Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Spring 2006, vol 4 no 1

A column by George Swede

Why Do We Write?

Novelists, already rich and famous as a result of their work, continue to write into old age while established poets, with almost no financial reward or fame for their work, also continue to write for a lifetime. Clearly, neither group devotes decades to their chosen vocation for only fame and glory. What, then, motivates them to keep going?

A number of psychologists have tried to explain this persistently high level of motivation. Sigmund Freud felt that it came from the sublimation of pent-up emotion resulting from unconscious conflict. Carl Jung thought it was an inborn drive of the collective unconscious. Alfred Adler believed it stemmed from feelings of inferiority while Otto Rank considered it to be the result of a desire for individuality. Eric Fromm hypothesized a need for transcendence and Max Wertheimer an inborn need to construct patterns (or gestalts). Both Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow felt it came from a need for self-actualization (Woodman, 1981).

All of these theories strike a chord; they all are appealing explanations for the consistently high motivation shown by writers. But, after decades of studying this phenomenon from two perspectives, that of a poet and that of an academic psychologist, I believe the most complete answer lies with a combination of the theories of Kornei Chukovsky, and Albert Bandura (Swede, 2003).

Chukovsky (1971) believed that children from the ages of two to five are linguistic geniuses. Children at this age, in their attempts to master their first language, invent words and experiment with rhyme, rhythm and metaphor. They see this learning as play, not work. Chukovsky provides numerous examples, such as this poem by a four-year-old boy:

The raven looked at the moon-oon-oon
And saw in the sky a yellow balloon
With eyes, nose, and mouth in a round face,
Swimming with clouds at a slow pace (p. 76).

With Chukovsky as my inspiration, I took notes whenever my sons said something unusual during their early years. Here are two utterances that startle with their poetic inventiveness:

16/7/1972, Andris, age 3 years, 10 months (in anger to his
brother Juris: "I'm going to pull your bones out and swim
in you". 19/1/1973, Juris, age 5 years four months: "I had
a bad dream last night, a nightmirror " (Swede, 1976, 2003).

Note that Chukovsky's example, as well as the metaphors from my sons, show a connectedness with the immediate environment, i.e., a haiku-like directness with current experience. I believe that children between two and five are not only linguistic geniuses, but also blessed with the capacity for the haiku way of seeing.

When children begin school, their interest in poetic wordplay and perception declines as their attention becomes focused on how to read and write, do arithmetic, science and history, as well as how to deal with the social challenges of a school environment. A few students, however, continue to express their poetic outlook into adulthood, despite the many distractions along the way. They consider poetry important and believe in their capacities to grow and develop as poets. How does this happen in a world that considers athletes, actors, bankers, broadcasters, CEOs, cops, doctors, filmmakers, journalists, politicians, singers, soldiers and tycoons much more important than poets? In my opinion, Bandura's (1997) self-efficacy theory best explains how this can happen:

Self-efficacy beliefs are constructed from four principal sources of
information: enactive mastery experiences that serve as indicators
of capability; vicarious experiences that alter efficacy beliefs through
transmission of competencies and comparison with the attainments of
others; verbal persuasion and allied types of social influences that one
possesses certain capabilities; and physiological and affective states
from which people partly judge their capableness, strength, and
vulnerability to dysfunction. Any given influence, depending on its
form, may operate through one or more of these sources of efficacy
information (p. 79).

In Bandura's terms, the students who insist on becoming poets, despite the fact that they cannot make a living writing poetry (other than for greeting card companies), must have had repeated positive feedback about their talent. This can occur in a number of ways: from the personal satisfaction of having finished a poem one considers successful; from comparisons of one's work with that of peers; from praising comments by respected others, especially established poets; and from the exhilaration and excitement one feels when engaged in the process of writing poetry.

Biographical sources are replete with examples of such forces at work to shape a person's destiny for poetry. I will focus only on William Carlos Williams, someone with a recognized kinship to haiku. In his autobiography (1967), Williams states that at age 16, when a heart murmur forced him to give up baseball and running, he turned to poetry:

I was forced back on myself. I had to think about myself, look
into myself. And I began to read (p. 1).

Another person might have begun to read about archeology or astronomy, but Williams from early childhood had been raised in a family that valued language and literature:

My father was an Englishman who never got over being an
Englishman. He had a love of the written word. Shakespeare
meant everything to him. He read the plays to my mother and
my brother and myself. He read well. I was deeply impressed
(p. 2).

Williams took the sense of self-efficacy formed by success in baseball and track and redirected it toward other areas for which he was also well-prepared-reading and, eventually, writing poems-pursuits that continued even during the rigors of medical school. According to Bandura's formulation, this persistence was likely maintained by Williams' sense of accomplishment when a poem was finished; by positive feedback from his peers; and, in time, from editors for literary magazines and book publishers as well as established poets.

Those of us who write haiku are even more unknown to the general public than mainstream poets such as Williams, and thus are even less likely to be motivated by money and fame. We too must have maintained a love of language long after Chukovsky's linguistic genius stage. Most of us, however, also developed an interest in observing nature together with a Far-Eastern-based philosophical outlook involving reflective detachment (in my last column, I described the details of how this might have happened to me). Among writers of poetry we seem to be a group made distinct by influences in addition to the love of language.


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Chukovsky, K. (1971). From two to five (M. Morton, Trans.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. (Original work published in 1925).

Swede, G. (1976). (Metaphoric utterances by my two sons prior to the age of seven). Unpublished raw data.

Swede, G. (2003). Poetic innovation. In: L. Shavinina (Ed.), The International Handbook on Innovation (pp. 471-484). Cambridge, U.K.: Pergamon.

Williams, W.C. (1967). I wanted to write a poem: The autobiography of the works of a poet (Reported and edited by Edith Heal). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Woodman, R.W. (1981). Creativity as a construct in personality theory. Journal of Creative Behavior, 15 (1), 43-66.