The Red Leaves: Remembering Eric Amann

Published in Haiku Canada Review 10:2, October 2016, pages 2–3. Originally written in August 2016.

                The names of the dead
                sinking deeper and deeper
                into the red leaves

                        —Eric Amann

This memorable poem won grand prize in the 1978 Yukuharu Haiku Contest, the first haiku contest sponsored by what is now the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society in California. The contest was judged by the preeminent Japanese haiku master, Shugyō Takaha. The poem appeared in the society’s Haiku Journal, and was published in Amann’s book Cicada Voices: Selected Haiku of Eric Amann, 1966–1979 (Battle Ground, Indiana: High/Coo Press, 1983, 38). The poem reads as a single sentence, which is equivalent (in Japanese) to having the cutting word at the end of the poem instead of somewhere in the middle. The phrase “names of the dead” implies gravestones, giving us a physical object to picture, along with the autumn leaves. We often see gravestones gradually sinking in old graveyards, but more than that, we can also see them appearing to sink as autumn leaves pile up over them (if flat), or up around their bases (if upright). This suggests how the dead recede from our memories as time marches onward—and yet still the names of the dead are with us. In addition, these are “red” leaves,
which implies autumn without naming it, with “red” also suggesting blood, the primal life force of humans that has drained away from the dead in the cemetery and is figuratively draining away from all the trees. Thus, this poem offers an indelible “internal comparison” between the passing of the seasons and the passing of life. Often a haiku will have a sharp moment, but this poem has a longer moment. That slowing down of time seems perfectly appropriate for the focus of this haiku.
        In his introduction to Cicada Voices, editor George Swede says that “Amann’s haiku are haunted by sadness: sadness about the fleeting nature of life, of love and about the eventuality of death” (7). Then, with a citation of “the names of the dead” as an example of this haunting sadness, Swede says that “Yet like all good haiku, they contain that mysterious element that sends the spirit outward in all directions.”
        Eric Amann died in March of 2016. He cofounded Haiku Canada, and was a strong early influence on English-language haiku through his journals, Haiku (from 1967 to 1970) and Cicada (from 1977 to 1982), his own haiku, and especially through his book The Wordless Poem (1969), still one of the best treatises on haiku aesthetics published in English.

                Eric Amann’s name
                sinking deeper and deeper
                into the red leaves