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Raymond Roseliep: “This Haiku of Ours”

In 1976 Father Raymond Roseliep, a pioneer of English-language haiku, wrote to Jan and Mary Streif, the editors of the Arizona–based journal Bonsai: A Quarterly of Haiku, and presented his vision of the prospects for American haiku. Roseliep counseled English-language poets to move beyond imitation of traditional Japanese culture, practices, and strictures, but rather celebrate the wonders of our own language, landscape, history, and contemporary life. Roseliep’s letter focused the thinking in the haiku community and attracted the attention of leading poets and editors, including Eric Amann, Jerry Kilbride, and Mark Doty.


Raymond Roseliep was clearly aware that his letter represented a sort of ars poetica, and he circulated copies to a number of other poets for their comments. The Canadian poet Eric Amann, who was himself instrumental in the reexamination of haiku in the West and its rededication to Western values,1 provided an encouraging response in a letter from June 1977:

Your article is the most sensible thing I have read about haiku for a long time; it is also very encouraging to me, as I sometimes despair of the field; so I am glad to know that you have a firm and optimistic outlook for haiku in the Western world. I cannot of course quite agree with enhancing the haiku with similes, personifications, etc. without losing a very vital part of the essence. It seems to me that there comes a point where so much of the properties of a thing have been taken away and replaced that it ceases to exist.2

A year or two later, Roseliep was contacted by the young poet Mark Doty, then coeditor of the Des Moines–based literary journal Blue Buildings. In a lengthy reply, Father Ray explained how his poetic interests had developed over the years:  

You asked me what drew me to haiku. Well, I’ve always admired reduction, brevity, Greek Anthology terseness, Emily Dickinson’s gnomic compression. And I like the symmetry of the three lines, the challenge of getting the right thing in the right place. I was beginning to experiment with haiku in my second book, The Small Rain, and became more and more caught up in them. That was in the early sixties. I was reading the classical Japanese haiku poets then, Issa and the others—Issa’s the master of the two natures, the human world and the natural world, combining them so suddenly and often startlingly, or showing us their connections.

Roseliep’s letter also mentioned correspondence with his friend Felix Stefanile, professor of English at Purdue University and editor/publisher of the poetry journal Sparrow. The poet-priest wrote about growing doubts as he found himself more and more involved with haiku: “About two years ago I began worrying, am I using haiku as a crutch or excuse instead of waiting for longer poems to come?” Stefanile replied, “Besides the value of your creativity here, there is the superb cultural contribution you are making to a field that has far too long been the special bailiwick of the club ladies. In other words, you are almost single-handedly rescuing a genre.… I have no doubt that in due time your writings in the genre will attract some intelligent critic.” Roseliep, in turn, clarified, ”I’m simply finding my own way into my own form, using many of the techniques sacred to Western poetry as a whole.… I make every effort to retain as much of the magical and indefinable spirit of Japanese haiku as I possibly can: not to do so would be to deny the existence of soul in haiku.” And then he added, “He might well have quoted Bashō’s advice in ‘Words by a Brushwood Gate,’ Seek not the paths of the ancients; seek that which the ancients sought.”3


This Haiku of Ours4

3340 Windsor Extension
Dubuque, Iowa 52001
15 May 1976

Dear Jan and Mary,

Since 1963 I’ve been working with haiku—reading Japanese haiku of all ages in translation as well as varieties of haiku by American and English writers, studying articles and books about this exquisite formation, and of course writing haiku, ranging from classical/traditional on through vastly experimental kinds. Although my theory and practice are both in a healthy state of flux, I’d like to set down some of my present thought.

Marveling at how we’ve done splendid, audacious things with the sonnet in transporting it from Italian shores into the mainstream of our poetry, I’m heartened to reflect on possibilities for haiku. I believe we are preserving the quintessence of haiku if we do what the earliest practitioners did: use it to express our own culture, our own spirit, our own enlightened experience, putting to service the riches of our land and language, summoning the dexterity of Western writing tools.

The most obvious way we can begin to make haiku more our property is to exploit our fabulous native tongue. English can be as musical as only a poet knowing the keyboard can make it, or as cacophonous as he may wish to make it too. Within our miraculous sound system we have cadences, rhythms, measures, movements, stops, pauses, rimes (!). We possess a gigantic vocabulary—and oh what we can do with words when we arrange them! Since phrasing is vital to haiku, our supple American idiom stands ready for achieving any effect desired, and waits only the hand of the poet to manage it.

For subject matter we should dig into our own teeming country, God’s plenty when it comes to materials: outer space discoveries, hairy youth, mini-skirts, bell bottoms, roller skates, pizza, peanut butter, saucer sleds, circuses, our enormous bird – fish-animal – & – insect kingdoms, our homeland flowers – trees – plants grains – vegetables – & – fruits, motorcycles, ships that plow the sky and deliver people to Japan—the storehouse is without walls. Practically everything under the sun is valid subject matter for haiku as for any poem, except that in haiku it is the affinity between the world of physical nature and the world of human nature that concerns us, and so we focus our images there. It’s American images I’m advocating rather than the Japanese cherry blossoms, kimonos, rice, tea, temple bells, Buddhas, fans, and parasols that populate so many supposedly Western haiku; something is not quite right when our poems come out sounding like Eastern poems. Creation is still more exciting than imitation.

When the reader, then, confronts the illuminated moments in a haiku framework of our own language and images, let’s expect he will say, “Oh, this is a Western haiku all right. American haiku. And it is haiku, not just a Western-style poem. See, the inner life is here; the essence of the thing is here.“ To make all this come about, we should know what classical Japanese haijin attempted, and from wide reading in and around their work procure what we need, what we wish from their techniques and especially from their deeper spirit. The poet himself will have to wade carefully through those superb six volumes of R. H. Blyth and through other such literature to get himself fully immersed in the way of Zen. He will do his own choosing as to what and how he will assimilate, and this step will be more unconscious than conscious as he breathes life into his creations. A challenge, yes: trying to keep some of the old, trying to employ some of the new. As you, Jan, say, “The poets must work it out.” In my recent collection of haiku/senryu, Flute Over Walden, I attempted exactly what I’m noting here about the old and the new, but with heavier emphasis upon the new; though my book is a lively departure from many of the classical/traditional “expectations” for haiku, I remark in my Foreword that I trust Thoreau’s frog and mine are not distantly related to Bashō’s. I was pleased when Mark Van Doren, who saw a good number of these poems before he died, called them “American folk-haiku.”

Those of us who have been trying to produce authentic American haiku have found ourselves rejecting many of the rigid “rules” (spoken or unspoken) and doing our own experimentation. Some of us, for instance, summon our Christian God into haiku since to most people living in our country he’s more familiar than the beloved Buddha, and it’s the spirit of man in America, the spirit of his universe, the spirit of his informing Alpha-Omega that our poets normally probe and reveal.

Besides theological matters. Western haiku continues to explore ways of incorporating intellectual and philosophical seasonings that have penetrated our poetry tradition from the beginning. I’ve read enough Oriental literature in translation to know that the intellectual and philosophical did indeed predominate in certain haiku of the masters.

The first-person-singular—in spite of constant war against it by our more conservative haiku writers and editors—is prevalent in the work of the best Japanese haiku artists. I shudder to think of Issa without the very personal self in those whimsies of his. So, I favor the perpendicular pronoun when we can somehow universalize the experience, prepare the reader to recognize himself in the “I” or to participate in the captured insightful moment.

Remembering Buson’s “About to bloom, / And exhale a rainbow, / The peony! “ makes me clap because the celebrated cadences trot out personification and hyperbole; and recalling Issa’s “A cicada is crying; / It is precisely / A red paper windmill” increases my applause because the sound, form, and coloration of his two interchangeable objects emanate from fantastic metaphor. Haiku purists who object to those three figures of speech, along with others like simile and symbol, would have us believe the objection is an absolute rule. It never has been. All these devices can be found scattered discreetly throughout classical Japanese haiku. For variety, I take it; or perhaps for exploration. (To me the Oriental season-word is nothing other than symbol—and if you’ll agree to that, then symbol abounds in Japanese haiku!) So I encourage a masterful if somewhat thrifty use of figurative language, which contributes color, emotion, and tangibility to enhance rather than destroy things-as-things, the “oneing” or coupling of man with the universe. Metaphor I especially promote because it is the imagination’s pet tool. To deny the poet either that tool or his creative mind in haiku is to reduce him to mere poetaster. Through metaphor, as William Carlos Williams reasoned, we “reconcile / the people and the stones.”

My mention a moment ago of the season-word prompts me to observe that many haiku today don’t have a season-word, nor is the season expressed or implied. As R. H.Blyth points out, this practice of omission is of particular value when a subject belongs to any season—the sun, spruce trees, man’s various activities—or when the subject itself is above and beyond all seasonal significance. The seasonal reference, however, can be immensely advantageous in that it suggests one quarter of the year in time. (See Blyth, Haiku, Vol. I, Hokuseido, Tokyo, 1949, p. 383; A History of Haiku, Vol. II, The Hokuseido Press, Tokyo, 1964, p. 351.)

Although the moment-at-hand is going to lead most of our haiku into the present tense, I see no reason why the past tense shouldn’t be enlisted when the poem simply works better that way. The past need not rule out immediacy. Haiku of Bashō, Buson, Issa, Shiki, and Company offer an abundance of past tenses, many of them astonishingly effective.

Frowned upon by purists, enjambment is another felicity that is increasingly common. I revere the haiku line as a unit, but when I find an enjambment stimulating I don’t hesitate to let it serve me. Here’s one I used recently:

smoke leafy air,
the boy drop-
kicks the ball

After the downward movement from line 2 to line 3, I like to think my reader will then join in the fourfold upward movement of the ball, the smoke, some ashes, and this youth of high autumn spirit.

One extraordinary boon of our language is its readiness to be condensed into meaningful, emotional, suggestive works. I hold that our deftest writers are going to display haiku that are more and more compressed once they notice how handsome such creations can be and still contain true haiku blood. Your poem, Mary, in Michael McClintock’s gutsy Seer Ox exemplifies what I’m trying to say about distilled significance:

        the dog
eating
bone sounds

I can see this fellow, feel for him, hear the scratch, nick, and crack of his hambone, one with little meat left on it; here in the alley he looks up at me sadly, and I shiver to detect how he identifies with the act of eating supper: he’s as bony as his menu! As I leave him I hear his own frame creak in the desolate evening, and I muse on human beings who also hunger in a land of bounty. I have no idea what you intended, and that’s of no importance to me or any other reader, as you know; the poem just did those things to me. Tomorrow it may do something else. This unpublished haiku of yours, Jan, which you sent in your last letter, is another example of distillation:

    Fish
under
a tree

Talk about the thusness of things! How did the fish get there? Was it just now washed ashore, and is still breathing and eyeing its true habitat, the water ? Or is it dead, lying ready for dissolution to elemental dust and ultimate communion with soil that supports and roots the living green tree? Or am I in the presence of matter from the terrain of Andersen and Grimm, or more likely Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass? and the fish is there perusing a book? Another reading may be radically different. Let me title it “Symphony in Silver”: A school of silver fish is idling under a silver willow whose leaf shadows interweave with patterns of mid-afternoon silver sun upon the water. And the poet-conductor of the score is himself submerged in the slow, inaudible music of turning earth, which shelters man and fish alike. You see what your four words can do? Thrilling, also, as experiment is Bill Pauly’s Cat crouched on a fence, tantalized by the bird above:

I hear and see those teeth chattering, that tail swishing, and the flapping wings overhead moving perfectly safe and happy into the sky’s free space. The poem also dramatizes human temptation. Talk about feeling, and the thingness of things. Eric Amann should grapple it to his soul with hoops of steel: this kind of presentation—the concrete-haiku—is as close as anyone of us can come to a literal rendition of Amann’s “wordless poem.” It’s full of words, full of sounds and sights, and yet it’s absolutely wordless.

Back in 1967 I had the joy of meeting W. H. Auden, who gave a reading of his poems in Dubuque; at a cocktail reception we managed to exchange views on haiku. After he had read a sizable chunk of haiku in my book Love Makes the Air Light (1965), he said he admired my ability to stick tenaciously (as I most certainly did in those early days) to the 5–7–5 syllable plan. For his own excursions he said he liked the disciplinary 17 syllables but preferred to manipulate them variously in the 3 lines he also followed as a standard. We were talking about his “Marginalia,” which had appeared in the February 3, 1966, issue of The New York Review of Books. I’m sure many readers do not regard these poems as haiku (there are also some tanka there) because they often sound more like a new & revised edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack. Two examples: “A deadman / Who never caused others to die / Seldom rates a statue.” “He walked like someone / Who’s never had to / Open a door for himself.” Though Auden republished these in City Without Walls under the title “Marginalia,” and in two other books included similar groups under the heading “Shorts,” he did regard them as haiku. “We should write our own, “ he said to me. Besides his adaptation of the Japanese time-duration unit transposed unliterally into our 17 syllables, about all he imbibed from Oriental haiku and haiku’s cousin senryu is the pervasive humor and the irony; the heartbeat of his haiku is more closely timed to that of senryu.

What I like about the 5–7–5 arrangement, I told Auden, was that it not only retains the asymmetry of its Japanese forerunner but also yields a stunning pattern in English. We had a good laugh about the blue note an editor once wrote on my manuscript: “5-7-5 is obscene.” Neither of us thought it was the “obscenity” of the structure that might turn off certain editors and readers but rather the padding or awkward wording some writers affect. Auden was amused by my derring-do with the acrostic haiku/senryu, a form I must have invented for I’ve seen no others except a couple by a few friends to whom I taught it. He found “Form” especially to his taste, calling it “delicious,” and he expressed pleasure over “Epitaph”:





FORM

M ind’s
A
R are
I ndoors.
A
N et
N o
E ye
M akes
O ut.
O
R
E ach
S lim
G irl
Y ou
M eet.


EPITAPH:
TO HIS BODY

R ot,

R oots
O f
S ad
E arth
L ov-
I ng
E arth,
P ause

H ere
A nd
I ’ll
K eep
U s
I n
S low
T ime.

We both agreed that haiku form is a wide open field for roamers.

Finally, I remember asking, “What about rime?” “No rime,” I can hear Auden pronouncing above the voices in that cocktail-enchanted room of ’67, But sometimes, I said, one just can’t help riming. (As I later did in these lines: “stumble / on a star in the brook / all three crumble.”) Rime often sharpens, points up, acts out the experience; yet I don’t press haiku-writing friends to go searching for rime—I suggest they let it happen. Beloved by Emily Dickinson and Hopkins, myriad varieties of near rime are also bracing, and these we should let happen too. Such persuasions I blithely aired before our distinguished guest, but Auden said he wasn’t quite ready to admit rime into his own haiku.

If you’re still with me, Jan and Mary, then forgive my rambling and pontificating. I write to discover what I think about this haiku of ours. And I want to share my thinking with the two of you because you’re obviously interested in promoting more than well-turned classical/ traditional haiku (which I respect and also continue to write and publish—with as much American flavor as possible). Now, let me wind up by pulling just a few of my threads together, maybe rearranging one or other.

Bashō’s definition of haiku as “simply what is happening in this place, at this moment” is the touchstone none of us should lose sight of. American haiku must continue to court the here and now, the thingness of things, the thusness and suchness of realities. It must record what our six (counting the kinesthetic) senses experience in our everyday world of physical nature and in the vaster world of human nature, while displaying the subtle, often imperceptible blending of those two spheres. A revelation of heightened awareness, our haiku should be wide-awake to the seasons in both worlds. As Dr. Amann beautifully stresses, haiku’s “wordless” attribute is its economy, and so our poets shouldn’t wreck reality be overstating it or tainting it with (too many) words. Our writers must point out the unity underlying all things: presenting two apparently disparate images and showing how they “unite.” We allow the tramp and the butterfly to become brothers under a common sun; we motion the reader into an intuitive rather than an intellectual perception of reality—or sometimes we offer our reader “thoughts and ideas of predominantly intellectual import” (R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. I, Hokuseido, Tokyo, 1949, p. xiii, italics mine). Haiku happens fast: the bullet entering the deer, the owl nabbing the mouse, the knife cracking the breakfast egg. The end result of the scintillating thrust is the flexibility of meaning and emotion available to the beholder. As Auden said of the poem, no haiku is ever finished, it’s only abandoned. The reader gets on where the poet got off.

Yours in Whitmanesque springtime,
[signed] Raymond Roseliep

Acknowledgments

  • Mary Streif’s “the dog” is reprinted from Seer Ox #5, c. 1976 by Michael McClintock.
  • Bill Pauly’s concrete-haiku about the cat is published here for the first time with his permission.
  • W. H. Auden’s two poems from “Marginalia” are reprinted from City Without Walls and Other Poems, Random House, New York, c. 1969.
  • Raymond Roseliep’s “Form” first appeared in Delta Epsilon Sigma Bulletin, December 1968, c. by the author.
  • Raymond Roseliep’s “Epitaph: To His Body” is reprinted from Shenandoah, Winter 1968, copyright transferred 1976 to the author.
  • Editors’ Note: Raymond Roseliep’s letter to us is published with his consent.

Sources / Further Reading

  • Amann, Eric W. The Wordless Poem: A Study of Zen in Haiku. Toronto: Haiku Publications, Special issue of Haiku Magazine: Volume III, Number V, 1969. Reprinted by the Haiku Society of Canada with a new bibliography, 1978, and again with a new introduction by Michael Dylan Welch, Toronto: Catkin Press, 2020.
  • Roseliep, Raymond. “This Haiku of Ours.” Bonsai 1:3 (19 July 1976), 11–20. A Letter to Jan and Mary Streif.
  • Roseliep, Raymond. “From ‘This Haiku of Ours.’” David Dayton, ed., A Roseliep Retrospective: Poems & Other Words By & About Raymond Roseliep. Ithaca, N.Y.: Alembic Press, 1980, 19–22. Excerpts.

Notes

  1. See especially Amann’s book, The Wordless Poem: A Study of Zen in Haiku, 1969. []
  2. Cited in Bauerly, Raymond Roseliep, 111. []
  3. This dialog is taken from Bauerly, Raymond Roseliep, 196. []
  4. Roseliep’s letter originally appeared in Bonsai 1:3 (July 19, 1976) and is reprinted here with permission from the literary estate of Raymond Roseliep at Loras College Library.  []
Updated on April 27, 2024