A Sampling of Cultural Haiku

First published in Hermitage 3:1–2, 2006 (Romania), pages 79–83. Reprinted on the New Zealand Poetry Society site in September 2010. I also include two new postscripts at the end, one in reference to a poem of my own in which the topic of July 4th served as a cultural reference, and another poem that named me in its text.

Haiku in English—or at least in North America—is sometimes criticized for lacking the geographical, cultural, literary, or personal references that frequently enrich haiku in Japanese. However, a sampling of just one issue of a recent journal, the June 2004 issue of The Heron’s Nest (VI:5), calls this criticism into question. Indeed, the following sample poems all provide allusions and references that make for a richer reader experience.



                a water strider

                crosses the pond


This poem by Kay Grimnes of Alma, Michigan, presents a successful example of a geographical reference that carries extra meaning for many American readers. It’s an example, in English-language haiku, of a reference to a famous place (meisho in Japanese; mei = famous, sho = place). It’s also an example of utamakura (uta = poem or song, makura = pillow), or pillow word, where a place name or occasionally another kind of allusion can be viewed as a pillow where the poem rests. As many North Americans know, U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy was driving on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts on July 18, 1969, with his companion Mary Jo Kopechne. That night, while drunk, he crashed his car off a bridge, and the car sank into murky water. Kennedy was able to escape, but Kopechne drowned. Despite his apparent negligence, and (as some people claimed) because of his political position or celebrity, Kennedy was not charged with manslaughter, but was found guilty merely of leaving the scene of an accident. The Chappaquiddick story has reached such mythical proportions that in 1992 Joyce Carol Oates retold the story in her novella Black Water (Dutton) and, like the word “Watergate,” “Chappaquiddick” is now commonly used as shorthand to refer to scandals that befall politicians—especially scandals that they are able to weasel out of. What makes the place name resonate even more deeply within this poem, of course, is the reference to the water strider that is able to cross the pond without sinking. Water striders are sometimes called “Jesus bugs,” and the story of Jesus walking on water is an additional historical reference in this poem. The water strider could symbolically represent Kennedy himself, satirizing him as if he were similarly “divine” and untouchable, in obvious contrast to the sad story of Mary Jo Kopechne’s drowning.

        The following poem, by Mark Brooks of Austin, Texas, also appeared in the June 2004 issue of The Heron’s Nest:


                Seuss’s birthday

                a dad and two lads plant

                a plant in a planter


Here, instead of a reference to a place name, we have a successful cultural and literary reference to children’s book author Dr. Seuss, whom most English-speaking people know well. The second and third lines, while managing to retain the trait of literal objective description that works so well in haiku, also adopt Dr. Seuss’s distinctive writing style by using rhyme and repetition. Though about a birth rather than a death, this poem follows in the Japanese tradition of the “master’s day” (okina no ki) season word, which venerates Bashō’s day—the day of the writer’s death. In English, haiku might similarly venerate the birth dates or death dates of William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Princess Diana, or many other literary, historical, and contemporary celebrities. William J. Higginson has been collecting poems that commemorate leading haiku writers and their birth or death days, and in Haiku World (Kodansha, 1996), he includes a poem by vincent tripi written to commemorate the death day of prominent American haiku poet Nick Virgilio. The poem, “Nick remembered— / deepening the lily / in a woodcut,” is also a reference to Virgilio’s famous lily haiku, so it has allusive cultural relevance to the English-language haiku community on that level as well.

        The same issue of The Heron’s Nest also includes this next poem, by Alice Frampton, then living in Delta, British Columbia:


                alder stump—

                an inch worm arches across



The year 1984 is not randomly chosen, and carries with it the obvious associations with George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel of 1949. While the Big Brother paranoia of Orwell’s book has waned in public consciousness, especially since the fall of communism in Russia, any reference to the year 1984 still carries with it the overtones of dark totalitarianism. Even the inchworm in this poem seems to prefer arching over the doomcrying tree ring that represents 1984, as if to reach a brighter year. The poem also employs carefully chosen sounds. Notice the consonance in “inch” and “arch,” and the assonance in “alder,” “arch,” “across,” and even slightly in “eight.”

        Finally, the same issue of The Heron’s Nest includes this amusing yet layered haiku by Joann Klontz of Swedesboro, New Jersey:


                faint stars . . .

                I wonder what Yu Chang

                is doing tonight


This empathetic and intuitive poem may have resonance limited to the English-language or perhaps even the North American haiku community, yet it serves as a superlative example, though rare, of a reference to a specific contemporary person in English-language haiku. Many haiku writers know Yu Chang, who lives in Schenectady, New York, as a demure yet sensitive and accomplished haiku poet. Joann Klontz enjoys her stargazing in the context of wondering what Yu Chang might be doing at the same time, and she may even share the moment of looking up at the faintest of stars with him, despite the distance between them. The naming of any other poet in the poem would seem not to work nearly so well because of the effective associations with Yu Chang’s name and his work by those who know him, and how they resonate with the deep appreciation even of stars that are momentarily faint. The naming of a different poet would clearly change the meaning and overtones of the poem, and perhaps render the juxtaposition with “faint stars” ineffective.

        The reference to Yu Chang is deliberate for another reason, however, and it adds another significant layer to Joann Klontz’s playful and groundbreaking haiku. It’s not just a personal reference, but a literary and slightly historical reference as well, because Yu Chang won one of his two first prizes in the Shiki International Haiku Contest with “faint stars— / the flapping of canvas / on the grape truck” (this was the 1997 winner; he won first place again in 1998). Thus Klontz’s poem offers a homage to Chang’s poem as well as to Chang himself, for on seeing faint stars, she thinks of him because of his prize-winning poem. Perhaps not all readers will know or remember Chang’s winning poem, but for those who do, Klontz’s poem takes on a deeper resonance.

        Sometimes translations of haiku from Japanese into English are criticized for not being able to capture various deep allusions or multiple meanings, and this is frequently true. Indeed, as Hiroaki Sato wrote in One Hundred Frogs: From Renga to Haiku to English, “among [Japanese] haikai poets . . . allusion in general was a permanent tool” (New York: Weatherhill, 1983, 72). However, it can be just as difficult to translate English-language haiku into other languages for the same reasons. Indeed, we have no dearth of opportunity in English to produce effective allusions and multiple meanings, as Klontz’s poem demonstrates. The difficulty of translating these allusions and multiple meanings from one language to another should not be confused with the potential for poems to make use of effective allusions and multiple meanings in the language that the poem was written in. In comparison with Japanese, English has no deficiencies in this regard.

        Other American or Western cultural references used in the same issue of The Heron’s Nest include “Father’s Day,” “a ringer” (a reference to horseshoes, played mostly in North America), “Daylight Savings” (the seasonal adjustment of clocks to maximize the use of daylight hours), and “southern drawl.” These poems with cultural sonorities succeed to varying degrees, but a significant part of how they do succeed lies in their use of effective cultural references.

        Those few critics who have said that English-language haiku do not make sufficient use of geographical, cultural, literary, or personal references may still be right—we could all give greater attention to this opportunity. However, just considering the single issue of The Heron’s Nest from which all of these examples are quoted, the evidence shows that North American haiku poets seem to be responding to this claim as if to prove it wrong. One would hope that other English-language haiku, as well as haiku in other languages, are also increasingly taking advantage of cultural allusions and references. Haruo Shirane is one critic who has noted the past insufficiency of cultural references in North American haiku. In his gadfly essay, “Beyond the Haiku Moment: Bashō, Buson, and Modern Haiku Myths” (Modern Haiku XXX:1, Winter-Spring 2000), he observed that the horizontal axis of haiku—that is, a focus on the present, contemporary world—is more than abundant in North American examples, but that the vertical axis, which is a movement across time, including geographical, historical, and literary references, is largely missing (53). It seems, though, that North American poets are listening, and have actively sought to deepen the possibilities for cultural reference in their haiku. Certainly, the editors of The Heron’s Nest have sought to promote such poetry through their sensitive selections. The evidence appears not just in The Heron’s Nest, but in an increasing number of haiku in other journals as well.


Note: For a more in-depth discussion of the vertical and horizontal axes in haiku, read Haruo Shirane’s Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō (Stanford University Press, 1998).


Postscript 1

One difficulty with publishing cultural references in haiku is a matter of audience. The poems I discuss in the preceding essay were published in the United States, and largely meant for a North American audience, as I try to make clear. Although I intended the essay for North Americans, it ended up being published in Romania and Australia, where it apparently still held true. One question I didn’t try to address specifically is whether these same poems work as well beyond the United States or North America. On The Haiku Foundation’s “Troutswirl” blog, one of my poems was recently discussed:


                Fourth of July—

                       ants in a line

                              along the parade route


A fair amount of the discussion revolved around the effect or meaning of “Fourth of July” to people around the world. It’s just another day for many people, and if they really don’t know of the date’s association with U.S. independence, which is now celebrated with parades and fireworks and other community events, the poem loses some of its resonance. The fact that there is a parade route (a given fact in the poem) should hopefully still provide some context, but something is lost or diminished if one isn’t aware of the cultural reference, and even more if one has not experienced Fourth of July festivities personally (or at least festivities like it in other countries). Likewise, poets around the world who publish haiku with cultural references that are unknown or barely known beyond their cultural borders run the risk of being misunderstood or merely creating puzzlement (for example, I think of references to harmattan winds in West Africa). But I believe none of us should shy away from such risks. One reason is that there will be no risk to the poem in reaching its primary audience—readers within that cultural boundary. Another reason is that people beyond that boundary will thereby have something to challenge them, something to learn, even if there isn’t a footnote to the poem to help them understand (for example, you might readily look up what a harmattan wind is if you encounter it in a Ghanaian haiku). We are used to explanations that accompany translations of some of the Japanese haiku we read, and yet typically the original poems did not come with those explanations. Consequently, I believe we should be bold with our cultural references, especially place names. We should not worry excessively if certain readers might not get the references or their overtones in referring to particular places, events, people, literature, or idioms without an explanation. If certain readers do not get a particular poem because of its cultural references, well, that particular poem isn’t for them. But for those who do get the references, the same poem will shine.

—23 August 2010, 5 January 2019

Postscript 2

It’s unusual to name a fellow haiku poet in a haiku, the way this essay’s poem about Yu Chang does. Here’s another example, one that mentions me, the poem arising out of a devasting fire:


                sifting the rubble

                a handwritten haiku by

                Michael Dylan Welch


It was written by Howard Lee Kilby after a fire destroyed his home in 2020. The poem was shared in the April 2021 Haiku Society of America newsletter. Howard has been running the annual Hot Springs Haiku Weekend since 1996, very generously welcoming featured poets to Hot Springs, Arkansas, as he did for me in 2018. Although Howard reports that insurance covered his major expenses and he is now comfortable in a new home, he lost most of his possessions, including most of his haiku books and papers. That he happened to see a handwritten poem by me in the rubble I think is incidental happenstance, but it does speak to the fact that he had kept what I had given him, which is personally gratifying—though of course this discovery pales in comparison to his many losses. It’s unlikely for the poem to have much meaning to anyone outside the haiku community, or even to those in the community beyond those who know me and Howard, but it captures a moment, something salvaged amidst destruction, and Howard took the time to record the moment.

—4 January 2022