Narratives of the Heart, Haibun

August 2001 issue

Narratives of the Heart

Bruce Ross
Alberta, CA


fleas, lice—
a horse urinating
next to my pillow!




this world of dew
is only a world of dew—
and yet, and yet . . .



One may wonder what were the circumstances surrounding Bashō’s humorous, but unfortunate, encounter with insects and the horse and Issa’s poignant reflection on mortality. We of course know the circumstances because of the classical form of autobiographical poetic prose that incorporates poetry, haibun. In Bashō’s  travel diary Narrow Path to the Interior (1694) , a classic of world literature, we find how Bashō found himself in such lowly lodgings, and in Issa’s My Spring (1819), a two-year journal of his life, we find that Issa is grieving over the loss of his young daughter.

When I was president of the Haiku Society of America I had two goals. One was to promote the haibun form and the other was to encourage the educational awareness of haiku, haibun, and other related Japanese poetic forms. I realized these goals by publishing the first non-Japanese haibun anthology, Journey to the Interior, American Versions of Haibun (1998) and How to Haiku, A Student’s Guide to Haiku and Related Forms (2001). I continued these goals by becoming co-editor with Jim Kacian of the journal American Haibun & Haiga (1999). One of my initial thoughts in wishing to realize these goals was that new writers of haiku might get a better understanding of the sensibility underlying haiku by following a prose account of the circumstances surrounding a haiku. Since then I have come to appreciate, through my own attempts at the form and my reading of others’ work in the form, that the prose and poetry of a haibun  together provide a unified poetic expression. In other words, a haibun is not simply a narrative with an appended haiku.

I have been told by a Japanese professor that in Japan haibun is considered a classical form and is no longer practiced there. Be that as it may, and we must qualify this statement in a moment with reference to modern Japanese literature, let us look at a few examples of where haibun came from.

A good example of the classical haibun is an entry from Ki no Tsurayuki’s The Tosa Diary (935) which chronicles the return of a court official from an assignment in Tosa back to Kyoto, the capital:

18th February, 13th day. At daybreak the rain was gently falling but then it stopped and we all went to the nearby place for a hot bath. I looked over the sea and composed the following poem:


the clouds overhead
look like rippling waves to me;
if the pearl divers were here
“Which is sea, which is sky?”
I’d ask and they’d answer


So, since it was after the tenth day, the moon was especially beautiful. After all these days, since I first came on board the ship, I have never worn my striking bright red costume because I feared I might offend the God of the Sea. Yet . . .

We notice the very light tone in which this diary entry is expressed. It is in fact a poetic flow of sensibility. The red costume and the humor of the tanka particularly support that tone. And we see how the tanka is composed and linked to the narrative: the narrator looks out to sea and noticed the clouds overhead. Thus he created a simile that compared the clouds to the sea and then had some fun with his simile. Such linking of poetry to prose is part of the Japanese literary tradition. Perhaps the first novel in world literature, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji (c. 1000), uses the exchange of tanka as a narrative device in its fictional prose account of the ways of court sensibility.

With the period of Bashō, came what is known as the haikai style of writing, a less literary and more homespun manner of writing in general. Look at the light, playful tone in Bashō’s “A Ball of Snow” (1686):

My friend Sora had moved in nearby, and we visit each other anytime, night or day. While I am preparing a meal, he breaks up branches for the fire; when I boil tea, he breaks up ice for the water. He likes the solitary life and our friendship is as strong as iron. One night after a snowfall he came visiting:


you make the fire
and I’ll show you something wonderful:
a big ball of snow!


Notice how the prose “I”/”he” parallelism is repeated in the haiku’s “you”/”I’ll” but in a reversed order and how the surprise and whimsy of the haiku’s last line opens up and extends the sensibility evoked in the haibun.

Now haibun is a worldwide form taking various modes of expression. To name several examples, there are: the New Zealander Richard von Sturmer’s A Network of Dissolving Threads (1991); the Russian Alexey Andreyev’s Moyayama, Russian Haiku: A Diary (1997), the Croatian Vladimir Devide’s Haibun, Words & Pictures (1997); and the Romanian Ion Codrescu’s A Foreign Guest (1999) and Mountain Voices (2000). Most experimentation with the form, however, has been in the United States, although the first published North American haibun seems to be the Canadian Jack Cain’s “Paris” (1964). An early example is Gary Snyder’s diary as a fire-spotter in earth house hold (1957). Another figure in the so-called Beat School, like Snyder, was Jack Kerouac who experimented with the application of haibun values to the novel. Sections of his Desolation Angels (1965) contain prose narrative segments accompanied by relevant haiku that complete or expand the segments. The Canadian Rod Wilmot in Ribs of Dragonfly (1984) presented in a highly dense prose style a fictionalized account of a love affair with relevant haiku appended in groups at the end of each chapter. Such attempts harken back to The Tale of Genji’s overture and the fiction of Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), such as The Three Cornered World, that incorporated a haiku and a haiku sensibility to fictionalized narrative. Shiki’s (1867-1902) incorporation of tanka into his personal diary entries is also suggested. D.D. Lliteras  has produced a trilogy of novels (1992-1994) with a somewhat Zennian tone in the haibun form and David G. Lanoue has recently authored Haiku Guy (2001), an account of a fictitious student of Issa that explores the writing of haiku. In line with Snyder’s diary and directly linking to Bashō’s Narrow Path to the Interior in its travel journal sections on nature as well as interesting characters and situations encountered on the road is Tom Lynch’s Rain Drips from the Trees, Haibun along the trans-Canadian Highway (1992).

Haibun is now obviously an open form. I had once defined that form, reaching for the deepest connection such a form could hold, as a “narrative of an epiphany.” This definition was juxtaposed to the accompanying definition of haiku as “an epiphany,” making here a distinction between haibun  haiku and other haiku. I have often thought that there was a need for something like haibun in  English-language and world literature, notwithstanding the presence of prose poetry. I had in mind what Wordsworth was after in The Prelude and Whitman in Leaves of Grass. But what was needed was that special relationship between a poignant poem, say haiku, and a poignantly expressed poetic prose narrative.

For one aspect of such prose and poetry linking, one might look to the haikai style of linking one verse to the next in a renga or the image to the haiku in a haiga, as opposed to a solitary haiku that stands alone in a sense of completion.

It seems to me, as an editor of contemporary haibun, that two things need to be considered in writing haibun. The first is to avoid a too prosaic and plodding narrative as if one were simply writing a narrative account. The second, which derives from the first, is the issue of sensibility. The narrative should be a flow of sensibility, of haikai style, if you will, that incorporates the haiku accompanying it in that sensibility. That said, there is room for all manner of  approaches and subjects in haibun: nature, urban, simple narrative, travel, diary, dreams, expressionistic, dreams, persons, places, things, love, death, etc.

There also seems to be a spectrum of latitude in haibun, from the dense, “high”-dictioned, deep, serious, postmodern style of William M. Ramsey as in his “Prayer for the Soul of a Mare,” which is collected in my Journey to the Interior, American Versions of Haibun, to the simple, naive, colloquial style of Sally Secor’s “A Garden Bouquet,” which is collected in up against the window, the first volume of American Haibun & Haiga (1999).

Overall, there seems to be three important issues that need to be discussed in relation to contemporary haibun: Which comes first in haibun composition, the prose or the haiku? What are the implications for haibun of haikai-style prose? What are the implications of linking haiku and prose in haibun?

I had organized a forum on haibun at the 2001 meeting of Haiku North America in Boston at which I brought up these questions for discussion. I introduced each question by reading from discussions over these issues that were posted on the World Haiku Forum. With regard to whether prose or haiku come first in haibun composition, Allison Williams notes that she is “most happy when the haiku and prose seem to come as a whole rather than either prose first or haiku first.” Paul Conneally disagreed with the findings of the British Haiku Society that a haiku usually comes first and that this makes for a better haibun  and felt Allison’s view was closer to the truth, stressing the value of retaining a sense of immediacy in the prose narrative. He suggested that journal haiku might put one back to the experience and writing the prose account would generate more haiku. Marjorie Buettner concurs and suggests that writing a haiku before the haibun would “feel awkward . . . and artificial.” Debi Bender also concurs that her haiku and tanka formulate after the prose but adds, echoing Alison, that often “the genus of the haiku and the story or narrative seem to mull about together as a unit and appear together.”  During the discussion of this issue at Haiku North America both panel members and other attendees seemed to in general favor the prose as coming first, although there was a strong insistence on an organic relation between prose and haiku, sometimes coming from different experiences. Nonetheless, my proposed definition of haibun as a “narrative of an epiphany” covers this approach by emphasizing the prose narrative’s importance. Left undecided, the general view seems to be that haibun is  first and foremost a narrative that is presented as prose although the prose and the accompanying haiku are often formulated together at the time of or out of the narrative event. This makes good sense since narrative is at the heart of haibun, however experimental it becomes.

The second question focuses on the prose itself. Bob Spiess, editor of Modern Haiku, once told a haibun writer that a haiku makes or breaks a haibun. One senses the wisdom in this. But this issue is better looked at under the issue of linking. As an editor of an anthology of haibun and a co-editor of a journal of haibun, I find that too little attention is paid to the nature of the prose. The two biggest problems seem to be plodding, tonally flat narrative and stylistic sentimentality rather than sentiment. After all, haibun is, according to its haikai roots, composed in a poetic style. A haibun is meant to be a poetic experience in its inception, composition, and reception. Paul Conneally, accordingly, prefers prose that has the characteristics of haiku: “present tense (and shifts of tense though predominant voice in the ‘present’), imagistic, shortened or interesting syntax, joining word such as ‘and’ limited maybe, a sense of ‘being there’, descriptions of places & people met and above all ‘brevity’.” Susumu Takiguchi emphasizes the need to focus on the nature of such poetic prose by warning that there are “pseudo-haibun” that are “no more than long-winded haiku in disguise.” So haibun prose should be haiku-like but not an “expanded” haiku. At the Haiku North America haibun panel there seemed to be a consensus that haibun prose should be “poetic.” I have noticed two successful prose styles in English-language haibun, both of which incorporate the haikai values. One is a dense, “high” dictioned, deep, serious style, often postmodern in its attempts to mediate the spiritual malaise surrounding us. The writer William M. Ramsey characterizes this style as in his “Prayer for the Soul of a Mare” which is collected in my Journey to the Interior, American Versions of Haibun. The other is a simple, naive, colloquial style, often written out of a simple faith in and acceptance of the nature of things. Sally Secor’s  “A Garden Bouquet” and Cyril Child’s “Pantry Shelf,” both collected in up against the window, American Haibun & Haiga, Volume 1, are good examples. In responding to a question about haiku embedded within haibun prose posted on the World Haiku Forum, Paul Conneally notes: “I think the whole thing is about balance – prose-poetry – not just prose.” He then characterizes such haikai prose in Bashō’s  Narrow Path to the Interior  as opposed to “classical,” “vulgar,” and “mundane” prose. If one needs an example of a master’s haikai style of haibun here it is.

Of the question of linking haiku to prose in haibun, the use of analogy is helpful. Paul Conneally suggests one should link haiku to prose “’renku’ style – not a direct carry on from the prose telling some of which has already been said – no – it should lead us on – let our mind wander more, start travelling. Linking by ‘scent’ will be greatly valued!”  Anyone who has participated in a renga will understand how perfectly that form’s linking procedures apply to haibun. I once offered a haiku of mine about and abandoned house and blossoming lilacs to Kaji Aso at his studio in Boston . His haiga consisted of flowing kanji  and kana for the haiku and off to one side a simple drawing of a sprig of lilacs. During the haibun panel I presented this analogy from haiga as well as other examples of haiga linking, some more direct, some more subtle. The discussion that ensued was a tug of war between proponents of privileging the prose and those of privileging the haiku in linking. I spoke of a gestalt of linking that incorporated both the prose and haiku and resolved the issue in the concept of “privileging the link.” By so “privileging the link” the haibun avoids the various pitfalls of haibun writing and becomes a true haikai or “poetic” style of writing.

 More and more writers worldwide are becoming fulfilled as writers through this wonderful form, this “narrative of an epiphany.” I can only see infinite possibility in the future for haibun and an opening that will provide a lasting and renewed contribution to world literature.



Bruce Ross is the editor of Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku and Journey to the Interior: American Versions of Haibun, and co-editor of the journal American Haibun & Haiga. He has authored three collections of haiku, most recently Silence: Collected Haiku, and has forthcoming How to Haiku: A Student’s Guide to Haiku and Related Forms. Bruce will be teaching haiku and haibun writing courses in 2001-2002 at the University of Alberta. 

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A Personal Haiku Selection

November 2001

A Personal Haiku Selection

James W. Hackett

The following haiku is singled out for its excruciating relevance and for the levels of consciousness suggested by its haiku moment:

talk of war
the comings and goings
of  ‘dees at the feeder

 Carolyn Hall


(excerpt from a poem)
by J. W. Hackett

So on and on goes the slaughter
between sons of the One
Self-same Spirit

All sacrificial victims
of chauvinist hubris:
those sovereign states of mind
we are urged to worship unto war
by thought-bound ideologues
who sanctify the notions
that each nation,

‘race,’ or faith

has of itself

Blind to how heaven’s
all-embracing view
melds the myriad dream of life
into One,
zealots filled with damnation’s
heady brews of hate
preach their litanies
of national pride
and religious prejudice

If only we could see earthfully
and realize the Eden
that NOW can be,
we would forswear
our bloody sanctification
of words and ideologies
and forsake forever
‘the forbidden tree’
whose stolen fruits
we have maggotted
with every bias and bigotry
known to man



Posted in Haiku, James W Hackett, Vol 1-3 November 2001 | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.


Posted in Haiku, James W Hackett, Vol 1-2 August 2001 | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Journey To Oiso

December 2003

James W. Hackett – Japan 2002

Journey To Oiso

and the home of R. H. Blyth

James W. Hackett and Patricia Hackett

The World Haiku Festival 2002 afforded James an opportunity to visit the home of his mentor, R. H. Blyth in Oiso, Japan, thirty-eight years after Dr. Blyth’s death. The following is an account of that visit written by Patricia in the ‘voice’ of James.


Blyth’s letters arrived regularly at our San Francisco cottage. They were undated, but always signed “Yours, RHB” with a flourish.

For some five years, my life was graced and inspirited by the friendship and encouragement of Reginald Horace Blyth. I had been planning to pay my respects to Dr. Blyth in Japan. With the plane ticket awarded by Japan Air Lines for their first U.S.A. haiku contest in my hand, I eagerly looked forward to sharing tea and wordless tranquility with Dr. Blyth in his Oiso home.

However, Dr. Blyth died on October 28, 1964, the same year in which I  entered the JAL Haiku Contest primarily to visit him.

Blyth’s Amazing Journey

For those who might be unfamiliar with Dr. Blyth’s history, the  following sketch is offered:

Dr. Blyth’s journey from his Essex, England, birthplace to Oiso included adventures enough for several lifetimes. Born in 1889, RHB lived through two world wars, taught English literature, studied Zen Buddhism, adopted a Korean boy, raised a family, wrote scores of books on Japanese culture, and was able to influence the course of history at the end of WWII.

blyth boy and man

Blyth’s first courageous decision may have been when he registered as a conscientious objector during the 19l4-1918 war— and was imprisoned. After release, he graduated from London University, and in 1924 was recommended for a position in English literature at the University of Seoul. (Korea was at that time occupied by the Japanese.) Thus began the amazing journey that took him from England to Korea, and finally to Japan at the beginning of the Second World War.

While interned as a foreign national in Kobe, Japan, Blyth wrote several of his books on haiku and Zen. He continued his Zen practice (begun in Korea), and mentored fellow detainee Robert Aitken, who later became a Zen Roshi.

Following the war, Dr. Blyth— along with Harold G. Henderson— served as liaison between General MacArthur’s headquarters and the Japanese  Imperial Household as the new national constitution and the role of the  Emperor’s divinity were developed for post war Japan.

Dr. Blyth rejoined his wife and young daughter, Harumi, at the end of the war, reestablishing his teaching career in Tokyo at The Peers’ School (Gakushuin). The family lived in the residence at the Gakushuin. Before long, RHB welcomed a second daughter, Nana, and bought a family home in Oiso.

Blyth and daughtersFrom Oiso, Dr. Blyth commuted via bicycle and train to the Gakushuin, and to a variety of teaching commitments in Tokyo. There he became a longtime private tutor to Crown Prince (now Emperor) Akihito, and to the Empress.

Blyth continued writing his books on haiku, Zen, and Eastern culture during these busy post war years. His lifelong love of music led him to become a self-taught chamber music player, and a sensitive concert-goer. (Blyth even constructed an organ for the Gakushuin campus.) He was in touch with important Japanese, the British expatriate circle in Japan, and he often visited his friend, Zen philosopher Daisetz T. Suzuki, who lived in Kamakura, close to Oiso.

In the autumn of l964, Dr. Blyth was taken to hospital, and he did not survive this final illness that may have been a brain tumor. He had composed the following haiku, knowing it would become his death poem:

I leave my heart
to the sasanqua flower
on the day of this journey.

—Reginald Horace Blyth (1964)

Note: The sasanqua is a camellia that blooms heavily and for long periods in autumn and early winter.

James W. Hackett in Kamakura

It would be thirty-eight years before my visit to Oiso finally takes place. This happens on September 11, 2002, at the gracious invitation of Blyth’s daughter Nana, and arranged by our mutual friend, poet, and researcher of R H. Blyth, Professor Ikuyo Yoshimura of Asahi University, Gifu. Traveling from our home in Hawaii, we arrive in Japan on the night of the 10th. Early the next morning, Ikuyo, Pat, and I meet with Nana at the comfortable, eclectically decorated Kamakura Tsurugaoka Kaikan, the hotel where we stayed in central Kamakura.

Susumu Takiguchi, Debi Bender and several members of the World Haiku Club are already there, some having arrived a few days earlier. In the lobby’s coffee bar, preparations are taking place for the Kamakura Evening event of World Haiku Festival 2002 in which James will speak, Dorothy Britton translating for the Japanese audience.

Nana drives Ikuyo, Pat, and I to a nearby kaiseki restaurant (Hachi-No-Ki) for seasonal, Zen-influenced cuisine. We are joined by Nana’s husband Yuji, and their daughter, Hana (Blyth’s granddaughter). Our multi-course meal is—in the Japanese tradition—fresh, exquisitely prepared and presented, and delicious!:

kaseki trayTokeji and Dr. Blyth

Dr. Blyth’s tomb is a short drive from the restaurant, in the grounds of Kamakura’s Tokei-ji, a temple established in the 13th century. Many important philosophers, writers, and religious figures are interred here. The temple was founded by regent Hojo Tokimune, whose wife established it as convent refuge for unhappy wives who left their husbands. We are greeted by the resident caretakers, who photographed our group.

Slowly, we climb the tranquil hillside to reach RHB’s tomb, adjacent to that of his close friend, writer and Zen Buddhist philosopher Daisetz T. Suzuki.

Bathed in sunlight slanting through aged trees, this occasion is both joyous and somber … much in the tradition of Dr. Blyth himself. It brings to mind a letter he had written to me in the 1960s, in which Blyth described a visit to Dr. Suzuki that embodied RHB’s irrepressible spirit:

Who cares? Who shares?



Pausing before going on to Oiso, we admire the beautiful gardens of Tokeiji through glassed engawa windows:

blyth home

The Blyth Family Home in Oiso

Blyth’s traditional style house stands in the wooded hills above Oiso town, a 30 minute drive from Kamakura. I am filled with deep feelings upon entering the home where he lived, wrote his many books, and some of his letters to me. It is a very moving and memorable experience to be there after so many years. I feel joy and humility to be in the home of this amazing, multitalented genius who played such a significant role in my life, and in introducing haiku to the English speaking world.

It is hard to believe I was actually here in Dr. Blyth’s own home…

And how fabulous it is that my wife can honor his beloved J.S. Bach, playing “Goldberg Variations” on Blyth’s well-kept piano!

A glass of juice cools us as we visit together.

After we look at Blyth family photos, Professor Yoshimura plays a Blyth-family home movie, c.1950, which she has transferred to video. We enjoy a rare treat as we listen to her newly-discovered audio tape of Blyth lecturing in the classroom. How marvelous to hear RHB’s expressive voice and poetic intensity.

As we sit in front of the TV, the family dogs are nearby. Nana keeps two. (It seems there was always a dog in Dr. Blyth’s household!):

blyth's dogs“Yes,” I say to myself, “I am really here.” And in retrospect, I feel it was all destined to take place in just this way.

Suddenly, Nana calls from another room, “Pat, telephone for you!”

As a surprise, Nana and her sister, Harumi, have arranged for Harumi to call us from her California home. Our visit is now complete, and includes both of Blyth’s daughters:

Hackett and daughterWe reminisce briefly about Nana and Harumi’s joint visit to our Hawaii home in December of 2001.


Nana, her daughter Hana, and her husband Yuji, walk us to the door. Ikuyo remarks that “I’ll always remember this magic day we were together in Dr. Blyth’s house, celebrating his life and spirit.”

As we linger, Nana spots a cicada on a doorway shrub, and Pat observes what
will become her very first haiku poem:

Nana Blyth presents
an empty cicada husk
to the aging haijin.

Long have I taken Blyth’s path— and now, have literally walked in his footsteps.


The Genius of Haiku: Readings from R. H. Blyth. (The British Haiku Society 1994). Blyth is introduced to an English literary community that had been unfamiliar with his contributions. A sympathetic, detailed biography is offered by poet James Kirkup, as well as selected articles by RHB on topics such as Basho, haiku, senryu, and world haiku (in which he introduced the work of JWH). Available from sellers of used books.

Ikuyo Yoshimura’s book, The Life of R. H. Blyth (Dohosha 1996), is in Japanese, with many Blyth family photos. (A translation into English is planned.)

California State Library, Archive of American Haiku, Sacramento, California, holds photocopies of the letters from R. H. Blyth and from Harold G. Henderson to JWH.

Robert Aitken’s book Original Dwelling Place contains a segment about RHB, “Remembering Blyth Sensei,” that is memorable for its ‘straight talk’ about, and his deep gratitude to, Dr. Blyth.

Selected works by R. H. Blyth:

Haiku in four volumes (1: “Eastern Culture,” 2: “Spring,” 3: “Summer-Autumn,” 4: “Autumn-Winter”) containing RHB’s translations of Japanese haiku with commentary.

A History of Haiku in two volumes. The final chapter, “World Haiku,” was written by Dr. Blyth (at JWH’s suggestion) in the last days before the book went to press; in this chapter he introduced some 30 haiku poems by Hackett.

book sign“Journey to Oiso” and accompanying color photos are copyright © 2003 Patricia Hackett. All rights reserved. The two black and white photos are © Nana E. Blyth and used here by permission. Pat wishes to acknowledge those who made important contributions to this article: James W. Hackett, Ikuyo Yoshimura, Nana Blyth, Harumi Blyth, and DW (Debi) Bender.

Editors Note : Unfortunately the original photographs are lost and only the thumbnails were available to upload in this article.

Posted in James W Hackett, Vol 3-2 December 2003 | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Personal Haiku Selection

May 2001

A Personal Haiku Selection

James W. Hackett

First, a salute to Mr. Takiguchi, our dynamic daimyo, for his ideals and dedication which have led to the establishment of the WHC and this Review. And I am grateful to the poets who have submitted verses for this first World Haiku Review. The number of creative and sensitive haiku is indeed heartening. All of us can be edified by the transcendent quality and dignity of purpose this international undertaking reveals.

Admittedly, the final selection just one special verse proved extremely difficult: not unlike having to select one flower from an impressive array of blooms. If mediocrity had prevailed, my task would have been far less daunting. However, the quality  achieved by many of the poets fired a resolve that sent me quite proudly into the breech of choice.

After perusing each of the 163 submitted verses, and after serious deliberation, the “favorite of favorites” is:

Tears blur the meadow —
one small pony
nuzzles my hand.

Billie Wilson
Juneau, Alaska, USA

How richly varied the interpretations that can be made of this provocative haiku moment! It is a superb example of how a haiku can and should draw upon the reader’s creative imagination. And by the way, the fine art of reading haiku with imaginative interaction needs to be emphasized, and such verses with stimulating ambiguity can encourage reader involvement.

In this emotionally evocative haiku, the principal subject’s identity and the source of sorrow are deliberately left to our imagination. So also is the poet’s gender unstated, through use of the pronoun my. Such ellipsis can stimulate readers to imaginatively fill in what is not supplied.

Certainly, I’ve always agreed with Harold G. Henderson’s recommendation (in my correspondence with him) that feeling should somehow be suggested in a haiku. The absence of feeling has possibly abetted the plethora of “so what?” haiku.

Another outstanding quality of this verse is the intuitive “interpenetration” between poet and subject. The writer suggests a quite remarkable interaction between the human and the pony. How poignant the reaching out in sorrow to the animal, and the creature’s nuzzling (and possibly  empathic) response. This expresses exactly the interpenetration Basho urges poets to experience and to suggest in their writing. Certainly this ancient Vedantic (and subsequently Tao/Zen) principle of spiritual union had a profound influence upon Basho’s later (and greater) poems. We might recall Basho’s haiku about the monkey in winter rain, and that of the empty cicada shell.

Though usually neglected today, this spirit of interpenetration between poet and subject was an important haiku principle for Basho. He admonished poets that: “To write of the pine, become One with the pine.”  (A cynic might attribute the neglect of this principle to the prevalence of egoistic hubris in today’s society.) Basho’s advice, if followed, might inspire haiku that gives some inkling of just what it was that caused a writer to take notice of a particular moment. The poet’s initial moment of interpenetration (or moment of  surprise, shock, empathy, delight, or other response), should be expressed in the finished haiku.

Significant also is the ambiance created, even by this spare haiku. In what harmonious accord are the pony, the human, and the meadow: a perfect representation of “Greater Nature.” By what subtle means is the picturesque, bucolic setting presented. An ambient quality of  harmonious union seems to resonate. Certainly the the epithet of “snapshot” does not apply to this profoundly suggestive haiku, one that so quietly reflects the infinite wholeness of  creation that defines this eternal Present of life.



No doubt R. H. Blyth would join me in cheering this historic establishment of the WHC and the World Haiku Review. The following pertinent quotation is from the final chapter Blyth’s 1964 History of Haiku, Vol. 2:

The latest development in the history of haiku is one which nobody foresaw, — the writing of haiku outside Japan, not in the Japanese language. We may now assert with some confidence that the day is coming when haiku will be written in Russia though communistic haiku, like capitalistic or Christian or Buddhist or atheistic haiku is a glorious impossibility, in the Celebes, in Sardinia. What a pleasing prospect, what an Earthly Paradise it will be, the Esquimaux blowing on their fingers as they write haiku about the sun that never sets or rises, the pygmies composing jungle haiku on the gorilla and the python, the nomads of the Sahara and Gobi deserts seeing a grain of sand in a world!


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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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R H Blyth and W H Hackett

November 2002

R. H. Blyth and J. W. Hackett

James W. Hackett

Hawaii, US

The World Haiku Festival 2002
Yuwa-town, Akita 20-22 September

I am very pleased to be here to celebrate and honor the life and works of R.H. Blyth, my esteemed mentor and friend. Our relationship coincided with the period when Dr. Blyth was tutor to Prince Akihito, and our correspondence continued for some five years until his passing in 1964, when Blyth was in Japan, and I was in California.

My first introduction to Reginald Horace Blyth was in the early 1950s. When I was a university student in philosophy, keenly interested in metaphysics and spiritual inquiry. It was through Blyth’s monumental volumes of Japanese haiku and the Essays on Zen Buddhism by his close friend D. T. Suzuki (Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki), that I became interested in Tao and Zen philosophy, and their influence upon haiku and other Zen arts.

My studies in Zen philosophy, while serious, remained largely intellectual and academic until after my graduation in the 1950s. For at this time, I suffered a life-threatening injury that profoundly changed my values and direction. This trauma was an apocalyptic experience in which I met death with each breath, and every live moment was an epiphany. In a baptism of blood I became directly aware that the Way of Zen and Tao was ever present, in a NOW that is Eternal. Having survived, I sought redemption for taking life for granted. I resolved to somehow express my new-found love of life, and to honor the omnipresent miracle of Creation.

Certainly, I owe my decision to create haiku poetry in English to Dr. Blyth’s Zen view of haiku. Through his profound and insightful writings I realized that haiku poetry offered the best means to express my reverence for this present of life. I was deeply influenced by Blyth’s and Nyogen Roshi’s revelation that Zen methodology focused on selflessness (muga) and the immediacy (imma) of the Tao. I realized how Zen could center the poet’s consciousness upon this Eternal Now: the very nave ’round which Creation’s wheel of life revolves, and this established beyond question that haiku’s destiny included its spiritual capability to be a high art of Zen.

Significantly, it was not Blyth’s awesome erudition or his intellectual genius that caused me to contact him. I did so out of respect for his spiritual-aesthetic approach to the haiku experience. Blyth possessed an acuity and spiritual understanding I found in no other translator.

Blyth’s and Suzuki’s writings became my scriptures, and composing haiku in English my passion — and my very reason for living. My spirit was on fire with enthusiasm, dedicated to expressing my reverence for Creation’s miracle through haiku poetry and the spirit of Zen. Hence my use of the term “Zen haiku.”

After some six months of writing, I sent a collection of my haiku poems in English to Dr. Blyth, and in a cover letter told him that an unusual,  Zen-revealing sentence in one of his books  caused me to seek his counsel. His sentence read:

 There’s more significance in the sound of the nib I’m now writing with than anything I could say.

(I imagined the sound of Blyth’s old-fashioned pen, dipped in the ink jar, then ‘speaking’ as it wrote.) This demonstrated to me Blyth’s transcendent awareness of Zen.

Blyth’s subsequent reply was more than I could have dreamed. It was a long letter, full of suggestions, praise and encouragement. (During a recent visit with Blyth’s elder daughter, Harumi, she recalled that when Dr. Blyth received my poems, he excitedly told the family he found a poet who could write English language haiku! (How I treasure this recollection!)

I was aware of only translations of Japanese haiku in the 1950s. My life was     devoted to Zazen (meditation), and to living and writing haiku poetry; this in a society dominated by values completely antithetical to my own. However, Blyth’s enthusiastic support kept me writing. I know I would not have continued to write haiku but for Dr. Blyth’s warm encouragement and respect — which, by the way, extended to my Zen practice, along with a kind regard for my personal life, as well.


It was Blyth’s enlightened, independent spirit that drew me to him. His writings deepened my soul, and greatly clarified and focused what I had suffered to learn through my accident.

I was able to syncretize haiku and Zen through the inspiriting influence of “Blyth’s Zen.” R. H. Blyth was more than a scholar: his deep spirit came from experiential realization — as did my own. As dedicated, independent spirits, we bonded and shared a non-religious Way of Zen to serve what is truly beyond category.

Incidentally, I first heard the term “Blyth’s Zen” from my Roshi friend, Soen Nakagawa. We were taxiing through Tokyo traffic when Roshi asked,

Who was your Zen teacher?

I told Soen Roshi that I was deeply influenced by D T. Suzuki and Nyogen Senzaki, but as for incorporating Zen values in my haiku, I was a disciple of R. H. Blyth. To this, Roshi murmured a long


then said,

Blyth’s Zen, eh?

(Most significantly, Soen Roshi respected the transcendent [‘beyond borders’] Way of Zen and haiku which had “chosen” Blyth, and myself.)

As I focused on living the Way of Zen, a compassionate identification with natural subjects developed. Blyth discerned this in my writing and believed it characterized my haiku. As he wrote in his foreword to my first book of haiku:

To attain this ability, to express the immediate sensation, to pour 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.

Indeed, it is this “That Art Thou” spiritual interpenetration with all things that has inspired my life and Way of Haiku.

The following excerpt of “Spiritual Penetration” (from my essay That Art Thou: A Spiritual Way of Haiku) is presented out of respect for Dr. Blyth’s inspiring influence, and for the ken of an ever evolving Way of Zen:

Blyth’s Haiku Approach

The following opinions are, like the snow on the poet Kikaku’s hat, easy to hold — being my own. However, I freely and most gratefully acknowledge that not a few of my views are derived from the writings and correspondence of my mentor and friend, R. H. Blyth. Despite his influence and indeed because of it (Blyth being a paradigm of Bodhisattva courage), I too remain an independent spirit … albeit one deeply indebted to history’s masters of reality: those whose vision and spiritual depth provided insights of incalculable value.

The suggestions offered here are born of living and writing haiku and Tao/Zen poetry for some 50 years: a time concurrently devoted to the study of Far Eastern art and philosophy. Persuaded by the truth and depth found there, I have tried to make my writings serve the enlightened goals of this philosophy. I am more than aware however, that a spiritual approach to haiku is not common (save for Zen’s influence upon the later Basho). And some may find such a spiritual Way of haiku too alien or abstruse. So be it. As in Japan, there are in the world today many approaches to haiku: one for virtually every level of consciousness and taste — given the genre’s aesthetic anarchy. Yet whatever the approach, the writer (and the reader as well) should not mistake the simplicity of haiku for the trivial. As R. H. Blyth discerned:

Haiku have a simplicity that is deceptive both with regard to their       depth of content and to their origins… (Blyth 5:iii)


” … haiku require our purest and most profound spiritual appreciation, for they represent a whole world, the Eastern World, of religious and poetic experience. Haiku is the final flower of all Eastern culture; it is also a way of living.” (Blyth 5:iii)

In regard to the spiritual Way I believe haiku can be, I wrote the following in a letter to Blyth in 1963:

For haiku is ultimately more than a form or even kind of poetry: it is a Way — one of living awareness. This, together with its rendering of the Suchness of things gives haiku a supra-literary mission, One of moment. (This was included in his History of Haiku, volume II: J.W.H. in Blyth 6:352)

The definitive aim of haiku is beyond wit, ideology, didacticism, or even beauty. Rather, it seeks to share, through suggestion, those special moments in which we see into, and experience the life of “things.”

Haiku does not … aim at beauty.  Like the music of Bach, it aims at significance. (Blyth 2:x)

So saying, I know of no better Way into the mystical landscape of Tao/Zen haiku, than the spiritual Way presented here. The Way suggested is not a geographic trek, nor does it emulate any other Way, save for the following:

[The Buddha says] “‘I have seen the ancient Way, the Old Road that was taken by the formerly All-awakened, and that is the path I follow …” (Ananda Coomaraswamy 11:45-46)

As Blyth remarks:

There is no miracle, for all is miracle. (Blyth 9:182)

And from Roshi Nyogen Senzaki:

Carry your meditation as the eternal present and saturate your everyday life with it. (Nyogen Senzaki 17:62)

Having acquired a reverence for life, I was inspired by the Tao/Zen spirit of tradition haiku to compose such poems in English. It wasn’t long before haiku became my Way of living awareness, and spiritual realization.

The spiritual Way of haiku presented here may seem rather more steep than some. For it is preeminently a Way of awareness and compassion: one that reflects a spiritual approach to reality. Certainly the terrain encountered is as metaphysical as it is literary. For this transcendent Way of haiku leads beyond poetry. When practiced as an adjunct to centering meditation, haiku can be a spiritual art: one whose centering focus reveals the miraculous continuum of Creation manifest in this Eternal Now . . . in whose imminence the causal Spirit abides.

I believe if haiku poetry is to achieve eminence in the world (and not just popularity), its unique spiritual-aesthetic needs to be realized by poets, critics, and readers.

“That Art Thou,” the quality of Spiritual Interpenetration in haiku poetry

The Way of haiku requires … a perpetual sinking of oneself into things. (Blyth 2:330)

The aim of Zen, the aim of the poetical life, is to reach and remain in that undifferentiated state where subject and object are one. (Blyth: 000)

Haiku is a kind of satori, or enlightenment, in which we see into the life of things. (Blyth 2:VII)

A bitter morning:
sparrows sitting together
without any necks.
……………… JWH

It was the spiritual potential of haiku that initially caused me to write and develop this unique poetry in English, and which continues to command my respect and creativity.

Preeminent among the potential Zen qualities of the haiku experience is spiritual interpenetration: a transcendent (numinous) state of being in which a sense of identity is intuited between what we usually think of as ourselves and other things. In haiku this can occur when an immediate sense of empathic union prevails between poet and the subject of moment: a direct intuition often experienced (and even expressed) unconsciously. As such, spiritual interpenetration is a non-cognitive  experience whose spiritual antecedents Blyth describes as:

… the [East] Indian (and the Ancient Taoist) view of the world is mutually interpenetrative, each thing containing all things, all-things concentrating itself into each thing. (Blyth 00)

Spiritual interpenetration can be traced to ancient  Hindu scriptures (the Vedas), whose very theme — the Spiritual Oneness of all things — is ‘That Art Thou.’ So brief a statement, yet upon reflection how very profound

For encapsulated in those few words is a spiritual insight of cosmic proportions. A
Ghandian view of Oneness  — namely, that

the true disciple knows another’s suffering (and joys) as his own.

The same spiritual interpenetration is found in other religions, as seen in the following by Meister Eckhardt, the fifteenth century Christian theologian:

That Art Thou. Behold the One in all things. God within and God without.” and,  “When a man sees All in all, then a man understands beyond mere understanding. In the Kingdom of Heaven, all is all, all is one, and all is ours. (Eckhardt, in A. Huxley: 56, 76)

Instances of spiritual union in haiku are moments of revelation: an epiphany of oneness common to many religious traditions, as when Lao Tsu, author of the Tao Te Ching, admonished:

Be at one with the dust of the earth. This is primal union. This is the highest state of man.

And from the Original Teachings of Chan Buddhism:

The entire great earth is nothing but yourself.

Roshi Nyogen Senzaki, an early Zen teacher in the United States, is quite explicit:

It is the inherent nature of the Buddha-body that it individualizes itself in myriad manifestations in the phenomenal world. It does not stand alone outside particular existences, but abides in them, animates them, makes them move freely… Its essence is infinite, but its manifestations are finite and limited. (Nyogen Senzaki, Buddhism and Zen, 00)

Such compassionate identification of poet and subject deserves, and indeed warrants, suggestion in the finished haiku poem. Such empathic union is, however, a subtle intuition, all too easily overlooked by the poet. Such intuitions of identity  are spiritually significant, and possibly intimate revelation, as we shall see. For however things seem, in an ultimate sense, we are destined to know:

… God is in all things … Every single creature is full of God… . We must learn to break through things [through interpenetration] if we are to grasp God in them.  (Eckhardt 14, 113)

Indeed, such a sense of identity in the haiku experience (whether consciously realized or not) can be a transcendent reflection of the One within All that abides in Becoming. For miraculously, some haiku experiences can be veritable mirrors in which The King of Emptiness momentarily recognizes its Self in things. For as Zen masters well know:

The Buddha eye is everywhere seeing its Self. (in Blyth 00)

Again from the Original Teachings of Chan Buddhism:

Find me on top of a hundred blades of grass, and recognise the King in the market place … whether an eagle, a mouse, a butterfly, or hairy lion, all of it is you

Spiritual union is sometimes confused with anthropomorphism, whose attribution of strictly human characteristics to things stems from hubris and sentimentality. The haiku scholar Joan Giroux asserts in her book, The Haiku Form, that spiritual identification in haiku is not merely “cute anthropomorphism” but is:

… an instant in which the mind becomes united to an object, virtually becomes the object, and realizes the eternal, universal truth contained in being. (Giroux p. 00)

Only strong empathic intuitions rising directly from our ‘heart of hearts’ intimate spiritual union. That Basho held such interpenetrative experience to be an
important principle in haiku is clearly shown by his advocacy of:

…entering into the object, perceiving its delicate life, and feeling its feelings, whereupon a poem speaks for itself. (British Haiku Society, Consensus, n.d.)

Again, in the following, Basho makes clear in no uncertain terms the importance of such identification in haiku creation:

Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one — when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well-phrased your poetry may be, if the object and yourself are separate — then your poetry is not true poetry but a semblance of the real thing. (Yuasa, The Narrow Road: 33)

In analyzing the theme of Oneness, Aldous Huxley explains:

Direct knowledge of the (Spiritual) Ground cannot be had, except by union, and union can be achieved only by the annihilation of the self-regarding ego, which is the barrier separating the ‘thou’ from the ‘That’. (A. Huxley: 35, The Perennial Philosophy)

Basho’s advice regarding the importance of such interpenetration makes its neglect in contemporary haiku more than enigmatic or ironic: it seems sadly emblematic of the hubris and superficiality of our age. Indeed, serious haiku poets might consider how costly to the genre is the neglect of this profound spiritual principle: one with a long, hallowed history, having evolved from ancient Vedic origins in India, through millennia, to Mahayana Buddhism, to Zen, and now beyond — to the world, and this very time and place.

If the principle of “That Art Thou” were utilized in haiku poetry, I believe there would be fewer ‘snapshot’ and ‘So What?’ verses to sully the name of haiku. The
extent to which haiku is marginalized from the world of Western poetry is surely due to a proliferation of trivial verses, lacking any literary or spiritual attributes. And the suspect practice of omitting the terms “poetry” and “poem” from that of “haiku,” has doubtless played a role in vulgarizing the genre.

A harsh assessment? Perhaps. But the major reason for writing this “That Art Thou” text is to renew and reassert the neglected Tao/Zen spirit of haiku. And by so doing, to raise and return haiku’s status to not only that of “poetry,” but beyond, to the spiritual Way I know haiku can become.

Now before concluding, some mention of the metaphysics responsible for spiritual interpenetration should be addressed.

The spiritual interpenetration R. H. Blyth discerned in my haiku was an intuitive actualization  of the Zen dictum: “Samsara is Nirvana — Nirvana is Samsara.” This enigma relates to one of Buddhism’s fundamental queries: “What Am I?” Indian scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy asserts:

The only possible answer to the question ‘What am I?’ must be ‘That Art Thou.'”….”God is an essence without duality … but this Essence subsists in a twofold nature, as being (Samsara), and as becoming (Nirvana). They call Him many, who is really One. (Coomaraswamy: 10)

Indeed this spiritual revelation is implicit in the dictum: Samsara is Nirvana; Nirvana is Samsara.

How this paradoxical tenet of Zen relates to haiku is profoundly revealing. Spiritual union in haiku is, in actuality, an experiential resolution of the “Samsara is Nirvana. Nirvana is Samsara” enigma. The seeming dualism between Being (that is, Samsara) and Becoming (that is, Nirvana) is transcended in the poet’s interpenetrative experience. This is, by any metaphysical measure, a profound spiritual realization. Such haiku combine the everyday categorical consciousness of Samsara, with intuitions of the all-compassionate heart, resulting in a transcendent experience of union. For to spiritually interpenetrate — to intuit Oneness within the imminence of Creation, is indeed Nirvanic. This spirit is identified by many terms:

The proverbial “One without a Second”… and “the One before whom all words recoil”; that which a famous Zen koan refers to as ‘Your Original Face before you were born.’

The same Universal Spirit known by terms such as ‘God,’ ‘Creator,’ ‘Lord,’ ‘the Void,’ ‘Christ’, ‘Buddha’, or ‘Allah’.

Personally, I prefer the Chan patriarchs’ designation, the ‘King of Emptiness.’

Viewed transcendentally, all terms refer to the metaphorical Masked Actor: the Spirit that manifests Its Self in myriad roles upon Life’s eternal stage of Now.
The scholar, Coomaraswamy, declares that ultimately none but One abides, for:

…what we call the world-process and a creation is nothing but a game that the Spirit plays with Itself. (Coomaraswamy: 14)

By whatever names the Creator be known, such refers to the causal ground of reality — the Infinite Spirit within all ….. that seems to be.

The Hindu Upanishads summarize “That Art Thou” in the following:

The lord is the one life shining forth from every creature.” “Whatever … creatures are, whether lion or a tiger, or a boar, or a worm or a gnat, or a mosquito … All these have their self in him alone. He is the truth,” (and) “… THAT ART THOU. (Upanishads)

May Heaven help us see beyond the divisive cant of nations and religions, whose sanctification of words and concepts constitutes an idolatrous reverence for what is intrinsically relativistic and abstract. Heaven help us be aware of the imminent miracle of Creation NOW, and of the ONE whose Eternal Spirit we share … and may express through our haiku poetry.

Within this hollow shell
–and all the time around it–
the shape of Emptiness.

……………… JWH

by J W. Hackett

The Relation of Mystical Metaphysics
to Recent Sub-Atomic Speculation in Quantum Physics

In this world not one isolated thing can be seen. (Original Teachings of Chan Buddhism)

Astoundingly enough our ordinary way of categorizing ‘things’ (indeed our very perception and conception of reality), would now seem only verisimilitude. All the entities and myriad classified phenomena that comprise our everyday consciousness (the multiplicity that life seems), is ultimately illusory.

For according to recent sub atomic theory, the substratum of “matter” (the presumed ground of reality) ultimately resolves to ever-flowing, interrelated fields of pure energy. In short, “things” are not the disparate, solid entities they seem. ” This accords with Zen’s view that “each particularity (besides being itself) penetrates all other particularities and is in turn penetrated by them.”
(Original Teachings of Chan Buddhism)

Indeed, quantum physics posits a continuum metaphysic, one not unlike that intuited millennia ago by Vedic, Taoist, and Chan Buddhist sages: that the reality of Tao (Creation) is a constant Becoming of cosmic energy within a Now that is Eternal.

——————A  SOUL  NOTE ———————-

On recalling Wordsworth’s poignant lines “What Man Has Done to Man”:

A wondrous world,indeed, but one made hellishly divisive by conceptual ‘walls’ of mind. Such is the dichotomous a priori world of abstract ideologies before which we genuflect, while

…..ever suffering sacrosanct notions of nation, race, and faith conjured by idolatrous reverence unto bloody sacrifice;

…..all those divisive, jingoistic, racial and religious prejudices which, by precluding higher transcendent levels of consciousness, continue down the ages to brutalize every generation of Eden Now.

“Behold the One in all things. It is the second that leads us astray.”
(Kabir, Sufi poet)

from The Zen Haiku and Other Zen Poems of J. W. Hackett
(Tokyo: Japan Publications @1983 by James W. Hackett)

A tiny spider
has begun to confiscate
this cup’s emptiness.

    The kitten crouches,
then leaps at the genie
rising from the tea.

    Time after time
caterpillar climbs this broken stem
then probes beyond.

    With death’s arrival,
this present moment alone
becomes known as real.

Grasshopper’s game:
to light on a tip of grass
then ride out its sway.

    Tiny goldfish,
though cruising with the others,
stay out of their way.

Pavilion empty
the old Shanghai gardener
dances with herself.

Butterfly’s wing
barely grazed my cheek, and yet
I felt his surprise!

Parakeet performs
his high wire act, then proudly
puffs up and poops.

Roaring cloud of bees
but trusting butterfly floats
right through the swarm.

This blessed present,
wherever I look I see
nothing — but Buddha.

Too cold for snow:
the loneliness standing within
each flophouse doorway.

City loneliness …
dancing with a gusty wind:
yesterday’s news.

Never more alone
the eagle, than now surrounded
by screaming crows.

Signaling wildly
for all to take care: the tail
of the pissing cat.

    A spider crouches
at the center of this empty web,
trusting his design.

    See this fly
that long since met eternity,
his kneeling remains.

A tiny winged bug
crawling his way out of
a forest of hair.
Now centered upon
the flavor of an old bone,
the mind of my dog.

The lone parakeet
nudges his hanging mirror
and watches it move.

Left by the tide
within a shallowing pool:
a frantic minnow.

A bee in a web,
whirring one free wing
in spurts of hope.
Playful kitten,
how calmly it chews the fly’s
buzzing misery.

Even while squatting
the puppy diverts herself
by smelling flowers.

Hardy ant, even
heavily burdened you climb
the sheer mountain wall.

    Now free in the world
the old parakeet just perches:
his loneliness!

R. H. Blyth and J. W. Hackett is the keynote speech, given by WHC Honourary President, James W. Hackett,  for the WHF2002 English-language session.


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March 2002


James W. Hackett

In the 1950s and 60s it hardly seemed possible that haiku poetry would enjoy its current worldwide popularity. Those of us who pioneered the writing of haiku poetry in English were dedicated to acquiring knowledge of the genre, honing our skills, and developing useful and enlightening guidelines for ourselves and others. In the decades since then, countless groups, editors, and individuals have expressed their ideas about what haiku in English should be.

After many years of attempts to develop a practical form and worthy criteria for writing haiku in English, the 266 poems submitted to the World Haiku Review show little or no consensus about what constitutes a ‘haiku poem’ in English. Now, an aesthetic anarchy seems to prevail, for in many of the poems, important values of content, form, style, and spirit differ wildly. (Standards of form are virtually nonexistent, varying from 8 to 18 syllables.) I believe the inchoate state of haiku today is very detrimental, not only to haiku’s status and image, but to its spirit. The term ‘haiku’ has become a ‘catch all’ category for any brief word play produced by human (or electronic) means.

My first books, Haiku Poetry, Volumes I-IV, published in 1968, included some carefully considered suggestions for creating haiku poems in English. These have proved of value to many poets. And after almost half a century these suggestions still remain fundamental to my poetry, and to my mind and spirit. Following is an update of these suggestions for WHC’s worldwide community. I encourage readers to decide for themselves which of these suggestions might prove helpful in their own writing:


C 1968 Revision C 2002

1. NOW is the touchstone of the haiku experience, so remain centered in this eternal present of life.

2. Remember that Greater Nature — not human nature — is the province of haiku.

3. Contemplate natural objects closely: unseen wonders (and dramas) will reveal themselves.

4. Carry a notebook to jot down subtle haiku moments, for these intuitive experiences may be easily forgotten.

5. Spiritually interpenetrate and empathize with nature. Become One with ‘things,’ for ultimately, “That art Thou.”

6. Reflect upon your notes of nature in solitude and silence. Allow these recollected feelings be the basis of your haiku poem.

7. Write about Nature just as it is. Haiku are neither word games nor puzzles. Basho brought haiku poetry back to life and nature; let us emulate his noble mission.

8. Choose every word very carefully. Use words that best suggest the moment of haiku experience you wish to share.

9. Use verbs in present tense, and singular subjects whenever possible.

10. To add aesthetic dimension, choose modifying words that vivify, including those that suggest the season, location, or time of day.

11. A haiku poem can be more than a verbal snapshot. Avoid such “So what?” haiku by suggesting your emotional reaction during the haiku moment

12. Use common language in a syntax natural to English! Don’t attempt ‘minimalistic’ copies of Japanese usage. Haiku composed in English must seem ‘natural’ and uncontrived.

13. Write in three lines using approximately 17 syllables. (Forego the traditional Japanese line arrangement of 5-7-5 syllables, as this practice can invite contrivance in English.)

14. Read each verse aloud to make sure it sounds natural. (Avoid end rhyme.) Make use of articles and punctuation common to English.

15. Remember that lifefulness, not beauty, is the essence of haiku.

16. Never use obscure allusions: true haiku are intuitive and direct, not abstract, symbolic, or intellectual. Include humor, but omit mere wit.

17. Avoid poeticism. The haiku poem should be direct, sensuous, and metaphysically ‘real.’

18. Work on each poem until it suggests exactly what you want others to see and feel. Remain true to your initial experience and the feelings elicited.

19. Remember that haiku is ‘a finger pointing at the moon,’ and if the hand is bejeweled, we no longer see that to which it points.

20. Honor your senses with awareness, and your Spirit with zazen or other centering meditation. The ‘haiku mind’ should be reflective as a clear mountain pond: reflective not of thought, but of the moon and every flight beyond …


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The Great Cloud of Witnesses

November 2001


 R. H. Blyth Writes To James W. Hackett

by Susumu Takiguchi, Oxford, UK

 James W Hackett

When R. H. Blyth died on 28 October 1964, at the age of 65 years and eleven months, those in the know realised that someone was needed (i.e. more than a mere admirer — of whom there could be many) whom would be able to follow in Blyth’s steps to become, in effect, his successor. One such seer was Harold G. Henderson, for it was he who pointed out to James W. Hackett, that now Blyth was gone, it was Hackett who should be succeeding where Blyth left off.

It is an irony of history that when Blyth was being taken to Shinjuku Seiwa Hospital for the treatment of pneumonia, he wanted to visit Hawaii to convalesce. With only a few more days before he passed away, it was discovered that he had something much worse: a brain tumour, which would deny him this journey, but instead gave him an eternal journey. Today, Hackett has settled down to live in Hawaii, as if to receive his mentor for whom it was not to be. However, with Hackett in Hawaii, Blyth’s spirit may be visiting these islands.

Hackett perused Blyth’s letters to him (and also his publications) and has found some lines in one such which relates to the tenor of his contribution in this November 2001 issue of World Haiku Review. As you will see, his contribution is in the shape of a part of his earlier poem which he feels shares the sentiment with the one haiku he has personally selected for this issue. These are the lines from the letter in which James Hackett has found a corresponding relevance:

“…a haiku poet is born, not made, and of a ‘nationality’ which has nothing to do with the ordinary conception of it.”

” ‘Be not weary in well-doing.’ I myself feel lonely sometimes, but remember ‘the great cloud of witnesses’.”

From a letter from Blyth to Hackett, dated 15 February 1960, while the sender was at the Gakushuin (the university where he taught).

I have decided, with Hackett’s kind permission, to publish the entire letter in order to give the context against which these excerpts could be read, and also to show the extremely high esteem Blyth had for Hackett as a person and as a poet.

The letter was composed four years before Blyth’s death. He later introduced thirty poems written by Hackett. They were included toward the end of the second volume of A History of Haiku, in a chapter called “World Haiku”. What an apt title this is that I could mention in this magazine! And what an apt person Blyth treated in the chapter! He points out that these poems are…

“…in no way mere imitations of Japanese haiku, nor literary diversions. They are (aimed at ) the Zen experience, the realising, the making real in oneself of the thing-in-itself, impossible to rational thought, but possible”, “all poets believe,” in experience.”

Blyth quotes Hackett’s remarks from a letter by Hackett:

“I regard ‘haiku’ as fundamentally existential, rather than literary. [ ] For haiku is ultimately more than a form (of even a kind) of poetry: it is a Way – one of living awareness. Haiku’s real treasure is its touchstone of the present. This, together with its rendering of the Suchness of things, gives haiku a supra-literary mission, one of moment.”

I have often mentioned that haiku is a way of life. By this I do not necessarily mean the same thing as Hackett does by “existential”, but deep down, where the existentialist issues are to be found, I believe we are talking the same language.

Blyth goes even one step farther than that. In the concluding paragraph of World Haiku, he asks a frightening ultimate question:

“But after all, which is more important, to write (haiku) or to live?” Life is now seen as “an unwritten poem”.

The following words by Blyth fill me with awe and anguish combined:

“… We must not write haiku, we must not write, we must not live, to fulfil ourselves, or to share our experiences with others. We must not aim at immortality or even timelessness; we must not aim. Infinity and eternity come of themselves or not at all…”

The excerpts from Blyth’s letter, Hackett feels, also reflect Blyth’s views as expressed in his Preface to A History of Haiku, Volume One:

“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.” (page vi)

Blyth’s message from these quotations seems especially pertinent considering the instability and chaos of the present moment, which are a result of our failings to which he refers. The time is disjointed and we need to go back to some fundamental reflection on why Basho’s Way has fallen into desuetude, for this should also be the Way of ourselves in our small world-haiku community.

Here is the entire text of Blyth’s letter in question (the selected lines in bold text):

The Gakushuin
15 Feb. 1960

Dear Mr. Hackett,

I too feel troubled at the fact that your words cannot be published at present. I myself believe in you and in your haiku. As I have said before, I think your verses as good as, and sometimes better than those of the highest ranks of haiku poets of the past. 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.

As for the comments and suggestions, I will postpone them a little, as this is my busiest time in the Year, the examination season.

Mr. Hackett, don’t feel too discouraged. I think the printing of your work is only a question of time. “Be not weary in well-doing.” I myself feel lonely sometimes, but remember “the great cloud of witnesses.”

R H Blyth


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A Personal Conclusion

May 2001

“A Personal Conclusion” 

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.

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