefer to interpret the phrase.


  3. “do copies of The Wordless Poem still exist? what are folks’ opinions on it? i’ve never read it.” Scott Metz

    I saw a copy of “The Wordless Poem” on Amazon for

  4. i’m sorry, but it’s still not clear to me why one would call something “The . . .” simply because it’s the first of its kind and is only the beginnings of something that is still young and finding its way (an anthology seems in order, sure, ok, but any number of other titles could have been selected); “first” constitutes definitiveness? really? i would, in fact, think the complete opposite to be true.

    sorry, i like to question things, especially concepts of canons and canonizing work (who’s doing the canonizing, whose work is it and what’s the relationship?). especially with work that is of such a focused and minimal variety (English haiku almost exclusively by north american writers from a particular generation), from a relatively short amount of time, chosen by a single person. does that really warrant the word “The”?

    sorry to be off topic.

    do copies of The Wordless Poem still exist? what are folks’ opinions on it? i’ve never read it.

  5. Thanks, Carmen. When coming across something like that it’s a good idea to check out why it is the way it is before drawing conclusions. Thanks for the history.

  6. Regarding Scott Metz’s question, I think the context of when and why a book is written has a lot to do with choosing the title. “The Haiku Anthology” was first published in 1974 during the early years of the haiku movement in North America. It was a first in the field of English-language haiku. If it were published for the first time nowadays, it would be considered presumptuous to use the article “the” in the title.

    Upon reflection, I realize that the case of Henderson’s “An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology of poems and poets from Basho to Shiki” is different because of context. It would be presumptuous to use the article “the” in an anthology that was introducing a field of study in Japanese poetry that was hundreds of years old and was linked to a poetry tradition of over 1,000 years.

    Henderson was writing an introduction in English of the fruits of the long tradition of Japanese poets and van den Heuvel’s first addition of his anthology was the fruits of a selection of poets in the fairly new haiku movement in the West.

  7. Back to books that will be important to you. I have a feeling that when I receive Allan’s book it will become one of my favorites in that is records such a vast cross section of what haiku can do…and does. I learn so much from comparative collections.

  8. No, I don’t think it is presumptuous. Whoever is working on an anthology…by the end of it, must feel it is “the” anthology, or he feels like he’s missing something. Is it presumptuous to call a book about haiku “essential”? It is essential to the author.

    As far as I’m concerned, “a” and “the” indicate the author’s feeling about something… Is it important to him? “the” Is it one among many? “a”…

    It does make a difference though if we are trying to indicate a particular aspect… if the author wants to emphasize the difference. These little things do tell us something about the author and his intentions, but in any art one must listen to discern what those intentions are.

  9. And I didn’t do a decent enough job proofreading. It is, indeed, a small but important word.

    I guess I’ll add that Henderson’s book was the first book I ever bought about haiku (a used copy for $2.50 in ’95 from Horner’s Corner, which no longer exists, sadly, at State College, Pa). I believe I wrote 5-7-5 rhymes for my first year of writing and study because of it.

    So, Cor—if you’re still reading this thread—why *did* you call it “The Haiku Anthology” instead of “A Haiku Anthology”?

    Readers: is it presumptuous? What do you think?

    Does a title like this have seen, or, also, unseen, effects? How so?

  10. Cor, thanks so much for that little bit of history. I do quite a bit of work with other people’s haiku, and every time I come to a “the” or an “an” I check it out twice and then twice again…and still sometimes get the wrong article down! It is such an important couple of words and yet so easily over looked. I’m glad to see it happens to others too! Phew! That’s a relief!

  11. “The first part of the title of Henderson’s book is “An Introduction to Haiku” as Adelaide quotes it in her comment. It does not start with the word “The” as it appears in Essence #2.” Cor van den Heuvel.

    Adelaide and Cor, I did not pick up on my error even though my copy of “An Introduction to Haiku” has been on my desk for several weeks. Thanks for pointing this out.

  12. The first part of the title of Henderson’s book is “An Introduction to Haiku” as Adelaide quotes it in her comment. It does not start with the word “The” as it appears in Essence #2.
    I’m not likely to forget this perhaps seemingly minor fact, because when I first told Professor Henderson I was going to call my anthology “The Haiku Antholgy” he recalled the title of his own book to me and jokingly said it would never have occurred to him to call it “The Introduction to Haiku.” Obviously he was implying that my use of the word was presumptuous, but was too polite to say so directly.

  13. My first introduction to haiku was with the four book series of haiku translated by Peter Beilenson and published by Peter Pauper Press. I was attracted by the brevity and the images, as well as by the appearance of the books themselves.

    I later read Harold G Henderson, “An Introduction to Haiku” and “Haiku in English,” both of which provided more detailed explanations of the form. However, I preferred Beilenson’s unrhymed translations to Henderson’s rhymed ones in “An Introduction” because of the repetition of the rhyming sounds. I think the real problem was in reading an entire collection of rhyming haiku. Had rhyme been a requirement for haiku, I doubt if I would have attempted to write any.

    Adelaide B. Shaw

  14. With Paul’s list and Scott’s additions, it reminds me of how important our haiku libraries are to each of us. I plan to put what to do with mine in my will (when I get around to it).

    Living in Japan, I could buy books by Blyth, Cor’s anthology and many others at my favorite Japanese/English bookstore in Yokohama. Also, I did an inter-library loan for books like Bill and Penny’s “Haiku Handbook” through the college library where I taught.

  15. Two others that I found extremely rewarding:

    1. Traces of Dreams by Haruo Shirane — it opened me up to the potential depths of haiku and its just claim to literature.

    2. Reed Shadows by John Wills — always fresh at each re-reading.

  16. Good questions and comments, Carmen.

    I own the Yasuda and Henderson, but they were not my initial points of haiku departure. First was Bill Higginson’s Handbook (with Penny), and Hass’s re-translations of Basho, Buson, and Issa. Third was, I think, Ross’s anthology “Haiku Moment.” Also very important for ELH was Cor van den Heuvel’s Anthology. You mention Watson’s Saigyo. I agree very much — one of my favorites and influential on my thinking. It is one I return to. I return to the slender Henderson, too. Also Ueda’s Basho and His Interpreters and his shorter Basho biography. Certainly Shirane’s on the times of Basho was important to haiku theory (and renku).

    Separate translations of Buson and Issa contributed to help with the Japanese Masters. At some point, I found it more important to my own development to study (and enjoy!) the larger collections by ELH poets. Elizabeth Searle Lamb’s being an important one.

  17. Merrill, “From the Country of Eight Islands” is impressive. It’s unusual for an anthology to be translated by two scholars with such different styles.
    I admire Watson and Sato’s collaboration. One of my favorite books on Japanese poetry is Watson’s:
    “Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home.” Also, there is freshness in Sato’s short, one-line translations. When I compare him to other translators, I realize that though he leaves out a word here or there, he adds zest.

  18. One of the first and most influential books I started with was:
    “From The Country of Eight Islands” translated and edited by
    Hiroaki Sato and Burton Watson. I’m very glad I started there since it has so much of the history of haiku … you could trace how it grew and changed. You could also compare different poets and follow the ones that moved you the most. Some of the poets that I met in that book were Chiyojo, Yosa Buson, Ryokan, Masaoka Shiki, and Kobayashi Issa whom I grew to love dearly.

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