Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Winter 2005, vol 3 no 4

A column by George Swede

Why Haiku?

Once in a while I ask myself how it happened that I ended-up writing mainly Japanese short-form poetry. To date, I've been able to identify a number of possible reasons. Taken together, they seem to explain why, almost. Since some readers have probably asked themselves the same question, I thought one person's search for connecting strands might be interesting.

I started out as a free verse poet, publishing my first poem in 1968 and my first collection in 1974. Then in 1976 I was asked by the editor of a literary journal to review a just-released book by the University of Toronto Press, Modern Japanese Haiku by Makoto Ueda. As I read the 400 anthologized haiku, I felt as if blinders were being taken from my eyes. I learned that it was possible to write objectively about everyday experience without serious intrusions of the ego. Such work was a tonic for someone grown weary of reading about personal obsessions, including those in my own work.

In order to review the book fairly, I read as much about haiku as I could. Fortunately, the University of Toronto library had many publications dealing with the form and, a few weeks later, I sent in a review that appears, to me, even now, to have been written by someone relatively knowledgeable. While studying and working on the review, I also began to write haiku. The form seemed to fit me like a favorite pair of walking shoes and, in 1977, I published my first haiku in Bonsai, a U.S. haiku periodical. To my surprise and delight, it won an award for that particular issue:


Still noticeable
among the bare trees
a TV antenna


I then became obsessed with writing haiku, churning out over a thousand a year for a while and publishing around ten percent of them. In terms of time and effort spent, I had become a dedicated haiku poet.

I felt I had a natural predilection for the haiku and a few years later discovered one for the tanka form as well. But from where did this affinity come? To me, Ueda's book was merely the spark that set it off. I suspected some other possible causes. One explanation did leap out at me. When my mother and stepfather and I emigrated to Canada from-post WW II Europe, we settled near the village of Oyama, British Columbia for three years. Oyama was named after a Japanese general who commanded forces in Manchuria during a war with Russia in the early twentieth century. Prior to WW II, Japanese came to the region to engage in fruit farming and gave the village its name. But, upon our arrival in 1947 to live with my mother's parents on their fruit farm, no Japanese lived there anymore. When Japan entered WW II, practically all Japanese-Canadians were interned in camps with the result that their farms around Oyama were left abandoned, even for years after the war.

One of the empty, but still locked, farmhouses was across the road from that of my grandparents. I recall going by the mailbox with a Japanese name to look in the windows from which I could glimpse furniture and decorations that were of Eastern design. Perhaps this early experience helped to sensitize me subconsciously to Japanese things. And, it was not the only one. When I was ten, my family moved to Kamloops, a small city about two hours drive away, in order for my step-father to receive treatment for tuberculosis at a sanatorium. During the two-year stay, I became best friends with the two sons of a Japanese dentist and spent much time at their home which was full of the things which reflected their heritage. Today, Kamloops has a sister city--Uji, Japan--and, according to the Kamloops city web site, the relationship was initiated by the Kamloops Japanese Canadian Association.

My stepfather's illness was too advanced for successful treatment and when he died in 1952, my mother and I moved to Vancouver, which then already had a large Asian population. During high school, two of my best friends were of Chinese heritage. In hindsight, after strong friendships with Japanese and Chinese Canadians, it was not surprising that at the University of British Columbia I studied Japanese and Chinese history for two years. To go any further, I would have had to study the Chinese and Japanese languages and decided that psychology was more in line with my abilities.

The connection to things Japanese continued after I graduated with a BA in psychology in 1964 and got married shortly thereafter. Although my wife and her family were British-Canadians, their lives were imbued with Japanese culture. The father was a house-builder, whose homes reflected his strong interest in Japanese design. All were built with interior Zen gardens and I recall with fondness spending time in the lovely one in the middle of the family home. Even today, one can see the father's Japanese-style roofs and facades dotting the landscape in West Vancouver.

In the following years, the hippie culture began to blossom in Canada and, of course, it was interwoven with Asian religion and philosophy. While never a true hippie, I did espouse some of its Eastern-based values, especially after moving to Toronto, which by the late 1960s and early 1970s, had become more avant-garde than Vancouver. After my first wife and I divorced in 1969, I grew interested in writing poetry and was at first influenced by poets such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Patchen, Richard Brautigan, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Keruoac and later by Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. For the most part, the work of these poets was accessible and full of strong images and was the kind of poetry to which I aspired in my writing. It also prepared me, I think, to appreciate, a few years later, the haiku in Ueda's anthology.

But do the childhood and adulthood influences described above really explain my strong attraction to haiku? Why was I not drawn to other types of Japanese or Chinese poetry? Most likely, another aspect of my early life also helped to direct me towards short, sensory-based poetry. In Oyama, I was a lonely child with the closest playmate two-and-a-half miles away. For hours several times a week, I wandered with my dog through the wild hills beyond the farm, my attention riveted by hundreds of arresting things: wildflowers, grasses, thick woods with overgrown pathways, dozens of different birds, deer, skulls of range cattle, the lake in the valley below, cloudless days, stormy ones, and so on. I never formed an overarching view of the things I encountered. I simply experienced. Individual, direct memories of that time remain vivid, even now, over fifty years later, and have been the source of many haiku.

I like to believe that I have identified my main reasons for writing haiku. For me, they lead like spider threads to the center of a web. Then again, no one can ever understand him- or herself completely and other explanations doubtlessly lie hidden to me and perhaps obvious to others.