Sunday, January 29, 2012

Silent Song

See, the leaf is falling
From the old maple tree,
It is our God speaking
In the key of beauty.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Long View

The morning birds were singing in stochastic cacaphony,
Maybe it was divine counterpoint, a cosmic symphony --
Somehow, all is calm from the perspective of eternity.

Friday, January 27, 2012


Bare branches
Wet from the rain
Leaning on the fence
An abandoned shovel
Grass growing high around it
Left behind after some project
Or perhaps someone called them away
And they thought they'd finish some other day

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Haiku of James Hackett

The Haiku of James W. Hackett

James Hackett was one of the earliest westerners to produce a body of Haiku. Along with Richard Wright, Hackett’s work has exerted a steady influence on subsequent English language Haiku poets.

The similarities with Wright are, to my mind, intriguing. Both Wright and Hackett were strongly influenced by the work of R. H. Blyth. Hackett first became interested in Haiku through Blyth’s early anthologies and essays on Haiku. Hackett would eventually engage in a correspondence with Blyth. Wright was first introduced to Haiku when he was living in self-imposed exile in France. A friend of Wright’s gave him a collection of Blyth’s writings and they so gripped Wright that Wright soon began writing down Haiku in a notebook which he carried with him everywhere.

Another intriguing similarity about Wright and Hackett is that they both took the 5/7/5 syllabic format for Haiku in English. It is an exaggeration to say that they never deviate from this count; but in both cases the syllabic count is clearly at the center of their understanding of Haiku. One of the reasons this is intriguing is that Blyth in his writings does not bring this out. Blyth’s translations are in free verse, with no commitment to a syllabic mimicking of the Japanese. In fact, in an early letter of Blyth to Hackett, Blyth openly criticizes Hackett for taking such a syllabic approach. Yet Hackett continued to write with this basic 5/7/5 approach.

Another similarity between the two Haiku poets is that they wrote outside of the mainstream Haiku organizations. As far as I know, Wright never connected with any Haiku organizations, magazines, or Haiku poets in America. If Wright had lived longer, he might have made such connections. But as Haiku occupied only the last eighteen months of his life, that did not happen. It is interesting to note that when Wright tried to get his Haiku published he did not go to Haiku poets for support, he simply submitted his work to his established publisher. (Wright’s Haiku were published posthumously many years after he died.)

Hackett’s case is a little more complicated. He started out, in the early 60’s being published in Haiku Journals. There followed, however, a rift the details of which are difficult to decipher. Hackett withdrew from any interaction with American Haiku groups or publications. With the exception of a few brief appearances and interviews, for long stretches of time, often more than a decade, he simply dropped out of site. Hackett, however, seems to have continued with his commitment to Haiku and poetry. His latest effort, Haiku of a Traveler, was published recently.

There are differences between Wright and Hackett. First is that Wright did not encounter Haiku until the very end of his life. Wright was by that time was a mature writer, had established himself in literary circles, and was widely admired. In contrast Hackett encountered Haiku at a young age, while living in San Francisco. Hackett built his literary reputation on his Haiku; later he would write longer poems as well, but it was Haiku which first attracted Hackett as a young man.

And there are cultural differences as well. Wright’s experience as a black man in America is the central theme in all of his work. This experience opened Wright to the worlds of the underclass and this is reflected in his Haiku where he composes Haiku sympathetically presenting the poor and, sometimes, the desperate. Hackett’s Haiku also reflect his life; but as far as I know Hackett never had the kind of searing social experiences that Wright had. For this reason, I think, Hackett’s Haiku tend to be more philosophical and contemplative, and more leisurely.

I find a distinguishing feature of Hackett’s Haiku to be this consciously philosophical tilt and a deep sense of religious commitment. Among English language Haiku poets, Hackett’s, it seems to me, are the most explicitly thoughtful. By ‘thoughtful’ I mean that they raise questions to ponder, or make comments from a philosophical perspective. Take, for example:

Within this hollow seed,
and all the time around it:
the shape of emptiness.

(Haiku Poetry: Vol. 1, page 27)

There are several things to note about this Haiku. It starts with an image: the hollow seed. This image is used as a jumping off place for reflection and thoughtful engagement. Hackett is using the concrete image to draw a universal, even ontological, conclusion.

The other thing I’d like to point out is the long count. Both L1 and L3 are six syllables. I’ve found that this is not unusual for Hackett; I mean that when Hackett deviates from 5/7/5 he is as likely to go for a longer than normal count as he is a shorter than normal count. The other thing to note is that both L1 and L3 are in iambic trimeter, while L2 has the same meter, with one added syllable, ‘it’. Is this conscious? I believe that it is. Hackett refers to his work as ‘Haiku Poetry’ and Hackett seems to be willing in his Haiku to make conscious use of poetic devices such as meter to craft his Haiku.

The consciously poetic nature of Hacket’s Haiku is illustrated by his most famous Haiku poem, one that has frequently appeared in Haiku anthologies:

A bitter morning:
sparrows sitting together
without any necks.

(Haiku Poetry Vol. One, page 12)

This is an excellent Haiku. It has the clear seasonal component, the focus on nature, and the clarity of observation that marks the best of Haiku. Interestingly this Haiku was first published in a shorter form as follows:

Bitter morning
sparrows sitting
without necks

In a recent two-part article in Frogpond (Part 1: , Part 2: ) states that the shorter version of this Haiku was published in 1963 in American Haiku. A few years later, Hackett published the long version for a Japan Airlines contest, which Hackett won. It is the longer version which has been anthologized.

This evolution tells us a lot about Hackett as a Haiku poet. First, it shows us that he is willing to revise and rework his Haiku. And he is willing to do this over a period of years.

It is intriguing to me that the author of the recent Frogpond article, Charles Trumbull, prefers the shorter version; Trumbull says that the shorter version is, in his opinion, ‘superior’. Trumbull’s view is consistent with the esthetic of official Haiku organizations. That esthetic is defined by an intense focus on minimalism. As I have mentioned in other posts, this minimalist esthetic is guided by the principle that ‘less is more’ and the fewer the words the better the Haiku.

Yet Hackett moved his Haiku in the opposite direction; instead of whittling away at his Haiku he added to it. Let’s look at it line by line.

The second version is, in my view, more natural, more lyrical, and flows more smoothly, has a better rhythm. In Line 1 Hackett added the indefinite article ‘a’ and the punctuation at the end of the line ‘:’. Adding the article makes the line read more like normal English. The original is reads like a telegraph or like pidgin English.

In Line 2 Hackett adds the word ‘together’. From the minimalist perspective of official Haiku ‘together’ is redundant and should be removed. But normal speech is full of redundancies. And in a sense the word ‘together’ draws attention to a feature of the scene which is not explicit in the original. In the first version the sparrows are not necessarily huddled together. In the revision the word ‘together’ draws our attention to how the cold morning is affecting the behavior of the sparrows. This little detail, though slightly redundant, makes the Haiku more specific and complete.

In Line 3 Hackett adds the word ‘any’. Again, ‘any’ is redundant from the perspective of minimalism and the esthetic promoted by official Haiku organizations. The use of ‘any’, though, makes the line more natural; that is how English speakers normally speak. People do not normally speak in a minimalist version of English.

This is one of the big divides between Syllabic Haiku and Official Haiku. Syllabic Haiku does not start from a minimalist esthetic. The Haiku of Richard Wright, James Hackett, Susan August, and many others, flow in a normal English usage; as if the Haiku form was a native English language form. There is a feeling when reading their Haiku that normal everyday English is suitable for Haiku. In contrast, official Haiku, with its minimalist stance, has produced short-form Haiku that project an artificial English, one that is so stripped of its normal elements that at times it is difficult to follow.

Interestingly, Hackett is one of the few Haiku authors who has taken an explicit stance against a minimalist approach to Haiku. In the essay ‘Haiku Form’ Hackett wrote:

“I for one find it more than sad to witness the crude obscurantist effect that an over-emphasis upon concision has had upon the creation of some haiku in the United States. Brevity per se does not make a haiku! . . . As one who believes haiku in English can be poetry, I deplore the corrosive effect of what I term minimalism – or telegraphic usage – in our haiku.”

These are strong words. In a sense I don’t think they are fully justified. My own view is that Syllabic Haiku and Free Verse Haiku (aka Short Form Haiku, or Official Haiku) have become different forms of poetry. They have a common ancestor, and they both think of themselves as Haiku; but over time they have grown farther and farther apart. I think the time has come to recognize this as my suspicion is that they will only become even further removed from each other as the years continue to pass.

On the other hand, I understand Hackett’s reaction. As an early practitioner of Haiku in the English speaking world he found that his basic approach was being abandoned by official Haiku organizations. It wasn’t only that Official Haiku was abandoning the syllabic approach, they were, and are, arguing that it is wrong to take that approach. It is only natural that Hackett would respond defensively.

Returning to the overview of Hackett’s work, I think that Hackett continues to be a fine resource for those poets wanting to take a syllabic approach to Haiku. His thoughtful, consciously poetic, craft-like approach to Haiku is, I think, something to be emulated. His commitment to syllabics enriches those who wish to follow a similar approach.

Personally, I would like to see Hackett’s Haiku reprinted. In particular, his four volume series, published in the 60’s, needs to become, once again, more broadly available. Hackett’s Haiku contain elements not found in other Haiku poets such as thoughtfulness, philosophical reflection, a sense of rhythm, and a lyrical flow. I think the time has come to put Hackett back into the foreground as one of the first Haiku poets in English and, more importantly, as a fine poet.

An abandoned book . . .
skimming through its pages,
breezes from the sea.

Beyond this mountain,
so vast as to strain the eye:
a world of autumn.

(Haiku Poetry Vol. 4)


Note: Hackett’s essays on poetry and other topics are available at -- Warning: navigation of this site is frustratingly difficult. The layout is counterintuitive. But there are some real nuggets of insight on many of the pages.

Caught In The Cave

Waves of mountains in the distance
Next to the slate still ocean shore
Stalagmites of oppressive thoughts
Resemble a thick iron door

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Syllabic Tanka Day 2012

Today is syllabic Tanka day. It is a day set aside to honor those poets writing syllabic Tanka in English. Syllabic Tanka means Tanka that follow the traditional syllable count of 5-7-5-7-7; a total of thirty-one syllables which mimics the traditional syllabic structure of the original Japanese.

Tanka has a written history of about 1400 years. The first written Tanka appears in the Kojiki, the ancient cycle of legends that tell of the origins of the Japanese people. Ever since then Japanese poets have taken to the Tanka form. Over its 1400 years of written history the syllable count has remained the same. Techniques have changed, modes of constructing the lines have had their day, topics have been dwelled on and new ones added, but the form has remained the same for all this time. That is something truly remarkable.

Tanka has come to English language poets only recently. Even though Tanka is much older than Haiku, it is less well-known outside of Japan. But there are poets who have taken to the form. Here is an example from George Knox:

Red-tailed hawk flying
From tee to tree for days now
Making such shrill cries . . .
I’m hearing it in my dreams
And I read they mate for life

(From the Tanka Anthology, “Wind Five Folded”, edited by Jane and Werner Reichhold, page 98)

I admire the way Knox takes us on a journey through three realms. The first is the realm of nature: the red-tailed hawk and its cry-filled flight. The second is the world of dreams. And the third is the world of human culture: “I read . . .” meaning the world of books. That’s a lot to encompass in just three lines, yet Knox does this deftly.

Knox focuses on a traditional Tanka topic; love and separation from a loved one. In traditional Tanka anthologies this topic is treated extensively. But in traditional Tanka this is almost always about human affection and humans parting from each other or otherwise being separated (due to official duties, due to love of another, or due to death). Knox sees this topic in nature and thereby contributes a different perspective, or rather broadens our perspective on the pain that separation can bring.

Here’s a second Tanka from the poet Yeshaya Rotbard:

The Night

A stillness so still,
No blade, leaf, to twitch or lift,
Just a cricket’s trill,
Not enough to move the air,
But enough to stop and stare.

(“The Calligraphy of Clouds” by Yeshaya Rotbard, page 104)

Rotbard titles his Tanka which is unusual for Tanka poets. But it is consistent with western poetic tradition and it is, I think, a valid option. Notice that the title is a genuine title in the sense that it gives us added information; we wouldn’t know that this is a night scene by just reading the Tanka itself. In a way, one can think of a title for a Tanka as a sixth line of undetermined length.

Notice also how Rotbard incorporates rhyme into the Tanka form. Rhyme is not used in Japanese poetry. But it is a significant element of English language poetry and song and many of Rotbard’s Tanka incorporate rhyme. Rotbard’s use of rhyme give his Tanka the feel of a folk song. Notice how the closing couplet, with its parallel construction, and its regular rhythm, its 3 + 4 construction, has a musical, melodic, feeling to it.

I admire the simplicity of this Tanka. It is a simple nocturnal landscape, but is amazingly spare in details. Most of the information is negative; the leaves and grass are not moving. The one piece of positive information is the sound of the crickets, a kind of energized silence. I think all of us can enter into this Tanka because this experience of stillness is something is something all of us have experienced. By leaving out too much detail, Rotbard allows us all to enter into this Tanka. It draws us in as we finish the scene based on our own lives and experiences.

Tanka is still making its way in the west. It is a rich and rewarding form. Slowly, a body of syllabic Tanka is being built in the English language.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


The rural dirt road --
There's a little bit of frost
On the shaded side

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


The first light of dawn,
Mars and Venus share the sky
On this cold morning

Distant clouds catch the sunlight
Slowly shifting shades of orange

As the sun declines
And touches the ocean's edge
She feels calm, at ease

Her husband recently died
Fighting a faraway war

Cherry blossoms fall
On the graveside offerings
A mouse sneaks a snack

Insurance rates keep climbing
As he ages with the years

The weed filled garden
And hedges need cutting back
And the trees pruning

A cascade of meteors
Across the hot July sky

At three-quarters full
The light of the waxing moon
Guides us to our dreams

The March wind scatters the leaves
Announcing autumn's presence

Starting a new job
(It's his third one in five years)
He feels unprepared

"Don't worry," she says fondly.
"You'll do fine.  It's time to go."

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

New Comments Format

Dear Friends:

I was continuing to have problems responding to comments; in fact the problem got a little worse.  I tracked down through a Google Forum that they were aware of the problem.  In the meantime they recommended that I switch to a pop-up box format for comments.  I have switched over to this format and was able to respond to a comment.  So hopefully this will be a working solution.  For those who have commented before be aware that the format is now slightly different than before.

Thanks for your patience,


Monday, January 16, 2012

Renga Ramblings 1

Renga Ramblings 1

Renga is my favorite form of poetry. And over the years people have, now and then, asked me if I would teach a class in renga. Recently, several people have made this request.

I have often thought about this. There are several reasons why I hesitate to teach renga. First, to be honest, I don’t know how to do it. Renga is a complicated form and writing renga means keeping a lot of different formal requirements in mind. Consider that traditional manuals of renga are quite lengthy. I think that is why traditionally renga composition was led by a renga master. A renga master is someone who has composed renga over many years and internalized the many rules so that they can guide the renga composition in accordance with the handed down tradition. In other words, it takes time to learn renga; it is a lengthy process. The best way to learn renga is to hang around others who are composing renga.

Another reason I have backed away from requests to teach is that I am aware that my approach to renga differs significantly from what people will find among most renga poets in the west today. For example, I take a syllabic approach to renga verse construction while most renga poets take a free verse approach to lineation. I tend to treat traditional Saijiki lightly, in contrast I have found that many who are interested in renga have a fairly strong commitment to traditional Saijiki. I have separated and sifted out words that designate time from words that designate season, which is an approach that, as far as I know, is unique with me.

Finally, my source of inspiration for renga is the renga master Sogi, as opposed to Basho. How much of a difference does that make? Well, the biggest difference for me is that I find Sogi to be more tolerant of links based on sensation whereas Basho is much more interested in links based on ‘scent’. To my mind, Sogi’s linkage is tighter, clearer, and more considerate of the reader than Basho’s style of scent-based linkage. Don’t take this too strongly; I love Basho’s renga and I encourage people to study them. It’s just that the influence of Sogi on my own writing leads me to accept more explicit linkage than, I suspect, Basho would favor.

And perhaps most significantly, my focus with renga is on solo renga rather than group composition. Again, this is the influence of Sogi upon my own renga composition. For me the renga ‘Sogi Alone’ is the pinnacle, the uber-renga if you will. ‘Sogi Alone’ is a solo hyakuin (100 verse) renga that Sogi wrote towards the end of his life. It is the renga that I value most highly. It is a steady source of inspiration for me; not only in renga but in poetry in general. Because of this the vast majority of my efforts have been in the solo renga form.

The thing is, if I taught renga it would be based on my own procedures as developed over decades of interest. However, if someone listened to me regarding renga composition, and then sought to join with others based on what I do, they would find themselves out of sync with what the others are doing and how they approach renga composition. I don’t want to place people in that kind of awkward situation.

On the other hand, people have asked. As a kind of compromise, I thought about posting some personal observations on renga, how I go about it, suggestions I may have, little things I have learned over time, and procedures I use. These would be informal notes, what I call renga ramblings, in no particular order. Perhaps this may prove useful to those who are interested. Having thought about this for some time, I plan on posting an occasional ‘Renga Rambling’. In that way when people ask me about how to compose a renga, I can point them to these loose thoughts.

Blogspot Glitch


I'm not sure what has happened, but I find myself unable to respond to posters' comments.  When I click on respond, it takes me to all white screen instead of the usual response box.  That's why I've neglected to respond to comments.  I'm sure it will be fixed soon.

Thanks for your patience,


Friday, January 13, 2012


"You should reconsider,"
Said the bum in the alley
To the garbage can

Not Quite Ready

I get older
I number my days
The days that I have left
Become fewer and fewer

There is beauty in the sunset
And peace in faces I won't forget --

Eternity beckons and yet, and yet . . .

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


On the wooden fence
Snow has accumulated
During the long night

Guardian angels stand watch
Over all of the gardens

The smell of blossoms
From the numerous cherry trees,
Incense for the cosmos

Placed upon the boulder's moss
The light of the Aries sun

"I like what you've done
With your garden and your house.
It took a long time."

Fallen leaves form a design
That is hard to decipher

He tried to augur,
Using the Book of Changes,
What he should do next

"Have you ever felt perplexed,
So you had nothing to say?"

She puts it away,
The letter from her lover
Says that they are through

There's a saying that is true --
All meetings end in parting

It is comforting
On a warm summer evening
To pause and recall

The rising full moon enthralls
Us with its light and shadows

Sunday, January 8, 2012

First Day Poem

Low clouds
A slight wind
A cool morning
There's not much traffic
On Sunday it's quiet,
Before I go to Meeting
I stop by the local cafe
For some good coffee to start my day --
The barrista is proud of her figure,
We have known each other for a lot of years,
We check in with each other on our hopes and fears,
Then I sit down at a table and sip my coffee,
Conversing with some strangers before I go on my way.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Field of Time

The First Month
Holiday cheer
Starts to disappear
Gifts have been put away
Routines have resumed their place
Schedules have a more steady pace
The children have returned to their schools
With brand new clothes so that they can feel cool
Slowly Neptune traverses ecliptic space
A desert rabbit gazes fondly at the moon
A widow in a church senses the presence of grace

Winter Weekend

Blue sky
Cold day
Strong wind
Kids play

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Morning Fix (It's OK, It's Legal)

The line at Starbuck's Cafe
Waits patiently for caffeine,
It comes in various forms;
Coffee or tea (black or green)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Last Round

Darkness falls thickly
On the nearly empty street
Some stragglers stagger
After the last round of drinks,
Going their separate ways

Monday, January 2, 2012


The depths of winter
Even in the afternoon
The tenacious frost
Your total lack of empathy
In all the rooms of the house

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Winter Sweater

The winter sweater
And the January cold
And a few blankets

A new boyfriend for dinner;
Maybe he's the one I'll love

The far-away stars,
Are they so indifferent?,
Do they shine for us?

The bar's Saturday line dance;
Clap, stomp and turn to the beat

Harvesting the grapes
There's the rush before the crush
And anxious owners

The warm October sunrise
Kids getting ready for school

Sparrows in the grass,
At the sight of a shadow,
Hide in the hedges

A pause in the silent house
As she soaks in the quiet

The window rattles
But just for a few seconds
A sudden May wind

The branches filter the light
Of a moon that's nearly full

"What was the question?"
The t.v. is much too loud
For conversation

Hidden behind the garage
Cascading lilacs bloom