Local Haiku: A Review of “Haiku and High Timber”
Poems for the Northwestern Heart
By Charles Walker
Illustrated by Victoria Seitzinger
One of the interesting things about contemporary poetry is the phenomenon of the ‘local poet’. A local poet is a poet who writes embedded in a particular locality, never achieves national recognition, but is often recognized by local organizations such as towns or counties. Where I live, in Sonoma County, Northern California, there is a County Poet Laureate. This local laureate will appear at the County Fair and other events. Often local poets write from the perspective of their own geography and habitat. The first haiku book I ever encountered was such a work, called “Alaska in Haiku”.
Charles Walker has written such a work. “Haiku and High Timber” is a collection of Haiku that is intimately about the Northwestern United States, specifically the area around Florence, Oregon. Walker’s introduction to Haiku is worth noting: “My experience with haiku grew out of my time in Japan as a member of the U.S. Army of Occupation, immediately after World War II. During my service there, I became acquainted with a few senior members of the leadership in Kyoto City and Shiga Prefecture. One of them, Dr. Motonori Matsuyama, a respected teacher and oceanographer, first introduced me to haiku.” Walker took to it and continued to write haiku for his whole life.
Walker takes a syllabic approach to haiku. Walker writes, “What is haiku? In English, and at its simplest, it is a three line verse of five, seven and five syllables that collectively express a complete thought.” This is a clear definition and one that leads to a formal approach to haiku in English. In addition to following the traditional syllabic count of 5-7-5, Walker also capitalizes the first letter of each line, which is the traditional approach of most English language poetry. In this respect Walker follows the lead of Richard Wright.
Walker organizes his haiku into the classical four seasons; that is to say there are four chapters, one for each of the four seasons. The illustrations, by Victoria Seitzinger, are a significant part of the book and many of the pages have a haibun feel to them, as the haiku (usually more than one) are arranged around the illustrations.
Walker’s approach to haiku is contemplative and thoughtful. Most of Walker’s haiku are in two parts; a natural setting followed by a comment, observation, generalization, or emotional reaction. Here are some examples:
Douglas fir needles
Carpeting the forest floor
Line 3, ‘Wooded cathedral’, is Walker’s way of making a comment on the scene. Walker is telling us that he considers the scene to be in some sense holy.
Here is a similar one:
Life, death, life renewed
Fallen trees on forest floors
Again, the idea of ‘sanctified’ expresses Walker’s relationship to nature. There is a lot of information packed into this haiku. The way fallen trees act as nourishment for new trees is an observation that extends beyond a mere depiction of the scene.
Here’s one from his ‘Winter’ chapter:
Cold crystalline night
Stillness in all of nature
Notice how in all of these examples the third line gives us a kind of summation. Again there is the idea of nature as holy, this time with the word ‘purity’.
Here’s one from the ‘Summer’ chapter:
Sagebrush, sand and rock
Desert vastness overwhelms
Silent voices speak
Here Walker seems to have moved out of the forest into the eastern regions of Oregon. Again, Walker combines observation (Sagebrush, sand and rock) with his emotional reaction (overwhelms), topping it off with a contemplative summary (Silent voices speak). This kind of pattern makes Walker’s haiku thick with meaning, the result is that they bear rereading.
Walker is very concerned with the human destruction of nature and some of his haiku are focused on that theme:
Pristine, priceless, prime resource
Clear cut – for profit
Others seem to arise not so much from observation of nature, but rather from contemplating the meaning of the world we live in:
Entire galaxies dying
A soft summer night
Interestingly, in this haiku it is line 3 which is the observation of nature while lines 1 and 2 are the contemplation, reversing his usual order.
For Walker the world of nature and the world of his internal emotions and the world of quiet contemplation, of introspective consideration, are porous to each other. Because they are porous to each other Walker is able to unite them seamlessly in his haiku. This gives Walker’s haiku a unique voice as they tend to be both descriptive and contemplative, about nature and about emotions; Walker’s haiku inhabit a both/and world.
There is one other aspect of this book that I would like to point out because I have not seen it before. Walker will use a line, usually with variations, repeatedly through the work. This technique creates resonances and echoes which I found pleasing. It’s kind of like a theme, or rhythmic unit, being used in different movements of a symphony, giving a sense of unity to the whole. For example:
Page 18: Autumn changes all
Page 29: Priorities change
Page 60: But change is coming
Page 62: What brings forth the change
Page 68: I sense deeper change
Page 78: Continual change
Page 87: Priorities change
Page 91: Priorities change
This kind of repetition with variation is done skillfully, so that the reader at first does not notice it. The example I picked is the most obvious one, but there are others that are more subtle. It is a kind of verbal braiding and I think it goes a long way to giving “Haiku and High Timber” a sense of unity that the reader absorbs intuitively.
If there is a weakness to Walker’s collection, I would say it is those few haiku which are too self-consciously allusive:
Seagulls on pilings
Where the fishing boats come in
Waiting for Godot
I find this too effortful and I doubt that younger readers will even know the reference Walker is trying to use. In addition, it is not at all clear how the scene in the haiku relates to the play referenced in line 3.
Fortunately, such slips are rare and do not appear to damage the forward momentum of the collection.
I think this is a worthwhile collection. It can teach a haiku poet how to integrate painting a scene with emotional reaction and/or contemplative comment in a way that the overall effect is a unity rather than an argument. It is a worthy addition to the corpus of syllabic English haiku.
Still and silent dawn
The aroma of wood smoke
Other times and places