Interview ~ Anita
by Robert D. Wilson
RW: Your new "book," Summer Thunder, a CD of haiku, senryu and
tanka, is both an eBook and an audio book utilizing the spoken word, sound
effects and music. How did you decide to do it this way? And the music in
Summer Thunder is hauntingly beautiful. Who composed it and why did you
elect to include music in the book?
AV: Why an eBook and an audio book on a CD? It came about because printing
costs to do a perfect-bound book just using a single color photo I wanted
for its cover were exorbitant.
That being said, quite unexpectedly, this recourse was suggested to me
by Frank Land, who helped with the prep work for my last two books, Pilot and
A Long Year. (Mind you, I knew nothing of eBooks or any of the
rest of what we did!) And now I find this mode of producing my work suits
Far better than just the printed book mode. As an artist, color, graphic
design, visual effects, have always engaged me—just as much as the
crafting of my poetry. And the printed medium that I could afford has always
been very limiting. Trying to achieve handsomely printed books has been
pretty much beyond my pocketbook—but I shoot myself in the foot:
I choose not to relinquish control to others to design my poetry books
Depressed at the thought
of not being able to produce this book as I initially envisioned it, when
was suggested that I could have everything I
wanted in it if I went the eBook route, I perked up at the idea that
I had any
option. The deeper I got into that process, with my highly knowledgeable
technical advisor/director who was willing to explore the new methods
required, the greater my ‘demands’ grew upon him as I saw
possibilities opening out before me. “So why can’t we do
this?” I kept after him . . . “and this?”
We had almost completed
the eBook, but even as that was developing, I added two more photos to
it. It made
no difference in an eBook whether
one photo—that lovely Dwight Hayes cover—or more. So,
I went for two more. Thanks to nepotism, I could have one photographed-to-order
by my daughter, Jennifer Virgil Gurchinoff, who is a photographer.
The resulting “Leaves” came
to be used as the “end-papers” and as the CD label and
for the mailing sticker. “Clouds,” the other photo of
hers that I decided to use, I already had on file.
When the eBook version
was complete, as my technical guide said: it was “underwhelming.” He
was right. It was visually lovely, silent—but over too soon
for a CD! He then suggested we do an audio version, filming, adding
I recoiled at first. And then, tantalized by one aspect of this,
I thought, “But
how wonderful to be able to have just a thread of music with it
. . . ” So, I promptly
set out and spent the whole night and hours more, listening to music,
passages that might fit in with my words and we never used any of
As we proceeded designing
the “package” I
realized I did not really know what a CD looked like. What it contained.
I rarely play them.
At a thrift store, I picked up an attractive used CD. To study.
And then, in an off-hand manner, curious as to what it contained, we played
of it. That is when I heard the opening notes of what I ultimately
selected for Summer Thunder: "Always There," by the contemporary composer-musician
Spencer Brewer. “I could live with that,” I told Mr. Land who
was not at all inclined to even listen to my picks from Ravel’s Quartet
in F! Or for any of the other snippets of early English music I’d
When I finally heard
the whole selection, it perfectly captured the mood—even
the simple underlying rhythm of some of my poems, of this book.
Never mind my frugal “thread of music!" “Can’t
we have more music?” I whined. (This works sometimes!) And I got
The same chance occurrence characterized what happened with
my cover photo. I came upon it in a recent local Virginia
gave me. Again, serendipity! My middle name.
As for reading my poems,
that was not my idea: Neither were the sound effects. And the idea for
reader of that part of the audio book was another last-minute decision.
A good friend—I’ve known him most of my life—now
lives nearby. He came right over and recorded for us.)
But, no matter the divergences
of opinion in the production of this CD, ultimately, everything that was
finally utilized pleased me.
Far more than any other “book” for it allowed
me to stretch my wings and incorporate all I love that could
make a work new and
different, fresh and beautiful.
It took the efforts and cooperation of several talented
and kind people to pull this off and I am grateful to each
and every one of them.
and offline in printed journals, there is a lot of talk about
and what isn’t English haiku. Is it a different
AV: I have
a confession to make. I read copious amounts on the subject
as I first
became involved with American
haiku: books on Japanese culture and
history, all the R. H. Blyth books, Harold G. Henderson’s An
Introduction to Haiku, Haiku in English, G. B. Sansom, Asataro Miyamori, a biography
of Yukio Mishima and a novel or two of his, The Art
of Tea by Okakura, Thousand
Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata, Alan Watts, Kenneth Yasuda,
Makoto Ueda, Donald Keene on Japanese literature, Earl Miner,
Ruth Benedict’s The
Chrysanthemum and the Sword, even a book by Edwin O.
Reischauer, our former ambassador to Japan. And more. I
also regularly devoured all the articles and the current
poems appearing in the English-language haiku magazines
of the late 1960s
and early 1970s as I tried to get a handle on what this ‘art’ was
about in order to write it.
As a basis
for writing my poems, I sought what I felt were the best
poems by the
Japanese through the centuries. I
was never, however, attracted by the many sentimental poems
that dotted their anthologies. The names of the poets were
of no particular importance to me at the outset.
I certainly paid no heed to what I noticed being reiterated
about syllable count in
English. A look at most of the poetry that notion produced
was enough of a cautionary note. I was only seeking what
I considered to be exemplary poems that moved me—and
there were so many in this brand-new-to-me poetic genre!
the poems I read by what were called “the masters” appealed
to me. I was truly a stranger in a strange land. (Though I did, admittedly,
from my high school days at Music & Art in New York City, have a familiarity
with and love of the Japanese woodblock prints which were such an influence
on Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists. Even back then, my own
spare drawings were described by my art teachers as “very Oriental.” But
that was no more than an innate affinity.)
beginning, Henderson’s An Introduction to
City, New York. Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1958] showed me a path
I would follow.
I promptly ignored most of his finished, titled and rhyming poems
in the body of his text, favoring instead his rough translations
at the bottom
of each page. They were what he worked from. And there was what
I called poetry: terse, direct, powerful. Nothing extraneous. Stripped
still infinitely capable of moving me emotionally. This is what
I would strive to do.
My own first book, A 2nd Flake,
came out in March of 1974 [self-published, Montclair]. Of
it, Henderson said
: “This is what I hoped for—not
only haiku but also offshoots of haiku, poems inspired by
haiku, the makings of a new, vital, American development.” [Personal
correspondence: HGH to Anita Virgil, spring 1974.] Poems from
it are still being anthologized
as recently as this year. In A 2nd Flake I never
felt the least constrained to follow any set patterns regarding
format. So who can say in what regard
my work was or is now a “different entity” from
the Japanese haiku and senryu, from their haibun and tanka?
And does that really matter?
It all is inspired by and derives directly from nowhere
but the fine examples set by the work of the Japanese poets.
And as I move on into newer regions,
I suppose I’d have to say it is a development from
this initial inspiration.
My early “concrete” poems
in A 2nd Flake,
written initially as haiku, I then kicked up a notch by the
use of graphics in order to achieve
greater dimension via a visual treatment of them. I did
this (and continue to do this on rare occasions when a poem
lends itself to such treatment)
out of a reaction to a Buson poem in which he employed a
rebus to depict Mount Fuji! That delighted my artist’s
self. (For the curious among you, see it in R. H. Blyth, Haiku,
Eastern Culture, Vol. 1, p. 98.) So I
ran with it: among other things, I did a chicken foot, an
implied open doorway—a 1-inch vertical bleed strip printed
down the page—through which the
reader could peer top to bottom at “rainsrainingand” and
turning [typographically] into “rainssnownow” followed
by a series of asterisk snowflakes. And I did a sequence
of poems on spring called “Lamb
Stew” in which, as I was adding peas to the pot, I
literally scattered the word “peas” in many
typefaces across two pages—just as would happen when
popping open a pod with your thumbnail! English-language
haiku or simply an example
adaptation of the Japanese art? I would say the latter.
the “talk about what is and what isn’t
English haiku in online and offline journals.” As I said,
I read a whole lot through the years as background material.
And as the haiku magazines my work was in kept piling
up, so did the talk about what is and what isn’t English
haiku. Ad nauseum. I read esoteric-sounding “Speculations” up
the wazoo, I read perorations, I attended Haiku Society
of America meetings where I had to listen to orations that
made me squirm—until
I decided this was an activity I had no wish stay close
to. These “authorities” were
more like a bunch of tigers chasing their tails, round and
round. Yet there are still practitioners who have parlayed
into a veritable
career! More importantly, I have noticed that they are rarely
capable of writing anything I admire as fine poetry!
Emily Dickinson had a poem touching on some of this:
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
[Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson, The Modern Library,
Random House, New York, 1924]
is the point at which I definitely veer away from the Japanese
for “authority.” And rules. Which, interestingly enough, the
Japanese seem to conveniently forget they do change! This is how they, too,
have created new Japanese schools of thought through the ages. The unique
quality of The Four Pillars of Haiku stems from the fact that each of them
eventually went in more personal directions from what was the accepted “tradition” of
their day. They pushed the envelope. Once they had done so successfully,
others adhered to their paths and became “followers.” Funny
when you think about it, but true! I would point out that there
has never been an advance in any art (or anything else) that was not generated by the reshaping
or outright discarding of outdated or no-longer-functional “rules.”
end of 1974 I was basically “outta there!” “Online
and offline,” for the most part, I really pay no attention to. I live.
When I feel I have something new to say, I will write it down and save it.
Sometimes, enough good stuff comes into being and I put out a book of my
poetry. Only when I get good and mad about something—about as often
as Mount St. Helens blows—do I surface and stick my two cents back
in and holler “Foul!” Otherwise, I feel it incumbent upon anyone
who can write and reach the hearts of readers with good poetry—and
good sense—to do just that.
RW: Wherein does the Japanese haiku differ from English
AV: I think
the answer lies more in the way in which their poetry comes
being than in some of their final products. Its well-spring?
Because this poetry is such an integral
part of Japanese cultural activity, not only the attitudes
of the Japanese as a people
need to be recognized as inherently different from “The West,” but
their very lifestyle, firmly rooted as it is in ancient
traditions, dictates an unwillingness to countenance change
to their art. To their way of doing things. “The nail that sticks up will be hammered
down” is a well-known Japanese saying.
in a densely populated country of limited land mass is pretty
much a necessity to keep order, to keep things
Without a continent of their own as America has, the Japanese
have learned to create the illusion of space out of tiny
spaces. And they do it magnificently. Truly poles apart
from what I am familiar with! I retain (and therefore bring
to my poetry) that American
streak of independence, a willingness to explore new things,
new ideas, the comfort with large spaces and with the unknown,
the ease (most of
the time) with
which a multiplicity of ethnic peoples move amongst one
another, live together, exchange, blend or maintain divergent
heritages and histories--and
live in diverse lands. It makes us sprawlers. Mixers. We
are not able to be locked in by a commonality of seasons.
all “new-comers” here,
many-colored, more open with our feelings and with expressing them. Far
less restrained in social situations. As for homogeneity, we have none!
But the Japanese, as an ancient island people, are basically “on the
same page”—they share a similar culture whose
mores are familiar to all, whose allusions in their poetry
by all; they have
a common history. There is great security in all this.
it possible that people so different outwardly (as Americans
others who choose to write this poetry)
can be so “together” in
sharing affection and respect and a fascination with these tiny Japanese
poems? Because no matter where on earth we live, we are all pretty similar
in our response to the world around us and to the creatures and flora that
coexist in it. We all experience the same basic human feelings; we behave,
react, by and large, in similar ways, recognize—each in our own way—sorrow,
pain, loneliness, joy, suffering, humor, beauty, respect for that
which endures, love of home, seasons, friendship. In a word, we
This is our link. This is why the tiny haiku [and its related genres]
have come to charm and intrigue people all over the world now. I
could see in
the Japanese haiku parallels to my own experiences of nature, of
everyday life. Their universal quality. That the haiku carefully
selects these ‘small things’ to elevate into poetry was the major delight for me. I, too,
back in 1968 wrote with amazement when I realized one lazy bee-watching
summer day that “There are even/ very small flowers /for very small
bees!” That was before I’d ever heard of haiku.
It was accepted for publication in Haiku
Highlights [Jean Calkins,
editor, Kanona, New York], a magazine I sent it to because
it accepted ‘poems of eight
lines and under.’ And I was inclined to write very
I say the Japanese write from a slightly different place,
way in which they approach their poems differs
from the way in which I approach
mine, I refer to their acceptance of writing with underlying
rules and requirements of composition, to stringencies of
season words or phrases, and so on. None
of which was evident to me as I read through the translations
of Japanese poetry in R. H. Blyth’s six volumes on haiku—and much later
his works on senryu—I read strictly for the power
and beauty of the images and the feelings they evoked. I
as I set out to plumb my experiences for like poetic moments,
true to my life and times. Later on I became aware of the
use of astounding juxtapositions
of images which evoked another kind of experience altogether!
And then, of course, well-saturated with the poems of the
Japanese, I began to pay attention to all the discussions
that accompanied the poetry.
Much fascinating commentary, much contradictory commentary, much
information on Japanese life and customs that led me to
more reading. Still,
it felt comfortable enough to me to continue on and write
in this vein. And in
my very American and independent, nail-sticking-up mindset,
I ignored what
I felt did not really matter relative to what poems I admired
and why I admired them:
The sea darkens; the voices of the
wild ducks are faintly white. . .
[Basho, in R. H. Blyth, Haiku,Vol. 4, Autumn-Winter
(Japan, Hokuseido Press, 1952), p. 339]
The razor, rusting in a single night . . .
in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 3, Summer-Autumn (Japan, Hokuseido,
1952), p. 59]
The spring sea:
all day long undulating undulating . . .
[Buson, in Harold G.
Henderson, An Introduction to Haiku (Garden City,
New York, Doubleday Company,
Inc., 1958), p. 97]
Lighting one candle with another candle, an
evening of spring . . .
[Buson, in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 2, Spring (Japan, Hokuseido, 1959), p. 55]
Skylarks are soaring, treading the clouds, breathing the haze . . .
[Shiki, in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 2, Spring (Japan, Hokuseido,
The spring day closes,
lingering where there
is water . . .
[Issa, in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 2, Spring (Japan, Hokuseido, 1959), p. 38]
The turnip-puller points the way with a turnip . . .
R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol 4, Autumn-Winter (Japan, Hokuseido,
Alone in the editorial
department; summer rain falling . . .
[Shiki, in R. H. Blyth,
Haiku, Vol. 3, Summer-Autumn (Japan, Hokuseido, 1952), p. 63]
Even to the saucepan where potatoes are boiling, a moonlit night
. . .
[Kyoroku, in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 1, Eastern Culture (Japan, Hokuseido,1949), p. 322]
Morning twilight; in their basket, the cormorants asleep,
exhausted . . .
[Shiki,in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 3, Summer-Autumn (Japan, Hokuseido,
The moon has sunk below the horizon: all that
remains, the four corners of a table . . .
[Basho, in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol.3, Summer-Autumn
(Japan, Hokuseido, 1952), p. 404]
A basket of grass and
no one there–mountains of spring . . .
[Shiki, in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 2, Spring (Japan,
The dawn of day; on the tip of the barley leaf the frost of spring . . .
[Onitsura, in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Spring (Japan, Hokuseido,
1950), p. 70]
Plates and bowls faintly through the twilight, in the evening
cool . . .
[Basho, in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 3, (Japan, Hokuseido,
There is no trace of him who entered the summer grove . . .
[Shiki, in R.
H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 3, Summer-Autumn (Japan, Hokuseido, 1952), p. 266]
The coolness; through the
window of the stone lantern the sea . . .
in R. H. Blyth,
Haiku , Vol. 3, Summer-Autumn (Japan, Hokuseido, 1952), p. 15]
On and on I read. Who thought about syllables versus onji, or
kigo, sabi, wabi, shiori,
yugen, yojo? None of that esoteric insider-information altered
the instant effect of these poems on me one iota. My God, this
was pure poetry! This is what I wanted to write.
Yes, there will be many
Japanese haiku to which I do not respond. Those would generally (but not
be ones that focus on
or those closely linked with calendar-generated occurrences tied
to their customs. This narrows their appeal to ‘outsiders.’ And
certainly, those quantities of Japanese haiku that replicate—almost
verbatim—poems that were
written by others. I found that most irritating. And plagiaristic!
I viewed them as an impoverishment of creativity, originality—until
I learned about the way this work evolved: out of a tradition
of emulating the master poets’ work!
They were tributes, not rip-offs. (Go explain that to an indignant
hothead like myself when I first banged up against them. As president
of the Haiku Society
of America, I planned my June 1973 meeting around this very topic
Influence, Variation on a Theme, or Rip-offs?” And was
I surprised at how mistaken I’d been.) So here we are presented
with a definite cultural difference. Once I understood it, though,
I could accept it. But even so, it was not something
I chose to emulate—unless by way of senryu for the purposes
of satire, or when extracting from prose a phrase that makes
a “found poem.” In
each of these cases, the writer is bringing a new angle to that
same material. Shades of a ‘fair use’ standard in
There is a common denominator
to the best poetry culled from the main body of Japanese
haiku and its related genres which
is lasting in its impact. It is as true today as when it was
written. Its ‘colors’ may
occasionally differ from the American (or English or foreign
language adaptations) but that merely adds a touch of charm.
However, the underlying commonality of
most subject matter and the unique treatment of human experience
in Japanese haiku and senryu and in its foreign adaptations—when
you take only the excellent poems—is identical to my mind.
They set the standards by which I write.
RW: How has English-language haiku and related genres evolved
since you first became involved with it? And what was the impetus
for the definition work
completed in 1973 under Harold G. Henderson, co-founder of The
Haiku Society of America?
I understand you worked with him and with William J. Higginson
AV: You ask me to trace an enormous history! But I can only give
you what I saw for the years in which I was introduced to and
was most eager to understand what made it so unique, and was
infinitely puzzled when I would read all the current published
work in the
few haiku magazines
To shorten the tale,
let me say candidly, I did not like hardly any of the sticky-sweet Japonesque
5-7-5 haiku poetry
of the ‘60s and early ‘70s.
(I brought with me my own “literary” standards based
on my familiarity with great world literature and poetry long
before meeting up with haiku.) But
a few names stood out—even then—and they produced
some exemplary work: Michael McClintock (for his poetry and critical
writings), Al Pizzarelli,
John Wills, Marlene [then] Wills, Gary Hotham, O. Southard, Eric
Amann--as a poet and as the avant-garde editor of the Canadian
Nick Virgilio, George Swede, Jack Cain, J. W. Hackett, Martin
Shea, Virginia Brady Young, Cor van den Heuvel. And of course,
William Higginson, whose largest contribution as far as I was
concerned lay not in his poems but in his exegeses on haiku and
in some of his
concise translations of
Japanese haiku, much influenced by Cid Corman, I think. A handful
of us struck
up intense correspondence in which we pored over the problems
we found as we tried to achieve excellence comparable with the
Cooperation among us was a ‘given’, and that was
a marvelously healthy environment for each of us: to learn from
off of the others.
By this exchange,
we truly affected what was our final goal: to produce fine and
enduring English-language haiku and at the same time bring something
new and valid to the
ancient art form.
I attended my
first meeting of the HSA in New York City in March or April of
1969. And have
been, since about 1975, what I would call a
bystander-member ever since: I do watch the goings-on,
but at a comfortable distance. But to return to those early days
at HSA, there was a mere handful of
20-30] comprising what has burgeoned into a very large group
numbering over 800 whose members come from all over the world
my life having cared to join anything, I did succumb to this
brand new ‘society’ because I wanted
so much to get answers to the questions that kept cropping up
the more I read about
haiku in reference books on Japanese
literature, in Blyth and Henderson, and so on. The very idea
that I would be able to speak with, listen to Harold
G. Henderson [whom I first ‘met’ in his Encyclopedia Britannica article
on haiku] was unbelievable! He occasionally popped in at the meetings and was
a courtly, kindly, humble and dedicated soul. When he was not there, the course
of these meetings consisted basically in submitting a poem (anonymously) and
having it discussed by the ten or so members in attendance. Usually, their conclusions
were: “Nice,” “I like it,” and such. To me this was farcical. I did NOT
like most of the work submitted. I thought it weak, and without
depth of feeling.
to compare with the rush I was getting when I read all the Blyth
translations and so many others. But, alas, this
early American haiku was almost always awash in sentimental overlays.
I would ask
questions. I did not usually receive answers that satisfied
me. I recall
one of the members at the time was Sydell
And when one of her
poems was posted on the blackboard, which I did like, it was
later identified as a senryu. And when I asked "What is a senryu?" I got rather vague
stares out into space: “Uh, they are humorous poems” and beyond that
no real help. I was already aware of the fact that “sometimes the haiku
has underlying humor.” So what in the world were they talking
about? Explanation followed: “Well, Sydell writes senryu. And so does Clement Hoyt” who
preceded me on the scene. His work was in a magazine I did not ever see: American
Haiku, edited by James Bull. Hmmmmmmm, I thought and soon borrowed a copy from
Higginson’s stash. Not enough did I find there to clue
me in as to exactly what they were doing. And so that
question continued to nag me.
I tell you
this because it was my widening array of questions about this
art that gave
rise to my volunteering within a year
or so [1971 it was] to help
Henderson with re-defining haiku for the dictionaries and encyclopedias.
He said one evening
at a meeting, that he wanted to dispel the persistent notion
that haiku in English was only a 17-syllable [5-7-5]
nature poem. He felt that was wrong. “Who would be interested in helping
me out with this project?” he asked. Without hesitation, my hand shot up.
And I was “on the committee.” Bang! (Higginson, naturally, as the
other major spokesperson at most meetings—also decided
he had to be part of this committee. And we were three.)
What this task would entail, I had no idea. But I stuck it out
and offered suggestions from the standpoint of a novice with
a real need-to-know
so I could write well
and I made certain that what we did would help others as it began
to really help me to understand the
underlying uniqueness and beauty of these poems, and the various
and subtle distinctions among them. My first comment as we began
was to say we had
to look at what the
Japanese definition was and go from there.
Henderson answered me: "There isn’t a Japanese definition because
'all Japanese know what a haiku is!'" (He was quoting from
a letter he had received from a Prof. Kametaro Yagi on this subject.)
Right away I knew this
was going to be far more complicated than I imagined.
Soon I said
to Professor Henderson (thinking selfishly): “But we cannot
possibly limit our work to defining haiku without including definitions for haikai,
hokku and senryu.” So there! This time I was gonna get
my answers. Certainly if it helped me, it would help other novices.
And that, as far as I was concerned,
was the driving force behind this entire effort. As the task
expanded in scope, Henderson realized it was the right way to
go: One could cross-reference
these terms and at a glance glean their interrelationships as
one learned their historical derivations.
Well, that was the impetus then.
Since that time,
however, there have been a few sporadic tries at re-writing parts
of the original
definition work. In one rather
amusing and harmless
instance of 1989 or 1990, the individual was completely unaware
she was appropriating the wording of the long-accepted 1973 original
that had been
used in many places throughout the years since it was written.
She had made some slight alteration to it—and truly thought
she had just come up with a fine new haiku definition! Since
I was editing a book
of hers at the time she was
ready to put that into her introduction. I let her know what
the exact origin was. Being honest, she immediately desisted.
In The Haiku Anthology 1986
second edition, Appendix B, Definitions, another “re-write” was
done by Cor van den Heuvel. He began: “The following are newly revised
definitions. They are based on definitions prepared for the Haiku Society of
America in 1973 by Harold G. Henderson, William J. Higginson, and Anita Virgil,
and which appeared in the first edition of this book. . . . The editor of this
book [van den Heuvel] has made significant changes and additions, so the following
are not necessarily the opinions of any of the above-named persons or the HSA.” Well,
that’s the damn truth! and I let Cor know about it. Unfortunately, his
anthology was printed by the thousands and it became quite evident in the following
decade that this ‘intervention” of his caused a great deal of confusion
directly traceable to his “explanation” about senryu . (More of that
later when we go into a more detailed discussion of senryu.) He stated incorrectly
that “All Japanese classical haiku, as well as most modern ones, contain
a kigo (season-word: a word that indicates a season of the year) which ensures
that nature will be in the poem; senryu do not.” [My emphasis.]
At first glance,
this looks fairly innocuous, doesn’t it?
But what people came away with was the notion that if nature
appears in a poem it is a haiku.
But that is not always true. Some of the first senryu written
were parodies of haiku written post-Basho. These weak works led
others to poke fun
at them. And
thus senryu began to evolve: and some senryu retain a seasonal
reference of the haiku they parodied as in the following example:
When I think it is mine,
The snow on the umbrella
And the parody of it:
His snowy umbrella
—Anon. senryu (early 18th century)
This next pair I especially
love for they provide the comparison between how haiku and senryu utilize
very same element of “winter moonlight” to
The shadow of the stone pagoda,
The shadow of the pine-tree.
The winter moon;
A look at Shiki’s haiku will show it to be a poem permeated with coldness,
isolation, transmitting to the reader by the nature of the images a stirring
of absolute loneliness. Nowhere in the poem is man dominant. But in the anonymous
senryu, using the identical components of winter moon and shadows, the emphasis
is entirely different. Here, the shadows are of man. The fact that no hands show
is the clever feature upon which the senryu writer lights to illustrate coldness.
And more. Each individual, hands tucked deep into his or her clothing for warmth,
tells clearly that, confronted with bitter cold, all of us—rich and poor
alike—behave the same. We are concerned with our survival,
and there is no time for moon-viewing. It is a stringent little
man, a complete statement
capturing human behavior with the incisive stroke of caricature.
Unlike the haiku which develops out of indirection, the more
goes for the jugular.
Haiku have often been accurately likened to a pebble tossed into
still water producing ever-widening rings. The senryu is like
a pebble tossed
you smack between the eyes!
When the persimmon
Which he grafted bears,
His teeth have fallen out.
—Anon. senryu (early 18th cent.)
So now you can understand
why I was so angry at what Cor’s three dreadfully
limiting and misleading little words unleashed: “All Japanese classical
haiku, as well as most modern ones, contain a kigo (season-word: a word that
indicates a season of the year) which ensures that nature will be in the poem;
senryu do not.” Cor van den Heuvel.
Here I must interject a comment, completely unrelated to my utter
frustration over this senryu problem. I would never throw out
the baby with the
bath water: What Cor achieved by getting out three editions of
The Haiku Anthology
put our English-language haiku and senryu out there into the
mainstream of poetry. An accomplishment that has not been topped
by the achievements
in other areas by any other individual! I am certain I speak
for all of us who write this poetry when I say we will always
be indebted to him for this.
that did not let him off the hook regarding senryu! The confusion
the senryu was compounded far beyond a matter
And it was this 2nd edition which introduced a whole new generation
of people to
haiku and the unspecified senryu in that anthology. But that
is another story. Again, the problems’ origins derived
from a lack of study of the senryu which was disregarded and
considered by many (Henderson
included, as far as common
usage of the word was concerned) to be the stepchild of haiku.
Almost from the very beginning, I never felt that to be the case.
comes 2004 and a second attempt to create a Haiku Society
committee to change the definitions finally
At this writing, from
outward appearances (a tiny vote at a business meeting in September),
were approved. The only noteworthy part of each of these efforts
to change the original definitions is the presence on these committees
of William J. Higginson as chairman. Plus ça change plus la même chose. But I do find it odd he never
came up with any suggestion even close to this new haiku “definition” when
the original haiku definition was being crafted. (Of course, his task back then
was to “do” the haikai definition. And that was his
How has haiku evolved
since I became involved? I think it would be fair to say there has been
improvement the more
people learned about it.
of only looking to the scanty supply of early magazines for examples
of English language haiku to emulate—at best, a very unreliable source for learning—they
sought better translations, they avoided the sentimental ones that appeared as
fancy little pocketsize greeting card store items [Peter Beilenson editions]
and the flowery, endlessly long and abstruse earliest translations by the likes
of Basil Hall Chamberlain. It was realized from discussions led by Higginson
on the difference in time duration to read aloud 17 syllables in English versus
listening to the ever-more-brief time duration to hear a complete Japanese haiku
read (there were programs on public television back then that featured such),
that concision was the first thing needed. Japanese onji were short and of equal
time duration, like do re mi fa so, etc.; but English single syllables differed
vastly in time duration: “it” is one syllable in English. And so
is “through.” Listen to the difference.
Hard as it was for
many to take, and hard as it was to convince many practitioners of this
simplistic adaptative ‘solution’ to
writing haiku in another language (and, unfortunately, to this
day in the American educational system
it persists!), it meant moving away from the dictum of 17 English-language—and later foreign-language—‘syllables’!
Throughout the book The Japanese Haiku by Kenneth Yasuda, the
top of every page all the way across reads: 57557557557557557557.
And at the
back of the book where
he had his own haiku in English, he wrote them in 17 English
syllables. How is a beginner to ever shake this off? Talk about
subliminal messages! Yes, to the Japanese it had relevance, but
to some of us outlanders, it was not the
It was rarely
applicable when writing in English.
In critiquing the
poems of that era, it was not too difficult to see where the writers
added words SIMPLY FOR THE
SAKE OF MAKING THAT 17-SYLLABLE COUNT. It was referred to as “padding.” In most every instance, these ‘extra’ words
were no more than redundancies. They did not add to the poem.
To the contrary, they weakened the impact by dragging it out, repeating the same idea.
Since the greatest beauty of the haiku for me is their power
of concision with which
one can open
up worlds of implication, suggestion—if one selects only the essence of
the moving experience that gave rise to the poem, this verbosity was a real handicap.
In the main line poetry circles of those days (and still today somewhat) American
haiku was totally disdained. Ignored. Not published. Dismissed. I wrote an essay
called “Transition Haiku: 1971.” (I think it was
in the English magazine Haiku Byways.) In it, I spoke to that
issue and said that, by
and large, we deserved
Not any more! The following footnote appears in the 2003 Jack
Kerouac Book of Haikus, ed. Regina Weinreich: “When asked what he considered to be the
current state of poetry in 1993, Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz replied: “I
take interest . . . in the American haiku movement. . . . For me that is a very
interesting trend.” [Quoted by
Thomas Lynch in “A Way of Awareness: The Emerging Delineaments of American
Haiku” (unpublished essay).] Battle-scarred though I be, I am glad to say
I have quite a few haiku in Milosz’s Polish anthology, Haiku.
And just this once I’m also going to brag that when I happened this year to be looking
at it (of course I can’t read Polish but the
illustration that goes with one of my haiku—a naked lady—is hysterically
funny to me!), I realized I had more poems in his anthology than anyone else.
So I say, “Gee, thanks!” I guess we have done a good
thing after all the endless early fights over syllable count.
And who else
is in that book?
None other than Eric Amann, Al Pizzarelli, John Wills, Nicholas
Virgilio, George Swede, Martin Shea, Michael McClintock, Marlene
J. W. Hackett, Rod Willmot, of the earliest writers of
American haiku I mentioned as those with promise! (Only Hackett
advocated 5-7-5. Southard and Virgilio used it, too. Most of
the time. But Virgilio, after almost his whole writing history
of strong 5-7-5s,
would change to some
more concise poems. Oddly, though, he had this single early and
uncharacteristically brief poem:
out of the water…
out of itself.
—Nick Virgilio [Selected Haiku, Burnt Lake Press, 1985]
That was, for me, the single most influential American poem,
as I began to write haiku.
It was the struggle
to separate the idea that haiku was “a poem written
in 17 syllables” that gave rise to this phrase I wrote
into the prefatory letter we sent along with the finished definitions
to the encyclopedias
to NCTE, etc. on January 3, 1973: “It is the content and not the form alone that makes a haiku.” There
was an article Eric Amann wrote called “Form in Haiku” back in 1968
that I first requested of Higginson before we ever met. Already, Amann was seeing
beyond the preoccupation with counting syllables and reaching deeper into the
heart of this poetic genre. I later wrote a piece called “Define Form” [April
1971, Haiku Highlights, Jean Calkins, ed.] in which
I made reference to what I considered of prime importance: that
there is a huge difference between external
form imposed from without upon the work of art and the internal
demands of the work of art itself. “The form of a successful
work of art is, as Coleridge said, shaped from within, not imposed
In today’s jargon, I would say my poems are organic: they are written by
responding to the internal demands of the subject matter. Each poem has its own
unique “form.” Or graphic format. And I heed that
crazy idea! This does not mean I never write plain 3-line haiku.
Most of the time
I do. But it
means that if I sense as I am typing them up, that
there is still a better way to portray what the words say, I
will toss out a standard approach. Hence, I may opt for a two-line
format or create a concrete
image of the letters within the body of the poem as in this from
my 2004 work, Summer Thunder:
speeding along the awning’s edge
twilight blue and pale green leaves everywhere scent of watermelons
Three decades ago I wrote a poem all in one line:
That poem was done as a response to a task Henderson suggested.
That we attempt to write a haiku in one line. It appeared in
Haiku Magazine a while later.
But as I prepared my first book, A 2nd Flake, in early
1974, I then saw the potential
to kick it up one notch higher: I made it into a single word!
No spaces between words because I came to realize that this experience
of a cumulative
effect where each element hooked onto the next and the next until
the total suffusion of sight, scent and memory were one. That,
after all, was the ‘haiku moment’ as I experienced
Marlene Wills [later known as Marlene Mountain] came out with
the old tin roof in the mid-1970s. And it was obvious she liked
In the following presentation, the visual effect bears out and
enhances the meaning
of her words. And that, as far as I am concerned, is the whole
point of doing a poem as a one-liner:
at dusk hot water
from the hose
But many other poems in later days that were presented graphically
as one-liners did not organically demand such treatment! Back
in December of 1990 and
into January of 1991, John Wills stayed at my home. I had always
had a nagging
question in my mind as to why he made all the poems in his book,
the long and skinny
up a distant ridge into one-line poems.
I told him several of them were not enhanced in any way by being
set up in a single line format. He told me Marlene had submitted
way! So, the appeal
for the novelty of the one-line poem was established. There were
more fads in the making.
For a while, the
mysterious pseudo-name “Tao Li” caused talk. It
appeared in the magazines. This person’s “haiku” were all written
in three columns. Well, before you could say “Boo!” all the haiku
magazines were accepting three-column “haiku.” Who
was this sage of haiku? None other than an old standby of the
early years, Evelyn Tooley Hunt. And what were these “new” poems
of hers? Nothing special. Put them in three lines or in three
Same thing. But
it took quite a
while for that fad to die out.
It is obvious
people were looking for ways to “improve” their poetry.
They tried all kinds of things: concision was a good idea, lower case presentation
was effective in some instances—but not in all. There was
an idea in my mind behind that use: to have/create a
sense of continuum—no beginning, no end. In a few poems, that works. And
there is also the self-effacing lower case “i” that some poets assume
indicates their modesty, their humbleness. That is their business. Then there
was Alexis Rotella’s habit in the 1980s of adopting the capital letter at the beginning of her poems, but
leaving out a period at the end. I never heard any ‘defense’ of
that approach that I could understand, but one could not deny
much of her
work was fine and deeply
felt, deeply moving. But, of course, it was a mark of distinction.
A few poets did it. But what it did for the specific poems I
could not tell. (I note happily
she got over that by the time the 1999 edition of The Haiku
Anthology was published.)
But if one is taken
with and depends upon outward trappings, one will be concerned about
an effect: that the work “look” modern,
up-to-date, innovative. That they give the illusion of some advance.
But I felt they were
mostly looking in the wrong place.
So much for a glimpse at form and content—and at external format.
RW: How is senryu different from haiku?
AV: I have written two very long essays tracing the origins of
senryu and its development since the 18th century. So what I
touch on this complicated subject.
First let me say that
almost from my earliest acquaintance with the Haiku Society, senryu puzzled
me and intrigued me. And
when the word
G. Henderson was largely responsible for the 1973 definition—his
third point was especially disappointing to me.
(1) A Japanese poem structurally similar to the Japanese haiku
(which see), but primarily concerned with human nature. It is
usually humorous or satiric.
(2) A foreign adaptation of (1).
(3) Loosely, a poem similar to haiku which does not meet the
criteria for haiku.
But as he explained
to me, his description (3) reflected the attitude of the day, and dictionaries
are concerned with common
usage. I felt that ‘attitude
of the day’ was derived from a lack of knowledge, lack
of interest in and therefore the rarity of fine English-language
senryu back then.
But with a strong
conviction that there would be a
better future for senryu in English, at least I prevailed upon
Professor Henderson to alter his word original word “verse” to “poem” when
speaking of senryu. I felt it was a potentially worthy art. Little
did I dream how bumpy a road was ahead before it came into its
own! But at last it has.
NOTE: By 1990,
an addendum was sent out by Haiku Society of America which stated
that “It is . . . the opinion of the remaining Committee Members, William
J. Higginson and Anita Virgil, that a more accurate assessment of usage today
. . . would dictate that the HAIKU (2) definition be altered to “It
is usually written in three lines of fewer than 17 syllables.” The
SENRYU (3) definition, though it represented the prevailing attitude
at the time the definition
is no longer
accurate and it should be eliminated.”
I mentioned being
a “bystander member” of
the Haiku Society of America once the definition work was sent out and
after my year as
president was over:
At that time, we met ten times a year in New York City and that
allowed me a chance to introduce a heavy load of study of the
history of haiku.
And I made
sure the historical evolution of the
senryu was included.
Because I believed
that all members deserved to ‘participate’ and
to make certain our discussions were shared with out-of-town
members, I initiated using a tape recorder at the meetings. I
meeting and our secretary
arduously included most everything in the Minutes. Verbatim.
And we requested and got feedback from all
members. (These exchanges were later to serve as the material
for the vivid excerpts quoted in A Haiku Path published by The
of America in 1994.)
busy year of 1973, I also initiated the Haiku Society Awards
But it has not followed my original stated intent:
there only be awards
presented when exemplary work was produced. If no book or article
or essay was produced that was an advance in these arts, then
was to be
in that year! I suppose I was naïve to have imagined future members would
adhere to my original intent. Instead, “all eyes iz on the prize.” Year
in and year out. I mention this apparent digression to show one way in which
the pursuit of excellence can be delayed—or derailed. There
I stayed away from
all goings on thereafter for I had reached my saturation point. And
I also did
not wish to be influenced
writing. There was
too much of the same old-same old out there and the patterns
were established. Yes, fads of external format were catching
on, but. . .
mid ‘80s, after that second edition of The Haiku Anthology came
out with van den Heuvel’s re-write of the senryu definition, there was
evidence of some pretty free-wheeling interpretations of what constituted a haiku.
Basically, it got to be Anything Goes! I’d call it the period of license—I
would not for a moment describe what was going on as “freedom,” for
that carries with it the burden of responsible actions based on a solid foundation
of fact. In all fairness, I would have to say this mêlée was not
entirely a ‘bad’ thing, for at least people were striving to broaden the scope
of the haiku! But that only proved they had more to express if
they were to be true to
writing about the world in which they lived. And they needed
a receptacle for it. (An
earlier example of this reaching-out did occur in the ‘70s:
there had been experimentation with sequences. That did give
poets a larger
canvas to work on.
the name of the game was the “new haiku.” Ta-dah!
Experimentalists among our better poets latched on, swallowed
it hook, line and sinker, and started
defending this great discovery [whose moniker was coined by Rod
Willmot of Canada] as though they had found the Holy Grail.
It could contain any
and everything they wanted
to pour into it!
to writing—in accordance with Willmot’s invented terminology—“political-haiku,
metaphysical-haiku, spiritual-haiku and psychological-haiku.” Then, of
course, he tacked on “erotic haiku.” Those few of us with a working
knowledge of the senryu and its origins—and with the ability
to write various types of senryu, sat by for a while and watched
this play out.
became apparent it was really getting out of hand as evidenced
by a tract
Willmot produced propounding this gobblydegook
a stiff dose of reality was needed. (Alas, I noticed just the
other day, before
I began to write this, the habit persists among some of our more “intellectual” beings.
When all else fails, they call upon schematic diagrams in their attempts to clarify
what haiku is and ain’t or some is but some ain’t
and what they look like while being this or that. I forget. I
simply can’t understand any of these nutsy notions. Not to mention the
utterly dull pictures.) But, back to the fall of 1987, Alan Pizzarelli presented
a paper in Canada where Willmot had been holding sway for some time. In it Pizzarelli
briefly and clearly pointed out that what was being written was no more than—senryu. “Modern
Senryu.” And that was the title of his paper. [Haiku Canada, September
1987 Newsletter Vol. 3, No. 1, p. 5]
To give you a notion,
here is a senryu from R. H. Blyth’s
Senryu [Japanese Satirical Verses (Japan, Hokuseido, 1949), p.181]:
Losing his job
He tries reading
Wow! A Willmot “political-haiku” if
ever I saw one!
No need to go into endless
examples. I will simply give you a response I received directly from the
horse’s mouth: Rod Willmot wrote me after
Cor brought him to visit me at my home in New Jersey in the ‘80s. I
was beginning to wonder how much longer he would go on tossing out his fabrications
and “cosmic” theories about the “new haiku.” So I offhandedly wrote him, “What
“You must understand,” he informed me, “that we North American
poets are very serious; we don’t have much interest in senryu.” [Personal
correspondence, Willmot to Virgil, June 9, 1982.]
Well, that was sure as hell evident!
And Willmot went on
trotting his “new haiku” bone around until he
was hauled up short by Pizzarelli’s presentation.
Obviously stung, Willmot
lashed out with yet another verbose and glorious-sounding, wind-in-your-mane,
one a paean “In Praise of
Wild Horses” (Guess who that was? Yep! All them horses!)
It was printed in 1988 in Frogpond. [Vol. XI, No. 2,
May 1988] Well, that did it! It was enough to make this little
St. Helens belch lava. I came out of a long ‘retirement’ with a rebuttal.
My short piece was called “Horse Sense” and it stated:
“In clear language Pizzarelli shows that, contrary to what Willmot has been saying,
the new direction North American haiku poets of the 1970s and 1980s are leaning
toward is the senryu . . . a more comfortable genre for the forthright expression
of human emotions, behaviour and the human condition. . . . The focus on self
and human foibles is the dominant thrust of the senryu. How natural then that
those of the Me Generation need to express this in their poetry.” I concluded
with, “As for the image of wild horses—the only thing that makes
me uncomfortable is what they leave behind!” [Frogpond,
Vol. XI, No. 3, August 1988]
more constructively, this ruckus was followed up by a regularly
published new feature in Haiku Canada’s Newsletter around the end of the ‘80s:
a Senryu Column edited by Pizzarelli. Visible good came of that regular roughly
one-year display of top quality senryu—showing its broad scope, its various
ways of dealing with human foibles, with the nature of Man via parodies, with
satire, with love, sex, with the use of personification and, yes, even “nature” on
occasion as in this senryu:
The tendril of the pea
Where will I go next?
—Kinjiro [from R.H. Blyth’s Japanese Life and Character in Senryu (Japan, Hokuseido,
1949), p. 287]
Of course, the Japanese compound the problem
themselves, fueling the fuss, blurring the issues involved
when they state such truths
devices are still being widely used by the Japanese in their
haiku and an example would be
this from the 1997 A Hidden Pond; Anthology of Modern Japanese
Haiku, ed. Koko Kato:
flushed ever so slightly
with carnal desire
To which I respond: And is it working for you any better now than it worked
back in the 16th century?
Let us not lose sight of the fact that the Japanese
also contend that anything a haiku poet writes is haiku! Then,
with this sort of puzzle: Kikaku, certainly recognized by the
Japanese as a haiku
poet, a disciple of Basho, was a bit of a ‘wild child,’ for
as R. H. Blyth states, he was inclined “towards making
man the main region of song, towards wit and intellectuality,
bringing out the discords of life.” [R.
H. Blyth, Japanese Life and Character in Senryu (Tokyo:
Hokuseido, 1960), p. 4] Now this runs completely opposite from
haiku where “all the painful
problems of our life are by-passed . . . [ibid., p.
2] Haiku avoids hyperbole, all violent scenes and emotions;
senryu takes in all these, especially sex, and
the relations between men and women.” [Ibid.,
p.29] He is writing senryu-like poems from time to time. Can
this be acknowledged if he is indeed “a haiku
poet” from the standpoint of the Japanese? Hint: I wouldn’t
spend a lot of time on that one!
More confusion about senryu occurring at this critical period
post-2nd ed. of The Haiku Anthology. An imposing tome two inches
thick with a title An
Original Relation to the Universe: Emersonian Poetics of Immanence
and Contemporary American Haiku, by Thomas Paul Lynch filled
my mailbox. It was his June 1989 dissertation. Awesome! And worse—I’m in it. And guess what else? Lynch says “As
haiku poets have expanded their subject matter to include human relationships
a number of critics and poets have questioned whether such poems should not be
considered senryu [you bet I did!] rather than haiku.” [p.
He then launches into the flap over Willmot’s theories vs. Pizzarelli’s
and mine. And Lynch is totally confused. He just doesn't “get it” because
his thinking is tainted by this kind of Willmot all-knowing pronouncement:
“Even when a senryu and a haiku deal with
the same topic, they are distinguishable by the fact that one
has nothing but
its wit while the other
all the depth of poetry.”
—Wilmot in “Wild Horses”
More horse-droppings! If you doubt me, look at this heart-breaking senryu from
All day long
With his nose running.
—Anon. senryu [Blyth, JL and CS,
Lynch cites several poems all of which I believe—as
did Pizzarelli in his “Modern
Senryu” paper—are fine senryu (though it is true
that at that time some people writing them would not have accepted
they were senryu!) and then,
without seeking verification from me, he concludes: “So
far as I am aware, none of these poems are considered senryu
by their authors.” Wrong about
me—and I’d bet wrong about George Swede, who for
years had been nailing some of the best senryu! Here are those
poems [The Haiku Anthology, ed. Cor
van den Heuvel, (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1986)]:
Trying to forget him
the potatoes (Rotella) [THA]
I pedal my bike,
through puddles (Swede) [THA]
he leans on the gate going staying (Mountain) [THA]
After the child’s
cake eating. (Virgil) [A 2nd Flake, Montclair, 1974]
Missing a kick
at the icebox door
anyway. (Kerouac) [THA]
The final conclusion
Lynch draws really put me over the top: “And,
if we consider humor to be a distinguishing characteristic of
the genre, then only
the last, by Kerouac, meets the definition.”
on, there is a glimmer of hope. Lynch follows with this afterthought: “(It
might be useful to consider irony as a feature of the genre [senryu],
in which case Virgil’s poem could be seen to possess
tragic irony while Kerouac’s
would possess comic irony.)” Hallelujah and yes! You are
getting warm . . . .
But that was one brief shining moment. Lynch stumbles on toward
the blunt end making presumptions about what he thinks I think
that last refuge of the theoreticians among us. You guessed it:
One of those totally incomprehensible and non-functional schema:
“TABLE 1. Distinction
between haiku and senryu based on topic and treatment.”
(Funny thing is, though I looked and looked, I never found a
TABLE 2! Just lucky, I guess.)
I leave Dr. Lynch
(oh, he did get his Ph.D.) fretting over his schema as to “psychological
haiku” (Willmot classification) or “serious senryu” (van
den Heuvel classification). As Cor knows, when we would talk
by phone about the poems he was considering for his 1986 anthology,
I kept telling him how many
of Rotella’s wonderful poems and some of Marlene Mountain’s
poems were actually senryu.
By the end of 1990, I finally decided upon a relatively easy-to-comprehend
distinction as I wrote up an Introduction to my
book One Potato Two Potato Etc [Peaks Press, 1991].
I said of senryu:
century in origin, it arose as a reaction against the constraints
of the haiku. Man is not dominant
(if he is there at all) in
the haiku. But in most senryu, he is central to the poem. Senryu are usually
but because they deal with the range of human emotions and
relationships, they can sometimes be quite serious in tone.
Unlike haiku, senryu do
employ poetic devices such as simile, metaphor, personification. Hence, in
speak, darkness flinches, a pea can think out loud, a teacup
can be a metaphor for a human being. Because both genres occasionally utilize
(some senryu are parodies of haiku), one can be mistaken
for the other. Then it helps to ask yourself what is the emphasis
of the particular
if it is man within the world, it is haiku. If it is the world
within the man, it is senryu.”
I also decided that it was time someone stood up to the plate
on this issue. There was an easy way to denote senryu and I added
NOTE to my
book which stated:
in this book are in italics except when they appear in sequences
which contain haiku.”
I thought that might
give the editors a “way out.”
Guess what? No takers! Editors for the longest time would not
commit themselves to distinguish senryu from haiku. One would
get a haiku magazine
and most readers would have no clue they were reading senryu mixed in with
all the books that came out. Including anthologies. That sure
kept the waters good and muddy.
I recall submitting
a senryu to Robert Spiess of Modern Haiku. He wrote and accepted
my “haiku” for publication.
I wrote back and told him it was a senryu, not a haiku.
Here is my senryu:
The cracked cup
better than the rest.
[Anita Virgil, One Potato Two Potato
Etc (Peaks Press, 1991)]
And I sent him the following senryu from Japanese Life and
in Senryu, which I told him provided an exact parallel to
my own poem:
Sits on a cushion
In the shop.
—Anon. senryu [Blyth, JL and CS,
No answer was forthcoming.
He published my “cracked cup”—and
ever intransigent, Spiess included it among the haiku. Senryu
to him, from what I could tell in his magazine, continued to be just of the dumb
joke variety and little else! I never sent him any more senryu.
is one instance of editors compounding the problem. Another
is this: I did
a “Retrospective” piece on Alan Pizzarelli’s
work for S x SE Magazine when Jim Kacian was its editor
in the 1990s. A line in it that described
the unusually broad scope of Alan’s wonderful poetry ended:
. . and all this on the head of a pin, as it were, all this
executed within the rigorous discipline
of the two smallest poetic vehicles,
the haiku and the senryu.”
At the end
of the piece, Kacian added in bold face type:
the page to be amazed by Alan Pizzarelli’s
The minute I saw that I was most upset! It was dead wrong. I
told him that two-page spread included both haiku AND senryu.
I asked him to print a correction in the
following issue. He did not. More confusion to the readers .
. . But I say the poets are really catching on now and are consciously
writing some marvelously fresh senryu.
are often subtleties at issue. For instance, a poem about a
cat or a human, the moon or a flower could be
haiku or senryu
depending upon how it is handled. Nothing is ever just black
or just white. And to totally confound
the nitpickers there are a relatively few of what are known as “borderline” poems
that certainly touch both genres, and aren’t outside them,
but just fit most snugly in the crack. Often, these are the gentler
senryu like this Old Senryu
from Japanese Life and Character in Senryu:
The blind horse
Opens his mouth
When the straw-coat touches him.
—Anon. senryu [R. H. Blyth, (Japan,
Hokuseido, 1949), p. 37]
and large, we “get it” now. At this writing,
Al Pizzarelli who has long been acclaimed for his marvelous senryu,
accepted the position of Senryu Editor for Simply Haiku.
His leadership promises not only top entertainment, but great
examples of the scope of the senryu. That will be of tremendous
benefit to all who have just not understood how various it
can be. So, in spite of all the obstacles and detours along
the way, senryu is emerging as a fine art in the hands of more
and more haiku poets here and abroad. Here is a wee sampling
of poems from the last decade.
with every curler,
a new twist.
—Anthony Pupello [Sax Man’s
Case, Red Moon Press, 1998]
—R. A. Stefanac [Frogpond,
visiting the shrink–
the maze of corridors
leading to her office
—Makiko [Frogpond XXI , No.1,
with my old girlfriend
—Lee Gurga [Raw Nervz, Spring
at the urinal
—John Stevenson [Frogpond,
XXI, No.1, 1998]
saying too much
the deaf girl
hides her hands
—Matthew Louvière [M.L., TheMarsh
and Other Haiku and Senryu, Modern Haiku Press, Madison, WI, 2001]
what's his name
never speaks to me
—Dee Evetts [endgrain, Red
Moon Press, 1997]
And one of my all-time favorites:
with a flourish
the waitress leaves behind
—Dee Evetts [endgrain]
There is no way anyone
can tell me these wonderful haiku poets are not also wonderful
senryu poets! What I hoped senryu would
become back in
to fruition. (I apologize if it was necessary to leave behind a few “rearranged
smears” in the process.)
RW: You know and have worked alongside
some so-called important people. How did this happen?
AV: I think it appropriate after all the hard
parts have been covered to take one more compass reading as this
old battle wagon sails off
under the stars.
The autumn sky over Virginia last night was utterly ablaze with
them after months of summer thunder and low-hanging cloud-cover.
My red door closed
out the chill
air, the scent of damp fallen leaves. And with the kettle put on to
boil, my thoughts at ease, my gaze fell upon the old kitchen
table as I waited
to make my tea.
It is a very old dark
walnut drop-leaf table that existed in Lincoln’s
day. I have owned it since before I ever wrote a haiku. And on it my
first poems were typed—and my new poems are still jotted
down on paper scraps there. Thousands of meals were shared
at it. My mushroom paintings were done upon it.
And the people who have sat at it over the years of my involvement in
of them characters in the saga I have just related.
When this American Empire table stood in my dining room in Kinnelon,
New Jersey, first there was Bill Higginson and then Eric Amann
And when it stood in my dining room in Montclair, New Jersey soon afterwards,
the guest added was Cor whom I still see sitting there re-typing his
Introduction to the first edition of The Haiku Anthology.
days! And around the table at other times sat John Wills, Cor,
and Bill Higginson, Marlene
Wills [Mountain later], Elizabeth
and Bruce Lamb, Virginia Young, Al Pizzarelli. Even Rod Willmot and
wife, Malia. And Tadashi Kondo.
Sixteen years later,
the table ended up here in my Forest, Virginia kitchen and
to it again came Cor and Al, then Dee
Evetts. By 1990, John Wills
stayed for weeks. Then there came Jim Kacian accompanied by the Towpath
group: Roberta Beary, Ellen Compton, Jeff Witkin and Lee Giesecke.
And soon, you.
All talking, eating my array of fixings (I’ve been cooking
since childhood), discussing poetry. I still remember Cor there
trying when I lived in Montclair, New Jersey to help me re-write
my swan poem which he’d just salvaged from my kitchen
trash basket and me saying, “No! That’s not it
at all . . .” [my article “awareness . . . of what?” was
about this very poem’s creation].
The tea steeps.
I light the candles, pour a steaming cup, and in the silent
house, I sip, knowing some truly good things ultimately
have risen from these old boards
Virgil lives in Forest, Virginia. She is a past president of the Haiku
Society of America. She was a member of the three-person HSA Committee
on Definitions which included Harold G. Henderson and William J. Higginson.
As a member of the Book Committee for A Haiku Path (HSA, Inc. 1994), she
edited the two chapters on Definitions.
Books: A 2nd Flake (1974),
one potato two potato, etc. (1991, Peaks Press), on my mind,
an Interview of Anita Virgil by Vincent
Tripi (3rd edition,
Press Here, 1993), PILOT (1996, Peaks Press), A Long Year (2002,
Peaks Press), and summer thunder (2004, Peaks Press).
Her poetry and essays and book reviews have appeared in all major
haiku magazines and anthologies for 35 years. Most recently, she appears
anthologies Where Dogs Dream (2003, MQP London), Haiku for
Lovers (2003, MQP London), Haiku (2003, Alfred A. Knopf Everyman's Library edition).
and essays have also appeared on the Internet and in magazines in
Yugoslavia, Croatia, Slovenia, Russia and Serbia/Montenegro.
Of her work, Anita writes:
I always had and still have a single goal for haiku: that it be poetry,
that it sit comfortably in its
amid the literature of the world. There is no reason for it not
the best artists speak to our capacity for delight and wonder,
to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives: to our sense of pity,
and beauty, and pain."*
photograph credit: Jennifer V. Gurchinoff
* from Nigger of the Narcissus by Joseph Conrad.
2005: Simply Haiku