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
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 Amazon.com 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:
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?