The Territory of Haiku

First published in Blithe Spirit 28:4, November 2018, pages 67–70. Originally written in February of 1997, and revised in 2015 and 2018. This essay also appeared as “Das Territorium des Haiku” in a German translation by Claudia Brefeld in Sommergras #125, June 2019, pages 23–27. See also “Michael Dylan Welch,” a profile with seven haiku translations by Claudia Brefeld in German. In August of 2023, this essay also appeared on the New Zealand Poetry Society website.   +   +


Cor van den Heuvel first published what may be his most famous poem in The Window-Washer’s Pail (New York: Chant Press, 1963). He also included it in the 1974 Doubleday edition of his book The Haiku Anthology, and again in the Fireside second edition, in 1986. By virtue of its being in each anthology, this poem’s inclusion was an assertion that the poem is indeed a haiku. This contention has caused debate about whether it really is a haiku or not, and that debate has served the haiku community and its members well in considering, both corporately and individually, exactly what a haiku is. Most haiku poets with a sense of the genre’s history fall on one side of the debate or the other. My feeling is that, if it is a haiku, it is because of the space around it—its territory.

        To best appreciate this poem, one should encounter it in the middle of an otherwise blank page. As such, the space around the poem becomes part of the poem itself, suggesting expanse and apparent barrenness—a treeless northern vastness interrupted only, it would seem, by a single rock amid miles of snow. If haiku is partly defined by its intuitive instant, then the aha! moment here lies in the realization that the poet’s expression includes not only the word “tundra” but also the very page on which it is printed, and a realization of the relationship between that rock of a word and the snow that surrounds it. Indeed, if the page is white, we think snow, and we think of the tundra’s endless emptiness. And thus we experience the tundra itself. The poem becomes, in a way, a “definition” of the tundra.

        But there’s more to it than just the possible image of a rock amid snow. If haiku is traditionally seasonal, is this poem seasonal too? I would suggest that it is, especially if we interpret the word “tundra” to be like a rock first emerging from melting snow in spring. And as any botanist will tell you, the tundra is far from barren. Rather, it teems with life, but on a smaller and slower scale. It’s a world of small strengths. This unsaid hinting at things, this implicative space (“ma,” as the Japanese call it), this appreciation for the small amid vastness, is why I appreciate this poem as a haiku—and why I named my journal for short poetry Tundra. When we apprehend the word as being like a rock emerging from snow in spring, we also partake in a moment of experience—not just a moment of realizing any sort of game the word plays on the page, but of realizing the moment when the rock first appears through the snow, when the sun first reaches the rock with enough warmth to turn the ice to trickles. The poem is not as far removed from traditional haiku as some observers might think.

        What’s more, if haiku usually has two juxtaposed parts, does “tundra” also employ such juxtaposition? The word stands starkly against the white page, just as the rock it might symbolize stands out in juxtaposition to the snow around it. If the snow is melting we also see the contrast between that which changes against that which does not. We see the everlasting amid the ephemeral, and yet may also conclude that even the rock is ephemeral on a universal and infinite scale. Even if these traits of haiku were accidental in the poem’s composition, they are still there to be found—traits that have given the poem staying power. If haiku is an “unfinished” poem, as Ogiwara Seisensui has said, then it obliges conscientious readers to engage with the poem in every intuitive or possible way. Very few words placed on a blank page can work as effectively as this one—in fact, most fail completely—but this particular word contains multitudes, for those who give it the opportunity.

        Indeed, some poets have mimicked or criticized Cor’s poem by saying that, if “tundra” is considered to be a haiku, then why couldn’t any old word placed in the middle of a page be a haiku? This stance suggests a misunderstanding of Cor’s poem, where the territory around it is part of the poem, and where that territory is something specific, at least for the reader. Most words plunked into the middle of an otherwise blank page won’t work. Perhaps the most successful attempts have been the words “oasis” and “shark”. However, the nature of the word “oasis” being just like an “oasis” in the middle of a barren desert may be too obvious. A “shark” in the middle of an empty ocean suggests danger because it’s a predator, but such a poem seems to lack the helpful ambiguity and open-endedness of “tundra.” I myself have tried the word “fog” (with and without a semicolon after it), but it too may be too obvious in suggesting that the white page is fog. I believe, too, that “sakura” (cherry blossom) has been offered in a similar way in Japan, emphasizing the cultural prevalence of this image in Japanese haiku. But one cannot treat just any word in the same fashion as “tundra” and expect it to work.       +

        In his book, Zen in the Art of the Tea Ceremony (first published in German in 1958; New York: Arkana/Penguin, 1993; translated into English by Peter Lemesurier, 1979), Horst Hammitzsch writes the following: “The white—‘empty’—space in the [Japanese] ink-painting, yohaku, is symbolic of ‘that which is unexpressed’, that ‘perfect imperfection’. And within that ‘emptiness’ is concealed the ‘resonance’ that plays an equally important role in Japanese poetry. What the brush does not paint, the ‘initiate’ must feel in his heart. That is where the picture, the poem, or the flower arrangement in the Tea Ceremony finds its completion” (95). Hammitzsch adds that Dōan, Rikyū’s son, “once wrote under a picture the title ‘Fish in Clear Water’. But the picture showed nothing: there was only the emptiness of the white paper. This could be seen as the ultimate example of the idea of ‘completing the incomplete in the heart’” (95). If haiku is a “wordless” poem, as R. H. Blyth, D. T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and Eric Amann would have us believe, perhaps a painting such as this embodies the ultimate literal wordlessness that Cor’s “tundra” poem leans towards. Indeed, the poem “tundra” succeeds because of that yohaku, or empty space, that surrounds it, and what that space implies. In this case the “ma” or space of the poem is not within the poem, but around it. But as the poem expands to include that space, is not the “ma” then within it after all?

        I suspect that Cor van den Heuvel removed “tundra” from Norton’s third edition of The Haiku Anthology, published in 1999, not because he had changed his mind about it in the slightest, but because the poem had had its say, and perhaps because he wanted to give new poems their chance in the sun. Yet its influence continues to this day, and the poem appears, as well it should, in Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (New York: Norton, 2013), amid a record of the last century’s most important or influential haiku. While the poem may be on the fringes of haiku for some haiku poets, especially traditionalists (in one essay, Paul O. Williams referred to it as a “word” rather than as a “haiku”), it has played an important role in galvanizing discussion on the nature and limits of haiku—and it has done this for more than fifty years. But its main accomplishment lies beyond the question as to whether it is a haiku or not, and its success as a nature poem. Rather, it reminds us, if nothing else, that haiku is not a discrete and isolated category of poetry, unconnected to other writing, but part of a continuum, and reminds us that the varieties of haiku themselves run on a great continuum. Further south one finds more “mainstream” literary haiku with overt seasonal references and juxtapositions, more fleshed-out images. One also finds, in the general territory if not nearby, realms of concrete and visual poetry. One finds Imagism and postmodernism, the “death of the author,” and other forces at play in the same province. And further north may lie unexplored opportunities. As a poem completed in the heart, Cor van den Heuvel’s peerless “tundra” is part of a large poetic conversation, a large poetic territory.

Postscript 1

In her haiku book Contractions (Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2019), kjmunro from Whitehorse, Yukon includes the following poem:


        the white space

        around your poem

In his book Tracings (Northfield, Massachusetts: Lily Pool Press, 2004), Jerry Kilbride from San Francisco, California ended his “Fort Mason” haibun with this poem:

                       haiku reading

        the quiet space around each poet

                         each poem

I think too of the word yoin, 余韻, a sublime silence that arises after something is over.

Postscript 2

Anita Virgil, in reviewing Cor van den Heuvel’s The Window Washer’s Pail in Modern Haiku III:3, 1972, reprinted in Haiku Magazine 6:1&2, 1974, page 69 (see PDF), had the following to say about the infamous “tundra” poem:

Now the word tundra, as used, is a poem. For those who cannot quite accept that, at least they will admit its visual impact, its tonal resonance, and its image/meaning lend the marvelous floor lamp poem [“in the hotel lobby / the bare bulb of a floor lamp / shines down on its distant base” immediately before “tundra”] an even greater feel of eerie space and isolation. And what these two poems set in motion prepares for and enhances the next poem in the book, and so on. It is this sort of exciting creativity which I believe can stimulate experimentation with haikai.

Postscript 3

In My Red: The Selected Haiku of John Stevenson (Taylorville, Illinois: Brooks Books, 2021), and previously published elsewhere, John Stevenson offers the following poem in the middle of an otherwise blank page (95):






Readers may contemplate the essence of core: an apple core, the center of something, a sample drilled from earth or ice. Putting this word on a page by itself emphasizes that essence. The word is the “core” of the page, or center of the poem. But there’s more to it, because one of the most famous (or infamous) poems in English-language haiku is the word “tundra” by itself on a white page. That poem is by Cor van den Heuvel, so to put “core” on a page by itself creates an intentional allusion to Mr. van den Heuvel and to his poem “tundra.” The context of the white page is part of allusion, and no reader familiar with English-language haiku history will fail to perceive this reference. The poem brilliantly melds not just Mr. van den Heuvel’s first name but also his most famous minimalist poem. It’s remarkable to achieve this much with just four letters.

—19 June 2024 (this postscript also appears on A Sampling of Cultural Haiku)