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Essence #3 (part 1)

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 #3
(part 1)

BY Carmen Sterba

When I began Essences, I was going to start with my first five columns for the North American Post; however, those were written for a bilingual audience (Japanese/English) that is mostly new to the history of the haiku movement in North America. For the audience on troutswirl, I’d like to go into more depth. Therefore, I’m proud to begin a three-part interview with Cor van den Heuvel for Essence #3.  

Carmen Sterba: Presently, I am writing a column on the “haiku movement” and haiku poets of North America. One day, I found your page on and came across your very unique biography, some jazz chants, and your haiku from “Sun in Skull.” You are so well-known for The Haiku Anthology and now Baseball Haiku among the haiku community, so I want to write a column on you that focuses on aspects that may not be known to newer members of our haiku community, For instance, the fact that your inspiration for beginning haiku was initially through the Beat poets.
Since you were influenced by Beat poetry and attended their poetry readings, rather than starting with Blyth’s books first, your sense of haiku must have been somewhat different than many other North American haiku poets who were centered on Japanese aesthetics.

Cor van den Heuvel: It is not really true that my inspiration for beginning to write haiku came from the Beat poets. I first learned about haiku in San Francisco in 1958 where I had gone to experience the San Francisco poetry renaissance first hand. The group of poets I met there in North Beach was made up of writers centered around Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer and included George Stanley, Harold Dull, and perhaps half a dozen more who got together on a regular basis to read and talk about their work. None of these poets were Beats, nor Beatniks, and would have resented being so called. Gary Snyder, whose conversation with Harold Dull at one of the “group’s” meetings helped lead me to haiku, has been called a Beat, but it is my understanding that he preferred then and prefers now not to be so labeled. He is basically a nature writer both in poetry and prose. Just because he knew the Beats, especially Kerouac, and found himself written about in Jack’s books doesn’t make him one. He is almost always treated as part of the inner group of Beats in books about the Beats, but as Corso said in at least one interview, there were only four real Beats: himself, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs. Just as Snyder does not fit the Beat stereotype, he also was not a part of the Duncan/Spicer group I met at George Stanley’s and Abba Beauregard’s (another poet in the group) house on Telegraph Hill. Snyder had been away in Japan for most of the previous year or two and would soon return there. He seemed to know the other poets at this meeting and the work he read that day was admired so much that he was asked to read it twice, though it was a fairly long poem comparing the islands of Japan to a rock garden.
Snyder first met Kerouac in 1955 and taught him about haiku, as Kerouac recounts in The Dharma Bums. Snyder already knew about haiku as early as 1952. He tried writing some in his journal for that year and actually uses the word “haiku” to describe what he has written. So he probably had some of Blyth’s books by then. He didn’t go to Japan until 1956. He went to study Zen. He returned in April of 1958 to San Francisco for only a short while, before going back to Japan to continue that study. So I was lucky to have had this brief encounter while he was in the Bay area.
As I have talked about a number of times in print and online, I overheard Snyder and Dull talking about writing short poems at this meeting of poets. After the readings, they were sitting on the floor looking at each other’s notebooks and journals just below the chair I was sitting on and I’m sure they were aware I was listening to them, though I took no part in the conversation. I remember a few images in their poems and notes. Harold Dull had some very short poems about dice that metamorphosed into various things. The spot on one of the dice, of a pair that had come up “snake eyes,” turned into the headlight of a motorcycle. They were both pleasantly surprised that in their notebooks they had come up with a similar image of horses swinging their asses into the wind during a rainstorm.
Anyway, at some point in their discussion, Snyder mentioned haiku. I remembered hearing the word in college in reference to the Imagists, and I decided now, simply because I found the talk of these two poets very interesting, to learn more about this kind of poetry. Since I had very little money in those days, I did my research in the coming weeks at the main branch of the San Francisco public library. And that’s when I learned about Henderson and Blyth’s translations and so began, like so many other American haiku poets, my apprenticeship in haiku with those teachers.
It seems likely that Snyder actually had his original 1952 journal with him that day in San Francisco six years later. In his book Earth House Hold, published in 1969, parts of his journal for 1952 are reprinted. That was the summer he was fire-watching on Crater Mountain in the North Cascades. You can see he wrote that short passage about the horses’ rumps on August 12, 1952. Two days earlier he wrote about writing a “haiku” and as early as July 9th he records what looks like one, or at least an attempt at one:

                                the boulder in the creek never moves
                                                    the water is always falling
It is interesting how similar this is to a haiku by John Wills written many years later:
                                                 where the waters
                                                 come together tumble
                                                 under the logs
Anyway, I think I may have seen the Snyder one that day in 1958. I am more certain that I may have seen one or two others in that journal. Like this one from August 6:
                                                      two butterflies
                                           a chilly clump of mountain
and another from the same date about a chipmunk listening to the poet’s whistle. If I didn’t actually see them, they were right next to me on Telegraph Hill.

Cor van den Heuvel overheard Gary Snyder and Harold Dull talking about haiku in 1958. It would be interesting to hear from others about who first inspired them. Not a book, but an individual(s). I expect it was not in a classroom. Who inspired you?  When and where was it?

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Excerpts from Gary Snyder’s bio on the Poetry Foundation site:

    “Snyder’s emphasis on metaphysics and his celebration of the natural order remove his work from the general tenor of Beat writing—and in fact Snyder is also identified as a poet of the San Francisco Renaissance along with Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser. Snyder has looked to the Orient and to the beliefs of American Indians for positive responses to the world, and he has tempered his studies with stints of hard physical labor as a logger and trail builder. ”

    For those who would like to know more:

  2. I think what held my interest all these years is the fact that it seemed to answer questions about expression I could not find in western art/literature. I’m sure that “less is more” had something to do with it, but there seemed to be a deeper understanding of things that were happening to me. When I was reading Chinese poetry, my life was pretty volitile. I used to say I lived on the edge of a volcano…never knew when it would blow up…and it did periodically. I found a calm understanding that these things happen and we move on from there. I found that in the experience was the life.

  3. What intuitively first drew so many us to Asian poetry and art? Is it partly because the aesthetics of “less is more” appeal to our poetic spirit?

    Marjorie, as you continued to discover books on Asian poetry in used bookstores, you felt, “what a wonderful, magical find it was! I realized that I had been trying to write haiku and tanka all of my life–short poems that reflect my relationship with nature.” This is another example of how a poetic spirit can invisibly cross national and cultural borders.

    For John, the Japanese actress must have been appealing, yet it was the haiku she shared that
    changed his focus in poetry.

  4. A Japanese actress introduced me to haiku at a theatre conference we were attending in the summer of 1992. We were talking during a break and found that we both loved poetry. She shared her favorite poem, a Basho haiku, in the original Japanese then gave me an English transliteration plus some information about the various cultural references that converged in this intensely focused poem. I am so grateful that, rather than first encountering haiku as an exercise in counting syllables, it came to me as someone’s favorite poem in the world.

  5. Carmen,
    Thank you for this interview and Cor, thank you for taking the time to write a full memory review. I remember being influenced in college by Rexroth’s Chinese and Japanese anthologies and then later I read Kenneth Yasuda’s The Japanese Haiku along with some of Donald Keene’s books on the history of tanka and diaries–all found serendipitously at a used book store…what a wonderful, magical find that was! I realized that I had been trying to write haiku and tanka all of my life–short poems that reflect my relationship with nature. Thanks again, Carmen, for your excellent work in this wonderful column.

  6. Merrill, your story about your Chinese nurse, when you were ten is charming.

    Michael, your input reminds me that when others take the time to share their insight into key players (on the edge or in the middle of the haiku movement), we (the haiku community) come closer to grasping some of the vast creativity in the past.

  7. I still remember my high school English teacher, George Goodburn, who loved to rock back and forth at the front of the class on his lectern, when he first introduced me to haiku. It lasted all of ten minutes, I think, and we had an assignment to write a few of them. I wrote something (in “perfect” 5-7-5) about the thunder applauding the lightning’s performance. Almost 35 years ago now! I had always liked short poetry, but hadn’t heard of haiku before then, and immediately gravitated to it. Little did Mr. Goodburn know what he had just done.

    A former girlfriend once said to me that a good haiku should make you care. I’ve always thought that was a wonderful way to understand haiku. You write about something because you care enough to notice it. But the art of haiku is to transmit that empathy to readers so they care too. Thank you, Jocelyn.

    This interview is a wonderful response from Cor about his early influences in haiku, Carmen, especially Gary Snyder. Whether he’s a Beat poet or not, Snyder had a significant influence on the Beats and their own haiku minds, evident in Kerouac’s novels, his “pops,” his marvelous recording of “Haikus and Blues” (sic), and his hundreds of haiku in various books. And also evident in Ginsberg’s forays into haiku, and his haiku derivation, American Sentences. Lew Welch, Philip Whalen, and others, too, did their haiku thing (I think of *Trip Trap: Haiku on the Road*, for example). And I think it all points back to Snyder. No doubt he came across haiku in his study of Zen, but it would be interesting to know how Snyder first became aware of haiku, or if he had an individual person who first inspired him to be aware of haiku.

    On May 27, 2009, Gary Snyder gave a reading at Benaroya Hall in Seattle (at which I was volunteering — had a table promoting the Washington Poets Association). During the reading, Snyder said that “Enjoying each day as if it was a haiku takes away the need for so much materialism.” We could all learn from that. And of course his recent book *Danger on Peaks* includes haiku and haiku-like poems, so haiku continues to exert its influence on Snyder nearly sixty years after he first learned about it. I think we can be grateful that Snyder’s influence on Cor, as well as the Beat poets, has led to all of Cor’s accomplishments in haiku.


  8. Carmen, What a wonderful column. I’ve copied it down so I can sit up late tonight and read it all – slowly.

    How I first learned of haiku? Well I’m not sure it was haiku exactly but it started I think like this: I was ten, away at summer camp, had taken dreadfully ill and woke up in the infirmary…I had a Chinese nurse who did not speak very much fact I can’t remember her speaking English at all. I was too sick at first to speak but slowly as I started to get better I used to watch her writing with a brush, which simply amazed me. She realized that I was interested and I watched her draw all sorts of flowers and birds and people with her brush and she’d sort of have a singing sort of voice as she wrote down the page with the images. She started teaching me how to use the brush and the joy I felt at mastering this I think did more to get me on my feet than anything else. Then when I could get up and walk around she’d take me on walks and point to the signs labeling plants and I’d read them to her. After I returned I felt I had to find out about what she had taught me. It wasn’t very easy for me to find the information I needed. But I practiced with the brush into my teen age years when life took me in other directions. I came to haiku later through Chinese poetry. But the real start was a Chinese nurse and a brush.

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