Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
Contents  Archives About Simply Haiku Submissions Search
Summer 2005, vol 3 no 2

Tracks in the Sand
A column by George Swede

A Six-Hundred-Year-Old Tree

What do these four poems have in common?

A slippery sex organ
and another
give birth to gold

     Ban’ya Natsuishi


bridging the night
over the rim of years
my name’s skin

     Werner Reichhold


d  rain  pipe  suds  den  sh

     LeRoy Gorman


peephole    skinmole

     Eric Amann


They all were published as variations on traditional haiku, i.e., as attempts to forge new directions. Natsuishi and Reichhold try to do so through the use of unusual metaphors while maintaining the haiku form. Gorman and Amann choose a different path, deconstruction of the form to the extent that their poems no longer resemble haiku in appearance.

Psychologist Colin Martindale has studied the ways poets seek to be original across decades of British and French poetry and concluded that the methods are chiefly like the two illustrated above. Poets try to be novel by either increasing metaphor distance (unusual associations) or by breaking down an existing form. The poems by Natsuishi and Reichhold typify the first approach and those by Gorman and Amann, the second.

According to Octavio Paz, such pursuit of the original became dominant during the early 19th century with the rise of Romanticism:

From the Romantic era onward, a work of art had to be unique and inimitable. The history of art and literature has since assumed the form of a series of antagonistic movements:  Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism, Symbolism. Tradition is no longer a continuity, but a series of sharp breaks. The modern tradition is a tradition of revolt (p. 17).

The movements Paz mentions are concerned more with changes in content than in form. Deconstruction of form became popular in the twentieth century with poets who advocated the surreal, the visual or a focus on the meaning of language in terms of letters and syllables inside words.

The haiku seems to have a similar history. In his study of Japanese twentieth-century haiku, Makoto Ueda found various permutations of Shiki’s famous scriptures for a modern version of haiku and also some parallels with developments in Western poetry, such as Symbolism and Surrealism. The poems by Natsuishi and Reichhold confirm that Symbolism and Surrealism, respectively, still hold the interest of some haiku poets today. What seemingly did not concern modern Japanese haiku poets, at least those discussed by Ueda, was the deconstruction of the form as illustrated by Gorman and Amann’s work.

However, the four haiku at the start of this column make up a small minority among the thousands of new haiku published yearly and such experimental work hardly ever gets into the major haiku periodicals and anthologies. The traditional haiku that dominate publication are, of course, not all the same. Each mainstream haiku poet wants to be distinct, but tries to achieve this in subtle ways through variations in content, line breaks, syllable count and, occasionally, the use of a fresh, but not mind-bending metaphor, such as the one in the haiku I picked as winner for the 2004 San Francisco International Haiku Senryu and Tanka Contest:

old steeple
a turban of pigeons
unwinds the hour

        —Beverly A. Tift

When Paz speaks of the diminished power of tradition in poetry, he does not have the haiku in mind because the form remains deeply rooted in tradition and continues to thrive like a six-hundred-year-old tree with all its foliage. It is nourished by a philosophical outlook that eschews the expression of ego and encourages looking at the world in an objective way. Probably these characteristics attract like-minded individuals to the haiku and who are then motivated to maintain the form’s integrity.

Just how long will the ancient haiku tree continue to live? As with many other questions, this one has no clear answer.


Amann, E.; Gorman, L.; & Swede, G. the space between. Glen Birnie, MD: Wind Chimes Press, 1986.

Gorman, L. heavyn. Port Charlotte, FL: the Runaway Spoon Press, 1992.

Martindale, C. The Clockword Muse. New York: Basic Books, 1990.

Natsuishi, B. A Future Waterfall. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2004.

Paz, O. Alternating Current. London: Wildwood House.

Reichhold, W. Layers of Content. Gualala, CA: AHA Books, 1993.

Ueda, M. Modern Japanese Haiku. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976.

Copyright 2005: Simply Haiku