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:
In a recent two-part article in Frogpond (Part 1: http://www.hsa-haiku.org/frogpond/2010-issue33-1/essay.html , Part 2: http://www.hsa-haiku.org/frogpond/2010-issue33-2/essay.html ) 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 www.haketthaiku.com -- 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.