A Personal Haiku Selection

August 2001

James W. Hackett

henderson_th Harold G. Henderson

 James W. Hackett continues his distinct way of addressing the most important issue which faces the contemporary haiku community: make or break of this form as a viable and respectable literary genre in our age and beyond. It is no exaggeration to compare him, in this mission, with the great poets and commentators of the past, from Basho, through Buson, Shiki and Kyoshi to Blyth. If the comparison may be challengeable, there is absolutely no doubting the seriousness of the issue which the mission tries to unravel.

Firstly, Hackett addresses the issue by choosing only one haiku poem from, this time, among the 296 poems submitted to World Haiku Review’s August edition. Around the haiku thus chosen, he expounds his views, beliefs and messages.

As time advances, we human beings come out of nature more and more, increasingly having no other alternatives but to dwell in urban environment. Here lies one of the most testing challenges for haijin of modern time: Is haiku possible in such an environment? Hackett laments the current situation where the naturalism of traditional haiku is ignored and asks whether urban, anthropocentric verses should be called haiku. It is a crusade against the contemporary aesthetic anarchy of haiku and human-centred hubris by which we make light of what he calls “the Greater Nature”. We must listen to him not so much to admire and obey what he says, as to seek what he is seeking.


Secondly, Hackett has re-opened his bureau drawers and went through some of his early correspondences with the people we can only read in books, Blyth, Henderson etc. He is kind enough to offer one of the most fascinating letters to him from these “legendary” figures: a letter written to him by Harold Gould Henderson and dated 21st December 1970. When Blyth died (28th October 1964) at almost 66 years of age, Henderson told Hackett to the effect that now that the great man was no longer with us Hackett must take over where Blyth left it and be his successor. The interactions among these three men are of immense interest to us students of haiku. It is so fortunate for us to have the very person in our midst who can tell us his direct experience which nobody else can. The letter in question is self-explanatory and I would not wish to dilute it with my unnecessary introduction.


James W. Hackett:
a Personal Selection

Hackett creates, in World Haiku Review, a new and unique way of teaching and appreciating haiku which he chooses from submissions. Instead of conventionally selecting the best three or top ten, he will be selecting only one haiku poem per issue, which may not necessarily be even what he judges as “best”. Rather than the usual praise and commentary, the chosen haiku will serve as an example by which he will expound his own ideas and points. In other words, we will be hearing his own voice through the poem he chooses.

~ Susumu Takiguchi


A Personal Haiku Selection

James W. Hackett


        a wildflower blooms
in the rotten stump
home on parole

Victor P. Gendrano
California, USA

This haiku reminds us of what is often unnoticed or unappreciated. Those who enjoy personal freedom can scarcely imagine the hell of incarceration. Forced to live away from family, friends and the natural world as well, what would give meaning to life?

Any analysis of this suggestive haiku poem would be, as Blyth used to remark ‘as legs on a snake.’ But this haiku does cause me to reflect upon a serious dichotomy occurring in haiku: Why is the naturalism of traditional haiku ignored by some of today’s writers? It also raises the question, Do strictly urban, human-centered verses deserve to be called haiku? If not, why not? And if so, why?

Clearly, that so many humans now live in cities around the world has caused some would-be haiku writers to focus upon strictly human subjects and a milieu consisting of man-made things. Such anthropocentric haiku do reflect the daily experience of how and where many live today, just as traditional haiku did for centuries. Doubtless such human-centered verses can sometimes suggest Zen experiences. No argument here. But do they qualify as haiku?

Still, the profound influences of urban life are now commonly felt by many. And realistically, this makes the survival of human-centered verses a foregone conclusion. So, like it or not, such anthropocentric, quasi-haiku will continue to be written. A fact as sad as it is true, when considered from the spiritual /aesthetic point of my pen.

Why sad? Because a facile attitude of indifference seems to prevail regarding the status of anthropocentric verses and their various vulgar and demeaning spinoffs. This is a situation that desecrates (albeit innocently) haiku’s quintessential aesthetic. (Surely such a surreptitious invasion of alien-spirited verses mandates their reclassification: for clarification, and out of respect for the genre.)

All of which raises the question, What then can or should be involved in the creation and definition of haiku poetry? As it is, haiku’s aesthetic anarchy has rendered the term ‘haiku’ almost meaningless; not only by the ‘anything goes’ attitude regarding form, but more importantly by the irresponsible license taken with haiku’s content and subjects.

Indeed, what is haiku’s intrinsic spirit? And what is integral, and what is inimical to it? Some reflections, then, from one who helped to wed the genre to English, and to the world’s soul.

Any true understanding of haiku’s naturalistic aesthetic presupposes some spiritual perspective, such as that from the mystical summit of Tao and Zen philosophy, and from Shinto as well. For such spiritual values profoundly influenced the aesthetic development of haiku poetry, and doubtless inspired Basho to bring haiku poetry ‘back to life.’ Such influences must not be ignored because of anthropocentric hubris.

That Tao/Zen spiritual values influenced haiku’s traditional naturalism is beyond doubt.  Foremost among these is haiku’s keen recognition and appreciation of the natural world: haiku are (and should remain) a true reflection of the natural world, and of life’s interpenetrative Spirit. Indeed, the reality of Greater Nature has for centuries been considered haiku’s province.

As to what the term Greater Nature implies, is easily seen by ‘wandering’ through the landscape paintings of China and Japan. The presence of humans in such naturalistic painting is not uncommon, but they are not dominant, as in Renaissance and other Western painting.

The naturalistic aesthetics of China and Japan ultimately reflect Taoist influences, together with Buddhism’s ‘all-compassionate heart’ and Shinto’s reverence of nature. Consequently, the human presence in haiku is suffused with nature (as in painting). Tao naturalism profoundly influenced Chan (Zen) Buddhism — to where Zen may be considered a synthesis of Taoist principles and Buddhist meditative practice. Together with Shintoism, this goes far to explain traditional haiku’s focus upon nature — which haiku poetry profoundly reflects by its unique ‘Thusness,’ rendering nature just as it is.
Let’s be honest: the ultra-humanistic focus of the West reveals the arrogance of hubris. Seldom can Western art or religion be said to celebrate the whole miracle of Creation: not intellectually (or abstractly) with poetic allusion, but through depicting the ‘Is-ness’ of things as they are. Such spiritual/aesthetic values of haiku deserve sanctity, and their survival ensured by knowledge and insight.

Traditional haiku’s spiritual/aesthetic is far too important to ignore. Serious consideration needs be made of what does (and does not) constitute a haiku, and then observed with some degree of consensus. As it is, the exploited art of haiku seems set in a self-destructive mode by its ever more unresolved aesthetic anarchy. Heaven help us to keep this from happening:  haiku’s spiritual  potential (largely unrealized) is too precious to lose —  as is haiku’s status as a poetic art worthy of respect.

How well this fine haiku suggests a liberated spirit, starved for the natural world:

a wildflower blooms
in the rotten stump
home on parole

The analogous incarceration of spirit, whether in prison or in a megalopolis, is more than metaphoric. There is poignancy here.

The level of hell experienced by those confined for years behind bars, surrounded by concrete and steel, seems but a difference of degree from that which afflicts some urban lives: those denied by wretched poverty, place, or circumstance from knowing the beauty and spiritual cleansing afforded by Greater Nature.

It is not surprising that some prisoners (and ‘urban inmates’) take heart and solace by caring for birds, animals, and plants. And experiments involving inmates’ caring for injured or abandoned creatures have proved rehabilitative, so deep is our longing to share life’s lonely dream.

However one is incarcerated, both body and soul long for the sun, earth, fresh clean air, and indeed the whole ecological kingdom of Greater Nature. That haiku poetry might ignore the remnant Eden that still remains, seems more than oversight. It bespeaks the shallow arrogance of hubris, and of an idolatry which places humanity above the universal Spirit that Creates and Animates all, including the paragon we believe our species and ‘selves’ to be.


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