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.


Brian said...

Bitter morning
sparrows sitting
without necks

A bitter morning:
sparrows sitting together
without any necks.

(Haiku Poetry Vol. One, page 12)

As much as I respect Charles Trumbull, I cannot agree with him that the first poem above is superior to the second.

For one thing, the elliptical language of the second poem barely escapes injuring the sense of the third line for any other than the initiated reader.

While I find free-verse haiku beautiful in skilled hands, I think the reasoning behind it is an example of the poetic fallacy (not be confused with the pathetic fallacy). In an attempt to imitate Japanese verse, the more telegraphic free verse haiku fails to take into consideration crucial differences between the Japanese and English languages. If one reads Japanese poems in literal translation, often what appears on the page is a kind of list of images without seeming syntax. To parody this too closely or unskillfully results, in my opinion, an absence of poetry. But free verse English haiku poets recognize this and have developed a truncated, rhythmic style marked by its own particular music and beauty. Still, it has to be borne in mind that this is as much artifice as the lyricism of the syllabic haiku poem. What's more it is desirable and necessary. Both forms are English poems. How could they be anything else? The one relies on effects of minimalism the other on English poetic tradition.

Neither the minimalists nor the syllabic haiku poets are writing haiku in the strictest sense. It's simply not possible with the Japanese poetic tradition steeped in allusion, pillow-words and other culturally determined poetic devices. It is true that certain schools of contemporary Japanese haiku and certain haiku poets have abandoned many ancient cultural associatons and practices (see Ban'ya Natuishi's series of "Flying Pope" haiku, for example). However, this is avant garde, experimental poetry, and not representative of the haiku generally referred to and set-up as models by English poets-- minimalist or syllabic. Both schools of English haiku poets generally hark back to the historical triumvirate of Basho, Buson & Issa, the modern innovations of Shiki, and the distinguished poets of their own contemporary canons.

I think you are right in delineating two forms of contemporary English haiku practice. I might tentatively add an emerging third, the post-modernist, with its roots in minimalism and often showcased in the English haiku journal "Roadrunner". But this possible third is rather too new to make any definitive statement regarding since it has yet to demonstrate its staying power. I think it also important to point-out that there is a minority of haiku poets not strictly aligned with any of the above "schools". These poets freely write in at least two of the styles (syllabic and minimalist) dependent upon what they believe to be called for "organically" by any single poem.

Great post, Jim.

Jim714 said...

Thanks for your thoughtful observations. I am fascinated by the transmission of cultural forms across cultural divides. The original Italian Sonnet had eleven syllable lines, was syllabic, and had a particular layout of its lines (8 + 6), rhyme scheme, and other requirements.

When it moved to England the very first Sonnets were almost literal translations from the Italian. Over some decades the count was changed to 5 accents per line (usually ten syllables, or iambic pentameter, thus changing a syllabic form to an accentual one), the rhyme scheme was changed, and the layout was tweaked (4 + 4 + 4 + 2).

When I hear or read free verse haijin criticizing syllabic haiku it resembles to me a sonnetteer who uses a Petrarchan rhyme scheme objecting that someone else uses a different rhyme scheme. I know, the analogy isn't exact, but I think you can get what I mean.

The two traditions of haiku start at different places, use different procedures to craft their poems, and hold to different ideals. That is why I conclude that for all intents and purposes they have become different forms. One way of looking at this is that one would have to teach them differently. One could even teach both of them in succession as different forms; like teaching a class on villanelle and sestina.

They are both valid forms, but they are different. It may surprise some visitors here, but I write some free verse haiku and I have an admiration for some free verse haiku poets (Susan Constable is one of my favs; I really would like to see a collection done of her work). So in a sense I'm not taking sides; though some may read my posts in that way. I guess that can't be helped.

If there is a third type emerging, I'm not surprised. Each generation will take a new look at the tradition and add their own experience into the mix.


Brian said...

Because this is a blog about syllabic poetry, I don't think it would be fair to characterize you as unfairly biased. At any rate, the minimalist schools of haiku & tanka are ascendant and publish most of the current haiku/tanka journals. Healthy counterpoint should be welcome. If not, it's still necessary.

I think you make a strong point for distinguishing syllabic and minimalist haiku/tanka as two different forms. The observation that teaching the two requires two different sets of instruction is persuasive.

Alan Summers said...

Interesting discussion between the two of you.

Just a quick point, the web url for James Hackett is incorrect: The Haiku and Zen World of James W. Hackett

James and Patricia moved to Haiku, Maui, many years ago, so geographically he may have been isolated. I was fortunate to meet James and Patricia in 2001 as we were part of the NHK program In The Footsteps of Basho.

They were both engaging, and great fun. I found them great company, and we all freely mixed with Japanese and Western haiku practitioners.

If someone writes well, and writes English-language haiku well, it doesen't matter, at least to me, if it's syllablic or minimalist.

My only gripe is when people religiously write 5/7/5 in English with no thought to poetry via line breaks/enjambment, kire, kidai/kigo (or seasonal reference); and all the other aspects/techniques available in haiku or even traditional English poetry.

I believe around thirty per cent of the Japanese haiku writing population write or attempt gendai haiku now. Most gendai haiku in Japanese is 17-on, and often with kigo.

Of course Japanese haiku has a very long history of experimentation. Some were successful, some were not, but served a useful purpose all the same.

Look at Santoka, more popular than Basho, and perhaps equally as popular as Issa in Japan.

One poet who strides both gendai and traditional haiku is Kaneko Tohta. Currently there are two pamphlets available in English which are fascinating.

Almost worth the price alone is the part on the closing days of WWII which is not part of the US-Japan official view.

Interestingly, Kaneko Tohta made a shift in his haiku and was looking for a past poet for guidance. His choices were Santoka and Issa. The monograph tells you which poet was chosen, and how it defined his world literature level work.

Two Monographs

Ikimonofûei: Poetic Composition on Living Things,
a monograph by Kaneko Tohta

Kaneko Tohta is regarded around the world as one of the great poets of contemporary haiku, but relatively little of his work has been available in languages other than his native Japanese. The Kon Nichi Translation Group, attached to Kumamoto University, is seeking to redress that situation. Ikimonofûei, an extended essay on the topic of composing haiku on living beings, is the first of a series of books that will explore Tohta’s poetics as well as his poetry. As Koun Franz, a member of the translation team, writes: “For Kaneko, the language known from the start by the body is inherently ara, wild. It is the natural language of any ikimono, of any living thing.”

weblink: Ikimonofûei

The Future of Haiku,
an Interview with Kaneko Tohta

available in languages other than his native Japanese. The Kon Nichi Translation Group, attached to Kumamoto University, is seeking to redress that situation. The Future of Haiku, an in-depth interview focusing on Tohta’s personal haiku practice, and centered in the physical embodiment of his work throughout his life, and especially during his service during World War II, is the second of a series of books that explores Tohta’s life and poetics as well as his poetry. As Itô Yûki, a member of the translation team, writes: “From [his] bodily self, [Kaneko] continues to write and speak, and to critique society, with a vibrant voice, an evergreen haiku poet . . .”

weblink: The Future of Haiku, an Interview with Kaneko Tohta

I feel his work will continue to be studied decades from now, and inform us all both in Japan and outside Japan.


Alan Summers, With Words
haikai events blog: Area 17 blog

Jim714 said...

Thanks, Alan, for your helpful, and insightful comments. And thanks for correcting the link. I'm kind of a techno-peasant and still haven't got down simple linking.

My view about syllabic and short-form haiku has evolved. My view overlaps yours in that I hold to the idea that what we want is good poetry first. But in the last few years I've developed an approach which sees syllabic haiku and short-form (aka minimalist) haiku as different forms of poetry. I think that over the years they have grown farther and farther apart and will continue to do so.

They have a common ancestor and they share a lot of features, but how the two groups approach haiku composition differs, and I think the difference has become significant enough that they are like apples and oranges. I could be wrong about this, of course. But what I observe among those practicing syllabic haiku is that their attitude towards this form is close to the attitude of those writing the Crapsey Cinquain or the Fibonacci. That is to say, for many writing syllabic haiku count and lineation are definitive of the form. For those writing short-form haiku that is not the case. This is one of the primary reasons why I think they have become different forms.

Time will tell.

Again, thanks for taking the time to respond.

Best wishes,


Alan Summers said...

Hi Jim,

Thanks for the response.

I hope that those who either practice 17 English-language syllablic haiku in a 5/7/5 construct, or those who also do longer haiku poetry than the minimalist practitioners, meet those who do the minimalist approach.

Although there are ongoing arguments about kigo in Japan and beyond, and whether keywords are more appropriate, I do hope that at least we agree on good writing that contains many of the succinct techniques that haiku writers have been using for centuries inside Japan, and for 50-100 years beyond Japan.

At the moment it's mostly minimalist haiku that is accepted in haikai literature journals (except where I am an editor) but good writing will out:

Deep Shade Flickering Sunlight
Selected Haiku of O Mabson Southard
edited by Barbara Southard and Randy Brooks
Brock Peoples, student editor
weblink: O Mabson Southard collection

This pdf from THF might be illuminating as to how the different "forms" can dwell together:
O Mabson Southard (1911-2000) Marlene Mountain (b. 1939) John Martone (b. 1952)

Unfortunately for those who write closely towards the haiku genre in 5/7/5 there are millions who merely go for 5/7/5 counting games, consciously or unconsciously. If kire and kigo are mentioned, I've seen people immediately forget pressing rules onto others, and forget about haiku.

The most beguiling feature about haiku is that the form isn't the form, or certainly that there is far more to the form than the visible obvious features.

"Is there any good in saying everything?"
Matsuo Basho
(Makoto Ueda, Matsuo Basho (New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1970), p. 162)

He also said:
"The haiku that reveals seventy to eighty percent of its subject is good. Those that reveal fifty to sixty percent we never tire of."
(Kenneth Yasuda, The Japanese Haiku (Rutland, Vermont, & Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1957), p. 6)

This can be achieved with any derivation of haiku, but so many 5/7/5 ELsyllable attempts often pad out and tell all, rather than show a little. The same can be said of course for shorter haiku. It's this invisible form that defeats even our national, and internationally renowned, non-haiku poets too.

I think the next decade, both for Japan, and for the rest of the world, will be interesting.

Alan, With Words