James W Hackett

July 2002

James W. Hackett (1929 –  )

By Debra Woolard Bender

 Wind gives way to calm,
and the stream smoothes, revealing
its treasures of leaves…

Nothing speaks more of the haiku poet’s way of life, philosophies and beliefs than his poetry. And the one who chooses haiku as a way of life, or perhaps rather, is “chosen by haiku,” may be naturally reticent of publicity. As R. H. Blyth said in his foreword for Haiku Poetry, the four-volume series  by James W. Hackett…to attain the ability to write, not the best words but the right words, and:

“to express the immediate sensation, to pour our all of one’s self into the thing and let the thing penetrate every part of one’s self, needs much travail of mind and body. It requires also the renunciation of all ambition to be ‘recognised,’ though some few persons must share the experiences so as to assure, if possible their universal validity.”

Today, James W. Hackett, a living disciple of Blyth, is the most influential Western haijin advocating the Zen and “present-moment” haiku. He continues to uphold the spiritual aspects of haiku that he shared with his mentor, R. H. Blyth. Hackett maintains his conviction that haiku can be the reflection, expression and affirmation of “that art thou”, or the intuitive experience of “things as they are”; and this, again, after the manner of Matsuo Basho, who placed importance on the immediacy of the present in haiku. For Hackett, haiku is what he has called “a Way of living awareness,” and an “appreciation of each moment of life”. He does not claim to be a literary soul, but rather, his poetry is focused on the Universal Spirit and is aimed toward awakening humanity’s consciousness to recognize the soul’s oneness with Eternal Spirit, and the reality of the Eternal Now.

Two flies, so small
it’s a wonder they ever met,
are mating on this rose.

Born and raised  in Seattle, Washington, USA, Hackett studied history and philosophy at the University of Washington. As an honors student, his graduate studies in art history were completed at the University of Michigan before he eventually moved to the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. He was influenced early on by Eastern philosophy and the writings of the American naturalist, Henry David Thoreau. After a near-fatal accident, Hackett experienced an awakening, and from that time on, has devoted himself to the writing of haiku as a vehicle to express his reverence for Creation and to raise the awareness of his readers’ consciousness. It was the works of R. H. Blyth which first introduced JWH to haiku, and in the 1950’s he embarked upon correspondence with the author-translator. In the beginning of the relationship between the two men, Hackett, who was not yet thirty, sent several examples of his haiku to Blyth, who was then in his sixties. His letter was prefaced,

“I am sending my haiku poems to you because of one sentence you wrote in your book of haiku translations. Your sentence was: ‘There is more significance in the sound of the nib I’m now writing with than anything I could ever say’.”

Hackett recounts that he had discerned from that singular remark, they both shared the same “old soul”. Because of this, he felt that Blyth would understand why he had made his decision to live a life of Zen and haiku. Their long friendship developed upon common spiritual values and understandings as well as haiku, and before Blyth’s death in 1964, he had included JWH’s poetry in his The History of Haiku, Volume 2. Blyth highly regarded the haiku of his disciple, comparing them to the best of the Japanese masters. He wrote on 15 February 1960:

“As far as publication is concerned, I am going to put the best of the verses, with your kind permission of course, at the end of my 5th volume of Haiku, which I am working on now. I wish to include them, not only for their intrinsic value, but to show that a haiku poet is born, not made, and of a “nationality” which has nothing to do with the ordinary conception of it.”

The gust of wind
trying on that shirt
needs a larger size!

Through Blyth’s arrangement, the first two volumes of Hackett’s Haiku Poetry (which would become four volumes) was published. The appendix includes Hackett’s twenty, now famous, “Suggestions for Beginners and Others“, which can be shortened to the following key points [abbreviated by Susumu Takiguchi for an article in World Haiku Review]:

1. Life is the fount; 2. Everyday life; 3. Contemplate nature closely; 4. Identify with your subject; 5. Reflect in solitude; 6. Reflect nature just as it is; 7. Don’t write everything in 5-7-5; 8. Write in 3 lines; 9. Use common language; 10. Suggest; 11. Mention season; 12. Haiku are intuitive; 13. Don’t overlook humor; 14. Rhyme detracts; 15. Lifefulness; 16. Clarity; 17. Read aloud; 18. Simplify!; 19. Stay with it; 20. Remember Blyth’s admonition that haiku is a finger pointing to the moon.”

Hackett also corresponded with American haiku scholar, translator and author, Harold Gould Henderson for almost eleven years, and together with Blyth, these three pioneering men interacted and inspired one another through their common interests. After Blyth’s death on 28th October 1964, Henderson wrote to persuade Hackett to succeed him, taking over where he left off.

A bitter morning:
sparrows sitting together
without any necks.

In that fateful year, Hackett won a trip to Japan as the grand prize of Japan Airlines’ international haiku contest; the competition being a way in which the company advertised, while at the same time promoting haiku to a world which had begun to take a lively interest in Japanese culture. Radio stations in different parts of the United States ran seventeen contests, screening entries. All-in-all, there were over 41,000 entries. The top five winners from each local contest were submitted to Alan Watts for final judging. Eighty-five national entries were published in the booklet, “Haiku ’64,” by the airlines company.

Hackett’s winter seasonal haiku, above, is composed in 5-7-5 format; a two-image style arranged in fragment/phrase construction and with punctuation which would echo the Japanese tradition of kireji (cutting word). The poem is considered a masterpiece by many haijin, as well as those proponents of “Zen-haiku”. Although written in 5-7-5 English syllable format for the contest, he had also written another version of that haiku, published the first issue of the journal, American Haiku, (1963) without the syllabic format, “bitter morning / sparrows sitting / without necks,” following his own advice from his twenty suggestions: “Rule #7: “don’t write everything in 5-7-5 form, since in English this often causes padding and contrivance,” and, Rule #8: “Try to write in three lines of approximately 17 syllables.”

Hackett became a timely advocate and spokesman for haiku as it spread its tiny, but powerful wings over the seas. Haiku enthusiasts from various countries soon followed his lead, broadening the map of World Haiku. Over the years, Hackett has gone on to serve as a judge in subsequent JAL competitions.

Searching on the wind,
the hawk’s cry…
is the shape of its beak.

During that first trip to Japan, Hackett visited Zen monasteries and temples, and their roshi and priests. Among them were Soen Nakagawa of Mishima City, and Sohaku Ogata of Kyoto who both felt that Hackett’s “way of haiku” was one of the best means for the true spirit of Zen to reach America. Interestingly, while Hackett has since become the most well-known proponent of Zen-based haiku, he has, in practice, remained a somewhat solitary figure, not closely aligning himself with the Zen-haikuist or any other such movement. That he does not follow the mainstream, the crowd, should not seem strange, but rather, most appropriate. Here are his own words which he has spoken for, and of, even himself concerning the social aspects of haiku:

“…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.”

and again,

“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.”

Deep within the stream
the huge fish lie motionless
facing the current.

Hackett, the philosopher-poet and champion of unorthodoxy, remains a seeker, yet he is not swayed from exercising his critical mind, nor does he compromise his firm convictions. He guards the core traditions and intrinsic spirit of haiku, its aesthetic and spiritual values, as well as the values of his mentor, R. H. Blyth. Hackett is not one who regards the genre with the flippancy of an “anything goes” attitude. Quite the contrary. He questions the content of much contemporary and anthropocentric so-called haiku, holding it up for examination against the naturalism of the traditional Japanese haiku. With the rise in popularity of haiku and its ever-broadening dispersion, Hackett, speaking in harmony with the voices of Basho and Shiki, calls for commitment to higher standards and quality amongst the world haiku communities. These aspirations are also in accord with aims and principles of the World Haiku Club, of which James W. Hackett is the Honorary President.

That tenement child
performing his long shadow
somehow sustains the world.

Mainly through his published haiku, but also by his other poetry and his ongoing work for haiku, his philosophies and convictions are upheld and dispersed, including the primary Zen tenet, “no dependence upon words or letters”. His haiku is internationally published and anthologized, appearing in numerous haiku journals, publications and events. Readings have been presented on the Canadian Broadcasting System, Pacifica Radio (USA), the BBC, and on Irish, Romanian, and Japanese television. He is often the USA judge for Japan Air Lines’ Children’s World Haiku Contests. The prestigious annual international haiku award (est. 1991), administered by the British Haiku Society is given in Hackett’s name. His well-known “tenement child” haiku, above, recently represented WHC in tandem, or paired with, a haiku by the young, Romanian born poet, artist and World Haiku Ambassador, Sonia Coman, in a World Poetry Day project organized by the Italian National Commission for UNESCO.

Since the very first inclusion of his poems in Blyth’s History of Haiku, Volume 2 and since 1965, Hackett has had published the following books of haiku:

Haiku Poetry, Vol’s. 1, 2, 3 and 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).

For a real measure
of the day’s heat, see the length
of the sleeping cat.

James W. Hackett and his wife, Patricia, have visited Japan on numerous occasions. Today, they make their home in Maui, Hawaii, enjoying the beauty of the island, their home, their dogs, music and the quiet life. Does he still write? Of course. He has at least 1,000 unpublished haiku and other Zen-influenced poems. In 2002, JWH completed a manuscript entitled A Traveler’s Haiku. It contains 193 of his new haiku with world-wide settings. Among these poems is the following written in China from 1993:

Pavilion empty,
the old Shanghai gardener
dances with herself.

Over 500 haiku and longer Tao/Zen poems are among his latest works, and he is preparing a large manuscript, That Art Thou: A Spiritual Way of Haiku, from which “A Personal Conclusion” is excerpted in the first issue of World Haiku Review, Volume 1, Issue 1, March 2001.

Reading this sutra,
I suddenly begin to laugh…
without knowing why.


All haiku in this essay are by James W. Hackett

Haiku Poetry, Vol’s. 1, 2, 3 and 4, James W. Hackett, Japan Publications, Inc., Tokyo, 1968.


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