from “That Art Thou: A Way of Haiku”
by James W. Hackett
The first question one might well ask an aspiring poet is “Why do you want to write haiku poetry?” Some may not have really thought much about it. And certainly, many answers are possible, if not all of them edifying. In any case, we should discover through introspection our best reason for writing, then endeavor to realize this — come hell (the maverick’s aloneness), or high water (i.e., the high dungeon of those who pontificate in haiku journals).
Those who might follow a “That Art Thou” Way of haiku just may acquire something of the inquiring, reverential Spirit that distinguished the mountain masters of China and Japan. Those deeply inspired sages who, by following the summit streams, created poetry out of the flow and simplicity of their lives. Their spirit remains in that renown ceremony of awareness and appreciation which — centered by the taste of tea — is a celebration of life’s Thus-ness and the simple Is-ness of things.
Such a Way is however, not for everyone. It can be lonely, and the terrain at times steep and difficult. The increasingly rarefied air requires stout hearts undeterred by solitude. However, the epiphany experienced along the Way is an overwhelming One. The summit view itsSelf is far too intimate, too infinite, and too ineffable for the world below to know.
Certainly, organized haiku groups have a long tradition, both here and in Japan. And for those with social need, a gregarious approach to haiku has, I’m sure, much to be said for it. Even so, what is conventional warrants caution and the wisdom of wariness: for dire consequences (as well as good) can and do result from the various social approaches to haiku. Too often shallowness and a stifling parochialism and over-intellectuality are perpetuated by editors, scholars, and even teachers — however well-intentioned they might be. Certainly some writers should be followers, and even participate in the intellectual Maelstrom if they so choose. While others should courageously follow their own star — solitary and unconventional though their way may be.
Well, alright, just what does such a free-spirited harangue possibly have to do with writing haiku? A great deal, I believe. Inspired individualism is as relevant to haiku creation as it is to any art, science or philosophy. Such a paean to individuality does of course reflect my own Tao/Zen approach to haiku poetry. As one obsessed with the Way that chose me, I unabashedly champion such unorthodoxy: for despite the slings and arrows of convention, unorthodoxy has distinguished the lives of a great many geniuses and otherwise worthy souls. In truth, those faint of heart and spirit never see the summit view.
In India, millions of pilgrims continue to revere the Ganges as the world’s most holy river. Meanwhile Time, life’s most sacred stream, flows inexorably on, seldom reverenced or even regarded, save for an enlightened few. It has been the hope and thrust of my life that through this spiritual Way of haiku, one can become more directly aware and appreciative of this eternal Now. And through Zazen practice, in time might even experience our ultimate identity with the eternal Spirit enthroned therein.
Whenever possible the English equivalents of foreign terms are used throughout this essay. For though deeply beholden to other cultures, the quintessence of haiku (and of Zen) is universal. The intrinsic Spirit of haiku poetry, like that of Zen, transcends the sacrosanct confines of ideologies and language, and therefore can become a universal Way of living awareness. Since the Tao/Zen Way of haiku begins with life directly experienced, it is blessedly free from the bias of ideology and literary ethnocentrism: all such walls of thought being transcended by the Mind which finds the highest metaphysical truth in immediacy. It is essence, rather than literary goals, that long ago fatefully commandeered my mind and pen: a veritable obsession, divined by destiny, to discover metaphysical truth. Such a fervent quest has doubtless bypassed some worthy viewpoints along the Way. So be it. The essential “coigne of vantage” so gained reveals the miracle of Divine Creation that is always right here before us.
It’s possible that my more immoderate remarks and conclusions have ruffled some feathers, and even burst a few balloons. Again, so be it. History shows that creative matters of art and spirit are ultimately resolved by free-spirited individuals, not by scholars or haiku editors. Born nonconformists (such as Thoreau and Blyth) wisely warn against following the merely popular or fashionable — especially in regard to matters of thought and value: consensus (as history bears such grim witness) is certainly no guarantor of rightness or truth. Value and convictions need to evolve from deep within our own experience, knowledge, and search for the truth. However, that so few persons truly think for themselves is surely one of the more sad and tragic failings of our species. However, if evolution is allowed enough time, our benighted species might eventually attain higher levels of consciousness that for millennia have distinguished the master spirits among us who have contributed such high art and truth to our lives. May Heaven grant they be the prototypes of what we may yet become.
Some final comments regarding the First Commandment and the “That Art Thou” Way of haiku. The foremost Commandment “No gods before the One” has profound relevance (too often disregarded) for human thought, values, and action. In a world riven and bloodied by the blind worship of abstract idols (such as nationalism, racism, religious faith, or anthropocentrism) I know of no better solace or hope for the Spirit than this transcendent Way of haiku. An undaunted claim surely, given popular values and the tragic truth in G. B. Shaw’s belief that there will never be peace in this world until patriotism is dead. Yet despite humanity’s seemingly endless worship of greed and the divisive gods of war, this spiritual Way of haiku offers a sense of wonder and peace, through enlightened respect for both this Present of life, and the immediate realm of the Real. And in time, such transcendental influence might well raise the level of human consciousness to counterpoise R. H. Blyth’s pessimistic conclusion that:
The world, of which Japan is a part and a microcosm, has set for itself goals totally different from those of Basho. His Way of Haiku can hardly be said to exist now, for almost nobody walks on it. As a Way, it was in many respects better than that of Taoism, Christianity, Confucianism, Buddhism, and so on. Its desuetude is a monument to the stupidity, vulgarity, sentimentality, and unpoeticality of human beings. (Blyth 2:vi)
Life’s seeming multiplicity may indeed be (as sub-atomic physics now suggests) nothing more than an illusory conceptual dream. Still, many of us refuse to accept that life need remain the nightmare of suffering and deprivation it has been, and is, for so many. Rectification of elitist attitudes toward those less privileged can after all be transcended by compassion — another saving grace attainable through a “That Art Thou” Way of haiku.
To many, such a direct intuitive Way might well seem hopelessly Utopian, and naive beyond belief. Certainly the latter is true, for belief per se plays no role in the Way offered here. Only the insight (which the dying come to know so well) that Now is not only a holy time, but is in truth the only time there is. A sacred realization, yet one commonly ignored while we abstractedly wander labyrinths of ideation, mulling the many coveted notions we allow to dominate our mind. So to those seeking peace and salvation from an ideologically maddened and endangered world, this transcendent Way of haiku is dedicated. It is a Way blessed with wonder, compassion, and lifefulness, through a reverential awareness of the moment of Creation evermore about to be.
James W. Hackett in La Honda, California 1992
Revised 2001, in Maui, Hawaii
JAMES WILLIAM HACKETT (1929 – ) is a pioneer in creating English language haiku. He is currently Honorary President of the World Haiku Club.
Hackett was born and raised in Seattle, Washington. A history and philosophy honors graduate, Hackett studied at the University of Washington. His graduate study in art history was completed at the University of Michigan. Later he would live in the mountains of Santa Cruz, California.
A philosopher by nature and training, Hackett was influenced early by Eastern philosophy and by the writings of Henry David Thoreau. He began to create English language haiku in the 1950s after recovering from a nearly fatal accident in which he was spiritually “reborn.” Becoming a friend of his senses, Hackett searched for a means to express his newfound reverence for life. Upon discovery of haiku, he vowed to dedicate his life and energy to the writing of this genre in the respect of Creation’s Eternal Now.
During that time, it was the monumental works of R. H. Blyth which introduced JWH to haiku. The two men began a correspondence over several years that resulted in Blyth’s introduction of Hackett’s work in his The History of Haiku, Volume 2. Before his death in 1964, Blyth arranged for Hokuseido Press (Tokyo) to publish two volumes of Hackett’s Haiku Poetry. The American haiku scholar, Harold G. Henderson, also corresponded with Hackett for almost 11 years. Copies of his letters with Blyth and Henderson may now be found in the national archive of haiku at California State Library, Sacramento.
With his wife Pat, Hackett has lived and traveled in Japan several times for varying time periods. Winning Japan Air Line’s first USA haiku writing contest (1964) offered the opportunity and means for a first visit. While in Japan, Hackett was a guest of roshi and priests at Zen temples and monasteries, including those of Soen Nakagawa (Mishima City) and Sohaku Ogata (Kyoto). Both men concluded that Hackett’s “way” of haiku was one of the best means for the true spirit of Zen to reach America.
His haiku continues to be anthologised internationally, and has been presented on the Canadian Broadcasting System, Pacifica Radio (USA), the BBC, and on Irish, Romanian, and Japanese television. He is frequently USA judge for Japan Air Lines’ Children’s World Haiku Contests. The annual international haiku award (est. 1991), administered by the British Haiku Society in Hackett’s name, commands high prestige. Hackett has contributed to numerous haiku journals and events in the USA, Europe, and Japan. These activities reflect his belief that haiku (and the spirit of Zen) can and must be shared worldwide.
Following the introduction and inclusion of Hackett’s haiku in R.H. Blyth’s History of Haiku, Vol. Two (1964), many books of his poetry have appeared. The nine published books of Hackett’s haiku, which have appeared since 1965, are now available through used book sources, including many online dealers. They are:
Haiku Poetry, vols 1-2 (1965/8) The Hokuseido Press (Tokyo)
Haiku Poetry, vols 1-4 (1965/8) The Hokuseido Press (Tokyo)
The Way of Haiku (1968), Japan Publications, Inc. (Tokyo)
Bug Haiku (1968), Japan Publications, Inc. (Tokyo)
The Zen Haiku and Other Zen Poems of J. W. Hackett, (1983), Japan Publications, Inc. (Tokyo)
50 Zen-Haiku (1994). English, with Gaelic versions by poet Gabriel Rosenstock. Published by An Cumann um Haiku, Ireland.
Le Cri du Faucon (1996). French translations by poet Patrick Blanche, calligraphy by Yuriko Seko. Published by Voix d’Encre (8 Chemin de la Nitriere, 26200 Montelimar, France).
Hackett continues to write. His unpublished work includes well over a thousand haiku as well as many longer Zen-influenced poems. His newest writings include over 500 haiku and longer Tao/Zen metaphysical, idyllic, ecological and nature poems, similar to those of ancient Chinese writers. Hackett is currently completing a major manuscript That Art Thou: A Way of Haiku from which A Personal Conclusion is excerpted. He and his wife, Pat, now live quietly in Maui, Hawaii, with their dogs, music and gardens.
A web site for Hackett’s work is currently in development.