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New to Haiku: Suggestions for Creating Haiku Poetry in English by James W. Hackett

For today’s New to Haiku, I chose to reprint an article from the late James W. Hackett. These suggestions previously appeared in World Haiku Review, March 2002, Vol 2-1. (Older issues of WHR can be found here.) Hackett prepared an earlier version of this list for his 1968 books, Haiku Poetry, Volumes I-IV. My thanks to Mr. Hackett’s literary executor, Chris Thorsen, for giving me permission to reprint this article, and to Maeve O’Sullivan, who pointed me toward Hackett’s suggestions in an email exchange.

By James W. Hackett
C 1968 Revision C 2002

1. NOW is the touchstone of the haiku experience, so remain centered in this eternal present of life.

2. Remember that Greater Nature — not human nature — is the province of haiku.

3. Contemplate natural objects closely: unseen wonders (and dramas) will reveal themselves.

4. Carry a notebook to jot down subtle haiku moments, for these intuitive experiences may be easily forgotten.

5. Spiritually interpenetrate and empathize with nature. Become One with ‘things,’ for ultimately, “That art Thou.”

6. Reflect upon your notes of nature in solitude and silence. Allow these recollected feelings be the basis of your haiku poem.

7. Write about Nature just as it is. Haiku are neither word games nor puzzles. Basho brought haiku poetry back to life and nature; let us emulate his noble mission.

8. Choose every word very carefully. Use words that best suggest the moment of haiku experience you wish to share.

9. Use verbs in present tense, and singular subjects whenever possible.

10. To add aesthetic dimension, choose modifying words that vivify, including those that suggest the season, location, or time of day.

11. A haiku poem can be more than a verbal snapshot. Avoid such “So what?” haiku by suggesting your emotional reaction during the haiku moment.

12. Use common language in a syntax natural to English! Don’t attempt ‘minimalistic’ copies of Japanese usage. Haiku composed in English must seem ‘natural’ and uncontrived.

13. Write in three lines using approximately 17 syllables. (Forego the traditional Japanese line arrangement of 5-7-5 syllables, as this practice can invite contrivance in English.)

14. Read each verse aloud to make sure it sounds natural. (Avoid end rhyme.) Make use of articles and punctuation common to English.

15. Remember that lifefulness, not beauty, is the essence of haiku.

16. Never use obscure allusions: true haiku are intuitive and direct, not abstract, symbolic, or intellectual. Include humor, but omit mere wit.

17. Avoid poeticism. The haiku poem should be direct, sensuous, and metaphysically ‘real.’

18. Work on each poem until it suggests exactly what you want others to see and feel. Remain true to your initial experience and the feelings elicited.

19. Remember that haiku is ‘a finger pointing at the moon,’ and if the hand is bejeweled, we no longer see that to which it points.

20. Honor your senses with awareness, and your Spirit with zazen or other centering meditation. The ‘haiku mind’ should be reflective as a clear mountain pond: reflective not of thought, but of the moon and every flight beyond . . .

In 2012, Mr. Hackett expressed strong feelings about the “aesthetic anarchy” and “the inchoate state” of haiku today in the forward to a reprinting of this list at World Haiku Review, which you can read here. I thought it was fun to look at how his list evolved over time. I found this earlier version (below) in his 1968 Bug Haiku: Original Poems in English, which can be read for free at THF’s Digital Library as part of our James W. Hackett Archive.

(Want to donate your haiku archive – works, papers, books, and other haiku-related materials – to The Haiku Foundation? Contact us here! We’d love to hear from you.)

This biography of James W. Hackett appears (in slightly different form) in THF’s Haiku Registry:

A pioneer of English-language haiku, James William Hackett was born in Seattle, Washington on August 6, 1929. He studied history and philosophy at the University of Washington, and earned a graduate degree in art history from the University of Michigan. He discovered haiku in the 1950s, and was mentored by R.H. Blyth. A near-fatal accident became a spiritual turning point that led him to a life devoted to Zen and haiku. He spent many years in California before settling in Haiku, Hawaii. Some of his early haiku appeared in the premiere issue of American Haiku, the first English-language haiku journal, including a variation on this oft-cited poem that won the Grand Prize (two round-trip tickets to Japan) in a 1964 National Haiku Contest sponsored by Japan Air Lines:

          A bitter morning:
               sparrows sitting together
                    without any necks.

Another of his signature haiku, the opening poem in that premiere issue, won first prize in a contest sponsored by the journal:

          Searching on the wind,
               the hawk's cry . . .
                    is the shape of its beak.

These two haiku, along with Hackett’s twenty “Suggestions for Writing Haiku” and his “credo about haiku” were included in Harold G. Henderson’s 1965 classic Haiku in English. Hackett’s work was cited by Henderson, Blyth, Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Merton, and others. A comprehensive essay, “Shangri-La: James W. Hackett’s Life in Haiku,” by Charles Trumbull, appears in the inaugural issue of Juxtapositions: The Journal of Haiku Research and Scholarship, available on The Haiku Foundation website. Hackett died on November 9, 2015.

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Julie Bloss Kelsey is the current Secretary of The Haiku Foundation. She started writing haiku in 2009, after discovering science fiction haiku (scifaiku). She lives in Maryland with her husband and kids. Julie's first print poetry collection, Grasping the Fading Light: A Journey Through PTSD, won the 2021 Women’s International Haiku Contest from Sable Books. Her ebook of poetry, The Call of Wildflowers, is available for free online through Moth Orchid Press (formerly Title IX Press). Her most recent collection, After Curfew, is available from Cuttlefish Books. Connect with her on Instagram @julieblosskelsey.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Thank you, Julie — I think it’s a great idea to get back to some earlier source material occasionally!

    Hackett’s verses made quite an impression on me when I first came across them in Blyth’s books. For others:

    In an appendix to R. Blyth A History of Haiku Vol 2 The Hokuseido Press 1964, which is available free-to-read in the THF Library, Blyth cited James W Hackett’s “forthcoming book” in correspondence, listing the following haiku (all the below are centred and in capitals throughout in Blyth; I have rendered them lower case and left-justified):

    gently falling leaf
    your meander …
    holds everything

    two flies, so small
    it’s a wonder they ever met,
    are mating on this rose

    half of the minnows
    within this sunlit shadow
    are not really there

    blooming, with an edge
    already withering…
    this constant death.

    that old empty house,
    now so overgrown with years,
    is the only real one here.

    on nearing the surf,
    every footprint becomes
    that of the sea,

    sweeping into a pan:
    the line of dust
    that defies its edge.

    bitter morning:
    sparrows sitting
    without necks.

    beside a new grave.
    the crushing weight
    of ungiven love.

    chopping a knotty block. ..
    in every stick of kindling,
    a part of its shape.

    city loneliness. . .
    dancing with a gusty wind:
    yesterday’s news.

    ever lingering
    in the taste of the walnut:
    deep autumn,

    snow viewing. . .
    the shape of my loneliness,
    each winter breath.

    summer verandah. . .
    listening to fluttering birds:
    the cat’s tail.

    now centered upon
    the flavor of an old bone,
    the mind of my dog.

    a tiny spider
    has begun to confiscate
    this cup’s emptiness.

    the kitten
    so calmly chews
    the fly’s buzzing misery.

    these barnacled rocks
    just uncovered by the tide…
    how busy they sound!

    moving slowly through
    an old, abandoned beach house.
    shadows of the moon.

    while reading this sutra,
    i began to laugh.. .
    without knowing why.

    deep within the stream
    the huge fish lie motionless,
    facing the current.

    now—even filled with pain
    from this thorn in my finger—
    is so good to feel!

    random flies meet,
    cling together, and fall buzzing
    into the rank grass.

    this garter snake
    goes in and out of the grass
    at the same time!

    dents from my nail
    left deep around this bite,
    relieve its madness!

    this leaf too,
    its colors eaten into lace,
    floats on the stream.

    Blyth comments:

    “In these excellent verses, occasionally there is sensation only; more often there is too much ostensive, that is, overt thought. The problem for haiku in any language as for life itself in any age, is how to put thought completely into sensation, how to make sensation thought-full. In addition,—and this has only too often been forgotten by the Japanese haiku poets themselves,—sensation must be intense, though not violent, the thinking all-inclusive and subtle, not parochial and complicated. But after all, which is more important, to write (haiku) or to live?
    Thoreau answers:
    My life has been the poem I would have writ,
    But I could not both live and utter it.”

  2. So lucky to have met him and his wife Patricia while in Japan. He was very amiable and I was in their company for a good hour or two before other haiku poets joined us.

    This has to be my most favourite of his haiku, amongst many:

    A bitter morning:
    Sparrows sitting together
    Without any necks.

    Winning Haiku, 1964 Japan Airlines Contest



    Bitter morning
    sparrows sitting
    without necks.

    “American Haiku” journal 1963

    I wanted to attempt to emulate his haiku ever since, but it wasn’t until I saw a scene of pigeons huddling together without necks in extreme cold in the winter of 2017 that I got this:

    the speed of snow
    pigeons clench tight
    along the railing

    Alan Summers
    Publication credit: Presence issue #61 2018


    I still haven’t done his haiku justice, but his influence is in many of my haiku over the years if you look! 🙂

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